Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu the Vaya Way

Posted by on May 25th, 2016

Those of you who have traveled with Vaya before know that we like to put our own signature on classic South American destinations, elevating our travelers’ experiences wherever possible. In Chilean Patagonia, for example, most Vaya travelers trade what would be a five-hour van ride from Punta Arenas into Torres del Paine National Park for a pleasant evening in the picturesque fishing village of Puerto Natales, on the Last Hope Sound, and then do a breathtaking catamaran + zodiac ride into the park the next morning. They enjoy a VIP cabin for the catamaran’s navigation to the Balmaceda Glacier, disembarking there for a short hike to the glacier view point, and then board smaller zodiac boats for a spectacular ride up the winding Serrano River into the park, tasting a traditional Patagonian asado barbeque upon arrival.

In some destinations it is easier to add these highlight excursions and special touches than in others. How do we improve on an already awesome and highly regulated experience, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu? A few weeks ago I headed up to the Peruvian Andes to experience the Inca Trail the Vaya way, and can report firsthand on how the Vaya difference made this, my third visit to Machu Picchu, the best yet.

Vaya offers several ways to get to Machu Picchu, a destination so remote that the Spanish conquistadors never found it and there are still no roads directly connecting it to the outside world. Options include the traditional train + shuttle approach (no trekking, no camping), the more active “Inca Trail Express” train + day hike route (5-6 hours of hiking, no camping), and the more strenuous, full Inca Trail (4 days of trekking, 3 nights of camping). This time around I was joined by my younger brother Mark, and we opted for the full Inca Trail. In the weeks leading up to the trek I received text messages from Mark, 6 years younger than me, motivating me to get back in shape so that I could keep up with him on the trail. (“I ran 5 miles today, Jack… How about you?…Ready for the trek?”)

Acclimatization days turned into custom, private highlight excursion days

Acclimatization days turned into custom, private highlight excursion days

Any quality Inca Trail experience starts with a very important component, acclimatization, which is no joke for a high-altitude trek like this. International flights to Peru arrive to Lima, which is at sea level, and from there a 1 hour 20 minute flight takes Machu Picchu-bound travelers to Cusco, high in the Andes at 11,152 feet above sea level. All operators recommend some time to acclimatize to the elevation before beginning the 4-day trek to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, which reaches a max altitude of 13,779 feet above sea level. Vaya recommends a minimum of 2 nights at altitude before starting the trek, and exactly where that acclimatization is done and how that time is spent is where you start to notice the Vaya difference.

Rather than spending those acclimatization days aimlessly wandering Cusco or puttering around in traffic in a tour bus, Vaya arranges custom, private pre-trek itineraries that turn acclimatization days into highlight days: a chance to experience Peruvian culture, cuisine, and nature while preparing for your trek. Many Vaya travelers do their acclimatization in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a beautiful area on the way from Cusco to the trailhead, with altitudes lower than Cusco’s (about 8,500 – 9,500 feet above sea level) so that they can acclimatize more gradually. In the Valley, Vaya travelers enjoy the beautiful grounds of premier hotels such as Sol y Luna or Rio Sagrado and can spend their acclimatization days with a private guide and driver exploring less-visited, impressive Incan sites such as the Inca fortress at Pisac, the enigmatic concentric circular Incan terraces of Moray, the ancient salt-pans of Maras, and the homes of indigenous locals in the Incan-era town of Ollantaytambo, with meals at small, gourmet local restaurants, not the big buffet tour bus stops that other operators use.

My brother and I opted to spend our non-trekking days studying Peru’s renowned cuisine and learning about Peruvian history (wouldn’t Mom be proud?) and also seeking out a high-velocity mountain sport adrenaline rush (wouldn’t Mom be terrified?). Staying in Cusco at the historic Palacio del Inka hotel, a former residence of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, built on Incan foundations and still boasting well-preserved Incan walls, and later at the stunning Hotel Monasterio, we explored some of the area’s most important historical sites, including the Incan Temple of the Sun, Coricancha, before Vaya’s private chef/guide Carlos took us to the San Pedro Market to begin our culinary experience. After a bit of mingling with the locals and picking out some fresh local fruits, chirimoya and lucuma, we were off to Carlos’s rooftop kitchen for a hands-on lesson in making Pisco Sour (the national drink), trout tiradito (similar to ceviche), and quinotta (quinoa risotto), all of which we enjoyed with panoramic views of Cusco. Our appetites for archaeology and gastronomy satisfied, we used our other free day for adrenaline-seeking, taking a wild Class III and IV whitewater rafting excursion down the Upper Urubamba River and then topping that off with zip-lining above the river’s rapids.

In Cusco's central market

In Cusco’s central market

The fine art of making Pisco Sour

The fine art of making Pisco Sour

View from the rooftop kitchen

View from the rooftop kitchen

Trout tiradito

Trout tiradito

Zip-lining over the Urubamba River

Zip-lining over the Urubamba River

The Trek: Quality guides, porters and planning; crowds avoided

The Incas, whose empire stretched from modern day Colombia to Chile, built over 25,000 miles of roads, but it is the specific 26-mile stretch from the Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu that has come to be known as The Inca Trail, the most iconic trek in South America. To limit traffic on this narrow path, the Peruvian government allows only 500 permitted people per day to enter the trail, including travelers, guides and porters. As you can imagine, even with this limit, 500 people would still be a lot to have on the same part of the trail at the same time. This is another aspect where the Vaya difference is clear. Thanks to the connections of our local partners and long-time friends in Peru, Vaya travelers use a slightly different route on the first day of the trek and spend the first night at a private campsite overlooking the beautiful Incan terraces and ruins at LLactapata, while the 465+ other trekkers spend that night at a crowded campsite in the trailside town of Huayabamba. On a map this looks like a tiny difference, but in reality it makes a world of difference, allowing Vaya travelers to acclimatize more gradually, be separated from the masses, and avoid crowded trails for the duration of the trek.

Inca Trail map

Vaya offers the option of doing the trek completely in private, with your own private guide and porters, or as part of a small group (small group departures every Sunday and Wednesday). My brother and I did the trek as part of a small group. There were 12 travelers, ranging in age from 14 to 63, plus 18 porters (including those who carried luggage, tents, oxygen and other gear, plus three cooks), and two excellent bilingual guides. Our lead guide, Ruben, was completing his 277th Inca Trail trek, and not only did he make us all feel safe, but his wealth of historical and archaeological knowledge and fascinating insights into Andean life enriched the experience more than I could have imagined. Given the exceptional logistical planning I mentioned above, our group didn’t even cross paths with other hikers on the trail until well into the third day of the trek, so we had plenty of opportunities to feel completely immersed in the natural beauty of the Andes and connect with Pachamama (the Andean name for Mother Earth).

Our trekking group

Our trekking group

Tents and terraces

Tents and terraces

Dining on the Trail

Dining on the Trail

Camping among the clouds

Camping among the clouds

The guides and porters provided such a remarkable level of attention to detail that even though we were camping, the 5-star hotels in which we stayed later in the itinerary would struggle to match the level of service we had on the trail. At every stop along the way, hot tea awaited us, served in our own private dining tent. Thoughtfully varied, hot and hearty meals were cooked up for us three times a day by Domingo, the chef hiking with us, with special dishes for the vegetarians in the group. Hiking poles, tents, sleeping bags, extra liners for the cold nights, and duffel bags for our trail luggage were all provided locally and all of it was quality gear. By the time we arrived to each campsite our tents were already assembled and waiting for us, with sleeping mats already inflated inside. A private bathroom tent allowed us to avoid the campsites’ common bathrooms. With all of these details taken care of we were free to enjoy every moment of the experience and focus on having fun, even starting an impromptu game of softball with our new trekking companion friends at our private campsite on the first night of the trek.

Impromptu high-altitude softball

Impromptu high-altitude softball

More time at Machu Picchu

Doing the Inca Trail the Vaya way also meant having more time at Machu Picchu itself. Other operators have their trekkers hike the last part of the trail in the dark on the morning of day 4, get to Machu Picchu that morning, briefly tour the ruins, take the bus down to the town of Aguas Calientes, take the two hour train ride from there to Ollantaytambo, take a two hour bus ride from there to Cusco, and then eventually get dropped off at a Cusco hotel that night. That’s a long, exhausting day, and, I think, an anti-climactic and rushed way to visit Machu Picchu, one of the New Wonders of the World.

Doing the Inca Trail the Vaya way, Day 4 of the trek began with a nice breakfast and brief ceremony to thank our hard-working guides and cooks, then a beautiful, not-crowded hike (in daylight) along the last part of the trail with plenty of time to tour Wiñay Wuayna, probably the most impressive Incan site on the trail (besides Machu Picchu, of course). Arriving to Machu Picchu in the mid-afternoon, we had plenty of time to gaze down at the site from Intipunku, the Sun Gate above the ruins, and take the classic posed pictures in front of Machu Picchu with Huayna Picchu (the neighboring peak) towering behind. We spent that night at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, considered one of the top green hotels in South America, enjoying a gourmet dinner there. The next morning we were back up at Machu Picchu at dawn and Ruben took us through the massive citadel in a detailed tour of the site, hitting all of the highlights, including the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Three Windows, and Intihuatana. We also had time to do one of the optional side hikes (Huayna Picchu, Machu Picchu Mountain, or the Inca Bridge). Since we started early that morning, we were able to fit in most of this before the crowds started arriving by the trainload.

On this latest trip I spent 18 days in Peru and Bolivia, saw many amazing sites and stayed at some of the top properties in the region, but the 4 days of trekking on the Inca Trail and 3 nights of camping out in the raw beauty of the Andes was the undeniable highlight. I can’t wait to plan my next Vaya trek and get back out on the trail.

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