Guide to Cuzco, Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu was the ultimate item on my bucket list. The Inca Trail is a fantastic way to reach Machu Picchu by hiking, seeing the nature, amazing scenery, learn about the various Inca sites along the way and to challenge yourself. It truly is a once in a lifetime opportunity!

Cuzco

Most people base themselves in Cuzco before the trek as it is a great starting point especially with altitudes of 3,399m. Cuzco was once the Incan capital and there is a lot of history in the place.

We stayed at Mama Simona Hostel which was a good base to explore the city and the hostel was chilled and relaxed and surprisingly not too busy.

We hung around Plaza De Armas, walked around the historic centre, visited San Pedro markets and walked up to San Cristobal for the views.

Some cafes/restaurants to visit:
Cappuccino for breakfast or lunch – the view to Plaza De Armas was beautiful.
Antojitos for lunch – get their set menu which is super cheap!
Cicciolina Bakery – amazing bakery/café with fresh, delicious food.
Don Pimiento for dinner – try the aji de gallina which is chicken in a yellow pepper sauce which comes with rice and boiled egg.
Mr Soup for dinner – the soups are incredibly hearty and tasty and the chicken one with pasta and potatoes which I had hit the spot.

Typical Peruvian foods you must try the aji de gallina, cuy (guinea pig), alpaca steak when in Cusco!

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Plaza De Armas
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On the streets of Cuzco
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With the alpacas
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Aji de Gallina – a must try in Peru
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Super cute baby alpacas!
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Rooftop views
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Views from San Cristobal


Inca Trail – Machu Picchu

We booked about 6 months advance for the classic 4 day 3 night Inca Trail as this is proven to be one of the most popular treks. A friend recommended Alpaca Expeditions so we booked with them. They were a bit more expensive than other tours ($645USD) but I believe the service we received reflected the price and it was still good value for money. We had a fantastic time with them as it was well organised, the food was delicious and they really looked after us!

The Inca Trail covers 43km in distance. I would say if you are relatively fit, it is not a difficult hike, except that the altitude may affect you. This can easily be overcome by acclimatising in Cusco for a couple of days and we also took acetazolamide to help relieve the symptoms. Coca tea which is available everywhere also helps!

In terms of packing, the porters (also known as the chuskis) can carry up to 7km of your belongings in a duffle bag they provide. You have to carry your own day pack with water, jackets and whatever else you may need during the hike. In the evening, you have access to your duffle.

I generally pack very lightly and in my duffle was:

  • 3-4 tops
  • 3 pairs of leggings – I didn’t wear hiking pants
  • 4 pairs of hiking socks and underwear
  • Warm trackpants
  • Down jacket
  • Waterproof jacket
  • Long sleeved top
  • Hiking boots
  • Nikes
  • Thongs (flip flops)
  • Headlamp
  • Quickdry towel
  • Wet wipes
  • Toilet paper
  • General toiletries (toothbrush, toothpaste etc)

In my day pack was:

  • Camelback holding approximately 3L
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Insect repellent
  • Sun hat
  • Light long sleeved jacket
  • High energy snacks like muesli or chocolate bars (they provide this most days but bring more just in case)

They provide the tents, air mattress, small pillow and we hired sleeping bags from them.

Day 1

In the morning at 5am, we got picked up by van and drove 2 hours to Ollantaytambo. This is also another city you can base yourself in as it is close to km82 where you start the trek.

Our group was Liz and I (Aussies), 6 Americans and 4 French Canadians. It was a diverse group to say the least haha. We had breakfast together which was prepared by the chefs and then started our hike by going through the first checkpoint. It was warm and the hike was relatively flat. We stopped at the first Inca site, Patallacta.

We walked a couple more hours before lunch. I was super impressed with the choice and creativity of food available and how fresh the ingredients were! Afterwards, I had a bit of a food coma but we walked a couple more hours before reaching our campsite at around 4:30pm. We settled into our tents, had dinner and had an early night.

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One of the amazing Inca sites enroute
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First lunch

Day 2

The second day was the longest and hardest day of the entire hike. We started at 5am and hiked roughly 3 hours to get to the highest point of the hike – Dead Woman’s Pass which sits at 4,215m.  I could definitely feel the altitude about 10 minutes away from the peak. However, the walk up and the views from above were phenomenal. We had a short break to take in the views and then it was all downhill from here. Therefore it was an easy hour walk.

We stopped for lunch and relaxed for a while before heading back uphill again for a couple of hours then back downhill for an hour or so. We reached another Inca site called Sayacmarca and learnt about the site. We reached our second campsite at Chaquicocha around 6pm.

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Views from Dead Woman’s Pass
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up at Dead Woman’s Pass
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The green machines
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With our guide, Herlin

Day 3

Today we started at around 6am and it was a generally easy walk. There was gradual inclines and we walked through the Cloud Forest. We could see the magnificent Salkantay from afar which is the second highest snow-capped mountain in the Sacred Valley.

We walked for a couple of hours and made our way to the last peak at Phuyupatamarka which was approximately 3,600m high and we had amazing views overlooking the Urubamba River. It was another hour and a half walk down to our campsite. We had lunch and had the chance to relax and have our free time. Some of the others went to the waterfall whereas Liz and I hung out with the guide and chuskis.

We then headed to Wiñay Wayna which is another amazing Inca site and had a short tour there. There were alpacas roaming around which was fun to watch.

We headed back to the campsite and the porters and chefs treated us to a last feast for dinner. We had some pisco sours, massive amounts of food (as every meal we had) and dessert.

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Winay Wayna
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Hanging out

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Cake for Gian’s birthday
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Last night’s feast

Day 4

We took our hiking boots off and decided to change into our Nikes as the hike to the Sun Gate was apparently not too hard. I can definitely vouch that it was a very easy and enjoyable walk apart from the last bit of stairs to the gate so the last day of the hike doesn’t require hiking boots.

We woke up early so our group could be the first ones out of the camp site. We were at the gate at 3am and had to wait over 2 hours for the gate to open at 5:30am.  The walk towards the Sun Gate was pleasant and we saw the sunrise, however it was a bit cloudy.

We finally reached Machu Picchu to begin our 2 hour private guided tour. The sheer size of the site is amazing. However, there are so many tourists that it was a little underwhelming to say the least. By 6am, the hoards of tourist buses arrive so you can’t really escape it.

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The amazing Incan site – Machu Picchu!
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At Machu Picchu
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Machu Picchu from another angle

Initially when we made our booking, Huayna Picchu (Wayna Picchu) which is the mountain that stands next to Machu Picchu seemed like a fantastic idea. After 4 days of walking though, Liz and I were exhausted by this point. It cost an additional $65 USD and you must prebook it in advance as it is a popular hike.

They suggest that it takes about 1 hour up and 1 hour back down to Wayna Picchu. Liz and I were pretty exhausted by this point and even so, Liz was probably less keen than I was. However, as soon as we signed in at the checkpoint, she was racing off. It was a steep hike, lots of stairs and so I would say it was more difficult than the Inca Trail and as I was keeping up with her, we went up in 35-40 minutes. The view from the top was amazing as you can see Machu Picchu from above!

We took the bus back to Aguas Calientes and had lunch there. It’s an extremely touristy place so be wary that prices are hiked up here. From Aguas Calientes, the train took 2 hours to Ollantaytambo where we then got picked up and dropped back off to Cuzco.

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View from the top of Wayna Picchu
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We made it to the top!

The Inca Trail was very well organised with Alpaca Expeditions so I don’t hesitate to recommend them. I really enjoyed the trek especially since we had such a great group of people!

Remember to book early as they need to organise permits for you. Although there are ways to get to Machu Picchu without the hike (train then bus), I highly recommend doing at least one day of walking to see all the other interesting sites that the area has to offer!

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