The Path is Made by Walking: Hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
Article By Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
“Walker, there is no path, the path is made by walking.” –Antonio Machado
We were picked up outside our bed & breakfast by a small transport van long before first light. As we wound our way up and out of Cusco and into the Andes and then down into the Sacred Valley, we slipped into an inky darkness that seemed glued to our windows. We shared the two-hour drive to Ollantaytambo with a Dutch family who had grown children. The time passed in hushed whispers.
By the time we arrived at the Perurail station, light had begun to return to the world. The mountains and the torpid Urubamba River were crisp. The air fresh and cool. Here we boarded the Expedition train for the hour and forty-five-minute journey to what is known only as Kilometre 104.
This part of our Peruvian odyssey actually began eight months earlier with the purchase of our Inca Trail permits. In order to preserve the trail, Peru has enforced strict limits on the number of hikers trekking into Machu Picchu since 2004. Only five hundred people may walk the path each day, but that includes three hundred support workers and guides. So, in total, only 200 visitors may make the climb. Permits for July and August sell out many months in advance.
The scenery was outstanding off the river side of the train.
At Kilometre 104, which is literally in the middle of nowhere, and indicated only by a small sign, the train stopped and, somewhat tentatively, we disembarked at a passport control kiosk and handed over our permits. It was also here that we met our guide, Salvador—a Quechan who was born and spent his childhood in the high Andes.
RELATED: Sacred Valley of Peru
A footbridge crossed the river there and lead to the ruins of Chachabamba. The stone altar there is still respected by locals and was formally a site for sun worship. The path rose gradually beyond Chachabamba and before long we were inside a cloud forest. The vegetation on either side of the trail was thick and overrun. Nonetheless, we were surprised to see stray head of cattle crashing in the undergrowth so high on the mountainside.
Views over the valley opened unexpectedly and not infrequently, but eventually as the trail wound west, we left the forest behind completely and were treated to unparalleled views of the switchbacks we had been trekking. After several hours the path descended once again into lush jungle and crossed a waterfall careening off the mountain. We paused there and got to know our guide and fellow travellers a little better. We had a snack and steeled ourselves for the steeper climb into Winaywayna.
The ruins of Winaywayna, which mean “forever young,” are incredible, if not as famous as those of Machu Picchu. Impossibly well-preserved and restored, these intricately placed buildings and intersecting temples overlook a series of stone terraces that plunge down the mountainside at a sharp angle giving them the appearance of a giant’s amphitheatre. And the views from Winaywayna eclipsed our earlier vantage points over the valley.
Not long after, we broke for lunch. An encampment of support workers from the outfitter served up soup and bread and it all felt a little bit like a grand mountain expedition. We were beginning to feel a sense of anticipation at this point and were antsy to continue.
Further up into the cloud forest we crossed sections of ancient stone steps and one area which had dangerously been washed down the mountain. But the final steepest section of the trail were the sixty steps to Intipunku, The Sun Gate.
You can take a bus to Machu Picchu. You don’t have to climb through cloud forests and meadows to get there—unless, of course, you want this view at sunset. Its iconic. Ubiquitous, even. But nothing is quite like ascending those final steps, knowing what will appear on the other side, and being blown away it spite of this knowledge.
Caroline, who found the six-hour climb gruelling in spots, cried a little. And maybe I did, too. It was that beautiful.
After, we descended into Aguas Calientes where we had booked a hostel for the night. We bathed in the lukewarm thermal baths for 15 soles. We toured the little city which is part kitsch and another part wonderful. The next day we would return to Machu Picchu for a proper visit and stay hours before returning by train. But nothing quite matched the adventure of the hike and the excitement of the Sun Gate arrival.
Some might call this “the trip of a lifetime.” And while I am aware of how lucky we are to have done it in our lives, I don’t know about the moniker. It seems kind of reductive—not of the trek, but of life. As the Spanish poet, Antonio Machado says, “the path is made by walking.” So why stop walking? When someone asks me, what was the greatest trip I have ever been on, I could answer Machu Picchu, or Iceland, or Nicaragua. Or something else. But I don’t. I tell them instead that it’s the next one, wherever
that will be. And I’m only partly joking.
NB- We booked our travel permits and guide through SAS Travel Peru.