Inca Trail in Peru: 6 Unexpected Highlights

Inca Trail in Peru – It’s Not a Race to the Finish

There are hundreds of Inca ‘trails’ scattered across Peru, relics of the impressive network of roads connecting the Inca Empire. Then there’s the Inca Trail to Machu PicchuEl Camino Inka in Spanish, the iconic four day trek to Machu Picchu.

Inca Trail in Peru - Welcome sign day 1

Of course the crowning glory of taking on the gruelling challenge of the Inca Trail in Peru is arriving at the lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. There’s a great sense of accomplishment, finally arriving at the iconic complex just as the Incas did – on foot along the stone paths and steps they carved into the mountainside to access the site.

But this is a journey that’s not just about getting to the finish line. It’s four days of discovery and exploration, with many surprises along the way. I recently completed the classic four-day trek, and here are my unexpected highlights of the Inca Trail in Peru. 

1. The food: Gastronomy Trail to Machu Picchu

You’re hiking for four days, away from civilisation, refrigeration, and electricity. And yet, your Inca Trail chef with the support of a team of porters, whips up the most incredible gourmet Peruvian food three times a day. So in addition to a journey on foot, it really is like an incredible Culinary Tour Peru.

Using locally sourced ingredients, freshly pressed organic Peruvian coffee, and experienced chefs, the diversity and quality of what is served up on the Inca Trail is truly impressive. Menus will vary, but the highlights from my recent trip included freshly baked quinoa bread, yuca (cassava) fritters, warming Andean vegetable soup, llomo saltado – a kind of Peruvian-Asian fusion beef stir-fry, and an incredible iced celebration cake on our last night!

2. The flowers: Delicate Orchids on the Mountainside

Inca Trail in Peru - flowers along the way

Along the Inca Trail, you’ll encounter incredible flora and fauna, passing through several distinct ecosystems as you ascend to high mountain passes, and into deep tropical valleys.

We spotted vibrant hummingbirds and a wild hare called a vicuña. What really stood out for me, were the beautiful flowers along the way, including stunning orchids, many of which are endemic to the area. Often hidden, you have to keep your eyes peeled for the small splashes of colour along the way. Our guide Rolando was very good at pointing them out, and telling us their local names.

3. The solitude: Quiet Time to Reflect

Inca Trail in Peru - Solitude along the trail

 

The Inca Trail is one of the busiest treks in Peru, with permits necessary to limit the intake to 500 trekkers and support staff a day. So I was prepared for the busy campsites, and an ant-trail of hikers along the way.

However, there were times when we went hours without seeing anyone else on the trail, and moments when we were completely alone in Inca ruins, able to just sit in silence and soak up the awe-inspiring surroundings. Our guide was excellent at timing our hiking and exploration at important sites for the quiestest times of the day. For me, these were magical moments that I’ll never forget.

4. The history: walking in Inca footsteps

Inca Trail in Peru - Open air history lesson

Of course, I did some hurried basic research on the history of Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail before starting the trail, and I’ve been to several museums in Lima and Cusco documenting the Inca Empire.

But none of that compares to living and breathing it all in along the trail. On day one, we stopped at the first ruin, and sat in the shade of an ancient wall as our guide Rolando gave us the most interesting history lesson of my life, which continued and was slowly developed over the four days. The open-air classroom and discussing the history of the land and its people as we walked was definitely one of my highlights of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

5. The Ruins: Inca Trail sites before Machu Picchu

Inca Trail in Peru - Wiñay Wayna

All the hype is around arriving at Machu Picchu, but along the Inca Trail you get to experience many stunning archaeological sites that other visitors never have access to, as they are so remote.

For me the highlight was arriving at Wiñay Wayna on day three, and relaxing and exploring the ruins in the soft afternoon light. This impressive and sprawling Inca complex is believed to have been some sort of agricultural research centre for the Inca, and offers stunning views down the valley towards the river.

6. The arrival: a sense of accomplishment

Inca Trail in Peru - arrival at Machu Picchu

When you arrive at the Sun Gate, and set your eyes on Machu Picchu for the first time, the aches and pains and weight of the last four days suddenly dissipate. As you walk down to Machu Picchu, you’re likely to see the first of the day trippers – heading up to the Sun Gate to admire the view.

At this point you’ll notice how nicely they’re dressed, and even how clean they smell. But don’t be ashamed of your dishevelled appearance. You’re allowed to feel incredibly smug – you’ve earned your arrival to the lost city of the Incas, and get to stride in, straight off the Inca Trail just like the Incas did hundreds of years ago. We felt absolutely euphoric, and the journey was worth every step.

Ready to experience your own highlights on the Inca Trail in Peru?

The Inca Trail is extremely popular and must be booked months in advance, with a registered operator. Have a look at Aracari’s 10-Day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu itinerary, which includes time in Lima, acclimatisation in the Sacred Valley and Cusco.

Aracari specialises in tailormade trips to Peru, Bolivia & The Galapagos. Let us arrange a private Inca Trail journey to Machu Picchu as part of a custom built trip to Peru. To start planning your Peru adventure contact us or email travel@aracari.com

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