Episode 11b: Camino Inca and Machu Picchu
The Camino Inca is a path that was taken by pilgrims to get to the most important sacred site of the Inca civilization, namely, Machu Picchu.
It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and therefore highly protected. It can only be borrowed within a very strict framework which includes: one or more sworn guides, a team of porters and cooks, defined camping places, strict rules, for example on waste management. I took the full 4-day, 3-night variant with self-carrying of my backpack.
This trek is fabulous because it largely fulfills the three dimensions:
- Humans: I was lucky enough to have Hipolito, a guide, all to myself and full time for 4 days. We talked a lot, I asked all the questions I wanted and we had a good laugh. I also exchanged with the porters, and in particular with their leader Izequiel , they took me in sympathy given the state of disrepair of my walking shoes!
- The mountain: the landscapes are grandiose and varied, the highest pass is at 4250 meters;
- The cultural richness: there are more than ten sites that dot the first 3 days of walking. On the last day, the arrival through the upper sun gate offers a dive to the fabulous site of Machu Picchu. The guided tour of Machu Picchu is very rich because it is consistent with the explanations of the previous 3 days.
The text below is a description of the Camino Inca like the travelogues of explorers such as the famous Ernest Shackleton and his team. This text was written every evening, on stage in the tent.
It is up to you, dear and dear reader, to imagine this path, its sites and the encounters, you will discover the image version in a few days.
NB: This content has been reworked by François Remodeau then reviewed by Lise for corrections.
The interactive map of the Camino Inca.
ZOOME, you will discover the detail of the path.
NB: On the 4th day, I forgot to activate the trace on my watch at the start of the walk, I rectified by creating a few points, the straight segments would require a more precise update, sorry.
Preamble: very personal point of view on the Inca (or Inka) civilization
Ha! The Incas, what have I not heard!
I arrive on the Camino Inka (Inca trail) with a negative opinion. This very personal opinion was forged over discussions with South American friends, readings and visits to numerous museums .
If I had to summarize in three points, I would say: it is a civilization dominated by an all-powerful nobility; it established its hegemony by brutal means, when necessary; she practiced the use of human sacrifices. We are far from the declaration of human rights.
We must recognize the Incas a certain and surprising mastery of architecture and town planning. More so, the organization and management of a highly organized federation of peoples of very diverse cultures. And a social and educational structure allowing everyone to face hardships. For example, in the event of famines, food reserves were pooled and distributed.
This is where I am in my thoughts on this March 1st, the date of the reopening of the Camino Inka. I arrive in Peru after a wave of popular protests, which started on December 7, 2022, and the usual annual closure of the path, in February 2023.
At the end of a four-day trek, I will visit some unmissable places in Cuzco, a city located in the heart of the Inca territories, without forgetting the famous Inca museum.
D1-Piscacucho (entry point of the path) – Huayllbamba- 1st March
As agreed, Hipolito picks me up at my rental in Cuzco, it’s 5:30 .
We go down the hill to join a mini-bus, its driver and a porter. The vehicle then heads towards what appears to be a place of hiring, in order to pick up other porters. The bus fills up with about ten people, which makes Hipolito say, in a joking tone, that I have ten porters all to myself. Hilarity invades the bus.
The porters, of very different ages, speak among themselves in Quechua. They are not – how to say? – “tied to 4 pins”.
We drive a distance of 75 kilometers. A breakfast allows you to find nine other hikers. It is a group of Swedes and Swedes, aged 11 to 65 years old.
In fact, we form two distinct groups: the Swedes and their guide on one side, Hipolito and myself on the other. The guides and cooks are pooled for the two groups. In other words, I have a guide all to myself. What delights me!
Ten kilometers of paths lead us to the “Camino Inka – Inka trail” centre. All-out battle: a high-profile event was organized here, after the long closure of the Camino Inka and Machu Picchu for almost three months. The deputy minister of tourism is there. Microphones and speeches, procession of park and regional officials… everyone thanks, including us tourists, and passes on their messages. A Pachamama ceremony is organized, during which we are invited to give coca leaves to the master of ceremonies.
We head to the entrance counter where we check our passports. As a reminder, the Camino Inka cannot be taken without an authorized guide, with imposed logistics and an accredited agency. The passage to the Camino Inca Interpretation Center is fast. It nevertheless provides a good overview of the vegetation and fauna present on the different levels of the mountain. A final check: here we are on the famous Inca Trail.
The first kilometers are ordinary: a wide dirt and pebble road, used by pedestrians and motorbikes. Everything changes after three kilometers: a bird’s eye view of the first constructions of the Inca Qhanabamba site . The ruins of an Inca hamlet are clearly visible. From left to right, we distinguish the house of the head of the hamlet, six smaller houses and, slightly below, a space dedicated to agricultural easements. About a hundred meters from the enclosure of the hamlet, overhanging, stand five circular constructions. These are cereal granaries and dehydrated potatoes.
The march continues quietly. I suggest to Hipolito not to stop at the small stalls that locals have improvised. But Hipolito makes me understand that we have to walk “ tranquillo ”: if we progress too quickly, the porters-cooks won’t have time to get ahead enough to prepare the meals.
The vegetation is very rich and generous. Many plants have a food or medicinal use. As usual, I’m lost with the names. I insisted that Hipolito give them to me in Spanish, but he quickly switched to Quechua…
The detour of a path gives us a very beautiful view of the remains of the capital of the Inca province. An enclosure of stones, beautiful terraces, many houses for families. The attic is right next to us. We overlook the city of a hundred meters. Hipolito details this vertical building (rebuilt): in addition to imposing attics, it also includes houses intended to house a small garrison, as well as families. All Inca constructions have inclined walls, between 7° and 10°, in order to improve resistance in the event of seismic events.
At the turn of the conversation, I discover that Hipolito is a descendant of the Incas. He is very proud of it. I will be careful how I ask my questions.
A little further on, the porters-cooks are busy. The menu consists of soup, then trout caught in the river below. It’s very good, and served with a nice presentation. I have lunch with Hipolito in a small tent, set up especially for us. For their part, the Swedes do the same. Friendly looking, they converse with me during the preparation of the meal.
After a short siesta, we leave for the final stage of the day. The path is generally uphill. He follows a powerfully flowing stream. We meet the locals.
When we arrived, the porters were already busy setting up the tents. Then they get busy in the kitchen to prepare snacks and dinner. We wash ourselves with the tap of a small area “à la française” – it’s an expression from here which means a little toilet with a glove.
Tea and dinner are served for our three groups: the porters and cooks, the Swedes, Hipolito and myself. The cuisine is excellent and the exchanges with Hipolito interesting.
8:40 p.m.: the time has come to sleep, because tomorrow we will get up at 5:30 a.m.
D2 -Huayllbamba – Pacaymayo – 2nd March
As agreed, Hipolito knocks on my tent: I had fallen asleep again! He tells me that I have to empty the tent. The carriers must dismantle them, store all the equipment and get ahead of the trekkers, in order to set up the next camp.
We chat over a very complete breakfast: a nice platter of fresh fruit, chocolate pancakes, oats, yogurt, tea with coca leaves, porridge…
7:00 am: we set off on the path, enclosed between high mountains, green and wooded.
We pass a checkpoint. An employee hands his register to Hipolito, who must indicate that he has been here with tourists, and show his license. The controller gives the impression of being firmly bored.
The reputedly hardest climb of the Camino Inka is, for this part, gently sloping, lined with trees two to four meters high, on a regular path. We agree that I will go at my own pace and that Hipolito would bring up the rear. True to my habits, I only stop every 50 minutes for a 10-minute break. A fairly slow, steady walk, changing and varied smells of flowers. This is a very pleasant walk!
Second break. The vegetation has become more Lilliputian, the trees have disappeared. The bottom of the valley where our camp was set up the night before is tiny. We are 600 meters higher. Hipolito joins me. He was deep in discussion with one of his colleagues who, he told me, finds it increasingly difficult to bear the extreme slowness of the tourists. It reminds me of certain discussions and giggles with a guide from Torres Del Paine Park in Chile, who was cracking up for the same reasons.
Among the group of Swedes, the largest and strongest, with the physique of a rugby player, we overtake then stop. Then we overtake and stop, then… His girlfriend tries to follow, her breath getting shorter and shorter.
The path becomes a staircase in places, with steps of 20 to 30 centimeters, irregular. It’s getting steeper and steeper. I walk slowly, zigzagging up the steps as needed. The “bougresses” of my treks in Nepal come to mind!
NB: Bougresses : name with which I baptized the stone steps , in Nepal . I had seen so many of them that I started talking to them , to try to appease them.
Third break: the vegetation is short, a sort of high steppe. For an equivalent altitude, it is much less lively than that of Pichincha, around Quito, in Ecuador (see previous episode). An Argentinian couple perceives my French accent (they live in Quebec). We engage in conversation, half-Spanish half-French. They are nice, as most Quebecers know how to be. The same kindness as that felt with South Americans. It is so nice !
I stop at the altitude of 4000 meters to take some pictures. Quebecers join me. I take this opportunity to make a video of their first 4000 meters. They are moved.
The path has become very steep, the height of the steps has increased. The altitude, above 4000 meters, is felt. Thanks to my acclimatization and my acquired slow walking reflexes, the Warmiwanuska pass is easily reached. The view bathed in mist is magnificent. It is the highest point of the Camino Inka. We take pictures, with Hipolito and Izequiel , the leader of the porters. We took 4 hours of ascent, including a 30-minute break, for an elevation gain of 1170 meters.
The clouds are rising. We descend for our part on the other side of the pass, by an extremely steep stairway. Some steps exceed 50 centimeters. Short people are vastly disadvantaged. Hipolito seems to suffer from hips and knees. He doesn’t say a word.
Hipolito resumes the discussion with another guide. He also waits for his customers. I go ahead of them, in order to take the time to contemplate, exchange with the carriers, capture images.
The distant view over the steep-sided valley is superb. The light changes with the dance of the grazing clouds. Approaching the camp, I stop to wait for Hipolito: I chose a spot that I never tire of admiring.
We are early at camp. Not all the porters have arrived, and the commotion is strong. I move away for a short rest, in the shade, with the dancing clouds as a spectacle.
An excellent lunch is served around 15:30 . Hipolito tells me about the popular protests that started in December. Even if their impact on his professional activity is very strong, he supports them. For him, the current government has no legitimacy.
After the too hearty lunch, I go on with a little nap. Later, I will skip the snack stage, in order to go to an exceptional viewpoint, which Hipolito had indicated to me.
The evening dinner is, once again, a treat. The time has come to recover from this beautiful day of walking on the Camino Inca.
D3- Pacaymayo – Intipata – March 3
Get up at 5:30 . As usual, the instruction is to vacate the tent as soon as possible, so that the porters prepare their package and leave first.
The valley is superb, several layers of clouds partly hide the mountain.
The breakfast changes every day! This morning, hot chocolate and tortilla! We chat with Hipolito. He wants to break camp quickly, probably to get ahead of the Swedes, who are noisy.
We are on our way early. We stop at the checkpoint, where another group’s waste is being weighed. The rule is that, on the way, nothing should be left behind. With Hipolito, we weigh ourselves, for fun, the park rangers do the same, the atmosphere is relaxed.
We head to the first Inca site of the day. It climbs steeply, from the beginning of the path. It is a lookout point, which was used to monitor the various accesses to the valley and the paths. In fact, the view is very wide, grandiose. The site, quite small, was exclusively reserved for this surveillance use.
The rain invites itself, it is thick. After a few minutes of hesitation, we put on the ponchos. Hipolito prefers to wait for it to pass. In vain. The ascent to the first pass resumes, in the middle of dense vegetation. The path has stairs, but the steps are a reasonable size. Despite everything, the rain made the stones slippery, caution is essential.
We arrive at the Runkurakay pass in the fog. In the descent, we observe a lake of altitude, well filled in this rainy season.
Further down is an imposing, sacred Inca site. Standing on a rocky peak overlooking the valley, it is exclusively dedicated to religion. It is reached by a particularly steep, sheer climb, with a smooth stone staircase.
Hipolito explains to me that all sacred sites are built like this: on a rocky outcrop. A small promontory is built there, for offices. The dwelling of the priest and his family is very small, about three meters by five. Notches in the stone indicate where the beds were. There is no window. Likewise, the kitchen is tiny, one to two meters per side. The noble’s dwelling is much more spacious, with windows cut into the walls. But according to Hipolito, the higher authority of the place was the religious, not the noble. This detailed visit prepares me very well for the visit to Machu Picchu, scheduled for the next day.
The rain has dissipated; the sun is back. The vegetation around the path is lush. It’s almost a jungle, with succulents and beautiful trees. The balcony path is very pleasant, with a view of the peaks covered with ice. The clouds that play hide and seek with the mountain make the landscape splendid.
We arrive at a third pass. Lunch is being prepared, the cooks have put on their white outfits to come and serve us an incredible meal. Acknowledgments and photos are in order. We find the rangers there who are on inspection.
The discussion on current events in Peru and the distribution of wealth continues. The Swedes had already left for thirty minutes when we resumed the march.
We arrive at another sacred site, more imposing than the previous one. It dominates the whole valley. An incredible site. We see the Machu Picchu mountain, but ” from behind”, because the sacred city is on the other side. The markers of a sacred site such as those visited so far are repeated here, only more grandiose.
The path down is very steep, with large steps. The vegetation there is lush. Part of the Swedish group is struggling.
A series of terraces are visible from the path. From a distance, they are superb. We arrive there to browse them. The work done here is immense. Going down to the camp, we discuss, with Hipolito, pre-Inca civilizations, the origin of the Incas and the influence of their culture.
Even if it is cold, the shower feels good. I pass the snack stage. The dinner, always excellent, is the last meal that the team prepares for us. It ends with a big cake. This is also the time to tip, in person, to the cooks and porters.
D4- Intipata – Machu Picchu – March 4th
Wake up at 3:30 : “it stings a bit”. The tent must be released quickly. Porters take a train, reserved for locals. The tourists are on another train.
After ten minutes of walking, a long break of an hour and a half. Simply to wait, seated, because the entrance to Machu Picchu is not until 8:00 .
I finish writing my diary the day before, then chat with the couple from Quebec.
The walk resumes in lush nature. The day is about 5:40 . I had made a bet, with Hipolito, on the time of daybreak. He said 6 o’clock. Me, 5:30 a.m. As gentlemen, we declare a draw. The thirty people with whom we waited , in an airlock, form a very tight group, the walk is unpleasant. We arrive at the foot of a very, very steep staircase, many put their hands on it, some have their bags carried.
It is with great emotion that we cross the door of the sun “from the top”. I couldn’t believe it anymore as there were so many adventures in the last two months leading up to this day.
The clouds are part of it. They give a glimpse of the sugar loaf-shaped mountains that dominate Machu Picchu. With Hipolito, we decide to leave the crowd in order to find calm during the descent. The clouds dissipate, the view is superb. The birds have a field day. I recognize the song of the hummingbird; for his part, Hipolito knows much more. We stop to comment on certain buildings, in particular the stone which represents the world; it is also dedicated to the Condor. This huge bird is a key symbol for all the South American countries I have visited.
On the first terraces of Machu Picchu, the llamas graze quietly. The grass there is well maintained. The heart of the city is still in the clouds, but it is said that it will be discovered quickly. We sit down to wait. Our patience is quickly rewarded, the city is revealed meter after meter. What a view ! Finally, the famous city of Machu Picchu appears in a soft fog, then reveals itself completely. What shock!
Cameras and cameras crackle, selfies too. In the hustle and bustle, I forget to take a selfie: I won’t have my face in front of Machu Picchu… No big deal, I’ll be back!… The main thing is to take the time to admire.
The guided tour, still in Spanish, can start. She demands my sustained attention. The essential markers observed on other sites, the previous days, are the same: the sacred stone, religious temples, dwellings of the Inca nobility, crafts, farmers. The constructions are made of dry stones, cut to the millimeter, assembled one by one. They are gigantic and very impressive. Water management, conveyed by an aqueduct from the mountain, is very sophisticated. The terraces are reinforced to avoid rockslides… What a high level of architecture and precision! A colossal work, without any recourse to animal power.
The three worlds of Andean cosmology are found everywhere: Uku Pacha, “the world below”, it is located in the earth, under the surface, the snake symbolizes it, Kay Pacha is the world where life is created, it is symbolized by the puma and Hanan Pasha “the upper world” where the sun and the moon live, it is symbolized by the condor.
We just have time to climb to the top of the city, to discover the Temple of the Sun; the most prestigious among all the others. It is here that the most important sacred rites were practiced. The visit ends with a journey through the terraces of vegetable gardens and the workshops of the city’s artisans.
Leaving the city, we have a coffee while discussing. A bus then takes us to Aguas Caliente , for a last concert lunch.
Hipolito leaves on the train reserved for locals; me by the one reserved for tourists. The price difference is approximately “times 20”. I am seated in a square of four, with three Indians from India, who work in Canada. They are on leave. The train runs alongside the Rio Vicanota , steeped in a deep valley.
Images are fixed in my memory!