Note: This entry is part of a series about our 2014 trip to Bolivia and Peru.
We started our tour of the Sacred Valley on June 10th, beginning the trail on the 11th–16 days into our South American trip. By that time we were well acclimated to the altitude. Most guide books suggest allowing at least three days to acclimate and it is a suggestion one should take seriously (as we discovered in La Paz, Bolivia)!
Because tourists are only allowed on the Inca Trail accompanied by a guide, the first thing you have to do if you want to hike the trail is choose a tour operator. Also, because only 500 permits are issued daily for the trail (including guides and porters), you need to plan in advance if you’re wanting to hike it during the high (dry) season. We booked our June hike at the end of January.
After lots of research, we chose Aventours (a.k.a. Ecoinca) as our tour operator for the following reasons:
- They have a good reputation of treating porters well. This is a big issue on the Inca Trail and Peru has instituted strict laws in recent years to improve the situation.
- They’re the only operator that has a private campground at the start of the trail (KM 82); this means you can start the first day’s hike fully rested instead of waking up extremely early in Cusco to be transported to KM 82.
- The handful of reviews we could find about them on TripAdvisor were extremely positive.
- Included with their 5day/4 night package is a guided tour of the Sacred Valley, including the impressive ruins at Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
- The price seemed reasonable–not too high and not too low. There are a number of operators that are cheaper but I can’t understand how they could possibly do it for less than what we paid without sacrificing quality or not paying a fair wage to porters. There were also more expensive “luxury” options. It’s just my opinion, but if you need “luxury” when hiking, this trail probably isn’t your thing. That being said, our hike ended up being way more luxurious than I anticipated!
Aventours provides a list of dates for beginning your tour. If fewer than four people sign up, each person pays a small supplement. As it turns out, no one else signed up for the date we chose so we had a private tour. We also chose to hire an additional, personal porter to carry our sleeping bag, pads, and extra clothing we didn’t need in our day packs for a small (and well deserved) fee. In effect that meant that one guide, six porters including an awesome cook, and one driver (for the Sacred Valley day of the tour) worked to make our trek possible.
The night before our chosen date, we met our guide, Jhon, at Aventour’s office in Cusco for our orientation. Jhon explained the itinerary, asked about some of our preferences, and answered any questions we had. The morning our tour began, he met us at our hotel, then our driver for the Sacred Valley portion of the tour picked us up. After a very fun day visiting Inca sites in Pisac and Ollantaytambo, we turned off the main highway onto a dirt road that would lead us to the start of the Inca Trail, known as Kilometer (KM) 82.
KM 82 & Aventours’ Private Camp
You can click on any photo to see them larger
The dirt road ends at a small village called Piscacucho. There is a train stop, the Inca Trail control station, and a bridge crossing the Urubamba River. To get to our camp site, we crossed the bridge and instead of turning right onto the Inca Trail, we headed left, then hiked 10-15 minutes along the river to a beautiful spot with views of Mt. Veronica. The campsite was amazing. Little huts provide shelter to the tents, there are flushing toilets and hot showers, a central dining hut with electric outlets for charging batteries, a pretty garden, and other facilities. We were warned not to leave our boots outside the tents because dogs might run away with them! And indeed, we met the eager dogs.
When we arrived the tents were already set up. We unpacked our sleeping bag and pads while it was still light. We took a little time to explore the grounds, then joined Jhon, the cook, and several of the porters in the dining hut for hot drinks. In Pisac we had bought a souvenir game similar to Parcheesi. We didn’t know how to play it and it didn’t come with instructions. Jhon said he knew the rules and called it “Ludo.” We all had a great time learning–the porter team gathered around and we all had lots of laughs as we moved our condors, llamas, lambs, and foxes around the board– ¡qué divertido!
We were then treated to the first of many incredible meals prepared by our cook on the trail–bread, soup, fish, rice, and dessert. ¡Buen provecho!
I took advantage of the gloriously hot showers while Brian photographed the sky and then we were ready for bed, feeling quite spoiled to crawl into our own little hut.
Day 1: KM 82-Capulichayoc
Approximate Distance: 7.47 miles
Starting Altitude: 8,528 ft.
Highest Altitude: 9,840 ft.
The first morning, we were awoken and treated to tent-side hot tea. We packed up our belongings, ate a nourishing breakfast, then headed back to the control station. We were the first to arrive that day and had to wait for the station to open at about 8AM. A park ranger there checks permits and passports and they also weigh the porters’ bags to make sure the weight limit isn’t exceeded. While we were waiting, we got to see how the local community comes together to help each other. There was a family installing a new septic system and lots of locals showed up to help them get the tanks moved into place. The tanks had to be hoisted across/through the Urubamba River, then transported along the Inca Trail, probably using animal power.
I didn’t realize how many people live along the Inca Trail. During the first two days of the trek, we passed houses, farms, even little villages. There were lots of people moving animals–we saw horses, donkeys, llamas, even bulls–as well as chickens, dogs, and cats. We also learned that people put out red plastic bags on long sticks to indicate you can buy home-brewed chicha!
The first day of the trail is gentle and doesn’t gain a lot of altitude. For much of the day, it follows the Urubamba River, with the rail line to Machu Picchu visible on the other side. As the trains heading to Machu Picchu pass, you can’t help but be a little envious of the passengers who are going to arrive there in just another hour or so. But you also feel a bit sorry that they’re missing out on all this fabulous scenery you’re getting to enjoy first hand.
There is a huge change in vegetation along the trail, depending on altitude. Day 1 had a very dry feel with shrubs, prickly pear cactus, and agave plants. Our guide, Jhon, pointed out little bugs that live on prickly pears that are harvested–their blood is used in dyes for cosmetics and food (EEK!).
One of the perks of hiking the trail is seeing lots of additional Inca sites up-close-and-personal (and without the Machu Picchu size crowds!). We were able to freely wander the ruins of Llaqtapata, which offered a view of the ruins of Patallacta.
Our team set up lunch in a pig yard that day (seriously!) and we got to experience another delicious meal prepared by our cook. We also got to try out the toilet tent for the first time–that was another perk of booking with Aventours. Many of the groups only use the public toilets scattered (sometimes at a very great distance) along the trail. Because our team only set our toilet tent up at lunch and camp sites, we did have the opportunity to use the public toilets a couple of times. They were very clean, flushing, squatty-potty-style ceramic toilets–sometimes a challenge for tired legs. In contrast, our toilet tent was equipped with a portable plastic unit (similar to this), filled with a chemical (think porta-potty), that could be flushed by pumping water with a food pedal. The best thing about the toilet tent is that it was nearby, making it much more convenient than the public toilets that might be located a long ways from the camp site.
When we finally made it to our Day 1 camp site (the sign post read “Capulichayoc”), the porters welcomed us with cheers. Camp sites along the trail are assigned by park rangers. Because of our unique schedule, we were able to camp at a site that seemed private. Of course, it was close to the trail but there weren’t other sites nearby that we were aware of, anyway. Each night when we reached our camp site the porters already had all our tents set up, including the dining tent, the cooking tent (both of which the porters use to sleep in), our guide’s tent, and the toilet tent. Usually by the time we had our sleeping bag and pads set up, they had hot water ready for us to make tea or coffee. Before dinner was served, they would bring us wash cloths soaked in boiling water to wash our hands with, as well as alcohol as an antiseptic. They also always had boiled (and cooled) water available for us to refill our water bottles with so we never had to worry about filtering our own. We were glad that Jhon always joined us for dinner–we were able to ask him questions and learn about his life growing up nearby, as well as make plans for the next day’s adventure.