Inca Trail Signpost

Hiking The Inca Trail

Words & Photography by Emily Ganey
Sacred Valley Day:

Thomas and I have both been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit – both together and independently. When we got married last year, we knew we wanted to go somewhere different, where neither of us had gone, for our honeymoon. Machu Picchu had always intrigued me, so it wiggled its way to the top of our list.

We flew into Cusco and our tour guide picked us up at 5:30 in the morning. They drove us to our hotel – Rumi Punku. The hotel staff made us tea and showed us to our rooms. Normally, I’m a “let’s explore as much of the city as possible” kind of girl, but after those flights and that altitude (over 11,000 feet), I just needed to rest. We eventually mustered up the energy to grab lunch at a local organic restaurant a few streets away. They fed us amazing, fresh food that was really delicious! That evening, we relaxed out on the terrace at our hotel.

One thing that struck me from that first day was all of the dogs roaming the streets. So many! Our tour guide said that they were pets, they weren’t just strays, but no one had enough room in their home to keep the dogs inside. The dogs would run in the street and get out of the way when they saw cars. I never saw one dog on a leash. It was so different!The next morning we got a private tour of the Sacred Valley through our tour group, Alpaca Expeditions. Our guide took us to numerous historic sites and explained the symbolism and meaning behind the masonry and the placement of buildings. We saw where the Incas farmed and where they buried those that had passed. They even had all of these secret animals carved into the mountains – frogs and llamas. We saw examples of how they would tell when it was summer solstice and how they would tell time.

Exploring the market was probably my favorite. I love seeing that kind of culture with my own eyes – especially when it was a real market where the locals were shopping – not just a tourist trap. I was so nervous to take photos of the people running the stalls. My heart was pounding through my chest. It is hard to be super stealthy with a gigantic camera!

That evening, we watched women dying wool and weaving runners. They were all wearing beautiful clothes that they had made themselves.

We watched the sun set over the fields that looked like patchwork quilts.

The Inca Trail: 

The tour group picked us up on a bus at 4 am, as promised. It was about a two hour ride to the trailhead. And I was terrified. I could feel my heart pounding whenever we slowed down, thinking we were almost there – and that this painful experience was going to start soon.

When we got to the trailhead, we all took a quintessential photo with the sign and we started walking. The first day was great. The trail was a dirt path. We were walking along a river. We started chatting with the other hikers – talking about work and other hiking vacations.

There were 16 of us on this journey. We ranged from 22 – 35. Most of us were Americans, but there were a few Europeans in the group. There were also porters there to help us carry 4 kg of contents (we had to carry anything beyond that). I was expecting maybe 1 porter to 2 hikers. No. There were 22 porters. They ranged from the age of 18 – 61. Sixty-one. Some of them wore broken rubber sandals. Their feet were cracked. They were so incredibly quick as they walked on the trail – hardly looking at the ground as they bounced along the ground. They carried more than 50 pounds on their back – their packs were as large as they were – easily the size of 4 golf bags. The porters would always beat us to our destination, and by the time we arrived, there was a dining tent set up and a meal was on the table. And I’m not talking about camp food. This was real food. Fish. Vegetables. Rice. Desserts.There was more food than could even fit on the tables. They even baked a birthday cake for one of the hikers (no idea how that is possible, but it happened). But seeing these porters broke my heart. It was so hard to sit in that tent, on stools that they had carried for us up these crazy mountains, and to have them setting up our sleeping tents, washing our dishes, and preparing our food. I know that being a porter is one of the best jobs you can have in that area of the world, but it hurts my heart.

The second day of the hike was the hardest. We woke at 4:30 am. I attempted to use dry shampoo for the first time in my life with no success. The clouds were thick, engulfing us and clouding our visibility. We went up hill for four hours that morning. Step after step, every breath was harder to breathe. We went downhill for two hours. We stopped for lunch, went up another two hours and then down another two. This second day, the terrain was so different than the first. We were officially on the original Inca trail. The ground was uneven. The stones were different shapes and sizes. They were slippery. The rain was coming down, and it was hard to see over my poncho. My knees were aching, but when I stopped, my legs just shook uncontrollably.

Most of the hike for the next two days blends together. Steep inclines and steeper declines. Ancient ruins. Llamas grazing. The conversation evolved from work and previous hiking trips to taxes and the oxford comma. Lord help us.

The last morning of our trip we woke up at 3:30 am. This was the day we were going to hike to Machu Picchu. I assumed we were starting that early to watch the sun rise over the 7th wonder of the modern world. Nope. We got up that early so we could be the first in line at the checkpoint that was about 5 minutes from our campsite. The checkpoint opens at 5:30. See, the last day is sort of a race. There are 200 other hikers all waiting to get past this final checkpoint and haul booty to the sun gate, where you can see Machu Picchu for the first time. Our tour group was the second in line, so we were lucky enough to snag benches to sit on. Finally, 5:30 rolled around and we were let through the gates. From there, the race was on. We hiked for an hour and a half at dawn through early morning fog. Trusting my feet to find the best rocks for placement for the first time this whole trip. It wasn’t that I needed to be the first to see Machu Picchu, but I wanted to see it before it was clouded over. The last obstacle was this huge staircase that is practically a straight vertical. You climb up it with your hands and your feet. They call these “the gringo killers.” Well, I’m pretty sure I’m a gringo, but at least the stairs didn’t kill me.

Peeking over the sun gate, I finally saw it. There was Machu Picchu. It took me a minute to realize what it was. We had another 45 minute haul down the mountain to really see it. As we got closer, it finally sunk in. These mountains are incredible. How did they get all of this stone here? What a truly beautiful place this was. 

Our tour group: https://www.alpacaexpeditions.com/


Film | Kodak Portra 400
Camera | Hasselblad 5x, 100mm 2.2
Lab | Richard Photo Lab

A bit about us: We are The Ganeys! Thomas and I are based out of St. Petersburg, FL, but we love to travel as often as we can. We keep a map above our bed, and put pins into cities to keep track of our travels! This was our first big international trip together, but we are anxiously awaiting our next trip to South Africa! As wedding photographers, one item on our bucket list is to shoot a wedding or an engagement session in every state.  I know we can do it!

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