The Inca Trail and the Great Inca Trail compared
Albert Ciardi has hiked both the classic Inca Trail and the Great Inca Trail with SA Expeditions. We catch up with the Philadelphia attorney to find out how the treks went. (Spoiler alert: he loved them both.)
In May 2019, I traveled to Peru to experience hiking both the famous Inca Trail that leads into Machu Picchu and its lesser known cousin to the north, the Great Inca Trail. What very few people realize is that both trails are sections of a 25,000-mile road network built by the Incas over five hundred years ago. Spanning rivers, mountains and all terrain imaginable over six or seven modern-day countries, the road network was the backbone of the Incas’ extraordinary success. I saw the Great Inca Trail as an add-on to the classic Inca Trail and wanted to experience Peru away from the crowds. I only knew of it from the SA Expeditions website and thought the two trails would provide a more complete experience.
My Inca Trail experience
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is one of many Inca trails that traverse the Sacred Valley near Cusco, the historic Inca capital. Passing through five or more sets of ruins perched on mountain slopes and finishing with a dawn hike into the sanctuary of Machu Picchu, it is a very special experience. I landed in Cusco and took a city tour in the afternoon. The next day, as part of acclimatizing, I did a full day tour of Maras, Moray, and Pisac. Moray and its circled terraces provided a glimpse into the engineering marvels that one sees on both trails.
I set off on the Inca Trail as part of a group of five hikers and a team of porters and guides. There is very little that can compare to summiting Dead Woman’s Pass while an Andean condor circles overhead; gazing out on the trail as it stretches for miles ahead of you through more mountains. You share this path with several hundred hikers each day as the government has limited the people on the path.
Even though I prefer to solo hike, the volume of people on the path was not restricting until the last day. On this final day, starting well before dawn, we hiked several miles to the Sun Gate at which point the sanctuary of Machu Picchu comes into view. I had the sheer luck of entering on a bright day as the sun crossed Machu Picchu and lit the sanctuary. That moment, and summiting Machu Picchu Mountain about an hour later, were the highlights of the Inca Trail.
I found it somewhat difficult to transition from the relative tranquility of the trail to the wall of people cramming the sanctuary. While the volume of people does not diminish the beauty of Machu Picchu or the awe that one feels to simply walk on this engineering marvel, it is a bit of a shock to go from several hundred to several thousand people in a few hours. The climb up Machu Picchu Mountain later that morning was a great way to escape that crowd and see the sanctuary from its highest overlook.
My Great Inca Trail experience
On the Great Inca Trail I experienced a totally different and equally beautiful trek. My hike started after a detour to the haunting temple structure at Chavín de Huantar. Chavín is more than 2,500 years older than Machu Picchu and an extremely important site in its own right, so to be one of fewer than ten non-Peruvians there was shocking. Similar to the Sacred Valley tour which I did before the Inca Trail, the Chavín tour provided some historical context to the Great Inca Trail.
My guides on the Great Inca Trail were Silver and Antonio, Juan was our cook, and Julian was in charge of the horse and five llamas. After driving to the trailhead at Castillo and hiking for three hours, we made it to our camp for the first night – next to the ruins of Soledad de Tambo and its impressive Ushnu (Inca ceremonial platform). Somewhere around 2.30 am when I awoke to see the stars, the earth moved. Literally. An 8.0 earthquake hit to the north and the entire mountainside moved up and down under the tent. The quiet of the night was shattered by the noise of every animal for miles.
I saw no other hikers for five days. At times the Great Inca Trail was a 50-foot-wide road over 14,000 ft passes, and at others it was a narrow but well-built trail winding along a river. The high-altitude farmers who work in the fields with their families and all their livestock would notice us on the trail, stop what they were doing and welcome us with gifts of potatoes… despite the fact that they were using traditional methods to farm, and their survival to the next harvest was dependent on this harvest. Coming from Western society which moves at a rapid and self-absorbed pace, the generosity and community of the farmers and villagers along the trail rivaled the scenery. Along one of the rivers, we fished with shepherds using traditional handlines.
For those who have hiked in Montana, the Great Inca Trail reminded me very much of Big Sky Country, with its high-valley vistas that fill the whole field of view. With no other people on the trail and no villages at night, the Milky Way and the sky are your night lights. We passed through ruins of Incan cities and administrative centers and strategically placed warehouses that could store food for years for the Incan armies.
Similar to the Inca Trail, the Great Inca Trail ends at an Inca city. While I did not hike into Huánuco Pampa, we took a short ride up to the ruins of this key administrative hub, located at an extremely important junction on the Inca road network. As far as I could tell, I was the only non-Peruvian to visit in 2019 and that status may not have changed. An expansive site containing the largest Ushnu in Peru, Huánuco Pampa is impressive. Upon entering the city, the archaeologists and staff organized a lunch of pachamanca which had meats, potatoes, bananas and beans cooked in a pit in the earth with hot stones. That meal in the shadow of the city, seeing the sky, the Ushnu and the Inca Trails converging left me with an understanding of the scope of the Inca empire and the generosity of modern Peruvians.
The traditional Peruvian prayer to the Pachamama with some local spirits and a shaman at the top of that Ushnu certainly capped off an unreal two weeks. It’s a shame that I may be one of only a handful to experience Huánuco Pampa and the Great Inca Trail. The experience is perfect for individuals or groups who want to get off the beaten path while exploring one of the greatest achievements of pre-industrial man.
The two trails were each rewarding in their individual ways. Machu Picchu is a structure and a sanctuary of unparalleled beauty and rightfully is visited by thousands, many of whom cannot experience the moment of walking through the Sun Gate and seeing the sun rise over the sanctuary. Not even the volume of people swirling in the sanctuary can diminish that awe. The Great Inca Trail and Huánuco Pampa allowed me to experience Peru as untouched by tourism and get lost in the size of the empire and the true marvels of its trails. As a solo hiker, this part of the journey had its special place.
Huge thanks to Albert for providing all the words and (many of) the pics for this blog!