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Trekking the Royal Inca Road

Calling all indomitable trekkers: our biggest adventure yet is here, the 20-day trek on the Royal Inca Road. Read on for a preview of this unforgettable expedition along one of the greatest road systems of all time, the Great Inca Trail, and an introduction to the team of experts who’ll be with you the entire way.

How it began

In early 2016, SA Expeditions began to organize a 2,000-mile hiking expedition from Cuenca, Ecuador to Cusco, Peru, on what was, and continues to be today, one of the greatest pre-industrial roads. The Great Inca Trail is the spine of the Qhapaq Ñan, which is a 25,000-mile road network across western South America and the planet’s largest UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After a year of preparation, including walking 500 miles of Inca Road to rehearse with our team of llamas, humans, and equipment, we set out from Ecuador in April 2017 and reached Cusco, Peru 130 days later. We arrived a bit skinnier but transformed as a business, reanalyzing how we collaborate with communities across the Andes. We were also inspired by the beauty and vulnerability of the road, and began raising awareness and using economic incentives to promote conservation of this Great Inca Trail.

1 Great Inca Trail Qhapaq Nan Peru SA Expeditions Trek

An expedition team of humans and animals take on one of the most monumental yet rugged terrains on the planet.

We continued in 2018 and 2019, exploring by foot another thousand or so miles of the Qhapaq Ñan across Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, registering the most monumental sections of contiguous road that remains. We developed commercial trekking expeditions on five major sections of Inca trails, each spanning from three to six days, and began to refine our logistics and train support teams across three regions of Peru – folks whom all supported our initial explorations.

A world-class trekking experience in the making

By 2018, we were guiding our first paying clients across arguably the best-preserved section of trail from the old Inca Empire, from Soledad de Tambo to the Inca administrative center of Huanuco Pampa. We also began collaborating with Peru’s Ministry of Culture and the neighboring community powering the restoration of the site, by engaging our trekking clients with a traditional pachamanca lunch cooked in the ground, and offering tours guided by the archeologist in residence. By 2020, the US Embassy in Peru had taken notice of the Huanuco Pampa archaeological site and granted $100,000 to the Ministry of Culture toward further restoration.

2 Huanuco Pampa Great Inca Trail site Peru SA Expeditions Trek

Huanuco Pampa displays some of the most remarkable stonework of the Inca.

All the while, we got better at our craft, operating invigorating trekking experiences across the Qhapaq Ñan, and we began to plan for the grandest adventure of all for our clients: for 20 days, we’d take trekkers across the longest remaining contiguous sections of Qhapaq Ñan. Trekkers would only need to carry a day pack, while their private camelid caravan did the heavy lifting. Each day, explorers would enjoy three protein-packed meals prepared by their cook and camp team; private tented bathrooms would be erected at each stop, and hikers would arrive each day to a fully set-up campsite. To contend with the elements along the rugged spine of the Andes, comfort and warmth would be maximized with high-quality sleeping bags, thick camping air mattresses, and even a pillow.

While these types of trekking services are commonplace on the crowded “classic” Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, executing them over a 20-day hike in a remote area, at elevations between 12,000-16,000 feet, with very little outside services nor tourism infrastructure to speak of, is far more complex.

3 SA Expeditions Camp Tents Great Inca Trail Qhapaq Nan Peru Trek

A fully set campsite and a warm, hearty meal will await you every night for a well-deserved rest.

The pièce de résistance: What would truly set this grand, 20-day experience apart is the exclusive opportunity to relish the company of the only cohesive professional team of explorers that have walked over 4,000 miles on the Royal Inca Road. Clients would learn firsthand from our expert team on this monumental ancient highway, across a time-forgotten landscape.

The time has come to experience the Great Inca Trail as it was originally intended during Inca times – on a 20-day trek on the Royal Inca Road!

The trek begins (Days 1-3)

The Royal Inca Road trekking experience begins in Peru’s capital Lima, where you’ll be welcomed with a private dinner reception at the home of SA Expeditions founder and Chief Explorer Nick Stanziano. Here you’ll get acquainted with your trekking team and enjoy the photo gallery onsite while sipping drinks overlooking the Pacific Ocean. After an overnight in Lima, you’ll travel by private vehicle to the Andean city of Huaraz, arriving by lunch to rest and begin acclimatizing. The next day, you’ll travel by car to the small village of Yauya, a waystation along the Great Inca Trail, where camp will be set, and final preparations made to start hiking the following morning.

4 Great Inca Trail Qhapaq Nan Peru SA Expeditions Trek

A well-preserved section of the Great Inca Trail.

The first leg: Yauya to Huaritambo and Chavin (Days 4-7)

The first four days trekking on this Royal Inca Road experience begin from Yauya, which immediately climbs to a 600-year-old grand causeway built atop a shallow lake and continues past the tambo of Maraycalle before descending to the important Inca citadel at Huaritambo. We then take advantage of nearby services for a day of resupply and visit Chavin de Huantar, the capital of the Andean mother culture that predates the Inca by 2,000 years, for to truly understand the power and might of the Inca, one should understand the cultural lineage of the Andes for the preceding millennia.

5 Great Inca Trail Qhapaq Nan Peru SA Expeditions Trek

Take in the gorgeous scenery and the trickling creek as you trek towards Huaritambo.

The second leg: Castillo to Huanuco Pampa (Days 8-13)

Continuing south, you’ll begin another contiguous five-day section between Castillo to Huanuco Pampa, where you’ll camp at Inca tambos, or waystations, and walk alongside the Taparaco River before arriving at the Inca’s largest administrative center, Huanuco Pampa. During Inca times, Huanuco Pampa was the hub for millions of migrants, or mitma’i, traveling north, south, and transversally east to the Amazon and west through Chavin to the coast. Here we’ll take another rest and resupply day, engaging with the community neighboring the ruins, including a tour of the site with the community president Jose Valverde, who will give a coca leaf offering at the main temple, or ushnu. Throughout it all, your expert SA Expeditions guides, formally trained in history and archeology, will accompany you. Lunch will feature a traditional Pachamanca feast, cooked in an earthen oven by the local tourism co-op Ally Puricheg, a co-op that was established in conjunction with our initial explorations in 2017-2019.

6 Great Inca Trail Qhapaq Nan Peru SA Expeditions Trek Trek

Another extraordinary section of the Qhapaq Ñan that has remained since the time of the Inca.

The final leg: Huanuco Pampa to Huarautambo (Days 14-19)

From Huanuco Pampa, you’ll embark on your final six-day contiguous section south to Huarautambo. The first stop will be the Inca baths, which are Inca-architected hot springs still in use (and which we’ll enjoy, too) before witnessing stretches of Inca Road that span 40 feet in width, featuring well-preserved white cobblestones dating from Inca times. From here, you’ll enjoy camping by the flamingo habitat at Lake Tambococha, marveling at the stunning Inca tambo at Incavado, and spending entire days among cultures forgotten by time. Eventually you’ll arrive to the quaint village of Huarautambo, an important stop along the Great Inca Trail, accessed by the largest and most well-preserved remaining Inca bridge in existence.

7 Great Inca Trail cut off Qhapaq Nan Peru SA Expeditions Trek

An astonishing cut-off of the stone Inca Road between Huanuco Pampa and Huarautambo.

Upon arriving to Huarautambo, you will have completed a true pilgrimage tracing the route of one of the ancient world’s greatest cultures: the Inca Empire. You will have accomplished what few living people today have accomplished, traversing what for centuries shepherded millions of Inca subjects and militaries, connecting the most advanced and powerful empire of the Andean world. You will have entered a coveted class of adventurers, and can now begin your long journey as an ambassador for ensuring the world protects this patrimony of humanity.

8 Great Inca Trail Qhapaq Nan Peru SA Expeditions Trek

The Great Inca Trail expedition team is a crew of experts that have trekked thousands of miles across the Andes Mountains.

Meet the team of experts that will move you

Nick Stanziano – Founder and Chief Explorer

PROFILE Nick Stanziano 1

Nick has been exploring the Andes for the past two decades and founded SA Expeditions after being inspired by Andean peaks and cultures. You can read his daily storytelling over 220 days on the Qhapaq Ñan, intended to capture the state of the road today, step by step, village by village. Nick will host you upon arrival in Peru and join the initial days of the expedition.

John Leivers – Andean Investigator and Explorer

PROFILE John Leivers 2

Since 1994, John has been on a personal quest to understand how the ancient Inca Empire was connected through a series of roads, temples, and monuments. Arguably having walked more Inca roads than any living person today, he also served as the head consultant for SA Expeditions’ Great Inca Trail project from 2017-2019. John will be providing in-depth historical and anthropological perspective throughout the entire trek.

Silver Ballon – Head Guide

PROFILE Silver Ballon 1

Silver developed his vast experience on the Qhapaq Ñan side-by-side with SA Expeditions. His fluent Quechua (the language of the Inca) and his native Andean culture give him unique insights on how modern practices in the Andes reflect the cultures of his ancestors. His cultural literacy blends seamlessly with formal training on mountain preparedness and emergency protocols for any eventuality. Silver has been leading treks on numerous Great Inca trail sections since 2018.

Jenny Byrne – Client Preparation and Planning

PROFILE Jenny Byrne

Jenny manages all the details from initial inquiry to post-trip follow-up and will be your personal point of contact for all technical details, including mileage, elevations, packing lists, and more. Her experience not only includes exploring the Great Inca Trail firsthand, but she also helped SA Expeditions launch the first commercial trekking products on the Great Inca Trail in the early phase of our explorations.

Antonio Palacios – Regional Guide

PROFILE Antonio Palacios

Antonio is a specialist in the cultures that pre-date the Inca, having spent decades investigating and learning about the Chavin culture in particular. Based out of Huaraz in Northern Peru, his geographical location gives him important and specialized knowledge of the region, especially when traversing through small and remote villages that rarely receive visits from non-local Peruvians, much less international travelers. Antonio has been leading Great Inca Trail treks in Northern Peru with SA expeditions since 2016.

Valentin Sinchi – Quechua Elder

PROFILE Valentin Sinchi 1

Valentin has explored over 2,000 miles on the Great Inca Trail across four Andean countries. From his base outside of Cusco, he is the only known contemporary Indigenous person to have traversed on a massive scale the entire historic reaches of the Inca empire, as his ancestors would have. Valentin is a living representation of Inca cultural values and ensures we undertake such a grand pilgrimage with reverence and respect for those that came before us.

Aris Ramos – Head Coordinator

PROFILE Aris Ramos

Aris is the technical expert of everything involving equipment and supplies, and it’s thanks to his skill and coordination that we’ll successfully move hundreds of pounds of gear on the backs of camelids with little to no outside services across 130 miles. Aris has played a critical role in launching various Great Inca Trail treks with SA Expeditions, and holds more than a decade of experience managing logistics and equipment for high-end treks to Machu Picchu and beyond.

Feliciano Cruz – Head Llamero (llama handler)

PROFILE Feliciano Cruz

Feliciano has been leading trains of llamas across the Andes for three decades and is a modern practitioner of the traditional use of camelids for carrying cargo. Feliciano and his llamas have fueled SA’s explorations in northern Peru along every mile, ensuring the llamas are happy and healthy, our gear stays dry, and everything arrives where it should.

Robert Balabarca – Food and Camp Lead

PROFILE Robert Balabarca

Robert leads the team from the region of Ancash, ensuring the team is fed three protein-packed meals per day. His long days and frigid early mornings managing the kitchen is exhausting work, meaning Robert will switch off with Flavio mid-trip, shifting to other positions for camp support.

Flavio Paucar – Food and Camp Lead

PROFILE Flavio Paucar 2

Flavio has walked alongside the SA Expeditions exploration team over four countries (Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile) and thousands of miles. He is a two-decade veteran at deftly running tented kitchens on treks to Machu Picchu, servicing discerning clients of all types. Flavio will switch off with Robert mid-trip, assuming food duties during the second half of the expedition.

Juan Leon – Llamero and Camp Assistant

PROFILE Juan Leon

Juan is a man of a million talents, whether it’s serving as sous-chef , leading the llamas, or helping with the various responsibilities that arise during high-altitude expeditions. He’s been an anchor for SA Expeditions explorations across the Inca Trail since 2017.

Frey Cruz – Llamero and Camp Assistant

PROFILE Frey Cruz

Frey supports Feliciano on moving the llamas across the mountains, which includes unloading gear at the end of each day, taking the animals out to pasture each night, ensuring they return the next morning, and reloading the llamas with gear for the next day’s trek.

9 Great Inca Trail Qhapaq Nan Peru SA Expeditions Trek Llamas

Think you’ve got what it takes to join the 20-day trek on the Royal Inca Road? Prepare for one of the most transformative trekking experiences of your life, and contact us today to reserve your spot on our limited-capacity departure scheduled for June 2023. If shorter, tailor-made trekking expeditions are more your style, make sure to browse all of our Great Inca Trail expeditions here.

About the author: Nick Stanziano is CEO and Chief Explorer for SA Expeditions, a Certified B Corp. His explorations across South America have taken him on foot across the Qhapaq Ñan, the planet's largest UNESCO World Heritage Site, walking 4,000 miles (6,437 km) contiguously to develop the road's potential for tourism. Nick is a daily practitioner of optimizing global networks of people, partnerships, and ecosystems to build organizations across distances and cultures.

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