Machu Picchu stands with monuments such as the Giza Pyramids and Rome’s Coliseum among the world’s most extraordinary archaeological sites. The terraced Incan citadel, unknown to the rest of the world until the early 20th century, is not only a magnificent expression of pre-Columbian heritage: It’s also arguably the planet’s most beautiful set of ruins, what with the sharp-pointed peaks and verdant cloud forest that surround it, and the deep gorge of the Urubamba River (ultimately draining to the Amazon) that plunges far below.
While these days you can reach the fabled site in an easy bus ride, many visitors opt to make the trek the old-fashioned way: via the Inca Trail (Camino Inca), the centuries-old Incan road that connected Machu Picchu to Cusco. It’s an extraordinary approach, given the antiquity of the footpath (parts of it composed of the vintage Incan stone paving), the other Incan ruins that lie along it, and the sense of anticipation and, ultimately, achievement that accompanies the traverse. That you reach your destination via the Sun Gate (Inti Punku), the ancient portal to Machu Picchu and vantage for a famously sublime sunrise view of the site, is all the more incentive.
The Standard Inca Trail
Per 2001 regulations, all trekkers on the Inca Trail must be accompanied by a certified guide. This is part of the Peruvian government’s valiant efforts to preserve Machu Picchu and ward against the impacts of excessive visitation—a real issue given the site’s one of the most popular trekking destinations on the planet. It goes without saying that you should book your trek well in advance.
You access the Inca Trail from its venerable hub (and the nucleus of the Incan Empire) Cusco. A bus or train ride brings you to the gateway village of Piscacucho, where you’ll cross the Urubamba (also called the Willkanuta) and ascend past the ruins of Llactapata to Wayllabamba. The next stretch is the trail’s toughest: You climb to its loftiest point, Warmi Wanusqa or Dead Woman Pass, a saddle 13,780 feet above sea level. The path continues in up-and-down fashion to Pacaymayu and the ruins of Runkuracay before rising to a second pass (this one some 12,960 feet).
Beyond this, the Inca Trail edges the Sayacmarca ruins, traces an ancient tunnel, and ascends to the final pass of the journey at about 12,000 feet. Next comes the gorgeous remnants of Puyupatamarca, the “City in the Clouds,” before the hike to the last overnight stopover in Winay Wayna (which also includes a nearby ruin of the same name). It’s typically an early rise from Winay Wayna, as most itineraries schedule your arrival at the Sun Gate for dawn so that you can enjoy sunrise over Machu Picchu. (It’s an unforgettable way to first clap eyes on the place, needless to say.)
As impressive as those scattered ruins along the Inca Trail are, they’re ultimately but the prelude to Machu Picchu itself. The complex of terraces, walls, and drystone buildings, built in the 15th century as (many believe) a palatial estate, is almost seamlessly integrated into the mountainous terrain that naturally fortresses it.
The landscapes you’ll pass through on the Inca Trail are stirring and mysterious: jungly cloud forest peppered with orchids and bromeliads, twisted Polylepis treeline groves, the windswept puna grasslands of the high ridges and plateaus—lovely Andean ecosystems embellished by views of huge snowpeaks and deep-set river canyons. It’s all quite the lead-up to the epic monument at trail’s end.
Machu Picchu Alternatives
The “Classic” Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, while the best-known route, isn’t the only one. Travelers strapped for time or wishing to avoid the rigor of the four-day trek often take an abbreviated walk on the Inca Trail by beginning at a trailhead closer to the ancient estate known as Km104; usually a two-day walk, this shortened track avoids the high passes of the full Inca Trail (but misses in the process lots of its finest scenery and archaeological attractions).
And there’s a longer and less-trammeled option, too, one well-suited to more ambitious mountaineers: a weeklong foray through the Cordillera Vilcabamba that begins around Mollapata, skirts the huge 20,574-foot peak called Nevado Salcantay, and then joins the Inca Trail midway through. This high-country route serves up all the more spellbinding vistas, surmounting as it does the 16,000-foot Incachriaska Pass with its up-close views of Salcantay’s epic, snow-clad crown. The lucky and sharp-eyed may spot an Andean condor—one of the creatures held sacred by the Incas—or two riding a thermal. A number of guiding companies, including Alpine Ascents International and RMI Expeditions, offer this Salcantay route.
The iconic green tooth of Huayna Picchu (“Young Mountain”) backdrops most photographs of Machu Picchu, and its summit—a little more than 1,000 feet above the main ruins—is a popular hiking destination, reachable in an hour or so. Less commonly climbed is Huayna Picchu’s taller neighbor, Machu Picchu (“Old Mountain”) itself—the mountain for which the Incan site is named. The route through its cloud forest to the fine prospect up top offers some of the best opportunities for relative solitude in the near vicinity of the ruins.
Fitness & Acclimatization
Tens of thousands of tourists from all over the world follow the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu every year. It’s an adventure open to nearly anyone, so long as they’re of reasonable fitness and have taken the steps necessary to deal with the thin air of the Andes. Typically a guided trek will allow for a few days of acclimatization in Cusco, which, at 11,200 feet on the Altiplano, sits well above Machu Picchu. Be prepared for some huffing and puffing up on Dead Woman Pass or the ascent of Machu Picchu peak.
The main period for trekking into Machu Picchu is May through October. The other side of the calendar is the rainy season, which can present hardy hikers with challenging conditions (including the threat of washed-out tracks); furthermore, the Inca Trail is closed for maintenance in February.
A Life-Changing Expedition
The multiday hike up to Machu Picchu easily stands among the world’s most exhilarating foot journeys: Both the landscape and the human heritage are of staggering scale, and the stone monuments and mountain panorama of the Incan citadel serve as an absolute knockout reward for your effort. It’s the sort of mythic place that, spectacular as they are, pictures just don’t do justice to. It’s impossible to remain unmoved by the sight of this architectural jewel in the misty green highlands of the Andean front, and it’s all the more delicious when you’re a little footsore.
(6) Feature Image: Kukol