Of South America’s attractions, there’s probably nothing more iconic than Machu Picchu and the trail that leads to it.
Located in southeastern Peru, Machu Picchu is an absolute must-see. It was introduced to the world in 1911, when historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered the site. The site turned out to be an ancient Inca city and eventually became known as the “lost city of the Incas.”
Well, it was not exactly lost, but it was pretty well-hidden. It is, after all, tucked in the Andes Mountains, shrouded in mist, and surrounded by steep terraces and dense vegetation—a strategic position that actually spared it from invasive forces, leaving the city largely untouched.
But the Incas not only hid Machu Picchu well. They also built the city with amazing technique and foresight, creating a sprawling system of aqueducts, gardens, terraces, staircases, and temples. Oh and, yes, the landscapes happen to be beyond breathtaking.
No wonder more and more tourists visit this fascinating and stunning site, which can be reached via a 43-kilometer trek or using public transport. The trek’s a popular option, as you’ll be traversing the same path as the city’s original inhabitants. This mountain trail is scenic, connects to other key Inca archaeological sites, and leads directly to Machu Picchu.
But if you don’t feel comfortable with trekking, you can ride your way to Machu Picchu on trains headed for the closest town, Aguas Calientes. From here you can hop on buses for a 25-minute ride along the mountainside path to the site.
A world-famous trek
Although it takes much more effort and time, the Inca Trail still draws more than 75,000 tourists each year. It tops the list of favorites in South America and often makes the cut as one of the world’s five best treks.
What makes it so appealing? For one, it’s the exact paved pathway that the Incas used, so it scores big on authenticity, especially for those who wish to fully immerse in the experience. The route’s considered sacred too, and the journey a pilgrimage.
You’ll also come across dozens of ruins, making this a wonderful way of learning more about the Inca civilization, from their culture to their architecture.
Then there’s the gorgeous scenery, especially when you go over passes, through cloud forests, past rivers, and into subtropical vegetation. Oh and you can expect to see a variety of orchids and birds too, including a number of rare species, among other flora and fauna.
But nothing beats laying eyes on the Machu Picchu as dawn breaks and the mist lifts. The sight’s truly awe-inspiring, making the arduous trek to get there beyond worthwhile.
A four-day adventure
Sounds splendid, right? But if you’re still not sure if the trek’s up your alley, here’s what you can expect from four days on the classic Inca trail.
Day 1 is fairly easygoing. A bus will pick you up from your hotel and take you to the trek’s starting point: kilometer 82 (for most tour operators; others begin at kilometer 88).
The trail will bring you to Vilcanota River and then to Cusichaca River, where a view of the ruins of Huillca Racca—an Inca hill fort—awaits above the river’s mouth. You’ll also pass by the ruins of the Llactapata settlement and catch a glimpse of the Urubamba mountain range and the snow-capped peak Veronica.
The day’s trek usually ends in the village of Wayllabamba, although some tour groups spend the night in Ayapata or other campsites that are further up the trail.
Day 2 is a lot more challenging. You’ll climb up from Wayllabamba, go through steepening woods, traverse a meadow, enter a cloud forest, and then cross the trail’s highest pass. At 4,200 meters, the Dead Woman’s Pass is not just exhausting, it also exposes hikers to both scorching heat and freezing winds.
After the pass, the trail leads to the valley floor where you’ll find your campsite for the night, which for many tours is at Pacamayo.
Day 3 also involves crossing passes. The first is the 4,000-meter-high Abra de Runkuracay, and the second is a 3,700-meter ascent. Between them you’ll come across the ruins of a town surrounded by cliffs on three sides; a cloud forest filled with orchids, tree ferns and hanging mosses; and a tunnel that was carved into a rock.
After the second pass, you’ll also make your way down the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, a “town in the clouds” that can be accessed via a steep staircase. The day’s campsite is usually located near the ruins of Winay Wayna, which is just as impressive with its stonework, baths and assortment of pink orchid.
Day 4 is the big day! From your campsite, you just need to follow the clearly marked trail to Machu Picchu. If you leave by 5:30 a.m., you can get there in time to watch the sunrise unfold. To reach the final pass, Intipunku or Sun Gate, you just need to traverse a mountainside, cloud forest and almost-vertical flight of 50 or so steps. Then you can behold and bask in the city’s grandeur.
A few pointers when hiking the Inca Trail
Excited to start planning your trip? Here are some important points to remember.
Independent trekking is not allowed and access to the trail is controlled. Most join a tour group organized by a licensed agency, but slots fill up fast (and itineraries may vary). Permits are limited (200 per day only) and need to be secured months in advance. So yes, book early.
May to September would be the best time to visit. While it’s bound to be a busy period, it also happens to be the dry season. Avoid the rainy season and note that the trail is closed for cleaning every February.
Make sure to bring a few necessary things. These include a sleeping bag, flashlight/headlamp, sunblock, basic first-aid kit, cold- and wet-weather gear, and enough Peruvian currency for buying snacks and bottled water and tipping guides and porters. Also opt for sturdy, comfortable and waterproof hiking boots (and don’t forget to break them in before you leave).
Take the time to get acclimatized. This is a huge must, as altitude sickness can spoil the experience. The key is to arrive a few days early of the trek so you can sufficiently adjust to the altitude. You could spend those days exploring nearby ruins, the city of Cusco or the Sacred Valley.
Taking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu is an experience of a lifetime. Whether you’re looking for your next outdoor expedition, planning a spiritual journey, or hoping to cross off Machu Pichu on your bucket list, the Inca trek is an adventure that’s not be missed.