The Incas hid Machu Picchu so high in the clouds that it escaped destruction by the empire-raiding Spaniards, who never found it. It is no longer lost, of course-and you can zip there by high-speed train and helicopter as well as trek there along a 2- or 4- day trail- but Machu Picchu retains its perhaps unequaled aura of mystery and magic. No longer overgrown with brush, as it was when it was discovered in 1911 by the Yale archaeologist and historian Hiram Bingham with the aid of a local farmer who knew of its existence, from below it is still totally hidden from view. The majestic setting the Incas chose for it remains unchanged: The ruins are nestled in towering Andes mountains and are frequently obscured by mist. When the early morning sun rises over the peaks and methodically illuminates the ruins row by row, Machu Picchu leaves visitors as awestruck as ever.
At its most basic, the Inca Trail Peru was a foothpath through the Andes leading directly to the gates of Machu Picchu. Contrary to its image as a lone, lost, remote city, Machu Picchu was not isolated in the clouds. It was the crown of an entire Inca province, as ruins all along the Inca Trail trekking attest. Machu Picchu was an administrative center in addition to its other putative purposes. That larger purpose is only comprehensible to those who hike the ancient royal route and visit the other ruins scattered along the way to the sacred city.
There are two ways of climbing Machu Picchu: either along a fairly arduous, 4-day/3-night path with three serious mountain passes, or as part of a more recently opened and more accessible 2-day/1-night short inca trail. You can hire porters to haul your packs or suck it up and do it the hard way, but, in contrast to past years, when independent hikers could emabark on the trekking Machu Picchu on their own, you must now go as part of an organized group arranged by an officially sanctioned tour agency.
Most agencies run minibuses to the start of the trekking Machu Picchu past the village of Chillca at Piscakucho (km 82). After crossing the Río Urubamba and taking care of trail fees and registration formalities, the trail climbs gently alongside the river to the first archaeological site of Llactapata before heading south down a side valley of the Río Kusichaca. The trail Machu Picchu south leads 7km to the hamlet of Wayllabamba (3100m), where you can take a breather to appreciate views of snowy Veronica (5750m).
You´ll cross the Río Llullucha, then climb steeply up along the river. This area is known as Tres Piedras (Three White Stones), and from here it is a long, very steep 3 km climb. At some points, the trail and stream bed become one, but stone stairs keep hikers above the water. The trail eventually emerges on the high, bare mountainside of Llulluchupampa, where the flats are dottled with campsites.
From Llulluchupampa, a good path up the left-hand side of the valley climbs for the two-hour ascent to Warmiwañusca (4198m), colorfully known as Dead Woman´s Pass. This is the highest point of the Inca trail trek, which leaves many a backpacker gasping. From Warmiwañusca, the trail continues down a long, knee-jarringly steep descent to the river, where there are large campsites at paqaymayu (3500m). The trail crosses the river over a small footbridge and climbs right toward Runkurakay, a round ruin with superb views about an hour´s walk above the river.
Above Runkurakay, the trail climbs to a false summit before continuing past two small lakes to the top of the second pass at 3950m, which has views of the snowcapped Cordillera Vilcabamba. The trail descends to the ruin of Sayaqmarka, a tightly constructed complex perched on a small mountain spur with incredible views, then continues downward crossing a tributary of the Río Aobamba. The trail leads on across an Inca causeway and up again through cloud forest and an Inca tunnel carved into the rock to the third pass at 3670m. Soon afterward, you´ll reach the beautiful series of ceremonial baths with water running through them. From Phuyupatamarka, the trail takes a dizzying dive into the cloud forest below, following an incredibly well-engineered flight of many hundreds of Inca steps. After passing through a tunnel, the trail eventually zigzags its way down to Wiñay Wayna, where a trekker´s lodge sells hot showers, hot meals and cold beer, for those who want to pay a bit extra. From the Wiñay Wayna guard post, the trail contours around through cliff-hanging cloud forest for about two hours to reach Intipunku -where you may get lucky enough to catchyour first wait for the sun to rise over the mountaintops.
The final triumphant descent takes almost an hour. Backpacks are not allowed into the ruins, and guards will pounce upon you to check your pack and to stamp your Machu Picchu hiking trail permit. Trekkkers generally arrive before the morning trainloads of tourists, so you can enjoy the exhilarated exhaustion of reaching you goal without having to push through as many crushing crowds.
The popularity of the Inca Trail 4 days and the scarcity of available spots have led to the opening of several alternative hikers of varying length and difficulty.
The three- to seven-day Salkantay trail is named for the 6,270-meter 820,500-foot) peak of the same name. It begins at Mollepata, four hours by road from Cusco, and is a strenous hike that goes through a 4,800-meter 815,700-foot) pass. The Salkantay excursion joins the Inca Trail at Huayllabamba.
The Ausangate trek takes its name from the Ausangate mountain, 6,372 meters (20,900 feet) in elevation, and requires a day of travel each way from Cusco in addition to the standard five-six days on the trail. Nearly the entire excursion takes you on terrain over 4,000 meters (13,100 feet).
Relatively new to the region´s trekking scene are four-day hikes through the Lares Valley, north of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. The excursion offers a cultural dimension, with stops at several villages along the way. The Lares trek Machu Picchu compares in difficulty to the Inca Trail.
Various treks bearing the name of Choquequirao Peru take in ruins that some have trumpeted as the new Machu Picchu, another long-lost Inca city. The site, still little excavated and not yet accessible to mass tourism, sits at 3,100 meters (10,180 feet). The four- to 11- day treks entail a series of steep ascents and descents.
The Chinchero-Huayllabamba trek has two selling points: it can be accomplished in one day- about six hours- and is downhill much of the way, although portions get steep. The hike begins in Chinchero, north of Cusco, and offers splendid views as you descend into the Sacred Valley.