The Inca Trail is undoubtedly Peru's most popular trekking route. Recommended for the physical fit only, it runs for more than 25 miles and reaches 13,800 ft above sea level at its highest point, the Warmiwañuska or Dead Woman's Pass.
The stone-paved trail, discovered in 1960 and part of the more than 14,300 miles of roads built by the Incas across South America, crosses a remarkable range of natural landscapes and ecosystems, from thick tropical jungle to the bear, unwelcoming rocks of the Andean mountains. All in all it's probably the most beautiful walk in South America.
The Trail takes three to four days of tough hiking, and can be commenced at Chillca, kilometer 76 (mile 47) of the Cusco-Machu Picchu railway or, most frequently, at Qorihuayrachina, kilometer 88 (mile 55) of the railway.
The first day is relatively easy, and includes along the route the Inca ruins of Cusichaca, Q'ente, Pulpituyoc, and Llactapata, a site used for crop production remained well preserved.
The second day is the hardest of all, mainly because the ascent becomes increasingly steep. The trail follows original Inca stonework that climbs uphill, ending just short of the actual Warmiwañuska or Dead Woman's pass, at 13,800 feet above sea level.
The crossing of the pass opens day three, after camping in the Pacaymayo valley. From here it’s downhill. The Trail descends into the valley and heads to the restored site of Runkurakay, a small Inca watch post, and then to Sayaqmarka, perched atop a sheer cliff, from where one can see the start of the massive Amazon rainforest, stretching to Brazil.
The final day is another easy day, mostly descending and passing through lush jungles and cloud forests before reaching Machu Picchu, Peru’s most important tourist site, through the Inti Punku or Gateway of the Sun.
Before going for the trail, you should spend at least 48 hours in Cusco acclimatising, as it features some tough hiking, including several hours above 11,500 feet above sea level. Otherwise, Acute Mountain sickness (altitude sickness) could make your first few days pretty uncomfortable.
During the high season, from June to August, you should book well in advance, at least 3 months, as the number of trek permits issued is limited to 500 per day (including tour guides and porters).
The Royal or Sacred Path
Just before arriving to Aguas Calientes, at mile 65 of the train rails, this path takes the direction to Phuyupatamarca, climbing up terraces and stone stairs. After 2 hours of hiking you arrive to the recently discovered and beautifully Wiñay Wayna ruins.
Located on a steep mountain slope and looking over the Urubamba river, Wiñay Wayna is a nice example of Inca terrace architecture.
The name means "forever young" in Quechua but experts still disagree upon the meaning: some consider it refers to the colorful orchids that populate the surroundings, while others say the name alludes to the Inca rites and ceremonies celebrated in the complex.
The path then converges in the Inca Trail, arriving to Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, Inti Punko. The route takes some 6 hours, and can be done in alternative to the Inca Trail if the latter is deemed to harsh. A permit is needed for this route.
Part of the Inca Trail system, this route has been recently discovered by archaeologists. It starts at kilometer 107 (mile 66) of the railway track (2 miles upstream from Aguas Calientes), near the hydroelectric exit pipe.
After crossing the suspended bridge, it follows to the Choquequirao gully, and ascends until it meets the Inca Trail near Wiñay Wayna. The name, Purification Trail, alludes to the descending pools formed by the stream that runs alongside the path.
This dangerous and demanding 3-hour hike (round trip) involves a great reward: the spectacular view of the Machu Picchu landscape. Putucusi ("happy mountain" in Quechua) is a round-shaped mountain that reaches 8,500 feet above sea level at its peak, and is located across the valley from the Inca citadel.
This is a demanding hike (only possible during the dry season, March to November), which involves steep ladder climbs and slippery scrambling.
Some ladders, stacked into the wall, even go up for 65 feet in almost a 90 degree inclination. Recommended for people with a good level of physical fitness only.
Machu Picchu is without a doubt one of the most beautiful destinations in the world and on most people’s bucket lists. Easy to see why.