On the Beaten Path

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Niiko on January 25, 2010

~ Tourism & Machu Picchu ~

As stoutly as the Inca Empire was able to resist the advancing Spaniards, the influx of tourism has proved rather more difficult to hold back. That's not to say Peru wants to discourage tourists, far from it - although there are a number of fairly strict safeguards in place to prevent Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail which reaches it from being overrun. Only 500 people a day are allowed to use the Trail, and development in and around the Unesco World Heritage site is minimal. This is for the most part a positive thing, and means the immensely popular site retains the ethereal splendour that people have come to see, untainted by the outside world.

While those wishing to trek the Inca Trail should book well in advance (it's officially obligatory, although you may strike lucky, and there are other less-celebrated Inca Trails, including Salcantay), entrance to Machu Picchu alone is easier to arrange. Trains - both local services and the tourist one, named after Hiram Bingham - depart Cusco daily, and take a couple of hours to reach Aguas Calientes (named after the slightly grubby thermal baths in the town) via a stunning route through the mountains. The site itself is only a short hop from here.

Although it is in fact only one of a vast pattern of paths criss-crossing this part of the Andes, "the Inca Trail" tends to denote only the one, heavily-hyped and oversubscribed route. Beginning at the Kilometre 82 waypoint, a network of Inca roads lead up, over and through the mountains, reaching Machu Picchu twenty-six miles, or three-to-four days' walk later.

~ The Inca Trail ~

The walk to Machu Picchu isn't an enormously difficult one, although it does demand a fair level of fitness, and is as comfortable as one would expect from four days and three nights camping at a reasonable altitude.

The trail is only open to those walking with a guide; passes need to be shown at a couple of checkpoints. Your company will provide all the basic sleeping and eating equipment; the most important things you'll need to take with you are a good, warm sleeping bag and a suitably sized rucksack - you needn't take too much with you, although plenty of layers and drinking water/purification tablets are crucial. A torch is also a good idea for those midnight toilet trips and the final day's 4am rise to reach Machu Picchu for sunrise. Otherwise, common sense should dictate what you will and won't need - you're unlikely to miss anything too much in four days, although sound planning will make things a little more comfortable.

Porters can be paid to carry your bags (you'll get used to seeing them sprint past you up an incline with half a kitchen on their backs), but if you're reasonably fit, this shouldn't be necessary. They will also set up camp prior to your arrival - a welcome sight after a long walk.

The first day's trekking, leaving from Km 82, provides a relatively easy introduction to the trail - the climb is gradual, with some promising lookout spots, and the distance of around eight miles is comfortable. Take advantage of a semi-decent night's sleep, with mostly clean, dry gear - it won't happen for another couple of days at least.

Day Two sees a more difficult climb, the gradient increasing to rise through 2000 metres in a matter of hours. The first three or so miles are a tiring uphill slog, though the scenery begins to make up for the exertions - views back across the valley are impressive, growing even more so as you rise above lower cloud cover. However, the going really starts to get tough at the foot of Dead Woman's Pass - a narrow staircase leads to the apex of the highest pass faced on the trail, and the weather is cold at best - be prepared for snow and ice, making for a slightly hairy descent.

Heading down into the valley, the snow should fade about 600 metres down. A few miles later, the second night's campsite is pitched amongst scrubby bushes, with a basic toilet block and a stream. Shattered you may be, but it's encouraging to look back up at the mountain you just scaled, and the view across the valley to the dying sun clinging to the distant peaks is wonderful.

It is this night you will appreciate the warm, dry clothes that remain the most. Temperatures are likely to be sub-zero. The third day's hike is the longest, but is broken up by stunning sights, both scenery and ruins. Runkurukay lies half-an-hour or so up towards the second pass, an egg-shaped structure looking out over the valley. The other side of the pass, a couple of hours on, sits Sayacmarca, a daunting fortress shooting out from the rockface over the tropical forest.

Further on, through a narrow Incan tunnel, Payupatmarca (Quechua for 'Town above the clouds') affords the first view of Machu Picchu Mountain, marked by a lone flag flying on the Sacred Valley's winds. The citadel itself, though, remains hidden until the last day. From here it is a knee-jarring descent to the last campsite. The terraces of Winay Wayna are also near here, if one has the energy left to go and see them.

So to the final day, and the early rise to trek, and finally scramble up a vertiginous staircase to Intipunku, the Sun Gate - the view of Machu Picchu in profile is an unfamiliar one at first, but nonetheless stunning. The most familiar head-on photo waits to be taken half an hour's walk further on, and you'll have several hours' exploration of the site before the arrival of the bussed-up tourists crowds the terraces. There's a great wealth of things to see around the citadel, and plenty of information about this elsewhere.That said, there's enough enjoyment to be had simply exploring. When you're done with the ruins themselves, make your way to the rear of the site, beneath Huayna Picchu - here, two trails lead to the Moon Temple and the peak, the latter affording another refreshing perspective on Machu Picchu.

To return to Cusco, take the bus from outside the entrance or walk down to Aguas Calientes and take one of the trains heading back up the valley to the city. The flow of tourists coming in the other direction will point the way to the small town, which has a range of places to rest, wash or fill one's stomach.

~ Costs ~

I've quoted prices in US Dollars, as these are often accepted, and sometimes encouraged.

Inca Trail packages - $250-500.
Train to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) - $50-70
Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu - $6
Entrance to Machu Picchu (opens at 6am) - $50

Guides, variously priced hotels and more luxurious/budget tours are also available.

~ So why go? ~

Visiting Machu Picchu is unlikely to be anything but an expensive business - air fares to Peru are not cheap, and the above costs can quickly mount up. Additionally, you'll want to allow time for both acclimatisation (altitude sickness is an unpleasant, occasionally dangerous affliction) and exploration of what else the region and country have to offer - which is an enormous amount. However, if extravagant expenditure is ever justified, it is for this;

Trying to summarise Machu Picchu in a sentence is as challenging as it would be misguided, as one would just be listing adjectives, and doing the site little justice. The most accurate description the no-longer Lost City deserves is that it exceeds its considerable hype.

As such, the Inca Trail also comes highly recommended. It's an incredible walk in its own right, without taking what lies at its end into consideration - for so many reasons, perhaps chief amongst them the chance to explore Machu Picchu at dawn before the rest of the world arrives, it is a wonderful experience that deserves to be enjoyed by anyone with a taste for the spectacular
Inca Trail
Andes Mountains
Cusco, Peru


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