There are many ways to journey to Machu Picchu. You can catch the Hiram Bingham train all the way, walk along the railway tracks in a day and catch the bus up the hill, ride horses in via the Sacred Valley, arrive via helicopter, spend weeks trekking in over surrounding, very undulating countryside, or, as many people do, follow the ancient Inca Trail up to the Sun Gate and enter the same way Incan royalty would have.
Over the last 20 years the Inca Trail has appeared on many 'Do Before you Die' lists, which has meant the number of people wanting to get out on the trail has DRAMATICALLY increased. So much so that even though there's now a limit to 500 people, including guides and porters, starting out each day, prospective walkers still need to book between 12 and 15 months in advance to ensure a place.
It's still possible to plan your own itinerary but it's now mandatory to travel with a guide. Most tour companies travel with porters – who scamper the trail in sandals while trekkers in high-tech gear stumble – though you're welcome to carry four days worth of your own gear if you want.
Among the other considerations the trail demands is the altitude. Even if you allow plenty of acclimatisation time in Cusco – two days is essential, three days is better, some people are more affected by the change in altitude than others. If you live at sea level you might need to plan for extra time to make sure. Being ill on the trail would not be nice, but lots of people do suffer.
Hiram Bingham re-discovered the dozen ruined buildings of Llactapata in 1912, but it wasn't until much later that it was concluded that these buildings were an ancient rest point on the way to Machu Picchu, just as they're a modern one. It's not just the way that these ruins are decorated, or their astrological alignment, that implies their relationship with the main site, or the fact that they're only about four kilometres away, the settlement of Llactapata is also linked by a shared drainage system.
After this first visit to the ruins of one of Machu Picchu's outlying buildings the trail weaves downwards to the River Kusichca which it crosses via suspension bridge, then treads on to the settlement of Wayllabamba.
Wayllabamba has pretty much grown up around the trail, a string of huts along the banks of the river, and provides services for walkers – the name translates to 'Place of Good Pasture'. Leaving your pack animals behind - who aren't allowed any further because their hooves damage the trail - walkers head west and upwards out of town, into one of the most thickly vegetated sections of trail: this is tropical cloud forest territory. Climbing higher the terrain changes quickly beside the steep trail, dense tropical vegetation giving way to woodland above Llupachayoc, then scrub, then grasses then bare slopes growing more rugged with every metre closer you get to Abra de Huarmihuanusca, or 'Dead Woman's Pass'.
There are two campsite options for the second night. One is at Llulluchapampa just before the highest point in the trail – which is the chilly, windy pass at 4,215m above sea level, the other is after crossing, when the trail plummets down towards the Pacaymayu River and the small Pacaymayu campsite, 600m below. The availability of two campsites on this leg is a godsend for walkers suffering the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Going down into the Pacamayo valley on this trail means going back up the other, steep side to a second mountain pass. About half way up there's the egg shaped ruins of Runkuraqay, which is supposedly where the couriers who relayed the trail swapped and rested. And from which there's supposed to be a beautiful view of the valley laying out beneath you. The second pass, the Abra de Runkuracay, is 3,500m above sea level. On the way back down into the valley on the far side is a shallow lake, and it's at around about this point that the path gets its formal cladding of stones - laid by the Quechua people of the great Inca Empire - and heads towards the largest ruin so far: Sayacmarca.
The trail passes just beneath Sayacmarca, which sits on a rocky promontory you can only reach via a very precarious set of stairs – sheer drop on one side, sheer rock face on the other. This fort and settlement is laid out along the top of the ridge. Sayacmarca's roofs are long gone but the walls still stand, allowing trekkers to see the layout of the well restored fortress. An ancient stone aqueduct still supplies water to the site.
After Sayacmarca the trail heads past a small campsite, and down into the valley running alongside a dry causeway before climbing uphill again, and though an 8m long tunnel cut out of the mountain – an impressive feat for Inca engineers, it's wide enough to allow men and animals comfortably.
Phuyupatamarca is built around the top of the mountain, and has quite a complicated layout of defensive walls and buildings with paths in-between. This is a defensive position, but also one that provides beautiful views. When the mist gathers off the cloud forests it looks like these ruins are floating in the clouds. 15 buildings can be made out within the ruins, as well as two grand squares, bridges and stairways, in several cases leading down to the underground water channels. There are also six ceremonial baths and two fountains - all still fed by running water channels. The baths run downwards through the social ranks as well as downhill, so that the nobles used the clean water and the lower classes bathed in water run down from the noble's baths.
Below that the trail descends a quick 1,000m into the jungle – some of the descent is down a staircase with more than 1,200 spiralling stairs. It gets noisier as you drop, the air fills with birds, and butterflies and there's another tunnel hewn in the rock. After that you may even start to hear the sound of the train running along the valley floor on its way to Machu Picchu.
The terrace of Huinay Huayna coming down the mountainside like huge stairs, are well preserved, as are its ceremonial baths, fed by a waterfall behind them. Water is a very important feature of Huinay Huayna – of its two temples the higher one is the Temple of the Rainbow, and the lower one the Temple of the Waterfall, and there are 15 ceremonial baths between the top temple and the lower one. Looking out though the windows of the Temple of the Rainbow it's more than likely that that's what you'll see, but the mountains and the Urubamba River valley in the background, as well as all the perfect terraces, help to make this spot one of the most spectacular places on earth.
The final day is an easy hike. From Huinay Huayna the trail winds along the crest of the east slope of Machu Picchu mountain, and after about 3kms, or an hour or so, of flat path running though light scrub greeted by butterflies, walkers finally reach the stone stairway leading up to Intipunku, the Sun Gate, and from through the stone, grassy floored archway the way to Machu Picchu is all laid out before you.
As of March 2009 the entrance fee to visit Machu Picchu is 124.00 soles. You're not allowed to bring large backpacks into the site, but day-packs are allowed and there's luggage storage available. Tickets say you're not supposed to bring food or water with you but if you're going to be there all day it's worth attempting to break the rules, the tourist concession stands are expensive and not very good– just don't litter.
Most people recommend arriving at Machu Picchu's Sun Gate for sunrise. It's supposed to take your breath away, and it's also still the quietest time, despite the repeated recommendations. The tour buses start arriving at about 5:40am. Guides are available if you want to pay for a deeper insight into this ancient city and its workings.
In the main complex the first building visitors note is usually the Temple of the Sun near the city's highest point. Examine the detail of this temple's construction carefully, it's not just the decorations that are impressive, it's also the way the stones have been carefully cut to slot together like Lego. Wonderful proof of the technology of the Incas. The other temples lining the Sacred Plaza are the Temple of the Three Windows, the design of which includes several pieces of stone weighing around three tons and was thought to be the royal quarters, and the Temple of the Condor, which has a sanitised version for the tour groups, but was probably where some nasty sacrificing took place.
The huge stone mass in the centre of the Sacred Plaza is called the Intihuatana: 'The hitching post of the sun', and is perfectly positioned to show the dates of the two equinoxes.
If you have time after examining the main temples, the walk up Waynpicchu, the second mountain peak in the background of many photos, is short, steep and supposedly worth the effort. You have to be on this little track by 1pm.
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