Take your time considering your options – that's what World Reviewer is all about – but if in the end you can't tear yourself away from photos of the once lost and always sacred mountain topping ancient city of Machu Picchu, and you can think of nothing that could fulfil your soul while at the same time challenging your body, as arriving at this mountain sanctuary via the Inca Trail, then this is how to make your great travel adventure a reality.
In Inca days there wasn't just one trail, and what's now referred to as the Inca Trail is actually only a very tiny section of the roadways the Incas built up and down South America. The two major north-south roads, one down the coast, the other heading over the mountains, had many offshoots and branches which added up to around 40,000kms worth of road, linking Quito to Cusco then destinations south of Santiago in Chile, via many important settlements, commercial centres, agricultural centres, and ceremonial and sacred locations.
Some sections of the roads were up to 20 metres across, but most of the ways were between 1 and 4 metres wide – perfect for the movement of military personnel and llama caravans.
The bit that walkers and trekkers now know as the Inca Trail is the bit leading you to Machu Picchu. There are three main overlapping routes choices: The One Day Route, The Classic Route and The Mollepata Route. The Mollepata route heads further into the mountains and cloud forests of the Andes before rejoining the Classic Route, but all three trails merge at the Sun Gate on Machu Picchu Mountain. Which for many visitors is the point of walking the trail.
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 starting out each day, prospective walkers still need to book between 12 and 15 months in advance to ensure a place!
Some of the older guide books suggest you can rock up in Cusco and have a choice of guides, but the strict rulers mean that the trip now demands a bit more planning. Limited operators and guides work the trail, and many of the available places are allocated to them, so independent travellers need to be even more organised about ensuring their place on the trail. For many people it's still the trip of a lifetime.
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.
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.
After leaving the train line the trail crosses the river via a suspension bridge, built over the remains of the original Inca bridge, then it climbs up towards the Sun Gate, past a short detour track that will lead you to Huinay Huayna, which is the last Incan ruin before 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.
From there the trail leads only to the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu.
The Classic Route has two possible starting points, either 82 or 88 kilometres out of Cusco, which quickly join up above the ruins of Llactapata , one of Machu Picchu's 'support' stations, before weaving downwards to the River Kusichca which it crosses via suspension bridge, then on to the settlement of Wayllabamba.
Wayllabamba has pretty much grown up around the trail, providing services for walkers – the name translates to 'Place of Good Pasture'. The trail heads west out of town, leaving your pack animals behind, who aren't allowed any further because their hooves damage the trail, walkers head into one of the most thickly vegetated sections of trail round 'Dead Woman's Pass', which is tropical cloud forest territory. The terrain changes quickly beside the steep trail, giving way to woodland above Llupachayoc, then scrub, then grasses then bare slopes.
The campsite for the second night is at Llulluchapampa just before the highest point in the trail – which is a chilly, windy 4,215m pass. After crossing, the trail plummets down towards the Pacaymayu River and the small Pacaymayu campsite, 600m below.
Going down into a valley on this trail means going back up the other side to a second mountain pass. About half way up there's an egg shaped Incan fortress called Runkuraqay, 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, and it's at this point that the path gets its formal cladding of stones and heads towards the largest ruin so far, Sayacmarca, passing a small lake on the way.
The trail passes just beneath Sayacmarca which 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. Its roofs are long gone but the walls still stand, allowing trekkers to see the layout of the well restored fortress, and there's a stone aqueduct that still supplies water to it.
After Sayacmarca the trail heads past a small campsite, and down into the valleys running alongside a dry causeway before heading uphill again, and though a 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.
Below that the trail descends 1,000m into the jungle – some of the descent is down a staircase with more than 1,000 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 can even start to hear the train running alongside the river.
After the tunnel the trail splits, one side going to Intipata, a set of agricultural terraces, and the other to Huinay Huayna, which is the last Incan ruin before Machu Picchu. From Huinay Huayna the trail winds along the crest of the east slope of Machu Picchu mountain and after about 3kms walkers finally reach Intipunku, the Sun Gate and from there Machu Picchu is laid out before you.
This is the most challenging route, six days of trekking over extremely undulating topography from Mollepata though the valleys of Apurimac and Urubamba before joining up with the other strains of the Inca Trail. The highest point on this route is 5,000m, which you hit on the second day.
The first night is usually spent at Sorayapampa, before crossing the Salkantay Pampas under Mount Umantay and Mount Salkantay and reaching the highest point of the trip, Salkantay Umanata Step. At this point rest is needed! Then it's down to the campsite at Huayac. The next day this route winds amongst more verdant mountain scenery to join the Classic Trail at Wayllabamba.
The final option, and the cheapest, is to walk alongside the railway tracks. It's technically illegal, but because you're not on the actual trail it's a way around the tight rules that apply to it. To see Machu Picchu via this route you need to leave Ollantaytambo very early in the morning, around 5am and get a taxi out to the 82km mark. It's about 30kms from there to the station at Aguas Calientes. It's best to get a hostel there, then start walking the last 8kms almost straight up to Machu Picchu, for a lot of it up granite stairs, at around 4am the following morning so you're there for sunrise. There's a bus up as well if you can't face the upwards hike.
The trail is closed for a thorough cleaning every February. It's obviously going to be cooler in winter, but there's still 11 hours of sunlight a day so it's a decision between the cold and the crowds.
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