Take the Chance and Explore The Inca Trail
The best way to arrive, of course, is by hiking the Inca Trail. (A path, incidentally, that was another one of Bingham’s finds—he uncovered it while exploring the area around Machu Picchu in 1915.) Walking the Inca Trail requires equal parts dreaming and strategizing—not to mention a few trips to the gym. Here are a few tips on how to get the most out of your trek.
Book ahead. Way ahead. Due to the wear and tear that the Inca Trail takes each year, the Peruvian government instituted a strict limit of 500 hikers departing on the trail each day, including your mandatory guide and porters. Spots for the prime months of June, July, and August now fill up months in advance. Don’t even think about scalping a permit. A passport number is required to secure a place, and permits are non-transferable.
Take your time. Most trip outfitters offer four-day and day-day variations on the Inca Trail. An overwhelming number of trekkers—who’ve flown in from the far corners of the globe for this once-in-a-lifetime event—choose the shorter itinerary. What’s the rush? Taking an extra day allows you to stay at less-crowded campsites and spend a night at the extraordinary ruins of Patallacta (which you may have to yourself, since everyone else is racing ahead). Best of all, you can savor one of the world’s great hikes instead of sprinting to the finish.
Almost every package tour to Machu Picchu promises a grand finale: hikers wake up at 4 a.m. and walk in darkness to reach the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu in time for what is supposedly the spectacular sunrise over the ruins. What those tour packagers don’t tell you is that Machu Picchu is usually cloudy in the morning, so you probably won’t be able to see anything except mist. And because almost every hiker on the Inca Trail arrives at sunrise, you’ll be fighting for elbow room with dozens of other cranky, sleep-deprived hikers.
The Inca Trail isn’t just a scenic route to Machu Picchu, it’s one of the most important stretches of the former Capac Ñan, the royal Inca highway. The ruins along the trail are unique, and were almost certainly built for ceremonial purposes. Take notice of how structures like Sayacmarca and Wiñay Wayna were designed to take in views of sunsets, sacred mountains, and other natural features that were key elements of the Inca religion.
Hiking the Inca Trail may not be climbing Mount Everest, but it’s not a walk in the park, either. Some days you’ll be climbing more than four thousand vertical feet Be physically prepared for it.