In the Footsteps of the Inca

In the Footsteps of the Inca photo

The Incas built a highly advanced network of nearly 40,000 kilometers of trails to connect the distant corners of their vast empire. Cusco stood at its heart, so most trails radiated out from there. An especially beautiful 43-kilometer section of one of these trails, known as the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, connects the Inca archaeological sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna, and Machu Picchu.

The Inca Trail consists of three overlapping routes — Mollepata, Classic, and Two-Day. Mollepata is the longest of the three with the highest mountain pass and intersects with the Classic route before crossing Warmiwañusca or Dead Woman's Pass. Located within the Andes Mountains, it passes through several environments including cloud forest and alpine tundra along the way.

The Peruvian Government strictly controls access to this section of the Trail by limiting the number of trekking permits, which you must purchase several months in advance. Before you book your walking holiday, be sure to check the day-by-day itinerary and reserve with a reputable trekking company. Also make sure your tour includes the entrance ticket to the Inca Trail and Machu Picchu, currently costing US$85, and transportation on the train back to Cusco, which can cost up to US$71. Even though you'll find hundreds of tour companies selling guided treks on the Trail, most are just agents for the few government-licensed ones that operate the trek. Expect to pay from US$520 to $1,000 for either of the four-day treks, depending on the level of service.

Since you'll be hiking up to 13,600 feet (4,200 meters) on the two longer routes, you may contract altitude sickness above 11,000 feet. To avoid its severe effects, drink hot tea or an infusion of coca leaves as soon as you arrive at a higher altitude. During your first day, move slowly and eat lightly. If you start to experience headaches, loss of appetite, extreme tiredness, sleeplessness, and nausea, seek immediate medical attention and take the drug Diamox to help speed up the acclimatization process. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes, and heavy food and drink plenty of fluids.

While the shortest route has a moderate rating, the longer ones can be a challenge for even the fittest person. For this reason, it's important to become well acclimatized. Plan to spend at least 48 hours in Cusco prior to commencing your trek. This should allow you sufficient opportunity to visit the city of Cusco and nearby Inca ruins at Sacsayhuaman, Q'enko, Pucapucara and Tambomachay.

If you have limited time, you may prefer to hike the Short Inca Trail, which you can do in one or two days. This is by far an easier trek as it starts further along the valley near Machu Picchu. You'll be picked up at your hotel a bit after 5 A.M. to catch the train to Kilometer 104. From here, you'll hike for about four hours to Wiñay Wayna, meaning "Forever Young," the most impressive part of the Inca Trail. You'll continue on to Inti Punku, the Sun Gate at an altitude of 8,792 feet (2730 meters) from where you'll get your first dramatic, panoramic view of Machu Picchu. From here, you'll walk down the last part of the Trail to the city, itself.

To see more Inca archaeological sites and spectacular scenery you may opt to hike the Classic Inca Trail, which takes four or five days. Beginning at Kilometer 82, 51 miles from Cuzco, you'll hike through a variety of environments following the Rio Cusichca or Happy River. Passing through small settlements and numerous Inca ruins, you'll head towards Warmiwañusca through a cloud forest of polylepis trees. Beyond lies an original Inca tunnel, and as you exit it, you'll view the Urubamba and Aobamba Valleys. Passing a few more ruins and through another cloud forest and tunnel, you'll arrive at Wiñay Wayna and continue below the crest of Machu Picchu Mountain until you see the ruins spread out before you.

The best time to hike the Inca Trail is during the dry season from April to October. Because many hikers come from the Northern Hemisphere and travel during their summer vacations, traffic is especially heavy from June through August.