Peru is, beyond a doubt, one of the top adventure travel destinations in the entire world. It offers an amazing array of things to see and do, perfectly blending culture with both mountain and jungle settings, along with ancient artifacts and ruins that rival those found in Egypt. Of course, the most spectacular and famous of those ruins is the lost city of Machu Picchu, located at 8000 feet above sea level, in the Andes Mountains, near the town of Cusco.
Machu Picchu is the number one tourist attraction in a country full of tourist attractions, and there are multiple ways of getting there. Most take a train to the site, preferring to enjoy a scenic ride through the mountains. But one of the other ways of reaching the “Lost City of the Incas” is hiking the Inca Trail, an option that has grown in popularity over the past few years.
The Inca Trail traditionally consists of four days of trekking through the Andes, culminating with hikers catching their first glimpse of the fabled city while passing through the Sun Gate, another small ruin not far from Machu Picchu itself. Along the trail, travelers will experience tropical jungles, cloud forests, and high alpine passes. They’ll also have the opportunity to visit several other ruins as they travel the ancient Incan highway.This option for reaching Machu Picchu is obviously more demanding than taking the train, but more rewarding as well. At least three of the days on the trail are fairly rigourous hiking, and altitude comes into play, with the trail reaching as high as 13,800 feet in a place called Dead Woman’s Pass. Nights are spent camping in tents, and the weather can vary greatly depending on the time of year. But the hikers taking the Inca Trail are there to soak in the scenery and rough it a bit anyway.
In recent years, the trail has become extremely popular, forcing the Peruvian government to put a cap on the number of hikers who can set out each day. During the peak season of June through September, the permits for the trail can sell out weeks in advance, so if you’re planning to hike the trail, get your reservations in early. During the high season, you can expect larger number of hikers, up to 500 per day, and crowded campsites, which can ruin the experience for some. Off peak season means a bit more solitude and open trails, but less predictible weather, usually resulting in more rain or snow.
The payoff for the days on the trail is at the end, when the hikers emerge from the mountains and descend the Incan Staricase from the Sun Gate into Machu Picchu, much the same way that ancient travelrs did hundreds of years ago. Completing the hike is a reward in and of itself, but finding the lost city at the end, and exploring it for several hours, just caps the whole experience.
The Inca Trail is considered by many to be one of the great treks of the world and still holds a high place on many hiker’s “life lists”, despite the fact that it has now become so popular and crowded. For many adventure travelers, it’s still worth the hike, and will always beat taking the train.
If you are interested in trekking the Inca Trail, there are dozens of guide services to choose from. A guide is required by all trekkers, and you are also required to book at least a month in advance, although that too can be flexible when you’re in Cusco. Expect to pay between $300-$500 for the trek, depending on the guides and services they offer.