Some trips we take to reach a destination, others we take for the pleasure of the journey itself. Peru's Inca Trail is perhaps the world's greatest hike because it combines the best of both types of travel: a four-to-five day walk to the spectacular lost city of Machu Picchu that winds through the zone where the snowcapped Andes Mountains crash into the lush Amazon jungle, creating some of the world's most dramatic and beautiful terrain. Many experts believe that the Incas, the advanced South American civilization blazed this 27-mile trail five centuries ago as a holy pilgrimage that prepared visitors to enter Machu Picchu. After walking the I.T. myself, I have to agree.
Twenty years ago, it was possible to roll into the sleepy provincial capital of Cusco and depart the same day on a self-guided Inca Trail trip. Visits to Machu Picchu (most people opt to arrive via train from Cusco) have increased tenfold since then, and the Peruvian government now limits Inca Trail traffic to 500 persons per day, including the porters who must carry all food, tents and other necessities. Would-be hikers must sign up through an authorized guiding service, usually months in advance since spots sell out quickly. (I traveled in the high season of June, and booked my spot three months ahead.) I had a friend in Cusco, John Leivers, who worked with the adventure outfitter Amazonas Explorer. John, a rugged, no-nonsense Australian expatriate who'd walked the trail many times over the years including twice in bare feet convinced me to sign up for a five-day itinerary instead of the more popular four-day trip.
I understood John's reasoning the next day when, after a relaxed afternoon of hiking along the Urubamba River, we arrived at the ruins of Patallacta, a terraced stone village constructed around the time of Machu Picchu, and our first night's camp. The site looked like a small medieval city that had been chiseled into the side of a mountain. Because the four-day itinerary groups rush past Patallacta, we had the ancient ghost town entirely to ourselves. After a quick bath in the ice-cold stream, our Peruvian guide Efrain Valles led me into the ruins for a tour by flashlight. "The Incas had specialists who kept track of the stars," he told me as we entered the sun temple. The building closely resembled a similar structure at Machu Picchu. Here, two east-facing windows, positioned for stargazing, were carved into the semicircular stone wall. Since we were just two days shy of the June solstice, the start of the Inca year, the left window almost perfectly framed the Corona Borealis. By the December solstice, Efrain said, the constellation would have rotated to the other window.
Machu Picchu was located in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, a young Yale history lecturer with a passion for exploration. Four years later, while trying to prove that Machu Picchu was the legendary Lost City of the Incas, Bingham also found "the ruins of an old Inca road leading out of the valley in the direction of Machu Picchu," he wrote in National Geographic. It was this road, now famous as the main branch of the Inca Trail, that we picked up the next day. Travel outfitters tend to play up the trail's beauty very much in evidence this day as we crossed a deserted valley below skyscraping mountain peaks but downplay the strenuous nature of the hike. Between all the ups and downs we'd gained nearly a vertical mile in altitude by day's end, helped along by occasional chews of coca leaf, a mild stimulant endemic to the Andes. After a hearty chicken-with-quinoa dinner in the communal tent, we retreated to our sleeping bags and passed out early.
There's a theory that Inca builders plotted this trail like a good thriller, with plenty of twists and surprises. By 8 AM the next morning, the plot picked up steam as we approached Dead Woman's Pass, the highest spot on the trail at 13,700 feet. After a steep descent a backward glance revealed the geologic profile of a supine female looming above us the dry scrub almost instantly gave way to subtropical cloud forest. Sets of enigmatic ruins, former ceremonial shrines, began to appear. Runcu Raccay's stone walls might have traced the outline of a butterfly. Further on, the hulking Sayacmarca rose out of the mists, like a granite destroyer riding the waves. Near sunset we made camp at a third site, Phuyupatamarca, famous for its cascading stone baths. John and Efrain agreed that if the unpredictable clouds cooperated, in the morning we'd have the best views on the Inca Trail before our final assault on Machu Picchu.
Just after dawn the next day, I climbed the trail to an ancient viewing platform, and was stunned to see the immense 20,000-foot face of Salcantay, one of the holiest apus, or sacred mountains, in the Incas' pantheistic cosmology, which revered the natural world. Ringed around us as far as the eye could see were dozens of other peaks, some snowy, some green. In a land where mountains were considered gods, this must have been a very sacred spot indeed. Efrain removed his ski hat and held it to his chest. "Older men in the mountains do this as a sign of respect to the apus," he said.
"You see that small green peak off to the left?" John asked. It looked about a thousand miles away. "Right on the other side is Machu Picchu."
The rest of the day passed in a happy blur, and we coasted for hours, energized by a potent cocktail of apus, coca-leaf tea and oxygen levels that rose as the elevation decreased more than three thousand feet. We passed through a rock tunnel the Incas had carved through a stone cliff face, and stopped for lunch at the massive curved stone terraces of Wiñay Wayna, so beautiful that anywhere else in the world they'd be their own tourist attraction. In the late afternoon, we approached a set of stone steps that vanished into the tropical greenery above.
"You go first, Mark," Efrain said, suppressing a smile. "Let me know what you see up there."
At the top of the stairs the foliage parted and I turned left into a bright patch of sunlight. There I was greeted with a final surprise from the Inca geniuses who'd built this trail centuries before. Unfolding before me was a postcard come to life the dazzling white stone city of Machu Picchu.
Mark Adams is the author of the New York Times best seller Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time.
To read an excerpt from Turn Right at Machu Picchu, click here.
To watch Mark Adams discussing Turn Right at Machu Picchu on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, click here.