The most famous trek in South America, this four-day trail to Machu Picchu is walked by thousands of backpackers every year. Although the total distanceis only 33 km, the ancient trail laid by the Incas winds its way up, down and around the mountains, snaking over three high passes en route. The views of snowy peaks and cloud forest can be stupendous, and walking from once cliff-hugging ruin to the next is a mystical and unforgettable experience-except that you'll rarely have a moment of peace to enjoy it. You should think about taking an alternative trek instead.
You cannot hike the Inca trail independently. All trekkers must go with a guide in an organized group. You must also carry your passport (not a photocopy) and ISIC card to present at checkpoints. Don't litter or defecte in the ruins or pick plants in the national park. It is ilegal to graffiti any treees or stones en toute.
All trekking gear can be rented from outfitters in Cusco. The trail gets extremely cold at night, so make sure sleeping bags are warm enough. Also remember sturfy shoes, rain gear, insect repellent, suncreen, a flashinght (with fresh batteries), water-purification tablets, high calorie snacks and a basic first-aid kit. Take a stash of small Peruvian currency for buying bottled water and snacks along the way, as well as for tipping the guide, cook and porters.
Guided tours depart year-round, except during February when the trail is closed for maintenance. However, in the wettest months (December to April), trails can be slippery, campsites muddy and obscured views behind a thick bank of clouds. The dry season from May to September is the most popular and crowded time to go.
The goverment has introduced a string of reforms in an attempt to prevent further damage to the trail. Registered tour agencies now have to pay huge annual fees and taxes, and their prices have consequently shotup.
When choosing a topur company, realize taht the cheapes agencies may care less about ecologically sensitive camping and porter welfare.
You should reserve your spot on the Inca trailat least sixweeks in advance. Booking several months ahead and reconfirming in advance will avoid delays caused by bottlenecks during high season. Because campsites are alloted in advance, late comers are more likely to spend the last night several hours short of the final stretch.
Most agencies run minibuses to the start of the trail past the village of Chilca at Piscacucho (km 82). After crossing the Río Urubamba and taking care of trail fees and registration formalities, the trail climbs gently along side the river to the first archaeological site of Llactapata before heading south down a side valley of the Río Kusichaca. The trail south leads 7km to the hamlet of Wayllabamba (3100 m), where you can take a breather to appreciate views of snowy, Veronica (5750 m). You'll cross the rio Llullucha, the climb steeply up along the river. This area is known as Tres Piedras (Three Wihile Stones), and from here it is a long, very steep 3km climb. At some points, the trail and stream bed become one, but stonestairs keep hikers above the water. The trail eventually emerges on the high, bare mountainside of Llulluchapampa, where the flats are dotted with campsite. From Llulluchapampa, a good path upthe left-hand side of the two-hour ascent to Warmiwañusca (4198m), colorfully known as Dead Woman's Pass.This is the highest point to the trek, which leaves many a backpacker gasping. From Warmiwañusca, the trail continues down a jong. Knee-jarringly steep descent to the river, where there are large campsites at Pacaymayu (3500m) The trail crosses the river over a small footbridge and climbs right toward Runkurakay, a round ruin with superb views about an hou's walk above the river.
Above Runkurakay, the trail climbs to a false summit before continuing past two small lakes to the top of the second pass at (3900 m), which has views of the snowcapped Cordillera Vilcabamba. The trail descends to the ruin of Sayaqmarka, a tightly constructed complex perched ona small mountain spur with in credible views, then continues downward crossing a tributary of the Río Aobamba. The trail leads on across an Inca causeway and up again through cloud fores and an Inca tunnel carved into the rock to the third pass (3670 m). Soon afterward, you'll reach the beautiful, well-restored ruinof Phuyupatamarca (3600 m), above sea level). The site contains a beautiful series ofceremonial baths water running through them. From Puyupatamarca, the trail takes a dizzying dive into the could forest below, following an incredibly well-engineeredflight of mani hundreds of Inca steps.
After passing through a tunnel, the trail eventually zigzags its way down to Wiñay Wayna, where atrekker's lodge sells hot showers,hot meals and cold, for those who want to pay a bit extra.
From the Wiñay Wayna guard post, the trail contours around through cliff-hanging cloud forest for about two hours to reach Intipinku (Sun Gate), where you may get lucky enough to catch your first glimpse of magestic Machu Picchu as you wait for the sun rise over the mountaintops.
The final triumphant descent takes almost an hour. Backpacks are not allowed into the ruins, and guards will pounce upon you to check your pack and to stamp your trail morning trainloads of tourists, so you can enjoy the exhilarated exhaustion of reachong your goal without having to push through as many crushing crowds.