The wonder of Machu Picchu has been well documented over the years. Equally impressive is the centuries-old Inca Trail that winds its way from the Sacred Valley near Ollantaytambo, taking three to four days. What makes this hike so special is the stunning combination of Inca ruins, unforgettable views, magnificent mountains, exotic vegetation and extraordinary ecological variety. Machu Picchu itself cannot be understood without the Inca Trail. Its principal sites are ceremonial in character, apparently in ascending hierarchical order. This Inca province was a unique area of elite access. The trail is essentially a work of spiritual art, like a Gothic cathedral, and walking it was formerly an act of devotion.
The trek to the sacred site begins either at Km 82 or Km 88. A series of gentle climbs and descents along the Río Cusichaca is the ideal introduction to the trail before the rigours of day two. It’s a steep climb to the meadow, followed by an exhausting 2½-hour haul up to the first pass – aptly named Warmiwañusqa (Dead Woman) – at 4200 m. The feeling of relief on reaching the top is immense.
The first ruin is Runkuracay, which was probably an Inca tambo (post-house). A steep climb up an Inca staircase leads to the next pass, at 3850 m, with spectacular views of the Vilcabamba range. The trail descends to Sayacmarca (Inaccessible town), a spectacular site over the Aobamba Valley.
A blissfully gentle two-hour climb on a stone highway, leads through an Inca tunnel and along the enchanted fringes of the cloudforest, to the third pass. This is the most rewarding part of the trail, with spectacular views of the entire Vilcabamba range. Then it’s down to the extensive ruins of Phuyupatamarca (Cloud-level town), at 3650 m, where Inca observation platforms offer awesome views of nearby Salkantay (6270 m) and surrounding peaks. From here, an Inca stairway of white granite plunges more than 1000 m to the spectacularly sited and impressive ruins of Wiñay-Wayna (Forever Young).
From Wiñay-Wayna it is a gentle hour’s walk to a steep Inca staircase that leads up to Intipunku (Sun Gate), where you look down, at last, upon Machu Picchu, basking in all her glory. Your aching muscles will be quickly forgotten and even the presence of the functional hotel building cannot detract from one of the most magical sights in all the Americas.