IT’S 100 YEARS AGO that Hiram Bingham found the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. His National Geographic report and evocative photographs captured the imagination of the world and to this day this strange and wonderful site is a global phenomenon.
It tops most lists as one of the best treks on the planet. It is by far the biggest single tourist attraction in South America. The extremely healthy Peruvian economy stumbled when access was shut last year due to a mudslide. It is far more important today than it ever was as a retreat and sanctuary for the Inca and his favoured nobles.
And standing at the Sun Gate starring down at the rather neat ruins, you can’t help but be captivated. After the sights that have entranced you as you slogged across the Andes in the previous five days, you convince yourself that it is going to be an anti-climax and prepare to be disappointed.
You couldn’t be further from the truth. It is awesome. Stunning. An iconic vista that refuses to be a cliché. And perhaps its secret lies in the unforgettable trek you have taken to get there – one of the few places in the world where the journey really does match the wonder of the destination.
You arrive on foot just as the Incas did 500 years ago and cannot help but be amazed that you are using the exact same route that was a vital artery in an empire that stretched the length of the Andes. It makes a direct and powerful connection with history.
Equally impressive is its importance for modern Peru. It is estimated that more than half of all tourists that visit the country visit Machu Picchu – a concentration that is probably another global record. But as you wander around the fairly small citadel, which housed no more than 1,000 people at its peak, it never feels oppressively crowded. Access is regulated both to the site and to the Inca trail. Besides walking to the site you can take a train – see box, pages 48-49. The hustle and bustle of the main entrance is kept out of view. And the site itself is kept relatively pristine. However, while you can’t help but marvel that such a tourist magnet hasn’t become as squalid as some world-renowned destinations, you do fear for its future.
Virtually everyone heading for Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley starts in Cusco, the former Inca capital high in the Andes. Don’t underestimate how high. At 3,400 metres you need a good few days to acclimatize. Take it very easy in the first few days – altitude sickness is nasty and very debilitating. Cusco airport is the only place I’ve seen helpful medics wandering around dispensing free oxygen to stricken tourists.
But the city is a perfect place to wander around. You can explore the slightly weird mix of Spanish colonial glory and the stern and imposing stone ruins of Inca pomp. The bars and restaurants are colourful – students from Lima think this is party central and come in their droves to enjoy themselves. A pisco sour is the drink to savour as you sit on one of the colonial balconies around the Plaza de Armas that was the centre of the city for both the Spanish and Inca powers.
The splendid Hotel Monasterio is also worth visiting if only for a drink – it is very expensive but worth every penny if you can afford to stay. The former monks’ cloisters are packed with original 17th century paintings and the rooms are the best in town. And for those with a penchant for macabre celebrity trivia, it was the place where the much-loved DJ John Peel died from a heart attack, aged 65.
Cusco is the outdoor adventure capital of Latin America with every other shop offering amazing white-water safaris or mountain bike trips or Amazon explorations. The other shops sell any kit you may need and much-needed cups of coca tea to keep altitude sickness at bay (it does work – the people of the Andes have been using it for millennia. But remember it is made from the same plant as cocaine, so don’t try bringing any home – HM Customs will object).
It is also the place where you will link up with the tour guide company that will be taking you on your Inca adventure. It is possibly to travel independently but you must have one certified guide for every seven people and the hassle of organising such a trip is not worth it when British travel operators and local companies offer such a good service. You must book well in advance as the numbers allowed on the trail are strictly controlled – currently a total of 500 walkers including guides and porters a day. If your trip is part of a bigger package that will not be a problem, but if you are traveling independently do not think you can turn up in Cusco and get on the Inca trail to Machu Picchu. You will be able to book plenty of other and probably equally fabulous treks, but you will not get to do the Big One unless you are very lucky.
And by advance I mean as much as six months to guarantee the exact dates you want with one of the popular and good quality companies. That also raises the question of how much should you pay. First there are a number of routes and the trek can take as long as 10 days or as short as three to four – see below. But the most obvious thing is you get what you pay for – avoid the real bargain offers, it means they will not be paying their guides the going whack and their equipment will reflect the price. This is a once in a lifetime experience. Go with a reputable business that has good reviews on the travel websites.
The next question is when. The season runs from May to September. The trail is closed every February for repairs and the rainy season runs from October to April when temperatures at night can drop to well below zero. The busiest time is July and August and many of the campsites you stop off at along the way can be noisy and overcrowded. May and June are probably the months of choice.
One thing to look out for is the number of people on your trek. Some groups are as large as 25 – a better bet is the 12 to 16 size. If you are going in the peak season, a good tip is to start the classic trail in the mid-morning after the hordes have got going.
You will need good boots – and don’t, as some poor soul I met did, fly into Cusco, buy a pair of boots and head out the next day. Not only did he get awful altitude sickness, but he had the mother of all blisters. Also, it gets cold at night so a good three or four-season sleeping bag is a must. Rubber-tipped walking poles are a godsend, especially on descents. You will need waterproofs and don’t forget the bio-degradable loo paper and wet wipes (the only showers are at Huinay Huayna).
And be ready to be amazed – for this is one must-do experience that beats expectations.
Pick a trail, any trail...
1. The classic Inca trail
Duration: 3–4 days
You start from the Km 88 railway station near the Urubamba River at approximately 2,800m altitude. The trail skirts the Inca ruins of Patallacta (best left to the academics) and ascends along Rio Cusichca (Happy River). The fi rst camp is normally at Huayllabamba, the only inhabited village along the route, where the trail joins with the Mollepata Trail. The following morning you turn west and begin ascending along a tributary of the Cusichca. Because of damage caused by hooves, pack animals are not allowed on the remainder of the trail. For the same reason, metal-tipped trekking poles are also banned. As the trail ascends toward Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest on the trail at 4,215m, it passes through a cloud forest containing Polylepis trees. After crossing the pass, the trail drops steeply into the Pacaymayu River valley and the fi rst of the possible camping sites for your second night. However, most people prefer to push on through another pass and stay at either of the excellent camps at Chaquicocha or Phuyupatamarca. Day three takes in another high pass at 3,950m, an Inca tunnel and staircase of more than 1,000 steps. Most people rest up at the crowded site of Huinay Huayna before the fi nal short stretch to the iconic Sun Gate and Machu Picchu.
2. The Mollepata trail
Duration: 6–7 days
If you are seriously fit and fancy a tough climb to nearly 5,000m over the Chiriasq’ua Pass (The Pass Where the Inca Got Cold), this is the one for you. The opening stretch is wild and you will be on your own in breathtaking scenery.
3. The Choquequarao trail
Duration: 8–10 days
Another long haul for those who have got the time and inclination. Not as daunting as the Mollepata, but still a serious trek – so make sure you are properly acclimatised before you set off. This trail starts at the village of Cachora and involves some steep ascents and descents for the fi rst few days before you reach the magical – and often deserted – Inca citadel of Choquequarao (Cradle of Gold). This was a bigger settlement than Machu Picchu and remained inhabited after the Spanish conquest. While it doesn’t quite have the grandeur of Machu Picchu, it more than compensates by the lack of tourists and as less than half of the site has been excavated, it really does provide a sense of discovering a lost city. The trail on to Machu Picchu is deserted and meanders through dry savannah and virgin cloud forest. A good route for spotting the elusive condor.
4. The Royal trail
Duration: 1–2 days
If time is tight but you still want the experience of arriving by foot there are a couple of options. You can get off the train from Cusco at KM 104 and walk for three hours to join the end of the Classic Trail or you can take the Royal Trail used by the most senior noblemen for ceremonial purposes. It follows a riverside path before a fairly steep ascent to the camp at Huinay Huayna.
Or, on the train
Besides walking, the only other way into Machu Picchu is by train. You board at Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley and the stunning ride takes nearly two hours to Machu Picchu Pueblo where you hop on a bus up to the site. The train comes in three standards – the rather basic Backpacker class, adequate but no food on board; the slighly more comfortable Vistadome class with viewing ports in the roof and simple snacks, and the extremely luxurious Hiram Bingham class with pisco sours, gourmet food and a price tag to match.
All the Info...
Cox & Kings offer a 13-day/10-night tailor-made tour of Peru including a 3-night Inca trail and at Libertador hotels for the rest of the accommodation. The price is from £3,350 per person and includes international fl ights, via Madrid, with LAN, transfers, private guide and excursions, accommodation with breakfast daily and some other meals. Extensions to the rainforest after the trip can also be arranged priced from £395 per person. www.coxandkings.co.uk
0207 873 5000