From the Incas to the Amazon

The Highlands
Machu Picchu
The Place That Launched 1,000 Trips: The classic view of Machu Picchu, Peru's fabled, famed "Lost City" (Ted Stedman)
Finding Your Guide
Peruvian law requires that all hikers on the Inca Trail are accompanied either by a licensed guide or as part of an organized tour with a licensed outfitter -- and given the limited number of licensed issued each year, your pickings are slim. To find out how to find the guides best suited to your interests, click here.
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Is there anyone who's ventured to Peru without visiting Machu Picchu, the fabled "Lost City of the Incas," discovered in 1911 by Yale historian and explorer Hiram Bingham III? It's doubtful. As one of the world's most celebrated sites of exploration and archaeology, it draws the faithful like moths to a flame. No matter how you calibrate your adventures, the citadel, perched on a ramp of rock beneath looming peaks cloaked in snow and clouds, is an absolute must, despite the slightly Disneyesque atmosphere created when tour buses disgorge altitude-wheezing tourists.

Visiting Machu Picchu takes a little effort—which is good, because getting to this UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site is half the fun. The highland journey begins in Cusco, once the seat of the ancient Inca Empire and thought to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the New World. If you fly in and haven't yet acclimated to the Andes lofty altitude, beware. Cusco is upward of 11,100 feet. You'll feel it, so take it easy on the pisco sours until your hemoglobin is up to snuff.

In some respects, Cusco is like a Peruvian version of Boulder, Colorado—a fit, adventurous town that's a staging ground for adventures into the hinterlands. But don't miss out on its cultural charms. Cusco's Main Square is a compulsory stop, where Pizarro proclaimed the city’s conquest and where massive stone arches erected by Spanish conquerors preside at the street entrances. There's more than history here, too, and today the square is hoppin' with great restaurants and pubs that infuse international fare with Andean elements. If you're feeling brave you can partake in a culinary adventure by ordering traditional fare like filet of alpaca or spicy guinea pig at the Restaurant Los Faroles de Duke, where dishes only set you back between $8 and $15 each. Museum lovers can get a major fix by visiting any of the fantastic facilities sprinkled around Cusco, such as the Inca Museum of the National University, or my favorite, the Museo de Arte Precolombino (MAP Museum), hosting an exotic collection of silver armaments used by Inca royalty and warriors.

Above Cusco on a hilltop overlook is a great day-tripping site, Sacsayhuaman (say "sexy woman"), whose native Quechua name means "satisfied falcon" in deference to the falcons that guarded the capital of the Inca Empire. The stone-block construction of this fortress took nearly 100 years and required the work of 20,000 men who cut, carved, moved, and somehow set the massive multi-ton blocks, fitted so precisely that there was no need for mortar and no gaps wider than a straight razor.

When Machu Picchu calls, you'll have to decide whether to commit to the "classic" four-day, 29-mile Inca Trail trek beginning at kilometer 82 on the Piskacucho train route, or take the Peru Rail train to the citadel's gateway ‘burg of Aguas Calientes. The train is wonderful, ultra-scenic, and quick—a no-brainer, really (see Peru: Access and Resources). If you do put boot to trail, you'll be following in the footsteps of the original Incas on the so-called "Royal Highway" that once led pilgrims and Empire officials to the Sacred City of the Incas. Keep in mind, however, that the Inca Trail can only be hiked with a licensed operator, which can cost as much as $200 a day. Licenses are limited, and the 130 operators typically get booked up to five days in advance. If you’ve got your heart set on hiking the trail, secure a guide or sign on with a group tour before arriving in Cusco. The Peruvian government has a complete list of all Inca Trail operators listed at www.inrena.gob.pe.

Mid-trek, the best place to bed down is in the comfort of your sleeping bag—and under the shelter of a canvas tent if the weather doesn't cooperate. But, considering that the Inca Trail is justifiably one of the world's most popular treks there's a variety of traditional lodging options for en-transit accommodations. Refer to www.royalinkahotel.com and www.limahostell.com.pe for additional info.

The Inca Trail is paved with original stone blocks and stairways, traversing wooden bridges and coursing through tunnels. It meanders through a smattering of climates and ecosystems ranging from the high Andean plain to the lower cloudforests, climbing two highland passes by way of Inti Punku, or "Gateway of the Sun." En route, nature freaks will marvel at the botanicals, like the 250 known species of trailside orchids. The last stretch of the Inca Trail is entirely dramatic, so have your cameras ready. Its stone steps climb up, up, and above the roily Urubamba River—a raging Class V-plus in the rainy season—and through verdant foliage tunnels, until...Wham!... you break out the dense cloudforest and Machu Picchu lies before you, looking every bit as scenic as the idealized museum posters and documentary films we've all seen. Either arrange for a guide on-site or make reservations beforehand in Aguas Calientes, hopefully with a professionally certified guide. You can wander and ponder solo to no end at Machu Picchu, but with the right guide you'll have an infinitely more rewarding experience by understanding the how's, why's, and latest theories about this sacred Inca city.


Published: 23 Aug 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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