The Inca Road to Machu Picchu
|Machu Picchu: remnants of the empire|
Any visit to Machu Picchu begins in Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire that at its height stretched from modern day Argentina to Ecuador. To the Spanish Conquistadors, Cusco was a major source of golden idols that were melted down and shipped to Europe as bullion. For me, 11,000-foot Cusco is a base for altitude adjustment. Flying in from Lima, the seaside Peruvian capital, I'm hopped up on Diamox, to ward off the effects of the thin air.
When the Spanish looted Cusco, they found plenty of wealth, but they never found Machu Picchu. These days, of course, Cusco travel agents are more than happy to point you in the right direction and get you there by practically any means you like. Wanting to walk, I sign up for a budget backpacker tour. For $80 a piece, the outfitter agrees to provide food and shelter for the four-day hike, plus transportation to the trailhead near the base of the Sacred Valleya fertile plain that has produced much of the highland region's crops since Inca times.*
I set out for the Sacred Valley one day early to see a bit more of the country and shed some of Cusco's altitude. I spend a night at Ollantaytambo, a small village framed by the Inca fortress that rises just steps from the town's square. It's an historic area of its ownthe endpoint of the Spanish explorations in this area. The next morning, at 8 a.m., I rendezvous with the bus carrying fellow trekkers, and we drive to the trailhead.
If one were to follow the Urubamba River, as the train tracks do, the hike would be a gradual descent into the lush jungle that surrounds the ruins: Machu Picchu is at a significantly lower altitude than Ollyantantambo. But the Inca Trail takes the high road, then low road, then the high road, making for a tough journey, especially when battling altitude. The trail, which at points retains the cobblestones laid by the Incas, traverses several steep Andean valleys and features three passes over 12,000 feet. It's difficult hiking, to be sure; in return, one is rewarded with spectacular views of the Urubamba gorge and the neighboring Andean peaks.
Or so I was told. The first day, clear views capture our eyes and imaginations, but then rain and clouds start moving in. This is unusual for August (the South American winter), which is supposedly the best time to visit. And the crowds (another staple of the high season) are as much in evidence as the clouds. Competition for camping spaces is so intense that our tour leader sends out porters a day in advance in an effort to secure the best ones.
But the fourth day brings the prospect of reaching Machu Picchu. We wake before dawn to hike the final stretch.
*Exploring the Inka Trail requires advanced booking: three months during the high season. Permits are limited, issued individually to a hiker and his/her guide.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication