By Mark Adams, author of Turn Right at Machu Picchu (available June 30, Dutton Books). See more Machu Picchu tips, facts, and photos.
With all the hoopla surrounding the 100th anniversary of Hiram Bingham III’s rediscovery of Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911, there’s never been more interest in visiting the ruins that he dubbed the Lost City of the Incas. The best way to arrive, of course, is by hiking the Inca Trail. (A path, incidentally, that was another one of Bingham’s finds—he uncovered it while exploring the area around Machu Picchu in 1915.) But the days when an adventurous traveler could fly into Cusco on a Saturday and depart for the Inca Trail on Sunday have long since come and gone. Walking the Inca Trail requires equal parts dreaming and strategizing—not to mention a few trips to the gym. Here are a few tips on how to get the most out of your trek.
1) Book ahead. Way ahead. Due to the wear and tear that the Inca Trail takes each year, the Peruvian government instituted a strict limit of 500 hikers departing on the trail each day, including your mandatory guide and porters. Spots for the prime months of June, July, and August now fill up months in advance. Don’t even think about scalping a permit. A passport number is required to secure a place, and permits are non-transferable.
2) Be flexible. So you’re departing for Peru in a week, and you still haven’t booked a Machu Picchu-bound hike. You’re not completely out of luck. A number of alternate hiking routes to Machu Picchu, some of them following original Inca paths, have sprung up in the last few years. The most popular is the Salcantay Route, named for the sacred snow-capped mountain that stands due south of Machu Picchu. Another option, if you have the time, is to hike via Choquequirao, a little-visited but spectacular set of ruins that’s often called Machu Picchu’s sister site (because of the family resemblance).
3) Take your time. Most trip outfitters offer four-day and day-day variations on the Inca Trail. An overwhelming number of trekkers—who’ve flown in from the far corners of the globe for this once-in-a-lifetime event—choose the shorter itinerary. What’s the rush? Taking an extra day allows you to stay at less-crowded campsites and spend a night at the extraordinary ruins of Patallacta (which you may have to yourself, since everyone else is racing ahead). Best of all, you can savor one of the world’s great hikes instead of sprinting to the finish.
4) Sleep in. Almost every package tour to Machu Picchu promises a grand finale: hikers wake up at 4 a.m. and walk in darkness to reach the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu in time for what is supposedly the spectacular sunrise over the ruins. What those tour packagers don’t tell you is that Machu Picchu is usually cloudy in the morning, so you probably won’t be able to see anything except mist. And because almost every hiker on the Inca Trail arrives at sunrise, you’ll be fighting for elbow room with dozens of other cranky, sleep-deprived hikers.
5) Stay Dry. There’s a reason why you’ll never see a “Christmas at Machu Picchu” TV special. Thanks to the torrential Andean rainy season, December is a terrible time to visit, rivaled only by (in ascending order of awfulness) November and January. In late January 2010, hundreds of visitors were stranded in Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu, due to flooding and mudslides that knocked out the train line from Cusco. (The Inca Trail is closed for repairs in February, which may be the worst time of all to visit.) September, October, April, and May are the best off-peak times to hike the trail.
6) Know What to Look for. The Inca Trail isn’t just a scenic route to Machu Picchu, it’s one of the most important stretches of the former Capac Ñan, the royal Inca highway. The ruins along the trail are unique, and were almost certainly built for ceremonial purposes. The Incas were pantheists who worshipped nature. Take notice of how structures like Sayacmarca and Wiñay Wayna were designed to take in views of sunsets, sacred mountains, and other natural features that were key elements of the Inca religion.
7) Get in Shape. One of the saddest—and, sadly, most common—sights around late afternoon on the Inca Trail is that of two or more porters pushing and pulling a woefully out-of-shape client up a steep incline. Hiking the Inca Trail may not be climbing Mount Everest, but it’s not a walk in the park, either. Some days you’ll be climbing more than four thousand vertical feet—equivalent to walking to the top of the Empire State Building three times—at an altitude of 10,000 feet and higher. Be physically prepared for it.
Photograph by Miguel De Freitas, My Shot