Machu Picchu a marvel no matter your route
CUSCO, Peru - When Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu on a 1911 expedition, it took him days of travel by foot and mule to get from Cusco to the general vicinity. Then he crossed a rickety bridge on hands and knees before climbing several hours up a steep slope to reach the hidden ruins.
Now you can hop on a luxurious Hiram Bingham train from Cusco and be there in 3 1/2 hours, sipping pisco sours and listening to a pan pipe group while you dine. It almost feels like cheating.
When the Incas ruled a large swath of the continent, their empire extended as far north as southern Colombia and as far south as northern Argentina and Chile. Carefully engineered trails through the mountains connected cities and military outposts. With no horses or mules on the continent at that time, all movement through the kingdom was on foot.
If you want to get to the ruins of Machu Picchu on foot yourself, or at least hike part of the way, there are several organized treks that will get you there. This way you can still feel like an explorer making discoveries in the Andes Mountains. Much of the time you will be walking through landscapes that have not changed much since the conquistadors arrived in 1532.
You walk on stone paths built hundreds of years ago, exploring impressive ruins along the way that cannot be reached by any vehicle. After three days and nights, you make a grand entrance to the main attraction at sunrise on the last day, exploring the citadel in the early morning light. There are public restrooms, designated camping areas, and regular trail maintenance along the way. Carry in/carry out regulations keep the area garbage-free, and there are some 250 varieties of orchids complementing the mountain vistas.
The popularity of this trek means crowded trails and packed campsites outside of the rainy season. (It is closed each year in February, the rainiest month.) You have to put a deposit down with an outfitter well before your trip. As a spokesperson from Q'ente, one of Cusco's long-established tour agencies, says, "If you want to hike the Inca Trail in July or August, you had better be signed up by March." Permits are limited to about 200 hikers and 300 porters per day. Since porters outnumber hikers, someone will be carrying your luggage, setting up your tent, and cooking your group's meals.
The journey is similar no matter whom you book with or how much you pay, but the luxury outfitters like Cox & Kings will employ more porters to carry fine wine, gourmet food, and a massage table for a therapist to work over your aching legs.
There's one notable development on this route, though, that has made it attractive to those willing to pay for comfort. A company called Mountain Lodges of Peru opened four upscale lodges along the way last year. So you can hike from lodge to lodge and avoid camping altogether, getting a hot shower and comfy mattress each day.
Choquequirao dates to the 1500s and was probably the empire's last headquarters, but it gets very few visitors since it can be reached only on foot. This trek moves up and down the mountains and valleys then finishes with the same short local train to Machu Picchu town as the Salkantay Trek. Consider this memorable hike if you are a rugged outdoor type in excellent condition, and you don't mind staying grubby for a while.
On the afternoon of the third day you take the train from the interesting town of Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. The fourth day is spent at the archeological site. One other bonus: There are no permit requirements or daily limits on this route, so you can book it on short notice and economically put together a trip with a smaller group.
Many tourists zip around Peru the same way they would bounce around London and Paris. If you have more time to take it all in, take a walk through the misty mountains where the Inca messengers once ran.