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Machu Picchu a marvel no matter your route

These hikers are following the original Inca steps - remember they had no horses or mules - to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. These hikers are following the original Inca steps - remember they had no horses or mules - to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. (Tim Leffel for The Boston Globe)
By Tim Leffel
Globe Correspondent / March 29, 2009
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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.

The classic Inca Trail
To hike the original Inca steps and arrive by foot at the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu, this famous route is the way to go. The trail lives up to its billing as one of the world's great travel experiences.

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.

The Salkantay Trek
As the Inca Trail spots have gotten booked up further in advance, despite regular price increases, many hikers have turned to the four- or five-night Salkantay Trek. This is sometimes billed as "the alternative Inca Trail," but it's a very different experience. In some ways the scenery is more spectacular, with waterfalls, glaciers, and up-close views of Salkantay peak (20,574 feet). There is only one set of Inca ruins along this trail, however, and the hike is a more physically demanding slog. You climb to a higher altitude (15,000 feet), and trail conditions are tougher: Mules, not porters, carry luggage, resulting in much more mud and muck underfoot. Plus, you don't walk all the way to the entrance of Machu Picchu: You hop on a local train for the final short stretch.

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 to Machu Picchu Trek
For hard-core hikers who want to spend time in the mountains, this is the ultimate trek through the Andes. It starts near the largest set of Inca ruinson the South American continent, Choquequirao, and ends at its more famous sibling.

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.

The Lares Trek
Mike Weston from Peru Treks and Adventure likes this Lares Trek route through the Sacred Valley because "it allows visitors to interact with local villagers along the trek and see how textiles are made." This is a good choice for those who would prefer a less strenuous option: The actual trekking time is two full days and one morning.

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.

Tim Leffel, author of "The World's Cheapest Destinations" (Booklocker.com, Inc.) and "Make Your Travel Dollars Worth a Fortune" (Travelers' Tales), can be reached at leffel1@comcast.net.

If You Go

How to get there

All treks start with a train or bus ride from Cusco into the Sacred Valley.

Trekking costs

For the four- and five-day hikes, expect to pay a ground cost of $450-$750 if you book through a tour operator based in Cusco. You will probably pay between $850-$5,300 if you book through an agency in the United States or Canada, though higher rates should correspond to more amenities, a smaller group, and additional services. Package rates should include transportation from and to Cusco, all permits, porter fees, guide fees, tent rental, meals on the trail, and entrance to Machu Picchu, but not tips.

The longer Choquequirao hike costs $800-$1,600. The Salkantay lodge-to-lodge option is $2,500-$5,300 depending on where it is booked and what is added to the tour.

In all cases, book as far ahead as possible for June-September departures. Be sure to build in a couple days to get acclimatized in Cusco before setting off on a trek: Your body needs time to adjust to the altitude.