When I was planning my trip to South America, a trip that included a consistent Inca segment, I was split on a decision for quite some time: should I take the easy way out and opt for a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu or take in the entire Inca experience, embrace the mystery and hike the whole 40 on the famous Inca Trail. You can probably tell that in the end I chose the second option (otherwise this article would never have been written) and I have never regretted it one bit.
I think that the most impressive think about the hike (other than the kudos you can give yourself at the very end for doing it) is that it is a perfect mix of nature and history that you get to embrace throughout the whole four days that it takes to complete it. If you go straight to Machu Picchu, it’s great, but if you go to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail, you will feel more of an insider, having already experienced some of the Inca mystery, including the Inca’s amazing communion with nature.
The hike starts at Qorihuayrachina (tongue twister, watch out!) and the first part of the hike usually takes you to Llullucha, about 11 kilometers from the start of the journey. I took plenty of photos on the way, notably of the many Inca ruins that surround us. One of the impressive things for me was the way that these ruins seemed to be a consistent part of the nature surrounding them. They looked less urban and more natural than other ruins I’ve seen (Roman ruins, for example). The second day is less fun, with an ascent to 4200 meters (hopefully, your time in Cusco should have helped with your acclimatization, but, if not, at least you will know why you are feeling sick).
The best for last: Machu Picchu, the “Old Peak”, but also “The Lost City of the Incas”. Some of the parts of the residential sector here are so well preserved you can almost expect life to resume the way it used to be in the 15th century, when Machu Picchu was believed to have been built for Emperor Pachacuti, who had built the Inca Empire during that time. A day should be enough for your visit here, although you may never want to leave again.It was the third day that I found most interesting, even if it was the longest one. You get to Sayaqmarka (another tongue breaker), which is a city with very well preserved buildings and other urban elements, including shrines and canals. The last part of the hike, in the fourth day, includes hiking through the jungle, so you have an (almost) complete picture of what a hike to Machu Picchu means in terms of the variety of landscapes and natural wonders that you encounter along the way.
Note that this is not your usual kind of trekking adventure. Other than the length of the trail, it is the altitude that may cause breathing problems and fatigue. I have spent about 3 days in Cusco, just to get used to the fact that life at 3000 meters (and, actually, 4200 meters at its highest point on the Inca Trail) is different than what you and your lungs are normally used to.
Machu Picchu was probably built around 1450 as an estate for the important Inca Emperor Pachacuti, who built the Inca Empire at its highest extent. Abandoned by the Inca and undiscovered by the Spanish conquerors, the ruins of Machu Picchu are pretty much a relic directly out of Inca times, without any alterations of the European invaders. Very well preserved, the buildings were constructed using the “ashlar technique”, where the regularly cut stones would be fit together without the use of mortar.