Climate: Rainy during summer in the Southern Hemisphere (December-March). Sunny from May-September. Maximum temperatures reach 27° C, but rarely drop below 11° C.
Access: The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu route starts out at Kilometer 88 of the railway. Groups set out from Chilca at Kilometer 76 of the same route.
Located in the department of Cusco, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is Peru's most popular trekking route and possibly one of the most spectacular walks in the Americas. It forms part of the more than 23,000 km of roads built by the Incas across South America. Each year, some 25,000 hikers from all over the world walk the 43 km stone-paved Inca Trail to get to the impregnable citadel of Machu Picchu, deep in the Cusco cloud forest.
The trail sets out from Qorihuayrachina, at Kilometer 88 of the Cusco-Quillabamba railway, and takes three to four days of tough hiking. The route runs through an impressive range of altitudes, where climates and eco-systems range from the high Andean plain down to the cloud forests. The IncaTrail climbs up through two highland passes (the higher of the two, Warmiwañuska, lies at 4,200 masl) before reaching Machu Picchu through the Inti Punku or Gateway of the Sun. One of the attractions of the Inca Trail is that it winds past carved granite Inca settlements (Wiñay Wayna, Phuyupatamarca), and is surrounded by breath-taking natural scenery. The forests abound in hundreds of species of orchids, brightly-colored birds and dream-like landscapes, the ideal complement to this indispensable hikers' route.
INCA TRAIL TO MACHU PICCHU DAY BY DAY
The closest large town to the Inca Trail is Cusco, the old imperial Inca capital, which was both the administrative and the religious centre of the empire. From Cusco, air-conditioned tourist trains are available to take visitors directly to Machu Picchu. To follow the Inca Trail, hikers may either take the local train or a bus to Km88 of the railway. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu starts here.
The trail crosses the river at Cusichaca ("Bridge of happiness" - the names of many of the places along the Inca Trail are Quechua names invented by Hiram Bingham , who led the expedition that (re)discovered Machu Picchu. There is a suspension bridge for walkers here.
Close to the start of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu there is a small Inca ruin. About half an hour's walk from the bridge at Cusichaca, there is a campsite consisting of a small walled enclosure by the side of the river, which at this point is cold, noisy and fast-flowing.
From the first campsite, the Inca Trail continues over level ground to Huayllabamba ("Place of Good Pasture"), a flat grassy area at an elevation of around 2000 m.a.s.l. There are a few huts stretched along the banks of the river.
After Huayllabamba, the trail begins to climb slowly through fairly dense sub-tropical vegetation. The terrain changes with altitude, so that a little beyond Llupachayoc ("Place of Offerings") it gives way to light woodland. The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu continues to climb upwards beyond Llupachayoc.
The trail goes around to the right, and the woodland gives way to scrub, then to puna, bleak grassland and bare slopes. The ascent becomes increasingly steep, and the terrain increasingly rugged. Looking back from above Llupachayoc in the general direction of Huayllabamba shows the river valley far below.
Then the Inca Trail climbs steeply towards the first pass, the Abra de Warmiwañusca ("Dead Woman's Pass"). This is marked by a green and white sign that shows it to be 4050 m.a.s.l. It tends to be fairly cold and windy due to the elevation.
After the Abra de Huarmihuanusca, the trail descends steeply towards the valley of the Pacamayo river. At the bottom of the river valley is the second campsite, a small, unevenly sloping area large enough for only a few tents.
From the valley of the Pacamayo, the Inca Trail climbs steeply up the opposite side of the valley wall, towards the second pass. About halfway up is a small round roofless stone building. This Inca ruin is known as Runkuracay ("Pile of Ruins"). The building is thought to have been a tambo , a kind of way post for couriers following the Trail to Machu Picchu. It contained sleeping areas for the couriers and stabling facilities for their animals.
After Runkuracay, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu continues to climb towards the second pass, the Abra de Runkuracay, which is at around 3500 m.a.s.l. On the far side of the pass, the trail descends towards a valley containing a shallow lake. At around this point, the trail changes from a dirt path to a narrow stone roadway. This is the beginning of the true Inca Trail; the stones of the roadway were laid by the Quechua people of the period of the Inca Empire.
The trail leads to a second, larger Inca ruin, Sayacmarca ("Town in a Steep Place"). Sayacmarca effectively controls the trail -which passes beneath it- at this point. It is built on a promontory of rock overlooking the trail, and is accessible only via a single narrow stone staircase. On the left of the staircase, which is about a metre or less in width, is an overhanging rock wall, which makes it difficult for a tall man to climb, while on the right is a sheer drop onto the rocks below.
Sayacmarca (which Bingham inexplicably decided to name Cedrobamba - "Plain of Cedars" - despite the fact that there are no cedars to be seen, and it's perched on a spur overlooking a valley) is roofless and overgrown, but the walls still stand and the shape of the fortress can easily be seen. Nearby is a stone aqueduct which once carried water to the site.
After Sayacmarca, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu descends to the valley floor, and the roadway takes the form of a long causeway leading across what may once have been the bed of a shallow lake. On the far side, the trail begins to climb again. The roadway represents a considerable feat of engineering, including even an 8m tunnel section where the Inca engineers widened a natural fissure in the rock into a tunnel large enough to allow the passage of men and animals.
The Inca Trail leads up to the third pass and, just beyond it, a third Inca ruin, Phuyupatamarca ("Cloud-level Town"). This site appears to have had some ritual function; the rectangular structures along one side are baths, which were apparently fed from a spring higher up. The highest bath was reserved for the nobles, while the lower classes performed their ritual ablutions in the water which had already been used by the aristocracy.
Below Phuyupatamarca, the Inca Trail spirals and descends steeply towards Wiñay Wayna, ("Forever Young"), the site of another Inca ruin. There is another campsite and a visitor centre nearby.
The final section of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, from Wiñay Wayna to Intipunku is an easy hike, following a broad level path which winds comfortably through scrub and light woodland. Colourful butterflies flutter across the trail.
After no more than an hour or two, the trail comes to a narrow flight of stone steps leading upwards into a small stone structure with a grass floor a few metres square. This is Intipunku , the Gateway of the Sun, and through the rectangular doorway, you can see the ruins of Machu Picchu.
From Intipunku, a pathway leads directly to Machu Picchu itself.
If willing to practice trekking in Peru you should consider these recommendations:
- Climbers and hikers should get information on the state of trails and the degree of difficulty of the climbing route.
- Bear in mind that local inhabitants have different notions of time and distance. The classic response "aquicito nomás" (just around the corner) can mean long hours of trekking up steep slopes.
- Do not pull up or cut live plants or light fires within highland forests.
- Do not move trail signposts.
- Do not hunt or fish during the dry season (trout fishing ban).
- Always inform local authorities, trekking or mountain climbing associations in the area of your entry into mountainous areas.
- Never go on climbs or treks unaccompanied.
- Always bring back litter. Leaving it on the mountainside can harm the fragile environment.
- Sunscreen is recommended, plus warm clothing. High altitude sickness known locally as soroche can set in at over 2,500 m.a.s.l. Take precautions by resting the first day, drink plenty of liquids and avoid heavy food and alcohol.
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