The Inca Trail is undoubtedly Peru’s most popular trekking route. Recommended for physical fit only, it runs for more than 40km and reaches 4,200 m.a.s.l. at its highest point, the Warmiwauska or Dead Woman’s Pass.
The stone-paved path discovered in 1960 and part of the more than 23,000 km of roads built by the Incas across South America crosses a remarkable range of natural landscapes and ecosystems, from thick tropical jungle to the bear, unwelcoming rocks of the Andean mountains. All in all, it is probably the most beautiful walk in South America.
The route takes three to four days of challenging hiking and can be commenced at Chillca (Kilometre 76 of the Cusco-Machu Picchu railway) or, most frequently, at Qorihuayrachina, Kilometre 88 of the railway.
The first day is relatively easy and includes a route to the Inca ruins of Cusichaca, Q’ente, Pulpituyoc, and Llaqtapata, a site used for crop production that remained well preserved. The second day is the hardest of all, mainly because the ascent becomes increasingly steep. The way follows the original Inca stonework that climbs uphill, ending just short of the actual Warmiwauska or Dead Woman’s Pass, at 4,200 m.a.s.l.
The crossing of the pass opens on day three, after camping in the Pacaymayo Valley. From here, it is downhill. The path descends into the valley and heads to the restored site of Runkuraqay. It is a small Inca guard post and then to Sayaqmarka, perched atop a cliff where you can see the beginning of the vast Amazon rainforest that stretches to Brazil. The last day is another easy day. It will be mostly descending and traversing lush jungles and cloud forests before reaching Machu Picchu, Peru’s most important tourist site, via the Inti Punku or Sun Gate.
Before going the way, you should spend at least 48 hours in Cusco acclimatizing, as it features some challenging hiking, including several hours above 3,500 m.a.s.l. Otherwise, Acute Mountain sickness (altitude sickness) could make your first few days pretty uncomfortable.
During the high season, from June to August, you should book in advance -at least three months-, as the number of trek permits issued is limited to 500 per day (including tour guides and porters).
Other trekking routes: The Royal or Sacred Path
Just before arriving at Aguas Calientes, at km 104 of the train rails, this path takes the direction to Phuyupatamarca, climbing up terraces and stone stairs. After 2 hours of hiking, you arrive at the recently discovered and beautifully Wiay Wayna ruins.
Located on a steep mountain slope and looking over the Urubamba River, Wiay Wayna is an example of Inca terrace architecture. The name means forever young in Quechua. But experts still disagree with the meaning: some consider it refers to the colorful orchids that populate the surroundings. While others claim the name alludes to the Inca rites and ceremonies celebrated in the complex.
The path then converges on the Inca Trail, arriving at Machu Picchu via the Sun Gate, Inti Punko. The route takes some 6 hours and can be done in alternative to the Inca Trail if the latter is deemed too harsh. A permit is necessary for this route.
Part of the Inca Trail system, this route has been recently discovered by archaeologists. It starts at km 107 of the railway track (3 km upstream from Aguas Calientes), near the hydroelectric exit pipe.
After crossing the suspended bridge, it follows the Choquesuisui gully and ascends; until it meets the Inca Trail near Wiay Wayna. Purification Trail alludes to the descending pools formed by the stream that runs alongside the path.
This dangerous and demanding 3-hour hike (round trip) involves an excellent reward: the spectacular view of the Machu Picchu landscape. Putucusi (the happy mountain in Quechua) is a round-shaped mountain that reaches 2,600 m.a.s.l. at its peak, and is located across the valley from the Inca citadel.
It is a demanding hike (only possible during the dry season, March to November), which involves steep ladder climbs and slippery scrambling. Some ladders, stacked into the wall, even go up for 20 meters in almost a 90-degree inclination. It is recommended only for people with a good level of physical condition.