Even though it’s just one among a multitude of paths across the Andes, the fabulous treasure of Machu Picchu at the end of its 43km path makes the INCA TRAIL the world’s most famous trek. Most people visit the site on a day-tour by train from Cusco, Ollantaytambo or Urubamba, but if you’re reasonably fit and can dedicate at least four days to the experience, arriving along the Inca Trail offers the most atmospheric and rewarding option.
The downside of the trail’s popularity is that you have to book at least nine months in advance and can only go with a tour group run by a licensed tour operator. The trail involves tough altitude trekking at times, but this is rewarded by spectacular scenery, deep valleys, glaciated mountain peaks and remote Inca structures.
Doing the trail in four days is the preferred option for most, and the most common tour length offered by tour agencies. More pleasant still is to spend five or six days, taking in everything as you go along. If you can only spare three days, you’ll be pushing it the whole way – it can be done but it’s gruelling. If this is all the time you can spare, give yourself a head start by catching the afternoon train and heading up the Cusichaca Valley as far as possible the evening before. There are 16 campsites along the trail; where you stay the night will ultimately be decided by your trail guide.
Acting as a bio-corridor between the Cusco Andes, the Sacred Valley and the lowland Amazon forest, the Santuario Histórico de Machu Picchu possesses over 370 species of bird, 47 mammal species and over 700 butterfly species. Some of the more notable residents include the cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola peruviana, known as tunkis in the Quechua-speaking Andes), spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus) and condor (Vultur gryphus). In addition, there are around 300 different species of orchid hidden up in the trees of the cloud forest.
There are three main trekking routes that have been developed by Cusco-based adventure tour operators in response to the desperate over-demand for the Inca Trail. The most popular of these is Choquequirao, and like the Inca Trail, this trek ends at a fabulous ancient citadel. Treks around the sacred glaciated mountain of Salcantay are also well-developed and, to some extent, overlap with and link to the Inca Trail itself. Much less walked, but equally breathtaking, is Ausangate, another sacred snow-covered peak (with a convenient looping trail) that on a clear day can be seen from Cusco dominating the southern horizon. Another popular trek is the route from Ollantaytambo to Lares. As for cost, these treks are similar in price to the Inca Trail, ranging from about $60 to $100 a day.