There are two ways to visit Machu Picchu: line up for a crowded bus that shuttles you—and thousands of others—to a congested turnstile next to an all-you-can-eat buffet, or hike along the Inca Trail, an ancient route through the Andes that passes over a dozen spectacular, uncrowded ruins along the way.
We chose the second option.
As I learned long ago at iconic destinations like Grand Canyon, opting for a slightly longer, more physically demanding visit generally yields two benefits: you avoid the crowds, and you enjoy a far richer experience. Which is exactly what happened on the Inca Trail.
Our journey started in Ollantaytambo, the “last living Inca city,” where Quechua-speaking locals still walk roads built by Pachacutec, an Inca ruler whose name roughly translates to “He Who Shakes The Earth.” Our guide was Luis Acevedo, whose name isn’t nearly as exciting, but whose talents on the Inca Trail deserved their own legendary moniker.
No more than 500 people are allowed on the Inca Trail each day. This theoretically limits congestion, although I’d heard the trail can still feel crowded. Fortunately, Luis had an ingenious strategy: let everyone else jump ahead.
While Luis made frequent stops to explain the wonders of the Inca Trail—flora, fauna, history, mythology—dozens of budget hikers stormed past. At times they appeared to be on a forced march (grueling pace, stoic guides), and soon we had the trail to ourselves.
The first major ruin was Patallacta, where vast terraces wrap around the base of an 11,000-foot mountain. Standing on a bluff across the Cusichaca River, we gazed down at the town that, Luis explained, once produced much of the food for Machu Picchu. It was an astonishing example of the Inca’s agricultural sophistication.
It also helped explain why so much about Incan civilization remains a mystery. Following Pizarro’s conquest of nearby Cusco in 1536, survivors set fire to Patallacta, which kept the Spanish away and helped conceal the Inca Trail for centuries. But as Inca structures, including Machu Picchu, were reclaimed by the jungle, any knowledge of their purpose was lost. Modern archaeologists are just beginning to piece the remaining clues together.
“I’m going to show you many incredible things on this hike,” Luis promised. “But I’m not going to tell you everything right away. I’m going to let it unfold along the trail.”
As we ascended 13,828-foot Warmiwañusca (“Dead Woman Pass”)—the highest point on the Inca Trail—it became clear this was not a path constructed for practical purposes. The fastest route from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu follows the Urubamba River, where the train from Cusco now runs. Yet here we were 5,000-feet above the Urubamba River.
Luis explained that Andean people believe in apus, or mountain deities, associated with specific peaks. The plural of apu is apukana, and from our vantage point there was no shortage of them. Although passing clouds obscured much of the scenery, occasional breaks revealed cascading peaks in all directions.
After crossing Dead Woman Pass we descended through brown alpine tundra to verdant cloud forest. More ruins: Runkuraqay, Sayacmarca, Qunchamarka—all semi-shrouded in clouds, creating a dreamlike effect. The layout of the trail was magnificent. One minute we’re walking through thick vegetation, the next an elaborate stone structure, clinging to a lush slope, bursts into view. This is a route designed to impress. A place where anticipation and drama are crafted as exquisitely as the stonework.
As we wandered through the ruins, Luis explained how Inca structures align with the sun, moon and stars. Even more than mountains, the Inca worshipped celestial bodies. The sun was their most important god—the Inca emperor claimed to be the son of the sun—and solstices marked their most important religious festivals. Constellations that appear during harvest season also influenced Inca architecture.
Our camp that night was a series of narrow, cascading ledges with supposedly impressive views. By the time we got there, however, thick clouds obscured the scenery. Determined to catch a glimpse of the Inca cosmos, I glanced outside my tent around 3:30 a.m. The clouds had vanished. In their place a black velvet sky rippled with stars, and the Milky Way blazed brighter than I had ever seen.
I set up my tripod and took photos until the sky lightened. When Luis climbed out of his tent, I showed him my Milky Way shots. He was ecstatic.
“You captured the llama!”
Andean people, it turns out, see a variety of shapes in the dark patches of the Milky Way, including snakes, condors and llamas. According to legend, the celestial llama drinks water from rivers and lakes from May to October (dry season), then releases it from December to March (rainy season). Because it controls the water cycle, the llama is considered one of the most important constellations.
After breakfast surrounded by panoramic views of the Andes, we began the final descent to Machu Picchu. The drama continued to build. At certain viewpoints, Luis pointed out unusual rocks on the side of the trail. His index finger traced the outline of the rocks, then, extending his arm towards distant peaks, he made the same motion.
“They’re models, replicas. These rocks call your attention to important apus.”
The Inca Trail, many believe, was not simply a route through the mountains. It was a pilgrimage. A place where travelers marveled at the foundations of Inca civilization, including agriculture, apus and celestial gods.
Near the end of the trail we made a final steep push to a stone platform surrounded by tall pillars—Inti Punku, better known as the Sun Gate. Spread out below was a God’s-eye view of Machu Picchu. We had finally arrived, exactly as the Inca intended.