Scaling Machu Picchu has got to be up there close to the top of thousands of bucket lists. What, after all, could be more enticing than a lost ancient city in the clouds? Built around the middle of the 15th century as a heavenly home for the mighty Incan emperor Pachacuti, it was quickly abandoned when the Spanish came with their conquistadores to the rugged highlands of Peru. Rediscovered again in 1911, it drew the attention of explorers and intrepid types the world over. It still does…
Day 1 – Leaving the lowlands behind
The sun is just beginning to glint on the rocky peaks of brown stone above as I wake and brew up a pot of coffee. It's hard to make out the way ahead. Plumes of cloud plug the valleys where the ancient Incas once trod on their way to their mythic mountain city. It's still far away from here, and the challenge before me is becoming clear. The terrain is like a crumpled stretch of brown paper, colored here and there with thick cascades of jungle and cloud forest where drips of humid precipitation drop from leaf to leaf. I sip my coffee and try to imagine any route that could navigate those Peruvian wilds.
Although the 4-day trek to Machu Picchu starts at a trailhead that soars at over 2,700 meters above sea level, it's still a relatively low point compared to what's on the way. Shrouded by sheer-cut mountains that are carved through by a series of valleys where the agricultural fields glow grass-green below, it's a pretty place that's sure to keep the camera ticking over.
Packs slung and boots tied, my group is one of the first to start hopping over the worn flagstones of the Camino Inca. We dodge the occasional spear-like puya cactus and drift through berry bushes that I'm sure would send anyone off on some sort of hallucinogenic odyssey to an altogether different cloud city, strutting speedily over the even trail, crossing swaying rope bridges and little hamlets built from timber and thatch.
It's not long before we catch a glimpse of the historical wonders that gave this corner of Peru it's famous moniker: The Sacred Valley. Unfolding below us, on a narrow plateau that juts out from the low stems of the Andes, it's possible to see a clutch of half-crumbled buildings and walls. "They're Incan," one guide informs us. "Grain silos that were used to house the crops of the fertile farms that dominated this heartland of the empire".
I pull my gaze, and trek onwards. Onwards and upwards, as the saying goes. Only here, it's true. We go upwards, always upwards. Steadily and slowly. The air is already thin at 2,500 meters and we're now pushing past 2,800 on the way to Wayllabamba. That's our first stop, a small clutch of grassy meadows and tents and shacks selling water and snacks.
Day 2 – Steep ascents into the clouds
If days 3 and 4 of the Incan Trail are the ones that offer the bucket-list sights, day 2 is where you gain the height to see them. Things kick off with an arduous climb of more than 1,000 meters to the first proper pass that's on the route. They don't really level out again all day as the path rises and falls with the undulating peaks of the low Andes.
Fresh from a night on the soft grasses of Wayllabamba, I was ready to make the effort upwards and into the heights of the Sacred Valley. It was cloudier than before, with patches of blue only just squeezing through the vapors that covered the Peruvian skies. To one side of me, the Llulluchayoc River was meandering its own path through the great peaks – only in the opposite direction. The babbling sound of its streams were something of a reassuring backing track as we hopped over rocks and mud puddles, clocking up meter after meter. I cross rickety bridges above whitewater sections to switch sides of the trail. I duck under spiny cacti branches and watch as the vegetation slowly fizzles out to highland shrub and clusters of hardy grass on either side of the stepped trail.
Now and then the path arcs over a gushing stream that issues down from the mountain above. At other times it wiggles around an ancient stone that looks like some petrified human clad in moss. Then it breaks for a moment and opens out onto a soaring lookout over the Sacred Valley. I see the icy tops of mountains that I guess are Salcantay and Veronica looming large on the horizon. Like snow-topped beasts, they pierce the clouds and I find it hard to believe anyone, ever, managed to build a whole palace and city in their midst.
The turning point in day 2 comes with the crossing of Dead Woman's Pass. I'd heard plenty of the difficulties of this great cleft in the Andes some 4,200 meters up. It's supposed to be the hardest section of the whole trek. I begin to see why.
Up there, where the air is thin and the clouds are closer than ever, the tree line is a distant memory. The winds and elements can flow freely through the pass, pushing the swaying highland grasses at their whim. My group pushes on up the dusty track, heaving their packs over each uneven stone with great effort. Around us are wide fields of grass and gorse. Above us, but not far, are the craggy tops of the mountains.
It's not long before we reach the highest point on the whole Camino Inca. It's marked with a sort of celebratory signpost. I breathe a sigh of relief and survey the trek before me. It goes sharply downwards from here, wiggling between streams and lichen-studded boulders back into the wooded depths beneath. Breathless, I don't linger long.
600 meters of kneecap-busting descent later and I find myself reclining on the stones of Pacamayo. It's a welcome sight, my tent pitch for the night. I am quick to unfurl the sleeping bag but not before an eye-watering sunset session with the vast Pacamayo Valley and the soaring distant cloud forests.
Day 3 – Following the footsteps of the Inca
Another early rise sees me up and strapping the boots on as the sunrise glow is beginning to highlight the snows on the tips of the Pacamayo peaks. There's a slight chill in the air but the breezes are fresh and bracing. I hurl on the pack and start putting one leg before the other once more.
The first challenge is an upwards hike to the mysterious keep of Runkuracay. This abandoned storehouse come outpost is one of the first tastes of the sheer audacity of the Incan construction. Perched on a precipice overlooking the high peaks of the Urubamba, it's dressed in centuries of moss and lichen, still haunted by the ghosts of the pre-Colombian peoples who once rested under its roof on their way to see the palace of the mighty Incan king.
I linger a moment to snap some shots but am speedily ushered on to scramble up more ledges of stone and mud. After around one more hour, the trail soon converts into faded black stones and weathered boulders. "That's the original Incan Trail," announces the guide. "From here, you follow in the very same footsteps as the ancients".
It's an exciting moment as I hop from one path to the next, joining the smooth rocks that have dressed this famous roadway since the 15th century. It doesn't ease the leg muscles, now pulsing with pain after having to scale the 4,000-meter-high pass of Abra de Runkuracay.
Then we're led to steep staircases carved straight into the edge of the mountain. They are narrow and precipitous and climb almost vertically at points upwards and into the remote ruined town of Sayacmarca. It's another glimpse of what's to come, those ruined houses and crooked roadways nestled thousands of meters up.
It's not long before the scenery changes dramatically once more. Cloud forest suddenly descends onto the path. Jungle vines swing this way and that. There are blooming orchids in technicolor and waxy flowers the likes of which I've never seen before. Humid mists feather through the mossy tree trunks and the chirps of insects and birds echoes throughout.
Then we're up at 3,700 meters again. The cloud forests break; the views take over. Crowning the horizon is hulking Salkantay peak and its brilliant white glacier crashing down from the summits. I stand breathless for the view and the altitude, looking out over the mighty serrations of the Andes and their snow-mantled silhouettes.
Close is Phuyupatamarca, what my guide has heralded as one of the most amazing sights on the whole trail. There are mystical Incan relics there, some religious baths and smattering of 500-year-old staircases to see.
I pitch my tent wearied and bewondered by the day, ready for sleep but hungry for more of the soaring panoramas and long-lost treasures that I know pepper the path to come.
Day 4 – The last push to the lost city
Yawns and stretches start me off before the sun has even touched the peaks of the Andes on the fourth day. Machu Picchu is tantalizingly close this morning, or at least that's what it looks like on the map.
We are quick to hit the trail and have been going for almost half an hour before the light begins to shoot through the trees. We pass into another section of cloud forest where the waxy leaves and the musty undergrowth are starting to illuminate. We spy out a staircase, carved straight into the stone and shooting upwards. We begin to scale. One step, two steps, three.
Then we spy it, suddenly unfolding on its narrow perch: Machu Picchu. Clinging like a limpet to a green plateau just a few hundred meters in the distance, it gleams ethereally in the morning sunlight. A clutch of stone walls and old brick structures cascades like a waterfall down from the tops of the Andes. The bends of the Urubamba River wiggle around the verdant valley thousands of meters below.
I'm swept with a sense of achievement as I make the last stretch of ancient roadway towards the palace. 4 days of trekking has revealed to me one of the greatest treasures of South America – nay, the world. Surrounded by photo-snapping folk each with their own tired legs and scuffed walking boots, I feel part of the privileged few. The few that today have a chance to glimpse the fabled lost city in the clouds.
The 4-day trek to Machu Picchu is an extra that you can do on LBW's Wonders of Peru itinerary. Alternatively, you can just hop up to see the majestic sight in a single day. Whichever you opt for, it's sure to strike a line from that bucket list!
"Rich is a traveler, writer and filmmaker who's always after somewhere new to go. He's been hopping around the globe since 2011, from Poland to Paris, Mumbai to Ho Chi Minh. He runs several travel sites of his own, from Ski Eastern to Live Krakow to Crabs Move Sideways. When he's not planning his next trip, he's usually listening to 50s jazz, surfing in Wales, skiing in the Alps, or just swigging (too much) great craft beer."
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