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Hiking Peru’s Inca Trail to Machu Picchu

Hike to South America's acropolis.
peru, machu picchu, inca trail, hikingMachu Picchu means "Old Mountain" in Quechua. (Tom Till)

The Perfect Circle: Hiking the Annapurna Circuit | Chile’s Torres del Paine Circuit | Corsica’s GR 20 | Peru’s Inca Trail to Machu Picchu | Italy’s Alta Via 1 | New Zealand’s Milford Track | England’s Pennine Way | Tanzania’s Mt. Kilimanjaro | Everest Base Camp, Tibet | Tour du Mont Blanc

Classic cred  Nestled into a remote mountainside, Machu Picchu floats like a castle in the sky. It’s perched high above the Urubamba River chasm and surrounded by spiked peaks carpeted in orchids–more than 220 species have been identified in the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary. A network of smaller ruins lines this 20-mile, four-day route: The trail hugs the frothing Urubamba before climbing through cloud forest to Warmiwanusqa (Dead Woman Pass) at a lung-straining 13,780 feet. Plunge past the ruins of Runkuracay and continue over Inca-era paving stones that wind through the ancient fortresses of Sayamarca and Winay Wayna, where the neighboring youth hostel spins Euro-pop into the night. Next morning, rise before dawn and join the glittering chain of headlamps bobbing toward Intipunktu–the Sun Gate, where hikers watch the day’s first rays illuminate Machu Picchu’s expertly crafted stone walls.

Beta  In 2001, Peru imposed trekking regulations requiring all hikers to travel with a licensed tour operator–which is saving the trail from the trashing it took in years past. Guides provide tents and food; you bring boots, backpack, and raingear. Avoid monsoon season (November through April), when low-lying clouds shroud the scenery and the trail’s epic views. Go in May, when skies are clearer and crowds haven’t yet peaked (high season is June through early September). Fly into Cusco from Lima and join your guide for a 37-mile bus ride to Ollantaytambo and the Inca Trailhead.

Local’s tip  Peruvian kids often line the trail, offering to carry your pack at the precise moment that you’re feeling most defeated. They’ll want some money for their trouble, of course. Pack plenty of small bills and change. And save some for the hostel at Winay Wayna: It sells bottled beer but refuses notes larger than 20 nuevo soles (about $7).

Plan it  Book your guide four months in advance: Pachamama Explorers emphasizes cultural and ecological sustainability by supporting local projects, paying porters fairly, and packing out, instead of burying, all trekking trash (pmexplorers.com). All full? Check for last-minute openings with SAS Travel in Cusco (sastravelperu.com), one of the biggest local guide services, offering several departures per week.

Cost  Guided: $-$$

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