Peru: Hiking the Inca Trail
The trek via the Inca Trail to the "Lost City" of Machu Picchu, the 500-year-old Inca ruin located in the Peruvian Andes, is one of the most popular adventure trips in South America. Only about 200 hikers are permitted per day (500 people total on the trail, including guides and porters), so planning in advance is essential.
The Inca Trail is a four-day, 45-kilometer hike through mountains, cloud forests, and sub-tropical jungles in Peru. While reasonably fit people can generally handle the trek, it can be difficult for those traveling from low-lying areas to acclimate to the elevation: 14,000 feet above sea level. Typically, travelers spend two or more days prior to the trek in Cusco, the city at the beginning of the trek which is known as the "Archaeological Capital of the Americas."
Even so, Dan Pridgen of South Carolina hiked the Inca Trail with his wife in 2003, and felt challenged by the elevation. "Though we trained for two months and walked over 400 miles in preparation, our training was on the pancake flat coastal plain of South Carolina ... the 4,000 foot gain in altitude from the 10,000 foot starting point was without a doubt the most strenuous hike of our lives."
The culmination of the trek is arriving at Machu Picchu at sunrise, which means getting up before dawn on the final day. Pridgen recounts his experience: "It is pitch dark on the trail and the many separate groups are hiking in a long, sinuous line through the forest ... the spectacle of this long train of hikers with flashlights bobbing in the night was extremely eerie and a highlight of the trip. The vision of the Lost City from the Sun Gate at sunrise will never be forgotten by anyone having seen [it]." Molly Feltner, as associate editor at SmarterTravel.com agrees, recalling that when she visited in August, she found Machu Picchu "very mystical looking. It feels like you're discovering it all over again."
A host of tour companies offer guided Inca Trail treks at varying prices. For the lowest prices, and to ensure proper treatment of the porters on the treks, it's best to use a local company. Two reputable Peruvian companies include United Mice and SAS Adventure Travel, with trips from $400 and $375 respectively. Andean Travel Web is also an excellent resource for information on travel to Peru, including Inca Trail treks.