The Incas built an enormous set of trails that spanned their empire, enabling them to cross great distances relatively rapidly. These trails were well maintained, and by using chasquis (messengers), messages or goods could be sent all over the empire very quickly. Each chasqui would run a leg of approximately 10km before passing on the message to the next chasqui. For example, it was said that fish from the port of Puerto Inca, south of Nazca, could get to Cusco, 250km and many mountain passes away, in under 24 hours. Even today, a bus to from Cusco to Nazca, about the same distance, takes approximately 18 hours!
What is known as the Inca Trail is in fact only one of many Inca trails in the Cusco area, a number of which are still in use today by locals. However, this trail has become famous due to its final destination: Machu Picchu. Undoubtedly the best way to arrive at Machu Picchu is on foot, catching your first glimpse of this beautiful site from the Inti Punku, the sun gate. In addition to the incredible final destination, the trail itself is superb. The change in scenery and vegetation, as the walk first rises to 4,200m before descending into the cloud forest, is fantastic. The trail also helps give some important background information to Machu Picchu. Rather than being a lost city, completely isolated, the many ruins on the route help to place Machu Picchu in context. The Inca Trail is enclosed in the area known as the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary, and is a very important natural, as well as archaeological, reserve. It is, in fact, one of only 23 UNESCO Cultural and Natural World Heritage Sites, with all the others only in one or the other category. The flora that is seen, including many varieties of orchids, is fabulous, and there is also the chance to see some interesting wildlife, including condors if you are lucky. The whole walk is very beautiful, and it is easy to understand how it has become one of the most popular treks in the world.
The trek has become so popular, in fact, that it could hardly be called a walk in the wilderness. In addition to people on your group, hundreds of people start the trail each day. It is impossible to walk the trail without seeing other people, so walk the trail prepared: expect beautiful ruins and stunning scenery, but do not expect an escape from the hordes of tourists in Cusco. Fewer groups begin the trail on Sundays, so start on this day if you want the trail a bit more to yourself.
The trail had been getting so crowded that it was virtually being destroyed. People were camping in many places, including those that were supposedly forbidden. Open campfires were being lit, destroying the environment, and litter was becoming a real problem. To counter this, the INC (Peru’s National Institute of Culture) introduced some very strict regulations in 2000. It is now only possible to walk the trail as part of an official group through an agency with authorisation. Camping is in specific sites only. No open fires are allowed all agencies carry natural gas cylinders for cooking. The entrance fee for walking the trail is now $50, and there are checkpoints throughout the trail ensuring that regulations are being followed. The situation is now improving, although there is still some way to go.
The full Inca Trail is approximately 40km long, and spread over 4 days, this amounts to relatively little walking per day. Generally, there is no more than about five hours walking per day, although you can walk at your own pace – you are not forced to walk with your group the whole time. It is not a very difficult walk, although there are a couple of high passes, and a steep climb on the second day, so a basic level of fitness is required. It can be walked in trainers, although walking boots are preferable.
For those who do not have the time or inclination for the four-day trail, a shorter walk, The Sacred Trail, has been introduced. This is much shorter than the full Inca Trail, being only about 14km in total, and is generally walked in two days. As with the Inca Trail, the Sacred Walk must be done on an accompanied tour.
If you fancy doing a trek through beautiful Andean scenery to some important Inca ruins, but do not like the idea of having to go on an organised tour or being with so many other tourists, there are a couple of alternatives. The walk to the impressive ruins of Choquequirau is very beautiful, perhaps even more so than the Inca Trail, and is walked by few tourists at the moment. The walk to Vilcabamba La Vieja (also known as Espiritu Pampa) is also very beautiful and ends up at the last bastion of the Inca Empire.
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