You look down at deep river gorges and up at snow-clad mountain peaks. There are moments when you may be the only person on the trail and yet feel as though there are other beings there with you. You may feel a spirituality of place, an intense awareness of time and place.
You may also be surrounded by other tourists. The Inca Trail is a highly popular way of getting to Machu Picchu. You may walk it alone with a group or with a guided tour complete with porters and meals provided. When I first walked it, the journey was definitely an expedition with little creature comforts. However you choose to make the trip you'll see splendors of nature. In addition to other charges for tours, guides and equipment there is a fee to walk the Trail, but it includes a day at Machu Picchu. Bring clothing for cold and hot temperatures, sturdy walking shoes, and enough drinking water for the three day walk.
There are some basic rules to walking the Trail enforced by the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary police. Many of these you'll know from trekking elsewhere.
Although some visitors make the journey in three days, the trail is extremely strenuous, even for physically fit people. The combination of the climb, plus the altitude, makes a four day trip less arduous. A typical four day walk would be as follows:
Leave the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes at the Km88 stop. Here you will purchase your trekking permit for Peruvian soles, available only at the visitor center. Cross the suspension bridge over the Urubamba to begin your journey. The trail is initially easy climbing toward the little settlement of Huayllabamba where you can buy refreshments. The trail next becomes steep, becoming more so as you climb higher.
You'll see ruins of Llactapata on your way to the meadow under the First Pass where you'll camp at Llulluchapampa high above the tree line. You'll have excellent views back down the valley. In fact, at some of the better-known spots along the trail, you might have to wait your turn at the more scenic vantage points.
Get an early start for the steepest part of the climb to First Pass, Warmiwanuqa or Dead Woman Pass at 4200 m. (13,860 ft). Climb this at your own pace. I found this to be the hardest part and it was difficult to take in enough oxygen. I thought I was in good shape, but at this point I was puffing like a steam engine and glad of the chance to sit down, relax for a bit to enjoy the scenery and take some great photos.
Next, the trail goes downhill to the Pacaymayo River as steeply as it came up. You'll begin the ascent to the Second Pass or Runcuracay Pass at 3850 m. (12,705 ft) and pass the ruins at Runkuracay . You'll see the ovoid shaped building called the Egg Hut. The view is great from here, too. Once over Second Pass you'll come across the ruins at Sayacmarca, Inaccessible or Dominant Town, at 3707 m. (12,234 feet) which is a good place to stop for a breather.
From there you'll keep on downhill to the valley bottom go through some forest and then go through a 20 m. (66 feet) long tunnel that the Incas made through the rock. You'll find impressive evidence of Inca road construction with its six feet wide and carefully constructed stone-paved trails. The climb to Third Pass is a gentle one but it becomes quite narrow as it winds along the ledge. This unnerved me a bit, but others don't seem to mind at all. At the top of the pass is a flat area which makes a good camping spot if it is late in the day.