Trek the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu
The reward for trekking through the Peruvian Andes comes on day four, when you see the famed Incan ruins spread below, bathed in the first rays of sunlight.
At about 7 a.m., a guide pointed to one last uphill. "That's the Sun Gate," he said, referring to the entrance upper-crust Inca had used when they arrived. We scrambled up steps and snaked around a pillar, and there were the ruins spread below us. Bathed in the first rays of sun, the compound was more dazzling than any photos of it I'd ever seen.
In the shadow of Wayna Picchu, the peak many people climb for an overview, we stood agog before the astrological observatory, elevated like a raised chalice, and had our sacred moment in the Temple of the Condor. After an hour or so of taking everything in, we all collapsed on the grass in the main plaza, elated and proud to have earned the view (in our minds) far more than the incoming train-takers. As Robb said, in his best fatherly tone, "It's the things you really work for that mean the most." Even though my legs were still screaming, I had to agree.
When to Go
During summer, up to 2,000 people a day visit the ruins. For lower rates and fewer crowds, September through early November, and April into early May—the start and end of the rainy season—are ideal.
Round-trip flights between Miami and Cuzco start at $470 on American Airlines, connecting via Lima (aa.com). The PeruRail train ride to Machu Picchu is a three-hour journey to the town of Aguas Calientes, where a 30-minute shuttle delivers visitors to the site (perurail.com). If you want to make this four-day trek, SAS Travel offers daily departures, and you can return to Cuzco by train (sastravelperu.com, from $500 per person including meals, a tent, and a sleeping mat). Book a porter to carry your bags ($60 for 20 lbs., $120 for 40 lbs.)—unless you're really ready to test your stamina.
What to Pack
Good hiking shoes, a rain jacket, a sun hat, pants that zip off to shorts, and a walking stick (pick one up in Cuzco). You can rent a sleeping bag and a backpack from your tour operator.
Where to Stay
Before venturing to Machu Picchu, visitors have to acclimate to the altitude with a night or two in Cuzco. For a cultural experience, consider staying with an Andean family through Peru Treks & Adventure (perutreks.com/projects-homestay.html, $15 a person including breakfast and dinner).
Where to Splurge
Spending a night or two in Aguas Calientes, the only town near Machu Picchu, enables you to tackle the site first thing in the morning, well before the first train passengers arrive. The Rupa Wasi Condor House Ecolodge has suites with cloud-forest views (rupawasi.net, double suite $99, including breakfast). The bar at the stylishly rustic El Mapi inn serves the perfect post-trek pisco sour (mapi-inn.com, doubles $210).
IN YOUR WORDS
"Pictures fail to do it justice, though I took my fair share. Llamas run around, completely unfazed by humans. We, however, were delighted by them and couldn't help but giggle at the tourists who flattened themselves against a wall as the llamas waltzed by." —Sara Chapman, Seoul, South Korea