Every trekker who tackles the 5,900-foot gain of Peru’s Inca Trail eventually ponders an ancient mystery: Were the folks who carved the original route to Machu Picchu awesomely adapted to high-mountain life? Or just oblivious to little courtesies that future visitors from sea level might appreciate, like switchbacks?
Fortunately, the thigh-busting Inca austerity program is now optional, since a slew of private operators have invested in Peru’s once rustic tourist infrastructure over the past few years. This recent boost has made discovering the Lost City more feasible than ever and raised standards of accessibility across the country. These days, Peru’s lesser known classics—from high-altitude ruins to damp lowland jungles to colonial cities—are within easy reach on a weeklong itinerary, so you can set the level of challenge as high (or low) as you please.
It’s easy to see why the Lost City of the Inca got misplaced, so dramatically hidden is its perch at 7,970 feet, beneath the cloud forested spire of Huayna Picchu. A 2,000-foot drop-off to the roiling Urubamba below guards its three riverside flanks. Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century as a royal religious retreat for Inca rulers, and the supernatural majesty of its stone facades and terraces makes it one of the world’s most compelling sites, even if it’s besieged by 2,000 visitors a day. The 24-mile Inca Trail is the trophy approach, but it requires making reservations up to four months in advance with licensed outfitters—and the will to challenge steep, 15,000-foot passes. (Watching your porters dance up the hills in flip-flops is a humbling reminder that Inca messengers once sprinted this route.) Less crowded alternatives include the 35-mile Camino Salcantay and the off-the-radar, 20.5-mile Lares Trek. Or you can zip to Machu Picchu in a single day by taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes and catching a shuttle from there. You’ll have plenty of company.
Vitals: Mountain Travel Sobek outfits the Inca Trail (ten days, $3,795; mtsobek.com), while Amazon Trails Perú offers a Lares Trek hike (four days, $451; amazontrailsperu.com). Mountain Lodges of Peru leads trips along the Salcantay (seven days, $2,500; mountainlodgesofperu.com). The daily train from Cusco takes four hours ($48 one way; perurail.com).