Published: December 2008/January 2009
On the Inca’s Trail
Conquering Peru’s Amazon wilderness, ancient ruins, and newfound treasures is easier than ever.
Text by Robert Earle Howells

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.

1. Machu Picchu
Face the Undisputed Andes Champ

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).

2. Cotahuasi River
Raft a Grander Canyon

The chance to run whitewater in a canyon twice the depth of the Grand is reason enough to head for the Cotahuasi—and the rapids truly are extraordinary: At its late-spring peak, the froth flows for a hundred miles at continuous Class IV, with some stretches of Class V. Set out from the so-called White City, Arequipa, a former Spanish colonial settlement built mostly of pearly volcanic rock. From there, a 15,500-foot pass leads to the remote village of Cotahuasi, "a happy little place in the middle of nowhere," as BioBio Expeditions river guide Marc Goddard puts it. Then take a ten-mile, mule-assisted hike skirting thundering Sipia Falls before commencing seven rollicking days on the river.

Vitals: The Cotahuasi is at its best in May and June. BioBio Expeditions runs an 11-day trip starting June 6 ($3,300; bbxrafting.com).

3. Choquequirau
Trek to Machu Picchu’s Cool Kid Sister

Choquequirau is the Quechua word for "Inca ruin without hordes of tourists arriving by train." (Actually, it means "cradle of gold.") Machu Picchu’s sister city, tucked into the saddle of a 9,950-foot cloud forest ridge in the Andes, is nearly as impressive in size, stonework, and design. Outsiders discovered Choquequirau more than 300 years ago, but restoration began only in 1993. Even today, just a third has been excavated. Getting there is tough, but that means the site sees just a tiny fraction of Machu Picchu’s visitation and that permits can be arranged on the fly. The two-day trek starts in the town of Cachora, five hours from Cusco by bus. From there, a 20-mile trail plummets 5,000 feet to the Apurímac River, then climbs 4,000 feet to the ruins, where you can pitch camp outside—without another tourist in sight.

Vitals: Amazon Trails Perú offers a four-day camping trek ($490, including luggage transport by horses; amazontrailsperu.com).

4. Kuelap & the World’s Third Highest Waterfall
Explore the Mysteries of the North

Long before the Inca swept through Peru, the Chachapoya people of the northern Andes established a mountaintop city called Kuelap (circa 500 a.d.) that holds its own in any battle of ancient engineering marvels. It’s been known to the modern world since 1843, when it was hailed as northern Peru’s "Tower of Babel," but since it didn’t have Hiram Bingham (and National Geographic’s ink) to tout its glories like Machu Picchu did, Kuelap remains little known and rarely visited to this day. The monumental fortress is an easy 23-mile drive south from the town of Chachapoyas. Kuelap has only three entrances, each a narrow staircase that slices through the outside wall, leading to a city of hundreds of limestone structures inside. Near Chachapoyas, you can also trek to the two-tiered, 2,530-foot Gocta Waterfall, the third highest in the world.

Vitals: The best way to reach Chachapoyas is to fly to the coastal city of Chiclayo from Lima. From there, take an overnight bus to Chachapoyas and explore the region on your own ($35; moviltours.com.pe). World Class Travel also offers a six-day combo that visits Kuelap and Gocta ($874, including transfers; peruperu.com).

5. Cusco & the Sacred Valley
Find Your Comfort Zone

The base camp for Machu Picchu and one-time capital of the Inca Empire is today’s Kathmandu of Peru—a nexus of outfitters packed with great cheap eateries, five-star hotels, and open-air vendors crowding the narrow cobbled lanes (hawking alpaca sweaters instead of prayer flags). The altitude here (11,500 feet) dictates a go-slow strategy for gradual acclimation, so take a few days to explore locally. Just above the city sits the Inca fortress of Sacsahuaman, an eerie architectural wonder built with stones weighing hundreds of thousands of pounds each. About 11 miles northeast of Cusco, the terraced village of Pisac becomes a vast indigenous market on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays, where Quechua-speaking locals sell woven hats to the tune of panpipe music. The Sacred Valley of the Inca merits a day to ogle more mind-blowing ruins, notably the massive pink granite complex at Ollantaytambo, and is just 32 miles away, accessible by train, bus, or cab.

Vitals: Cusco is reachable by daily flights from Lima. Overnight at the budget Amazon Hostal (doubles from $36; amazonhotelcusco.com) or relax at the comfortable Midori Hotel (doubles from $90, including airport transfer; midori-cusco.com).