Approaching Machu Picchu on foot along Peru’s 32-km Inca Trail might sound the stuff of legend. Or, better still, the stuff of Tin Tin. In all honesty, however, it can be more trial than trail.

Taking the easy way up

This ancient Inca road has the irritating habit of scaling one 3,700-meter pass, only to then plunge down into a deep valley and confront one with another 3,700-meter pass. Then after having gone all the way down again, what does one find?

Oh joy!

Another 3,700-meter pass.

One haggard British backpacker summarized the experience: “All this going up is getting me down.” Walking the trail takes from three to five days.

To give it its due, the Inca Trail does offer views of snow-capped Andes peaks, worrying cliffs, cloud forest, cold wind-swept plateaux (known as puna) and some rather special ruins.

You can also expect to see night monkeys, hummingbirds and lots of other muddy people, some of them arguing bitterly about who gets to stay at the Intipunku (Gateway to the Sun) campsite.

The Incas had no horses. Indeed, until the Spanish brought them over, the entire “New World” had no horses. In prehistoric times the Americas swarmed with horses, but they all vanished under mysterious circumstances at about the same time the first humans crossed the Arctic land bridge and swept south.

A llama eyes an interloper at Machu Picchu

Instead of horses, the Incas used llamas and alpacas (a smaller, softer-wooled version). The two species are related to camels both physiologically and temperamentally. You really don’t want to annoy a llama. And you definitely do not want to try riding a llama along the Inca Trail. They don’t just look haughty. They do the most dreadful things with their teeth.

The alternative approach to “Inca Trailing” to Machu Picchu involves catching a bus from the regional capital, Cusco, to the very traditional town of Ollantaytambo. Cusco is distinguished by being the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in South America.

The area around both towns is filled with interesting Inca remains, farming terraces and ruins. Missing a visit to Pisac and the Sacred Valley is like going to Kyoto and skipping Nara.

In Ollantaytambo time hasn’t precisely stopped since the Inca empire spread across the Andes. It just doesn’t appear to have started with any recognizable enthusiasm.

Similarly, the train you join at Ollantaytambo for Machu Picchu was not built in the days of Rascar Carpac, He-Who-Unleashes-The-Fire- Of-Heaven.

It just looks that way.

Inca Trail pioneers disembark at Kilometer 88. Those with more sense (if not sense of adventure) proceed until this grandmother of all trains grinds geriatrically into the terminus at the small village of Aguas Calientes.

Aguas Calientes enjoys an informal little station and the most delightful location. It is surrounded by beetling spears of rock, each shrouded in mist-streaked cloud forest. At the village’s foot is a gorge through which the Urubamba river races on its heady rush to the Amazon basin.

True to its name, the village also has aguas calientes (hot springs) where one can soak away the aches of the train and any traces of altitude sickness that may linger if one is new to the refined, oxygen-thin air of the Andes.

Inca dry stone masonry

There is “luxury” accommodation close to the gates of Machu Picchu, but MENSA won’t be awarding any courtesy memberships to people who elect to stay there. Why pay more money and miss a night listening to the roar of the mighty Urubamba, the thermal springs and the dim twinkling lights of Peruvian restaurants winking through the forest mists?

High above the village and accessible by a shortish minibus ride is what the fuss is all about: Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas.

Even the normally reticent Lonely Planet guidebook calls it “the best known and most spectacular archaeological site on the continent.”

This lofty citadel was never conquered by the Spanish. No one knows why the inhabitants left, or where they went. It is assumed they vanished into the Amazon.

Machu Picchu was subsequently suffocated by cloud forest and utterly forgotten until the enterprising American adventurer Hiram Bingham turned up in 1911.

Following circuitous leads, hearsay, drunken advice and the combination of luck and grim determination that would later make him a political power in his native U.S., Bingham hit South America’s archaeological jackpot.

The Incas lacked various things much of the rest of the world at that time took for granted. The wheel (hence the need for all those grumpy llamas). Steel. Writing.

Ingenuity, though, the Incas had in abundance. Every stone laid in Machu Picchu was carved and set without mortar, using either obsidian tools or tactically applied water which then froze and expanded. The expansion shattered unwanted extrusions of rock. The stones are so closely set in some structures that it is impossible to insert a knife blade between them.

The ruins look as impressive as a National Geographic or Japan Times Nature Travel column photo. They look better. All the key ingredients are there. Temples. Odd stone calendars. Palaces. Dungeons. Those ingenious Inca staircases that make it so easy to fall on your head. The Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock.

What makes Machu Picchu stand apart though is that American yuppie cliche — location, location, location.

Although the builders, stone suppliers and transport llamas must have complained bitterly, Machu Picchu is set in impregnable majesty surrounded by mountains and plunging gorges.

A hellish environment to build anything in. But with one undeniable asset: no nouveau riche, newly arrived, gold-crazed Spanish neighbors.

Climbing the forested spike of Huayna Picchu that thrusts up in front of the ruins offers the most dramatic view of the site. If luck is on your side you might even see an Andean condor with a 3-meter wingspan floating timelessly on the thermals.

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