The Inca Trail Trek in Peru is one of the world’s most famous trekking holidays and Machu Picchu, the destination, was the archaeological find of the 20th century. The traditional Inca trail hike is just 33km long but takes you on a magnificent four-day journey through cloud forests and over stunning peaks, past beautiful ruins onto the lost city of the Incas, built over 500 years ago, deserted and left untouched until 1911. This is an introduction to walking the trail, it provides useful background information and an overview on what to expect when trekking the Inca trail and how to prepare for this memorable experience.
There are many books written on Machu Picchu and the Inca Empire. For a greater insight before your Inca trail tour we recommend reading Lost City of the Incas by Hiram Bingham, the man who discovered the ruins. The Inca Empire dominated Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador for just over 100 years from approximately 1430-1530. During this time the various tribes united and a great civilization grew. Their advances in medicine, agriculture and civil engineering were not surpassed anywhere in the world at the time. Southern and central America became of great interest to the Spanish, as it boasted many riches, including an abundance of gold which the Incas never appreciated their fascination with. After the conquest of the Mayan and Aztec cultures, the conquistadors, led by Pizarro, headed into Peru and the Inca Empire. In 1532 they executed the great Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, and for the next thirty years the Spanish grew in dominance setting up the present day capital, Lima, while the remaining Incas lived virtually independently high in the Andean Mountains. Vitcos was the military headquarters of this isolated civilization and Vilcapampa was the major royal residency which was never discovered by the Spanish. The last stand of the Incas was led by Tupac Amaru, but in 1572 he was captured and executed and with him the last remnants of the Inca culture disappeared.
The Discovery of Machu Picchu
So what was Machu Picchu, it was not mentioned in any of the conquistadors’ accounts? Hiram Bingham, was a professor at Yale who yearned for fame. He set up the South America Collection at the University and was consistently seeking sponsorship to explore the continent. He was inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s Explore: ‘Something hidden! Go and find it! Go and look beyond the ranges – something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you! Go!’ It should also be noted at the same time Bingham was discovering Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, Conan Doyle was releasing his book The Lost World. All this adds to the romance of the discovery of Machu Picchu and his story lends itself to the image of explorers looking for ancient treasures in unchartered lands. Bingham actually went in search of the lost city of Vitcos, the last capital of the Incas where Manco Inca ruled, but, as with all explorers, he lived on rumours and hearsay and, having set off out of Cusco, he stayed with locals who talked about ruins up on the hill. He went there the next day and paid little attention to what he found leaving a few members of the team to excavate the site while he went on in search of Vitcos. His search was not in vein and he successfully discovered both Vitcos and Espiritu Pampa (Vilcapampa), the last Inca stronghold for Tupac Amaru high up the Vilcapampa Valley. When he returned a year later he realised the extent of the site he had stumbled on after the initial excavations and the legend of Machu Picchu began to take shape. Bingham publicised the findings in National Geographic and it captured the imagination of the world at the time; the discovery of an ancient world on such a scale, in such an inspiring location was unrivalled. Over the next few years he not only excavated the site but also the sites which lead up to Machu Picchu; uncovering the Inca Trail and the mystery began to be unravelled. It’s well worth trying to see the original pullout poster of the excavation work at Machu Picchu in National Geographic to help understand the magnitude of this find. It essentially created the Hollywood image of explorers discovering lost tombs and treasures.
What was Machu Picchu?
No one can blame Bingham for dismissing the site initially as just a few rural buildings – it was not chronicled anywhere. However there is no doubt, due its scale and amazing stonemasonry, this was an important site which played a central role in the Inca Empire and a must when trekking the Inca trail. It’s very probable that the site was deserted before the conquistadors’ arrival, hence them not mentioning it in any chronicles and its untouched survival. The most plausible explanation of its role is it was built as a retreat for the most powerful of all Inca Emperors, Pachacuti. His descendents did the same at other sites and this would explain it being uninhabited after his death and therefore lying unnoticed during the conquistador invasion. Other theories are it was a place of religious importance and the remains up the Inca Trail were associated with the spiritual journey to the citadel. Other theories include an ancient observatory or frontier trading post, which reduced in importance as the Empire expanded. On our Inca Trail holidays you’ll be able to make your own interpretation of the ruins. Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail have this amazing romantic tie and it’s easy to see why.
The Inca Trail – our four options
We offer six trips which incorporate the Inca Trail
Find out which one is most suitable for you…
The Inca Trail | 11 Days
Short 11 day trip focused on completing the Inca Trail. Approx. cost USD1,950.
The High Inca Trail | 16 Days
16 day trip with a more challenging, extended 7-day trek to Machu Picchu.
Approx. cost USD2,700
Empire of the Inca | 15 Days
15 day trip, taking in Peru’s main highlights, such as Lake Titicaca, Arequipa
and the Sacred Valley. Approx. cost USD2,400
Footsteps of the Incas | 15 Days
15 day tour which combines trekking the trail, with a better standard of
accommodation. Approx. cost USD3,200
Classic Peru | 22 Days
22 day comprehensive tour of Peru, as per Empire of the Inca with additional
sights such as Lake Titicaca, Nazca, Puno. Approx. cost USD2,700
Teens on the Trail | 15 Days
Active 15 day trip for families, including white water rafting, mountain biking,
city tours and the trail. Approx. cost USD2,800