It's not the altitude that takes your breath away

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It's 100 years since Machu Picchu was rediscovered, but Alex Stewart finds there's still enough solitude on the Inca Trail for him to play Indiana Jones

As the sun's last rays arrowed through clefts in the mountains around me and blushed the snows, glaciers and cornices that crowned the summits, the first few stars of the southern constellations began to stud the vast skies overhead.

I peered at them through a curtain of steam that rose from a Jacuzzi at the luxury lodge next to the plain where I was camping. The short swim in a glacial tarn that I'd taken earlier didn't compare at all favourably with the relaxing soak that guests can enjoy at the attractive alpine-style lodge.

I was on one of the alternative Inca routes to Machu Picchu. Although people frequently refer to the Inca Trail in the singular, there are, in fact, many interconnected paths, underpinning the expansion of the Inca empire and linking ceremonial centres such as Machu Picchu.

I first came to Peru in the mid-1990s with a couple of friends, my head full of stories of lost cities, fuelled by repeats of Raiders of the Lost Ark, during the opening sequence of which Harrison Ford braves a booby-trapped temple hidden in the Peruvian jungle to steal a solid gold idol. At that time, Machu Picchu, the archetypal lost city dating from the mid-15th century and symbolising the might and ambition of the Incas, was already popular. Yet you could still trek the traditional Inca Trail to the ruins independently, without the support of guides, porters and camp crew.

Armed with nothing but a poorly printed sketch map from the South American Explorers Club, we set off from Km88, a stop without even a station on the Cusco to Aguas Calientes rail line, surrounded by mountains that reared up left, right and centre. As we started up the Cusichaca Valley, we encountered our first Inca ruin, Llactapata, a series of vast terraces strung along the hillsides like high tide marks on a beach. At Huayllabamba, the hamlet halfway up the valley, we took on the locals in an ill-advised game of high-altitude football. Run ragged by powerful legs and acclimatised lungs, we toasted the champions with chicha, the "Champagne of the Incas", which we had to sieve through our teeth to filter the fermented maize.

Beyond this last settlement, we wild-camped where the mood took us, alongside spectacular Inca ruins, on top of high passes, and even at the entrance to Machu Picchu itself. The site, straddling the saddle of a high mountain thick with rainforest and wreathed in clouds, had an enormous impact on me. Ahead, the rhino-horn peak of Huayna Picchu punched through the swirling mist and the Urubamba River roared through a hairpin bend hundreds of metres below. I have returned repeatedly since to explore the sculpted stones and surrounding area.

In the interim, Machu Picchu's popularity has increased dramatically. The distinctive image of the ruins now pervades the imagination to such an extent that the site is synonymous with Peru. It's hard to conceive that as little as 100 years ago Machu Picchu was unknown to all but a tiny handful of farmers and traders.

Abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquest, it was subsumed by the fast-growing jungle. Although conquistadors overran the Inca empire, they failed to find the city, and Machu Picchu's mountainside scatter of stone buildings and neat terraces lay hidden, forgotten for more than 400 years.

Until 1911, the site escaped the attentions of adventurers and academics just as it had evaded the conquistadors. But in July of that year, the colourful American explorer Hiram Bingham, the original inspiration for Indiana Jones, followed a recently cleared trail through these mountains. A local farmer then led him to Machu Picchu, arriving at the site on 24 July, 100 years ago.

Since its "rediscovery", huge numbers of visitors have descended. This, and the frequency with which Machu Picchu's image has subsequently been broadcast, has not led to the ruins being well understood. On the contrary, the site is now so familiar that we no longer realise how little we know about it. What is sure is that there was no previous settlement on the site; it was built to a masterplan; some constructions were unfinished; it was never a centre for Chosen Women or Virgins of the Sun and spacemen weren't involved in any way.

In response to the increase in visitor numbers, the Peruvian government restricted access to the Inca Trail in 2001 and began to promote alternative routes to the ruins. The classic Inca Trail that my friend and I first took remains the most popular and is rightly considered one of the great walks of the world. However, these days it is highly regulated, tightly managed and necessarily a far cry from the isolated experience we were fortunate enough to enjoy. Happily, alternatives still exist.

The Santa Teresa or Salkantay Trek is sometimes referred to as the backdoor route to the ruins. Less heavily regulated, it also allows you, should you choose, to avoid reliving childhood memories of cold, uncomfortable nights under canvas by staying in lodges with heated rooms and warm water. The greatest luxury on this route, though, is to escape the crowds that on the classic trail frequently constitute half the view.

The path begins in the village of Mollepata, a short drive from Cusco, the picturesque, historic capital of the Incas, and from there eases into the mountains. A short walk brought me and my wife, Katie, to a campsite at Soraypampa, next to the lodge with the Jacuzzi. The hot tub in front of this thatched, adobe-walled hotel is not just popular because of its pampering properties; it also has unparalleled views of the perfect pyramidal peak of Mount Salkantay, the sacred "Savage Mountain" of the Inca's. Local staff refer to notable features in the landscape as tirakuna, "the ones who watch over us". The snow peaks they call apus, and revere as deities.

As evening temperatures dropped and we wrestled our tent up, we couldn't help but feel a little envious of the cosseted trekkers in the lodge. It's run by Mountain Lodges of Peru, a boutique franchise of smart, rural hotels, whose guests would be treated as Inca nobility. Each of the lodges offers a level of comfort out of keeping with its harsh surroundings. Simply but comfortably furnished, it also offers a retreat from the cold. While we dined on pasta and tuna, the lodge's guests would be tucking into squash soup, stuffed trout and cherimoya (custard apple) mousse, washed down with perfectly prepared pisco sours.

But I have always enjoyed the simplicity of being somewhere wild. Living in tents doesn't have to involve discomfort. These days, with groups required to take a guide and porters or arrieros (muleteers) to wrangle the pack animals for you, trekking to Machu Picchu doesn't mean roughing it. Tea and warm bowls of water are brought to you at dawn, and cocktail times are keenly observed.

I suppose this is what people mean when they accuse the Inca Trail and treks to Machu Picchu of being over-commercialised. The irony is that the Inca Trail was never intended to be a wilderness experience but was designed as a pilgrimage route, an elaborately paved pathway along which the Sapa Inca himself could be conveyed on a litter. What's more, no amount of pampering can conceal that the routes are tough treks given the terrain, altitude and remoteness.

The next morning, a strenuous climb up a series of serpentine switchbacks ensured we started the day caked in a muck-sweat, with our blood pounding in our ears. As we crested the 4,600m Apacheta pass, the altitude had us lurching like drunks. From here, the views of Salkantay's intimidating south face reared above and took away the last of our breath.

Descending from the pass we soon dropped through pampa, puna and pasture into las cejas de la selva, the Eyebrows of the Jungle, those fringes of the cloud forest that swarm up the slopes. The days ahead showcased the flora and birdlife of different altitudes. Hummingbirds and butterflies fussed around flowering spikes of agaves, orchids, and bromeliads.

On the last day, we finally glimpsed our reason for making the journey: Machu Picchu, on a ridge right in front of us. It sprawled, ethereal in the hazy light, in harmony with its setting. From here you can't see the ugly scribble of road that climbs up from Aguas Calientes and greets trekkers stepping off the classic Inca Trail. You can appreciate the untarnished splendour of the site: the sheer scale of the place; the stones arranged with mathematical precision standing on a spur of rock; the muddle of gorges and spires that surround it.

In a trek full of literal and metaphorical high points, Machu Picchu is the last in a succession of breathtaking views. And it is a site worth walking all the way to see. With the advent of portered groups and even the arrival of lodges along the trails, the landscape has been tamed. Yet its drama remains undiminished and the final view retains its power to silence you. However you get there, your aching feet and bursting lungs will convince you that you've earnt this privilege.

Alex Stewart is the author of the Trailblazer Guide to the Inca Trail, Cusco and Machu Picchu, to be published next month, price £12.99

Compact Facts

How to get there

Return flights from London to Cusco, via Madrid and Lima, start t £1,200 with Lan (0800 977 6100; lan.com) and Iberia (0870 609 0500; Iberia.com). For the trek/campsites on the backdoor route to Machu Picchu, sign up with reliable local agencies: Q'ente (qente.com) or SAS Travel (sastravel peru.com), with offices in Lima and Cusco. A five-day/four-night trek costs from £316 with return transfers to the trailhead, equipment, tents, food, guide, porters, cook, etc. UK operators with these treks include: Journey Latin America (020-3432 1539; journey latinamerica.co.uk), Exodus (0845 287 7604; exodus.co.uk) and Andean Trails (0131-467 7086; andeantrails.co.uk). A similar trip through Mountain Lodges of Peru (mountainlodgesofperu.com) costs about £1,619 each, based on two sharing, not including international flights.

Further information

Visit Peru (visitperu.com); South American Explorers (saexplorers.org); andeantravelweb.com/peru.

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