Traveller's Guide: The Inca Empire

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A century after Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the dramatic ruins of Machu Picchu, Mick Webb explores the trails and cities the Incas left behind

One rainy July day in 1911, after an arduous journey through the dense jungle of the Urubamba Valley in deepest Peru, the American academic and adventurer, Hiram Bingham, came upon the sculpted terraces and granite buildings of Machu Picchu. "It seemed like an unbelievable dream," he wrote later. Recently unearthed evidence suggests that he was not the discoverer of the ruined city and that a German entrepreneur called Augusto Berns had found Machu Picchu, and indeed looted it, 40 years earlier. But Bingham successfully publicised its existence. A century on, the former Inca ceremonial site has become Latin America's leading tourist icon and a Unesco World Heritage site.

This is the year of the Inca. The people who, according to legend, emerged from the Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca, extended their power over the barren altiplano and across the Andes to create the most powerful empire in the Americas.

At its height, it extended from present-day southern Colombia in the north to northern Chile in the south, and from the shores of the Pacific to the Amazon Basin. The empire included much of present-day Peru – and chunks of Bolivia – and covered an area around twice the size of France. Between 15 to 20 million people owed allegiance to the emperor – until the Spanish arrived in the 1520s. Over the course of a bloody half-century, the conquistadores used a combination of audacity, cunning and brutality to crush the Inca Empire.

The Spanish damaged but could never destroy the magnificent creations of the Incas, from mighty walls in the imperial capital to thousands of miles of paths that still form the only thoroughfares in the Andes. And in 2011, the year that many travellers will judge as the optimum time to explore this part of South America, around one million visitors are likely to converge on Machu Picchu.

Even though it was located along something of a cul-de-sac amid the network of pedestrian super-highways, Machu Picchu symbolises the might and ambition of the Incas. The starting point for trekkers – and for any explorer of the Inca Empire – is the imperial capital, Cusco. About 3,300m high in the Andes, well inland and 600km from the current Peruvian capital, Lima, it is a huge tourist attraction despite its remoteness. The city's lively nightlife has become a strong draw as well as the historical allure of its colonial Spanish architecture and Inca remains. The best way to deal with the high-altitude ailment, soroche: rest up and drink mate de coca, the mildly narcotic local brew that soothes the symptoms.

Cusco was the Incas' "Navel of the World" from where their well-constructed roads radiated out towards the four geographical territories into which they organised their empire. Despite having neither wheeled transport nor a system of writing, they were brilliant administrators and engineers, terracing inhospitable terrain to grow crops.

You can begin exploring spectacular Inca monuments, in the shape of the fortress of Sacsayhuamán, within a breathless half-hour walk uphill from Cusco's main square. Here, like the Spanish invaders of the 16th century, you will marvel at the ingenuity of the Inca builders who managed to shift and shape huge blocks of granite without the use of metal tools.

Also within easy reach of Cusco by bus, car or train is the Sacred Valley, a stretch of fertile land beside the Urubamba river that boasts a number of Inca sites. The most striking is Ollantaytambo, whose ruined fortress-temple soars above an old town with many Inca features, including some of their massive stone doorways.

Further off the beaten track is Choquequirao, where serious excavations began only in the 1970s and which is sometimes called "the other Machu Picchu" because of its similarities to the real thing.

Not all Inca towns were built high in the clouds, amongst the mountain crags. The ruins of Vilcabamba la Vieja are to be found in lowland rainforest in a place called Espíritu Pampa. This was where the last Inca leader – Túpac Amaru – set up his base after the flight from Cusco, pursued by the Spanish army. Visiting it is a very different experience to that of the Inca Trail. Combine a range of experiences from the menu presented here.

Getting there and staying there

The restoration of direct flights between London and Lima will have to wait until the much-delayed Boeing 787 enters service. In the interim you are likely to have to change planes in Madrid or Miami, meaning a journey time of 16 hours or more.

The main carrier from the UK is Iberia (0870 609 0500; iberia.com) from Heathrow and Manchester via Madrid, while Air Europa (0871 423 0717; aireuropa.com) has three weekly services from Gatwick. Lan (0800 977 6100; lan.com) is a worthwhile alternative, with better service than Iberia.

Getting from Lima to Cusco takes an hour by plane. Lan has several daily flights; TACA also flies the route (0871 744 0337; taca.com).

The bus journey from Lima is tortuous and often involves a lengthy stop in Arequipa. Cruz del Sur ( cruzdelsur.com.pe) is one of the better companies plying the route. The 21-hour journey costs the equivalent of around £35 in superior class.

Hotel accommodation in Cusco includes the luxurious Monasterio at Calle Palacios 136 (00 51 84 60 4000; monasteriohotel.com), where doubles with breakfast start at $425 (£283); the quiet, three-star Torre Dorada at Calle de los Cipreses 5 (00 51 84 241 698) has doubles with breakfast from $74 (£49).

Most atmospheric place in the Sacred Valley? Without a doubt, El Albergue, on the platform at Ollantaytambo railway station (00 51 84 204 014; elalbergue.com). It opened in 1925 as the Hotel Santa Rosa, and is run by Joaquin Randall Weeks. Sixteen rooms are set around beautiful gardens, with the odd train the only distraction. Rooms are great value at US$75 (£50) a double, or even less between December and March, including free Wi-Fi and a bounteous breakfast.

Machu Picchu: what's all the fuss about?

There's everything you'd hope for from a "Wonder of the World": the overwhelming beauty and theatricality of the mountains, the perfect harmony between nature and the buildings, plus a profound sense of mystery. What was its real purpose? Why was it abandoned before the Spanish invasion? Why do so many visitors make do with a quick, one-day tour from Cusco when early morning and late afternoon are the most magical times to visit the site, free of daytrippers?

The easiest way to reach Machu Picchu is to take the train from Poroy, near Cusco, to "base camp", the straggly town of Aguas Calientes. (Don't miss the town's thermal baths – open air, with great views – for post-hike relaxation.) The cheapest option is the new Expedition service with panoramic windows, or opt for the mid-range Vistadome. Top of the range is the luxurious Hiram Bingham train (US$294/£196 one way). For more information, visit perurail.com.

Note that unless you walk the Inca Trail, there is no legal alternative to reaching Machu Picchu except the train. If you are saving cash – and perhaps exploring the Sacred Valley en route to Machu Picchu – the lowest ticket prices are from Ollantaytambo, starting at $31 (£21) for the 90-minute trip to Aguas Calientes.

From Aguas Calientes, take a bus up to the ruins (an extra $14/£9). The site opens 6am-5pm daily, admission 128 soles (£29). The only hotel on site is the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (00 51 16 10 8300; orient-express.com), where a double with breakfast costs $550 (£367). Most visitors stay in Aguas Calientes. The Rupa Wasi Hostal (00 51 84 211 101; rupawasi.net) has doubles with breakfast from $69 (£46).

If you haven't walked to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail, then a 45-minute climb up a steep path to the Sun Gate will provide that first dramatic view. Otherwise, make for the Watchman's Hut, on the terracing to the left of the main entrance, to get the picture-postcard photo of the ruins with the soaring peak of Huayna Picchu behind them.

Looking for Vilcabamba

Among the many so-called "lost cities" of the Inca, Vilcabamba la Vieja is the one that truly deserves the label. It is constantly reclaimed by the quick-growing forest, so that stumbling through the roots and lianas and coming upon carved ceremonial stones and crumbling buildings is a real Indiana Jones experience. Take a machete.

The trek to these ruins is a demanding but beautiful three- or four-day hike, for which you will need a guide. The starting point is a village called Huancacalle, which is reached by bus from Cusco via Quillabamba, and which has its own Inca site – Vitcos. The inn at the bottom of the village, Hospedaje Sixpac Manco, is where you can find a guide.

This trek is perfectly feasible for independent travellers, although there are organised trips run by agencies such as Peru Agency ( peruagency.com), starting and ending in Cusco for $757 (£505).

Another way to reach Machu Picchu

If the classic Inca Trail is too daunting, or you are short of time, the "Royal Trail" or "Mini Inca Trail" takes only one or two days. Starting at the railway halt, Kilometre 104, it climbs steeply up to Huinay Huayna where you join the classic Inca Trail for the dramatic entry to Machu Picchu. Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) offers this as a two-day option starting in Cusco with a night at a hotel in Aguas Calientes for £512.

For something more challenging, the Salcantay Trail prefaces the classic trail with four days' trekking at altitudes that dwarf Dead Woman's Pass (see The Inca Trail panel): you reach 4,880m. Also known as the "High Inca Trail", it begins at the ancient town of Mollepata, before joining the classic trail at Huayllabamba. Exodus (0845 287 7540; exodus.co.uk) includes this trek in a 16-day trip, costing £2,499, including international flights.

Could your trip be a washout?

At this time last year, the global focus on flooding was on Machu Picchu, not Queensland or southern Brazil. A deluge caused more than 40 landslides in the area, and the railway to and from Aguas Calientes – the only form of mechanised transport to reach the site – was blocked. Two thousand tourists were evacuated, and a state of emergency was declared.

Peru's main tourist draw was closed until April; in the interim, tens of thousands of prospective visitors were disappointed. Could it happen again? The Foreign Office warns: "The rainy season in Peru runs from November to April. During this time, land, rock and mudslides can cause disruption to road and rail travel in mountain and jungle areas."

As with most travel in Peru, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

The Inca Trail

The distance may be only an apparently trifling 43km, yet it takes three to four days to cover the Trail because the terrain is so tricky. You walk mostly on the very stones that the Incas laid six centuries ago, as part of their pedestrian superhighway from Cusco to Machu Picchu. But this is no contour-hugging hike: there are a few flat stretches, but mostly when you're not walking steeply uphill, you're walking steeply downhill. Add in some punishing ascents (the highest point, reached on day two, is Dead Woman's Pass at 4,200m) and you can understand the euphoria with which most hikers complete the walk – ideally at the Sun Gate, at dawn.

The classic trail gets off to a gentle start at the railway halt known as "Kilometre 88" beside the churning waters of the Urubamba river, but the path soon begins to climb steeply through cloud forest, on the flat stones of the original Inca track. Nights are spent in designated campsites in tents that are carried, along with pretty much every other home comfort, by the legions of local porters who will overtake you at an unfeasibly fast trot.

On the way to the spectacular goal are a number of smaller Inca sites, like stations along the route of a pilgrimage. The last of them, Huinay Huayna (meaning "forever young"), with its sequence of ceremonial baths, is an elegant curtain-raiser for Machu Picchu.

As the number of trekkers is limited to 500 a day, you need to book ahead by as much as six months during the high season (15 April to 30 September). It is also no longer possible to walk the trail independently; at the very least, you must be accompanied by a local guide. Most people employ the services of a trekking company, either from the UK or one of the many based in Cusco. Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk) has a stripped-down nine-day trip for £1,898 which includes flights to Cusco via Lima, and the trail, but it is a much better plan to extend your trip to see more of Peru; the Inca Heights trip gives you a fortnight in the country, taking in Lake Titicaca – and giving you much more time to acclimatise to the altitude for the Inca Trail itself. The price is £2,098 including flights from London.

Other UK operators with Inca Trail packages are Select Latin America (020 7407 1478; selectlatinamerica.co.uk) and Llama Travel (020 7263 3000; llamatravel.com).

Experienced agencies in Cusco include Manu Expeditions ( manuexpeditions.com) and Andean Adventure ( andeanadventuresperu.com).

The website Incatrailperu.com is a helpful, non-commercial source of information. The trail is closed in February each year for maintenance.

Cusco

This fine city remains the Inca heartland: at its centre, with a beguiling mix of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture, is the Plaza de Armas. This is where the last Inca, Túpac Amaru, was executed by the Spaniards after they had dragged him back from Vilcabamba la Vieja in 1572. The dominant buildings are the cathedral and the Church of la Compañia de Jesus, built on the site of an Inca palace, while under the square's surrounding porticoes are many of Cusco's trekking agencies.

Highlights of Cusco include original Inca walls in Calle Loreto, off the Plaza de Armas, and the impressive colonial Palacio del Almirante at Cuesta del Almirante 103, which houses the Museo Inka (8am-5pm daily except Sundays, Saturday from 9am; 10 soles/£2.20; 00 51 84 23 7380).

The San Blas district, a heart-pounding climb up from the Plaza de Armas is filled with galleries, handicraft shops and small bars and restaurants. The central market, near San Pedro railway station, is a colourful experience with its array of fruit, many varieties of potato and large sacks of privet-like coca leaves, chewed to ward off altitude sickness.

A reliable restaurant for traditional Peruvian dishes, including cuy (guinea pig), and alpaca, is the Inka Grill – in a great location on the Plaza de Armas (Portal de Panes, 115; 00 51 84 26 2992). A meal costs £10-£15.

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