After climbing exactly 50 of the steepest steps imaginable, rounding the final bend and rising over and through the arches of Inti Punku – the Sun Gate – the ancient city of Machu Picchu dawns before you. WORDS: Gereurd Roberts.

Upon sight of South America’s largest and best preserved archaelogical site, the magnificent Inca citadel, the aches, pains and strains from the Inca Trail disappear.

Even the awe-inspiring size of the mountains which flank and once protected the city from attackers – Machu Picchu (Old Mountain in Quechua) to the south, Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain) to the north and Putukusi (Happy Mountain) to the east – cannot dwarf the most sacred of ancient Inca sites as it rises from the lush green of its rainforest surroundings to meet, engulf and spoil the eyes.

Almost perfectly preserved granite houses and temples stand tall and proud together with crumbling remains and ruins stretching along a table of land perched almost impossibly between the a backdrop of rugged, seemingly impassable, uninhabitable, sometimes snow-capped peaks.

Tacky and clichéd as it may seem or sound, the first sight of Machu Picchu immediately becomes unforgettable. Combined with the exhaustion of the journey, it leaves even the most travelled backpacker breathless. Or perhaps it is the pilgrimage itself which makes reaching the city of Machu Picchu more meaningful.

There are two ways to reach Peru’s most visited, precious treasure. Catching the train from Cusco is still a popular option – PeruRail have upgraded their service to Machu Picchu, and the journey to the city is still one of the world’s most spectacular.

The train snakes through the Sacred Valley, next to the Urubamba River, where the Spaniards once sailed, and failed, in their quest to find the city in the 1500s, through Ollantaytambo, which offers a tantalising taste of the Inca ruins to come, and finally to Aguas Calientes. From this small village, buses run up a dusty, windy road to Machu Picchu.

But by far the best way to enjoy the Inca experience is to trek the Inca Trail, just as the kings, queens and priests of what was once the most powerful empire on the planet did 500 years ago.

For 40-something kilometres – experts put the exact length of the trek between 40km and 48km – the trail’s avid travellers traverse mountains as tall as 4198m (the height of the heartbreaking first pass at Abra de Huarmihuañusca), trundle down ancient steps of the other side, and walk paths as wide as a person with a sheer drop on the side.

The trail stretches through the Sanctuario Histórico de Machu Picchu, a park of more than 32,000 hectares set aside by the Peruvian government to protect more than 350 types of birds, 47 species of mammal and countless other precious flora and fauna.

The pain of the journey is eased by the outstanding efforts of the Peruvian porters, who, despite being half the size of most of the travellers, carry their luggage and also cook, clean, set up tents and inspire as they run along the ancient road. But mostly the effort is made worthwhile by that first sight of the ancient city.

Machu Picchu is the subject of much rumour, legend, and debate among the many who visit each year. Built under the reign of the Inca king Pachacuti in the 15th century, some say the city’s construction took less than a hundred years and that it was used solely for the purposes of astronomy, some claim it was the home of the royal family and priests, while others claim that its agricultural terraces prove it was used for both.

What is known is that the city may still be under the twisted trees and vines of the rainforest were it not for the American explorer Hiram Bingham, who is credited with discovering the citadel. While many local farmers knew of the ruins – if not their significance – it was Bingham who, accompanied by a local, uncovered Machu Picchu on July 24, 1911.

Untouched by the Spanish, who had systematically destroyed most of what they thought important to the Incas, and treasure hunters, Bingham thought the site to be the lost city of Vilcabamba, where the Incas made their final stand against the Conquistadors.

While his first theory was later found to be incorrect, the importance of his discovery was undiminished. Machu Picchu has been found to be the most sacred of Inca sites, a city which merited endless hours of toil to construct the temples and houses with intricate, exemplary stonework.

It is a city which easily affords and rewards the efforts of the Inca Trail, a trek which allows every traveller a true and lasting link to the Incas.

Tips for the trail
• Book in advance. In accordance with new regulations by the Peruvian government, tourist numbers on the Inca Trail are now limited to 500 a day, including cooks, guides and porters – down from as many as 2500 per day in high season, this means that places on the trail fill up several months in advance.
• Independent travellers are also no longer allowed and must be part of an organised tour.
• You must carry the same passport you book your permit with when travelling to Peru – otherwise there’s a chance you’ll be denied a place on the trail. If you renew your passport in between booking and travel, take both passports with you.
• Do the right thing by the people who’ll help you make it to the end. The Inka Porter Project is dedicated to improving working conditions of porters and animal drivers (arrieros) in the Andes – see url below to check out their trekking guidelines.