Machu Picchu and beyond

Celebrate the centenary of the re-discovery of Machu Picchu with a tourist-free trip to the ancient site. Janine Kelso hit the Inca Trail.

I feel like I’ve just stepped into an Indiana Jones movie. Perched on a lush-green ridge sandwiched between two mountain peaks and shrouded in swirling mists that lend the site a mythical glow, Machu Picchu is an arresting sight. After undertaking the four-day, 26-mile Inca Trail trek where we grapple with crumbling stone steps and steep gradients with the aid of Popeye-strong porters, we are rewarded at dawn with a sunrise over one of the world’s top archaeological sites. Choking back tears, there are hugs among our group. The trek was challenging, but it was worth the blisters and lack of oxygen for this drop-dead gorgeous view.

Destination guide: Peru

At this hour, the site is gloriously quiet and free from the busloads of snap-happy tourists donning multi-coloured ponchos and hats with earflaps that arrive mid-morning. For now, though, it’s only the llamas that wander between the ancient stones, chomping on the fluorescent-green land speckled with wild orchids.

We meander freely around the labyrinth of pathways that separate the crumbling buildings, but as I step on to a grassy verge to snatch a quick photo with a llama, a pink ribbon adorning its ears, a guard blows a whistle at me. Oops, I’ve strayed off the track. 

As we stroll around the fabled ruins, our guide, Alf, gives us a potted history of the place. Built circa 1450 for the Inca emperor Pachacuti, the Lost City was once a plush palace used by noble folk but it was deserted during the Spanish invasion. According to legend, the Incas chose to build their precious citadel here because of auspicious astronomical and geographical factors.

We’re led to the Intihuatana stone, a ritual rock positioned to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. We are instructed to press our hands to it to “ground ourselves” and feel its hidden energy. I don’t know if it’s the rock itself or the drama of Machu Picchu, but I feel as though I’ve been touched by something magical. 

Although a visit to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail has been on most travellers’ radars for some time, with millions having followed the famous trek, there’s a renewed buzz about the place this year as the ancient site celebrated the anniversary of its re-discovery last month.

The INca Trail, machu Picchu

With its remote setting 120km from Cusco, Machu Picchu lay forgotten – well, by Westerners anyway – for 400 years until it was unearthed in 1911 by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham – who was apparently the inspiration behind the Indiana Jones character.

Of course, the natives had known about the existence of the site long before Bingham decided to swing by, but they understandably wanted to keep it to themselves. In fact, some Peruvian scholars are fed up with Bingham being hailed a swashbuckling hero, because he looted the site, taking 44,000 skulls, bones and artefacts to Yale University, 366 of which were returned to Peru in March.

After four days of uphill tramping, our burning muscles are in need of some TLC, so once we return to the nearby village of Aguas Calientas, we head to the hot springs from which the town owes its name.

Soaking in an outdoor hot tub filled with toasty sulphurous waters of 38C, far-reaching mountains providing the verdant backdrop, my friend and I are soon joined by two local teenagers, who waste no time in telling us about their ancestors. 

“I’m descended from the Incas,” one of them tells us proudly. “We’re a tall and strong tribe.” Standing just over 5ft, he doesn’t look too tall to me but I’m impressed that the locals are so rightly proud of their roots. 

Climbing Machu Picchui

Even though we’ve become accustomed to the high altitude, we indulge in a cup of coca tea, the alpine beverage of choice in Peru. Known as “the divine plant” by the Incas, coca leaves increase the absorption of oxygen into the blood. Cocaine is made from coca leaves but drinking coca tea doesn’t result in any unnatural high – or cause any damage to your health. Leaving behind the remains of Peru’s Inca civilisation and the country’s most-visited site, we take a night bus to the dusty city of Nazca where more mysterious legends abound.

We’ve come to see the town’s famous lines, created by a civilisation that existed long before the Inca Empire. Only viewable from the sky, we head to an airfield where we climb aboard a six-seater Cessna.  

“I hope you ladies have strong stomachs,” the pilot grins as we get strapped in. “A lady threw up during the ride yesterday.”

With these reassuring words at the forefront of my mind, I clutch a plastic bag and hope my breakfast stays where it is. As the small plane swings from side to side, I feel faintly nauseous but I soon forget all feelings of sickness as a raft of fascinating shapes springs into view.

There’s a giant pair of hands, a monkey, a condor and a humming bird amongst the cartoon-like geoglyphs. Aside from animals, there are perfectly shaped triangles, rectangles and straight lines.

Etched into the dry plains by the ancient Nazca people more than 2500 years ago, the lines were only discovered in the 1920s when commercial airlines started flying over the desert. Following reports by pilots who had spotted the mysterious shapes, North American historian Paul Kosok went to take a closer look and he is now credited as the official discoverer. Created by removing reddish-coloured pebbles that swathe the landscape, exposing the stark-white earth beneath, the lines have been preserved for so long thanks to the desert’s arid and windless climate which has hindered erosion. 

After the flight, we head to a small museum by the airfield, which attempts to explain why the Nazca people created these gargantuan shapes. Baffled scientists and learned folk have spent years coming up with a range of weird and wonderful theories to explain their purpose, especially as they can only be viewed properly from the air.

Nazca, Peru

Some have suggested they provided a landing strip for aliens from outer space, while others ascribe the creation of the lines to religious regions allowing the Gods to view them from the sky. As Nazca people were involved in shamanic practices, some think the lines were produced for shamans to fly over after taking psychedelic drugs.

Two hours from Nazca is the tiny resort of Huacahina, once a retreat for moneyed Peruvians and now a hit with young surfer types who want to give sand-boarding a whirl. Sited next to a palm-fringed lagoon, the region is dominated by giant far-reaching dunes that rise up to 300 metres in height.

We take a buggy up to top of the dunes – an adventure in itself as the vehicle keeps breaking down – and then we’re given wooden boards which we strap to our feet.

As I’m not much of a surfer, it’s slow progress as I struggle to work my way along the slope. I change tack and sit on the board, speeding down the hill sledge-like for a real adrenalin rush.

In a quest to escape the tourist hordes, I decide to take a leaf out of Bingham the explorer’s book and attempt to get off the well-trodden track, heading to the pretty town of Arequipa to see the second largest canyon in the world. Forget the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyon is twice as deep and doubly impressive.

While the Inca Trail is famously well-trampled, a two-day trek into the Colca Canyon provides a step away from the gringo massive. As I stand at the rim at dawn, the mist-cloaked bottomless pit before me seems other-worldly.

As the haze begins to fade, we spot a condor, or Andean vulture, gliding over the canyon from cliff to cliff, riding the thermals, while showing off its three-metre-long inky-black wings. The bird makes a striking sight and soon the canyon is a hive of condor activity, with hundreds of the creatures taking to the sky, thrilling onlookers by flying nearly close enough so that we can reach out and touch them.
It’s no wonder the birds inspired what must be the world’s most overplayed panpipe tune, El Condor Pasa, covered by Simon and Garfunkel. As the sun rises, the birds disappear to hunt for food and we begin our hike.

Condors, machu Micchu

My heart begins to thump as we begin to descend into the abyss, taking tentative steps, as the path is rocky and slippery. Terraces have been sliced into the canyon’s verdant hillsides, built by the Collagua and Cabana people in the ninth century. Even today, the locals grow their crops in the same way on these huge staircases. Stretching four miles across at some points, the canyon is an impressive
site, all green valleys and mighty rivers, flanked by two volcanoes.

We set up camp for the night and hit the sack at 9pm as the next day will be an early start. Rising at 4am, my legs turn to jelly as we climb uphill for three hours. At last we’ve made it and we celebrate with a hearty breakfast in the village of Cobanaconde, before driving back to Arequipa.

The days of experiencing Peru as an undiscovered destination – as Bingham did 100 years ago – might be over, but my short adventure has proven that it is possible to go places where tourists aren’t cluttering up the sites.

Alternative inca trails

Best for … magical scenery
What: The Lares Trek
Why: This route is all snow-capped peaks, lakes that go on for miles and brilliantly green valleys. The trek winds through remote hamlets in the Lares Valleys, where you’ll meet Andean farmers, see thatched stone houses and watch herds of llamas.

Best for … the super-fit
What: The Huayhuash Trek
Why: Set in the mountain range made famous by Touching The Void, this gruelling tramp features ice-clad summits,  glacial lakes, Inca sites and Peru’s highest mountain, Huascaran, which stands at an eye-popping 6798 metres.  
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Best for … unexplored inca ruins
What: The Socma-Kachiqata Trek
Why: Explore little-known archeological sites such as Ñaupa Iglesia and Raccaypata on this three-day, 15-mile hike. You’re unlikely to bump into any other tourists for the entire route but you will get the chance to interact with local communities, while soaking up the gorgeous mountain scenery. The route includes a visit to the Inca quarry of Kachiqata, its tombs and storage rooms.
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Essential information

Getting there: Fly from London to Lima via Madrid. Return flights to Lima from London with Air Europa cost from £846 (
When to go: After the rainy season, which lasts from October until March. Avoid heavy rains of January and February. Peak season is June until August where prices are high. Avoid the crowds and the rain by visiting in April or May.
Currency: Peruvian Nuevo Sol (PEN). 1 GBP = 4.50 PEN.
Accommodation: A dorm bed at Pariwana Backpacker Hostel in Cusco is £4.93pppn when booking with A private room at The Point Arequipa Hostel, in Arequipa, is £7.37pppn when booking with
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