Nearly everyone who comes to Peru for the first time heads to Machu Picchu. This is entirely understandable. The story of its “discovery” in 1911 by Yale professor Hiram Bingham is impossibly romantic. And the ruins themselves, set on a precipitous ridge at an elevation of 7,970 feet beneath cathedral-like rock spires, are every bit as spectacular as they look in back issues of National Geographic.
Unfortunately, the inevitable result has been gross overcrowding, with 1.4 million tourists visiting the site in 2016. Under pressure from UNESCO, which has repeatedly threatened to add Machu Picchu to its list of World Heritage sites in danger, the government has been forced to regulate the flow. (The Peruvian authorities have a long track record of proposing appalling ideas to maximize tourist revenues, including the construction of a shopping-and-dining complex, a large luxury hotel, a helipad and a cable car, all of which they have been shamed into abandoning.) Visitors must now be accompanied by an official tour guide, and their tickets will grant entry for a specific time period, in either the morning or the afternoon.
Undoubtedly, the best way to see Machu Picchu is to stay at Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, an unobtrusive 31-room resort adjacent to the ruins, from which it is possible to visit the site before the arrival of tourists in the morning and after their departure in the evening. (Nearly all visitors to Machu Picchu either come for the day or stay in Aguas Calientes, at the bottom of the hill.)
For the fit and more adventurous, however, there is another option. The Inca Trail is a 26-mile-long footpath that begins in the Sacred Valley and ends at the famous Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. (This is the way the Incas intended people to see the site for the first time.)
Due to steep slopes and elevations of up to 13,800 feet, the trail takes four, sometimes five days. Here, too, new regulations have recently been introduced. A maximum of 500 people are now allowed on the trail each day, of which only 200 are trekkers, the rest being guides and porters. As a result, the June-to-October high season books out very quickly. (The trail is closed every February for cleaning.)
Even if you don’t want to hike the entire trail, it is possible to accomplish the final section in a single day. This involves alighting from the PeruRail train to Aguas Calientes with your guide at a point known as kilometer 104 and then walking for about six hours, depending on your level of fitness. (You will still need a permit.) An early-morning start brings you to the Sun Gate, with its panoramic view of the ruins, in the late afternoon, just as the majority of tourists depart for the day.