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South America's greatest journey: Machu Picchu

Added 23 Feb 2012
South America's greatest journey: Machu Picchu

Deep in the Peruvian hinterland lies the lost city of Machu Picchu. Draped in low cloud, it's a sight to behold and explains why hundreds of thousands of visitors head here every year.

It's so popular in fact that the Peruvian government has capped the number of visitors to the site to 2,500 people a day to ensure the preservation of one of the seven New Wonders of the World.

And while you can breeze in by train from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes, any self-respecting trailblazer wouldn't dream of arriving here any other way than using two legs, along the traditional IncaTrail.

This ancient Andean journey is no secret. In fact it's the stuff of legend. Ever since Hiram Bingham stumbled across this manmade feat in 1911, hardy trekkers have been following the four-day, 45km pathway. It's hardly surprising it's on the bucket list of many a traveller, meandering into a lonely wilderness, past hidden Inca ruins and in picking distance of exotic flora.

Preparation is key. Spend at least a couple of days acclimatising in Cusco — the former city of the Incas and the gateway to Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail reaches a lofty 4,200m and you'll feel the altitude if you haven't given your body time to adapt. Live like a local and suck on coca leaves, if not for their energy-inducing properties, then for the sake of their weird mouth-numbing effect. And with mighty ascents and descents, your fitness should be in tip-top condition however many porters in your entourage. You'll be roughing it, too. But bedding down beneath canvas each night is an experience in itself, with endless starry skies unfolding above you. Just ensure you cosy up after dark as mercury regularly falls below freezing.

After government intervention, trekkers on this incredible Andean walk have been restricted to 500 a day. But this number includes porters and guides, and so it boils down to around 200 travellers. To ensure your place, book your permit several months in advance - all Explore Inca Trail treks include the permit but once they are gone, they are gone! Keep in mind that June, July and August are the most popular months - gone are the days when you simply turned up in Cusco and headed out onto the trail the following day. But this is a good thing. For you, it gives you the best chance to get the trek you've always wanted. For Peru, it protects one of its most fragile environments.