The Road Less Traveled

Ruins at Machu PicchuIncan Ruins of Machu Picchu

Beholding the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu as they rise from the Peruvian jungle is a joy that deserves to be on everyone's travel wish list. But did you know that there's more than one way to arrive at this World Heritage Site? How you approach Machu Picchu is going to affect your experience of it, so consider the options carefully before you embark on this once-in-a-lifetime experience. We've found an easy way, a hard way and something in between that combines adventure and comfort in sublime proportions.

The quickest and easiest way is, as you would expect, to follow the crowd. Most of Machu Picchu's 2,500 daily visitors arrive by a four-hour train ride from Cuzco that ends at the small town of Aguas Calientes. From there, a 20-minute bus journey transports them up to the famous ruins. The hard way, on the other hand, involves joining a guided trek of the Inca Trail. From a starting point that lies 88 km by train from Cuzco, you plunge into the jungle, camp for three nights along the way and reach altitudes of 4,200 m before you walk down to the 2,400-m mountaintop marvel.

Our favorite approach, however, is a lesser-known alternative—the Short Inca Trail. For this, guides are also necessary and you'll be paying upwards of $250, but it's a sum you'll forget the instant you lay eyes on the great Incan city that is your goal.

You begin by taking the 6:15 a.m. train from Cuzco station, lumbering past the Mount Veronica glacier, small farming communities and colorfully attired Peruvian women selling their wares at the trackside. The disembarkation point comes 104 km down the line. There is no station there, merely an arrow indicating the way to the trailhead across the Urubamba River. Entrepreneurial locals sell $3 walking sticks carved from tree branches—and you'll need them, because you're in for a roughly six-hour rainforest trek.

The ruins of Chachabamba appear almost immediately, but the first real reward comes at the four-hour mark: Winay Wayna, the site of an ancient Incan settlement. Pause a while here to take in the terraces cut precariously into the mountainside, but remember that this is a mere dress rehearsal for the splendor that awaits you.

Your first sight of Machu Picchu comes after you've passed the final checkpoint—the Sun Gate and its near-vertical flight of 50 stone steps. Spread before you, in the distance, is Machu Picchu's labyrinth of temples, terraces and plazas. This is where the descent into the ancient city begins—and, with luck, you will have arrived shortly before the last tourist bus departs (at 5:30 p.m.). That means you could have this astonishing, spiritual haunt virtually to yourself, in conditions of near silence. Now how's that for a sense of arrival?

Train winding its way through mountains