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The Incan Trail to Machu Picchu – My 2nd World Wonder

While there are many marvelous things to discover within Peru, the primary draw that inspired me to visit this region was to hike along the Inca Trail to the ruins at Machu Picchu. The Inca Trail is an absolute bucket list hike and deserves its ranking as one of the world's highest rated hikes. The I was to begin this hike started off in the town of Ollantaytambo. This is a central point located between the major city of Cusco and Aguas Caliente, the gateway town to Machu Picchu itself. This town caters to tourists who want to get a little closer to Machu Picchu in order to limit the need to travel all the way from Cusco while remaining in a large enough town that offered a variety of amenities such as shops and a variety restaurant options. This town also provides a train stop that will bring visitors directly to Aguas Calientes with a single stop in between, KM marker 104 which is the starting point for the Short Inca Trail. The train effectively stops in a secluded area in the middle of the jungle, right next to a bridge and dirt path where hikers can begin their journey on. This hike starts in the rain forest of Peru before following the Historic Incan walking path up to Machu Picchu. Along the way, hikers are greeted with ancient Incan ruins, waterfalls, and stunning panoramic views of the Andes Mountains. The first site that hikers pass after starting on this trail are the ruins of Runkurakay. This is a small set of semi-circular buildings that act as a checkpoint and provides a small alter. Due to minimal European encroachment into this region, these ruins as well as many others along the trail have been well preserved aside from most missing their original thatched roofs. These ruins are nestled in a valley with the Andes Mountains rising on both sides providing a very picturesque view in addition to the ruins themselves. Following this site, the trail begins to ascend into the mountains themselves. Once near the top of the mountains, hikers are immersed in the rain forest itself; being surrounded by colorful flowers and vibrant vegetation on every step of the trail. There are also endless opportunities to see scenic vistas along this point of the trail as sweeping views of the Andes are offered at each break in the vegetation. Several miles past Runkurakay, hikers are greeted by a waterfall before coming to the next site of note on the trail: the ruins at Sayacmarca and the terraces of Wiñay Wayna. These sites combine an Incan fortress with a series of agricultural terraces high in the Andes Mountains and an excellent taste of what is to come at Machu Picchu. As you travel past these ruins along the trail, be sure to look behind you as the trail turns there are incredible vantage points of these sites the show the scale of them nestled among the clouds and surrounding mountains. A short hike further down the trail, hikers encounter the hardest part of the trail known as the Monkey Steps. The best way to describe this is as a combination of hiking trail and climbing wall, luckily this is a strenuous but short section of the trail. Shortly pass these steps, hikers are greeted by the Sun Gate and their first glimpse at the ruins of Machu Picchu. This is an ancient Incan doorway that hikers can pass through before first gazing at Machu Picchu nestled among clouds and soaring mountains.

The main highlight of my trip to Peru as well as the primary reason I wanted to visit that area was to see Machu Picchu, one of the 7 wonders of the world and for good reason. This iconic landmark is an Incan ruin nestled in the heart of the Andes Mountains. The setting alone is breathtaking with high rain forest covered mountains rising in all directions. Adding in this beautifully restored lost city elevates this scene beyond words. Hiking along the Inca Trail and passing through the sun gate to see this wonder unfold in front of me was an unreal experience that will be impossible to forget. During this trip, I was able to enjoy Machu Picchu from two unique vantage points. The first was the classic view in the upper terraces of the ruins which is where most the site’s iconic photos are taken from. My second vantage point of Machu Picchu was from the top of Machu Picchu Mountain. This trail is made up of 1600 steps leading from Machu Picchu itself to the top of nearby mountain overlooking the ruins and is limited to 200 permits to hikers per day. This is a very strenuous hike but rewards those who make it the top which a breathtaking view that they can enjoy that is also far less crowded than the more popular vantage points below. The view from the top of the mountain provided breath taking views of both the ruins themselves as well as the surrounding mountains and valleys. After spending an hour soaking in the scenery, I descended back down the mountain and began my short bus journey back to the town of Aguas Caliente, which I would explore for the remainder of the day, enjoying some the town’s variety of restaurants that featured excellent local cuisine before beginning the long drive back to Cusco.

My final hike in Cusco Peru was to the Rainbow Mountains and Red Valley. This incredible region is located a 3-hour drive from Cusco and is highlighted by a mountain range with vibrant colors created by different mineral compositions within the layers of rock making up the mountain. This is one of only 3 locations in the world where this type of landscape can be seen, with the others being Argentina and China. I was lucky enough to have amazing weather on this hike which made the reds, yellow, greens, and blues of the mountain really pop. The only way to arrive at this location is by driving since there are no public transportation options to bring travelers to this isolated location. The drive to this valley passes through mountain valleys that are dotted with traditional farming communities as well as herds of Alpacas. Seeing the traditional way in which the population here lives was a great cultural experience and a privilege to be welcomed into this community. The hike begins at a dirt parking lot and is a relatively short and simply hike with moderate elevation gains. The full trail can be completed within an hour or two at a leisurely place with the only point of difficulty being the steep climb that marks the home stretch to the outlook for the mountains themselves. Much of the nearby farming community has gotten involved in the tourist industry here due to how popular a site the Rainbow Mountains have become. As a result, once visitors reach the lookout point, they will be greeted by many locals offering pictures with Alpacas, as well as vendors selling local street food and souvenirs. The nearby Red Valley offered a less crowded alternative view with a bright red canyon that was well worth the additional hour of hiking to see. The more secluded nature of this location also made it a great place to enjoy a leisurely and relaxing lunch.

Between the amazing culture, extensive history, and welcoming culture; my travels through Peru have been one of the most enjoyable experiences of my life. Being able to wander through Machu Picchu and other Incan ruins during the day while spending my times exploring charming towns and villages was the perfect recipe for recharging my battery and an unforgettable introduction for myself to this continent. I am looking forward to an eventual return trip to South America but that is a story for another day…

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