The starting point for the Inca Trail is Cusco - old imperial Inca capital.
Cuzco was both the administrative and religious centre of the empire. It was seized by the Spanish in 1533 after the murders of Huascar and Atahualpa. Many of the original buildings were destroyed and their stone were used to construct palaces and churches for the invaders. Much of Cusco was also burned during the rebellion of 1534.
From the first campsite, the trail continues over level ground to Huayllabamba ("Place of Good Pasture"), a flat grassy area at an elevation of around 2000m.
There are a few houses stretched along the banks of the river.
After Huayllabamba, the Inca trail begins to climb through fairly dense sub-tropical vegetation. The terrain changes with altitude, so that a little beyond Llupachayoc it gives way to light woodland. The trail continues to climb beyond Llupachayoc.
The trail goes around to the right, and the woodland gives way to scrub, then to puna, bleak grassland and bare slopes. The ascent becomes increasingly steep, and the terrain increasingly rugged. Looking back from above Llupachayoc in the direction of Huayllabamba shows the river valley far below.
The trail climbs steeply towards the first pass, the Abra de Huarmihuanusca ("Dead Womans Pass").
This is marked by a green sign that shows it to be 4050m above sea-level. It tends to be cold and windy due to the elevation.
After the Abra de Huarmihuanusca, the trail descends towards the valley of the Pacamayo river. At the bottom of the river valley is the second campsite, a small sloping area large enough for only a few tents.
From the valley of the Pacamayo, the trail climbs up the opposite side of the valley wall, towards the second pass. About halfway up is a small roofless stone building. This Inca ruin is known as Runkuracay ("Pile of Ruins"). The building is thought to have been a tambo, a kind of way post for couriers following the trail to Machu Picchu. It contained sleeping areas for the couriers and stabling facilities for their animals.
After Runkuracay, the trail continues to climb towards the second pass, the Abra de Runkuracay, which is at around 3500m. On the far side of the pass, the trail descends towards a valley containing a shallow lake. At around this point, the trail changes from a dirt path to a narrow stone roadway. This is the beginning of the true Inca Trail; the stones of the roadway were laid by the Quechua people of the period of the Inca Empire.
The trail leads to a second, larger Inca ruin, Sayacmarca ("Town in a Steep Place"). Sayacmarca effectively controls the trail - which passes beneath it - at this point. It is built on a promontory of rock overlooking the trail, and is accessible only via a single narrow stone staircase. On the left of the staircase, which is about a metre or less in width, is an overhanging rock wall, which makes it difficult for a tall man to climb, while on the right is a sheer drop onto the rocks below.
Sayacmarca (which Bingham inexplicably decided to name Cedrobamba - "Plain of Cedars" - despite the fact that there are no cedars to be seen, and its perched on a spur overlooking a valley) is roofless and overgrown, but the walls still stand and the shape of the fortress can easily be seen.
Sayacmarca (11,8111 ft) is also known as "Dominant Town." It is one of the most memorable Incan ruins because Sayacmarca literally disappears in the clouds. As soon as the fog moves forward, tourists can climb up a steep staircase that lead to this fortress.
Sayacmarca was also named the Inaccessible Town, it is surrounded by cliffs and accessible only by a single stone staircase.
Similar to other incan ruins, Sayacmarca had a semi-circular temple for worshipping and a residential area for housing. It is amazing to know it still stands after more than 500 years.
Nearby is a stone aqueduct which once carried water to the site.
After Sayacmarca, the trail descends to the valley floor, and the roadway takes the form of a long causeway leading across what may once have been the bed of a shallow lake. On the far side, the trail begins to climb again. The roadway represents a considerable feat of engineering, including even an 8m tunnel section where the Inca engineers widened a natural fissure in the rock into a tunnel large enough to allow the passage of men and animals.
The trail leads up to the third pass and, just beyond it, a third Inca ruin, Phuyupatamarca ("Cloud-level Town"). This site appears to have had some ritual function; the rectangular structures along one side are baths, which were apparently fed from a spring higher up. The highest bath was reserved for the nobles, while the lower classes performed their ritual ablutions in the water which had already been used by the aristocracy.
Below Phuyupatamarca, the trail spirals and descends steeply towards Huinay Huayna, ("Forever Young"), the site of another Inca ruin. There is another campsite and a visitor centre nearby.
After no more than an hour or two, the trail comes to a narrow flight of stone steps leading upwards into a small stone structure with a grass floor a few metres square. This is Intipunku, the Gateway of the Sun, and through the rectangular doorway, you can see the ruins of Machu Picchu.
From Intipunku, a pathway leads directly to Machu Picchu itself.