Photograph by Guillaume Flandre, National Geographic Your Shot
Machu Picchu, Peru
Best for: Hikers who want a bit more action in their archaeological experience
Distance: 1,181 vertical feet
The hike to Machu Picchu, the Inca ruins high in Peru’s Andes that were abandoned 500 years ago, has been written up and lauded in countless best hike and travel features. And the destination is, no-surprise, filled with tourists seeking enlightenment on high. For good reason: The UNESCO World Heritage site is one of the most significant archaeological and still sacred sites on the planet. It’s also perched in a spectacular spot on what feels like the backbone of the world. The great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote of it: “In you, like two parallel lines, / the cradle of the lightning-bolt and man / rocked together in a thorny wind.” Who wouldn’t want to go?
Despite its lofty reputation, the actual Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu is not all that thrilling, depending on how you decide to do it, and many hop on board a guided tour provided by anyone from REI to local operations (many more arrive via train). You may wheeze from the elevation and steep climbs and have to navigate thousands of stone steps, but it’s not that scary. Huayna Picchu is. The 8,924-foot, iconic pyramid peak juts up over 1,000 feet above Machu Picchu and requires a sketchy scramble that includes exposed ledges, stepping rocks sticking out of the cliff with only the abyss below, cable handholds, and slippery stone staircases. But it is worth it for the view out above the ruins and the surrounding Andes. The ruins at the top are thought to be those of Machu Picchu’s high priest, who would greet the sun from this very spot.
Thrill Factor: Huayna Picchu, also spelled Wayna Picchu, is steep with serious or deadly consequences if you fall in the wrong spot. Luckily, only 400 people are allowed to climb it each day, cutting down on the congestion a bit. That also means that quite a few people do successfully climb it, so it’s more fun than real danger.
Take It Easy: Avoiding Huayna Picchu and simply taking one of the various routes to Machu Picchu is enough adventure for most. Try the lesser known Ancascocha Trail (which we featured here).