Machu Picchu is the Mona Lisa of Incan ruins, said Mark Adams in The New York Times. When you finally see Peru’s mountaintop tourist haven in person, you “can’t quite believe that the real thing exceeds the hype.” Yet especially in this centennial year of its discovery by the Yale history lecturer Hiram Bingham III, the 20-acre site is usually flooded with visitors, and herding with them into a train that descends to the “chaotic tourist town” below can leave one longing for an experience more like Bingham’s original adventure. It can be done, fortunately. If you have about 18 days and a pair of sturdy legs, you can piece together a “hike in blissful solitude through roughly 100 miles of some of the world’s most varied and beautiful terrain.” Better yet, the trail can sew together nearly half a dozen grand ruins, including some that may even surpass Machu Picchu in significance.
It helps to have an entourage when negotiating this “backdoor route” to Machu Picchu. Mine included a guide, a cook, six gear-carrying mules, and three muleteers—a team assembled for me by the Cuzco-based adventure outfitter Amazonas Explorer (amazonas-explorer.com). “For two days I was so focused on keeping up” with my guides on our rigorous climbs that “I hardly noticed the scenery.” But the third morning brought us to Choquequirao, a large and “indescribably beautiful” Incan citadel that’s often called Machu Picchu’s sister site. Besides being many times larger than its sibling, Choquequirao is more coy: Only some of the forest that’s engulfed its stonework and enormous agricultural terraces has been cleared so far, so wandering among its ruins feels very 1911.
The former Incan capital Vitcos was set high in the Andes, too, but we had to climb down—“way down”—to reach Espiritu Pampa, a city the Incas “hastily abandoned” when the Spanish attacked in 1572. Before our eyes, archaeologists dusted off treasures that hadn’t seen the light for 400 years, including “a plum-size Incan pot handle shaped like a puma’s head.” There, we learned that many scholars now believe Espiritu Pampa, not Machu Picchu, is the real “lost city” of the Incas. Days later, when we joined the throngs of picture-snapping tourists, we kept the secret to ourselves.