Most trekking agencies run buses to the start of the trail, also known as Piscacucho or Km 82 on the railway to Aguas Calientes.
After crossing the Río Urubamba (2600m) and taking care of registration formalities, you’ll climb gently alongside the river to the trail’s first archaeological site, Llactapata (Town on Top of the Terraces), before heading south down a side valley of the Río Cusichaca. (If you start from Km 88, turn west after crossing the river to see the little-visited site of Q’ente, about 1km away, then return east to Llactapata on the main trail.)
The trail leads 7km south to the hamlet of Wayllabamba (Grassy Plain; 3000m), near which many tour groups will camp for the first night. You can buy bottled drinks and high-calorie snacks here, and take a breather to look over your shoulder for views of the snowcapped Nevado Verónica (5750m).
Wayllabamba is situated near the fork of Ríos Llullucha and Cusichaca. The trail crosses the Río Llullucha, then climbs steeply up along the river. This area is known as Tres Piedras (Three White Stones; 3300m), though these boulders are no longer visible. From here it is a long, very steep 3km climb through humid woodlands.
The trail eventually emerges on the high, bare mountainside of Llulluchupampa (3750m), where water is available and the flats are dotted with campsites, which get very cold at night. This is as far as you can reasonably expect to get on your first day, though many groups will actually spend their second night here.
From Llulluchupampa, a good path up the left-hand side of the valley climbs for a two- to three-hour ascent to the pass of Warmiwañusca, also colorfully known as ‘Dead Woman’s Pass.’ At 4200m above sea level, this is the highest point of the trek, and leaves many a seasoned hiker gasping. From Warmiwañusca, you can see the Río Pacamayo (Río Escondido) far below, as well as the ruin of Runkurakay halfway up the next hill, above the river.
The trail continues down a long and knee-jarringly steep descent to the river, where there are large campsites at Paq’amayo. At an altitude of about 3600m, the trail crosses the river over a small footbridge and climbs toward Runkurakay; at 3750m this round ruin has superb views. It’s about an hour’s walk away.
Above Runkurakay, the trail climbs to a false summit before continuing past two small lakes to the top of the second pass at 3950m, which has views of the snow-laden Cordillera Vilcabamba. You’ll notice a change in ecology as you descend from this pass – you’re now on the eastern, Amazon slope of the Andes and things immediately get greener. The trail descends to the ruin of Sayaqmarka, a tightly constructed complex perched on a small mountain spur, which offers incredible views. The trail continues downward and crosses an upper tributary of the Río Aobamba (Wavy Plain).
The trail then leads on across an Inca causeway and up a gentle climb through some beautiful cloud forest and an Inca tunnel carved from the rock. This is a relatively flat section and you’ll soon arrive at the third pass at almost 3600m, which has grand views of the Río Urubamba Valley, and campsites where some groups spend their final night, with the advantage of watching the sun set over a truly spectacular view, but with the disadvantage of having to leave at 3am in the race to reach the Sun Gate in time for sunrise. If you are camping here, be careful in the early morning as the steep incline makes the steps slippery.
Just below the pass is the beautiful and well-restored ruin of Phuyupatamarka, about 3570m above sea level. The site contains six beautiful ceremonial baths with water running through them. From Phuyupatamarka, the trail makes a dizzying dive into the cloud forest below, following an incredibly well-engineered flight of many hundreds of Inca steps (it’s nerve-racking in the early hours, use a headlamp). After two or three hours, the trail eventually zigzags its way down to a collapsed red-roofed white building that marks the final night’s campsite.
A 500m trail behind the old, out of use, pub leads to the exquisite little Inca site of Wiñay Wayna, which is variously translated as ‘Forever Young,’ ‘To Plant the Earth Young’ and ‘Growing Young’ (as opposed to ‘growing old’). Peter Frost writes that the Quechua name refers to an orchid (Epidendrum secundum) that blooms here year-round. The semitropical campsite at Wiñay Wayna boasts one of the most stunning views on the whole trail, especially at sunrise. A rough trail leads from this site to another spectacular terraced ruin, called Intipata, best visited on the day you arrive to Wiñay Wayna: consider coordinating it with your guide if you are interested.
From the Wiñay Wayna guard post, the trail winds without much change in elevation through the cliff-hanging cloud forest for about two hours to reach Intipunku (Sun Gate) – the penultimate site on the trail, where it’s tradition to enjoy your first glimpse of majestic Machu Picchu while waiting for the sun to rise over the surrounding mountains.
The final triumphant descent takes almost an hour. Trekkers generally arrive long before the morning trainloads of tourists, and can enjoy the exhausted exhilaration of reaching their goal without having to push past enormous groups of tourists fresh off the first train from Cuzco.