6. The Inca Trail & Machu Picchu

The Inca Trail is perhaps the most famous hike in South America. Starting in Cuzco, the trek retraces the steps of Incans from the ancient capital to the royal estate of Machu Picchu, a largely ceremonial route of pilgrimage by the Incan emperor while paying tribute to the surrounding sacred peaks.

The Incan road network is truly a marvel to behold; it is mindboggling that the Incans built a road spanning most of the Andes with no formal written language. The road system was used mainly to transport goods throughout the empire by chasquis (runners) and indigenous llamas and alpacas, but they also provided routes for trade and military communications. Much of the network was destroyed by the Spanish and by always-encroaching modern infrastructure; nonetheless, most of the Inca Trail purportedly remains intact since Incan days. Remarkably, the network ran the length of South America, extending to Colombia and Ecuador to the north and to Chile and Argentina in the south.

Incan tambos are found at various points along the Inca Trail. For Incans travelling from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, tambos served as rest stops, temples, and agricultural hubs. Most of these ruins were uncovered by Hiram Bingham III, a Yale professor of archaeology, with the help of local indigenous guides. Intrigued by the possibility of undiscovered Incan capitals, Bingham identified many significant sites in the latter periods of the Incan Empire, including Vilcabamba, the last Incan stronghold, and the famous Machu Picchu. Hiram Bingham III is recognised today as the person who brought Incan archaeology into the public eye, and is often cited as one of the inspirations for the design of Indiana Jones.

Tambos exhibit diverse architectural styles. These buildings often mixed local architectural traditions with Incan influences. One of the most common buildings is the kancha, a large rectangular structure further subdivided into smaller buildings. Tambos also varied greatly in scale; some would be little more than single-storey huts of rest, whereas others would encompass massive agricultural terraces.

Crossing multiple microclimates from barren alpine landscapes to lush cloud forest, the Inca trail combines some of the best natural scenery of Peru with the mystical archaeology of the Incan Empire. Hiking the Inca Trail proved to be very rewarding; while undoubtedly challenging, the journey to reach the famed ruins of Machu Picchu was very much worth our physical and mental toils.

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