By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2003

For four days we had schlepped over Andean mountain passes, muddy trails and slippery rocks. My head was aching from a collision with an aggressive tree branch, my left cheek filled with a wad of coca leaves to help with the altitude. At daybreak, just around a bend, I found the perfect spot. I dropped my backpack and waited for the rising sun to illuminate the ruins of Machu Picchu, the ancient lost city of the Incas.

It was the magical moment that was worth all the work. (It said so in all the brochures.) But soon I was surrounded by yakking Germans, prattling Englishmen and two American Peace Corps volunteers singing loudly and badly. I began to worry about having my Nikon stolen.

The hordes of gawkers and snapshot-shooters weren't blue-haired ladies and pot-bellied retirees who had just stepped off a tour bus. These were young, hardy souls who'd gotten there the hard way, by hiking the nearly 30 grueling miles of the famed Inca Trail.

The ancient trail is one of the increasingly crowded Stations of the Cross of adventure travel. In an effort to preserve the world's historical treasure, Peru has drastically limited the number of daily hikers on the Inca Trail, requiring all to go with accredited guides. The government also increased entrance fees, limited the weight that porters can carry and restricted camping areas to reduce erosion and other impacts.

But the results are mixed. On our trek in May, parts of the trail were as crowded as a supermarket checkout line. Our guides cheated their way through a mandatory weigh-in. Hikers trampled on delicate high-altitude grasses to get better photographs. And the high season was still two months away.

And just because more people are doing the trek doesn't make it any easier, as some in our group discovered. Our trek included traversing several high passes in the Andes, including one at nearly 14,000 feet. Of the 11 experienced hikers in our group, three came down with altitude sickness, including one woman who had to be carried down the mountain sucking on an oxygen bottle.

We found ourselves on top of the 13,776-foot Dead Woman's Pass (Warmiwañusqa) after trying to figure out a memorable way to celebrate my wife Janice's 30th birthday. We wanted something physically challenging, culturally interesting and far, far away.

Peru's Inca Trail seemed perfect. Our only hesitation was the fact that new regulations banned independent travel on the trail to Machu Picchu, requiring everyone to go with a guide or group. To us, that conjured images of being trapped in a pack of fellow cosseted gringos being shuttled about in air-conditioned buses. Even worse, it promised to require plenty of chitchat with fellow tourists.

We decided not to sign on with a package tour from Washington but to limit the group experience to the trail hike; to go during the shoulder season when crowds are smaller; and to pick a tour operator that was dependable but not deluxe. Still, we were joining a group tour, something that went against both past practice and current inclination. All we were risking was two weeks of precious vacation time, thousands of dollars and our relative health and happiness.

At the height of its glory in the 15th century, the Inca Empire stretched 2,500 miles from modern-day Colombia to northern Chile, and the Atacama Desert to the Amazonian rain forest. The Incas were excellent farmers and engineers, building large temples with huge stones that were cut so precisely they didn't need mortar. A civil war in the 1530s opened the doors for invading Spaniards, but Machu Picchu -- the city in the sky -- was never conquered by the Spanish, and wasn't "discovered" by explorers until 1911. Since then, there have been many theories about what purpose the city served: Home for vestal virgins? Royal vacation outpost? Spiritual center? Mountain trading post?

Cuzco, the Inca capital, current tourist mecca and gateway to Machu Picchu, is a fascinating mix of Spanish colonial architecture and churches built on ancient walls. But at 11,000 feet, the city is a shock to the system, especially if you've just flown in from sea-level Washington. Trail guides recommend that visitors spend at least two days in Cuzco to acclimate; three is better. A few steaming cups of coca tea, a mild stimulant available throughout Cuzco, seemed to help.

We also got a prescription for Diamox, a glaucoma medication said to help the body acclimate faster to higher altitudes. It made our fingers tingle and beer taste terrible, but we think it prevented us from stumbling around like zombies from the altitude change.

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