A guide to the history of the Inca Trail

The Inca Trail – and its destination Machu Picchu – is undoubtedly one of the most iconic attractions in Peru. Thousands of people walk along this route every year, but many know little of its history before they set out on their journey of discovery.

We’re going to tell you a bit more about the Inca Trail to get you in the mood for tackling this adventurous trek. As long as you book your trip with a reputable tour company like Explore Worldwide, you’ll have a knowledgeable guide who can expand on the basics and truly bring this historical site to life.

Machu Picchu at the time of the Incas

It’s now widely accepted that Machu Picchu – and therefore the trail that connects it to the outside world – was constructed in the 1400s as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. Of the many Inca sites that have been discovered, Machu Picchu is comparatively small for a city, with the ability to sustain between 500 and 750 people.

This has led to the suggestion that it was designed as an estate for the emperor to entertain other high-ranking officials. The discovery of a so-called ‘elite quarter’ full of high-quality housing backs up that assertion, although no one is really certain how important Machu Picchu was during the Inca’s time.

In addition to the residential buildings, there are some stunning temples, including the Temple of the Sun, which was next to the official royal palace. As Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spanish conquistadors, it remained in excellent condition despite being abandoned for centuries until it was uncovered by Hiram Bingham.

The Inca Trail itself was constructed by hand, which is incredibly remarkable when you consider there are steps and even a tunnel carved out of solid rock along the way. As you hike along what are now well-maintained paths, consider the effort that must have gone into their construction centuries ago.

Machu Picchu’s decline

It isn’t known what caused the Incas to abandon Machu Picchu, but one theory is that a smallpox outbreak wiped out the population. Either way, the city was abandoned in the early 16th century, less than 100 years after being constructed.

The incursion of the Spanish conquistadors would likely have also taken its toll on Machu Picchu, with the Inca rulers having to deal with threats to their kingdom rather than being able to enjoy visiting the mountain-top retreat.

Following Machu Picchu’s discovery by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, much work has been done to excavate and evaluate the site. One interesting finding is that there’s evidence that the Incas weren’t the only people who visited the city.

Modelling techniques from coastal and highland tribes have been noted at Machu Picchu, while ceramics from as far afield as the people of Lake Titicaca have also been unearthed in the city.

Machu Picchu in modern times

Since Hiram Bingham’s rediscovery of the site, with the help of locals who knew of the ruins, Machu Picchu’s fame has grown considerably. Once the first travellers began to arrive to see the amazing lost city for themselves, tourism in the region quickly burgeoned and led to the Peruvian government imposing restrictions on the number of people who could hike the Inca Trail at any one time.

It is now well protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and was recently named as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Although it’s now possible to reach Machu Picchu without following the Inca Trail, many tourists want to tackle the hike to get a real sense of this fascinating civilisation and see some more of the Andes along the way.