There are three ways of getting to Machu Picchu, unless you have a helicopter. The easiest way is to take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, then to take the bus uphill. Alternatively, you can take the train part of the way and walk the rest. The fit and keen get off the train at km 82 and spend four or five days trekking; we got off at km 104 and walked around 10 km in a day. This has the double advantage that you get to see the view from Intipunku and avoid some of the hordes of tourists, while also sleeping in a hotel instead of a tent.
There's a handy map when you get off the train at Chachabamba
The landscape is markedly different from further up the valley. The hills are covered in cloud forest, and there are no roads, only footpaths and the train line. Many hills still have visible signs of old Inca trails; some seemingly going straight up the side of a mountain, and there are some Inca terraces that have been uncovered, but there aren't signs of intensive agriculture as there were around Ollantaytambo. Maybe this is because everything that was there is now overgrown; or perhaps the cloud forest climate just isn't as suitable for crops. There's definitely almost no flat valley floor, and only a few small habitations scattered along the train line.
The train stopped abruptly at km 104, where we climbed out onto the tracks, crossed the river, applied insect repellent, and used the last toilet for a very long time (S/1 each). We had a quick look around the Chachabamba ruins, and then headed uphill.
There's a surprising variety of plants in the cloud forest, including several different orchids.
About two hours after setting off, we rounded a corner to get our first sight of Wiñay Wayna, sitting high on a steep hillside. The name means "forever young" in Quechua, and is also the name of a variety of Epidendrum Secundum, the top left orchid above. We walked for almost another hour to reach the site itself, on the other side of a deep valley with a lovely waterfall at its head. It's not clear, as with a lot of Inca sites, what its original purpose was. There are large agricultural terraces, houses, and also some religious buildings. There are more pictures in the previous post.
Three hours further on (including time for lunch) we made it to the highest point of our trek: Intipunku, the Sun Gate. Here, we should have had a spectacular first view of Machu Picchu, but instead it started to rain and we could only see clouds beneath us. Ten minutes later, though, the mist had cleared enough for us to get a view.
Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. Our path is on the left; the zigzag road leads down from MP to Aguas Calientes.
The rain turned out to be a blessing: by the time we reached Machu Picchu, almost all of the tourists had left and we had the place (almost) to ourselves. We walked down through the ruins, and Susan took the bus into town. Stupidly, I decided to walk down instead. The road zigzags, but the path goes straight down the hill for around 2,000 painfully-high stone steps, cutting across the road several times. Our guide, Pepe, saw a bus driven by a friend and immediately bombed it straight down the path so that he could be waiting nonchalantly at the next bend of the road. I just continued down, thankful that we'd rented trekking poles and my knees weren't taking all of the punishment. Once you've reached the valley floor, the road continues into Aguas Calientes for another couple of long miles. It was getting dark by the time I reached the hotel, but thankfully I had time for a quick shower and to change my socks before dinner.
The next day we negotiated a 7am start - Pepe wanted to get going at 6 - and took the bus back up to Machu Picchu. Apparently crazy people start queueing for the first bus well before dawn, but we decided sleep was more important than seeing the sunrise, especially as it was likely to be cloudy. There was a massive throng at the entrance to MP itself: it seemed as though normal tourist tickets came with a particular entry time, but our Inca Trail tickets got us through without having to queue up. Pepe gave us a tour of the outskirts of the site, occasionally shouting at tourists standing on fragile walls for that all-important selfie, and then pointed us towards the central, most crowded parts for us to explore on our own while he returned to Cusco (explaining why he'd wanted the early start).
Finally, a few notes on logistics. We visited in the middle of January, but only confirmed our booking for the trek at the end of November, six weeks beforehand, and were rather worried that we'd left it too late. The Inca Trail has limited spots available, and they apparently fill up quickly, but maybe that's a bigger problem for the 4-day treks in high season. Another worry was that it would rain all of the time. The rainy season is November-March, with the wettest month being February, when the Inca Trail is closed for repairs. Luckily, though, we had some sun during the trek and a few mild rain showers, only adding up to what you might expect on a fairly dry day in the Lake District.
Guides are mandatory for Inca Trail treks. We booked through Llama Path - not the cheapest, but a very well known outfit that is notable for treating their staff ethically. Our guide Pepe was excellent, as was the packed lunch.
Talking of packing, I both over- and under-packed. I took too many layers with me: while it was nice to have a fleece at night, I could have got by without it. I wish I'd have worn shorts during the hike, and packed a pair of trousers to wear once we arrived. It wasn't terribly nice to put my damp hiking trousers back on after showering in the hotel. We hired walking poles, which were very useful to take some of the strain off the knees while descending, as well as to steady ourselves when the path became slippery in the rain.
Staying in Ollantaytambo both before and after visiting Machu Picchu meant that we didn't have to get up as early as if we'd been staying in Cusco, and that we could leave all the stuff that we didn't need safely in the hotel. It's also a good place to acclimatise to the altitude, being higher than Machu Picchu, but a significant 600m lower than Cusco.