This trip traditionally begins with an early-morning three-hour bus ride to Piscacucho, which is at Km 82 of the train line at 2,700 meters (some agencies use the train instead, which drops backpackers a bit farther down at Km 84).
The trail begins in a subtropical ecosystem, with lots of agave plants and Spanish moss hanging from the trees. Many of the cacti along the trail have a parasite that turns crimson when you crush it in your fingers, a trick local woman use for lipstick.
The first ruins you pass are Patallacta, meaning “city above terraces” in Quechua, a middle-class residential complex used as a staging ground for Machu Picchu . There is 12 kilometers of hiking this first day with an elevation gain of 500 meters to Wayllabamba, where most groups camp the first night with stunning views of the Huayluro Valley.
The 12-kilometers covered on this day are much more strenuous because you gain 1,200 meters in elevation and climb two mountain passes back to back. On the backside of the first pass, at 4,200 meters, you will pass by the ruins of Runkurakay, a round food storehouse strategically located at a lookout point. This site has an incredible view over a valley and nearby waterfall.
The second pass, at 3,950 meters, is named Dead Woman’s Pass after a mummy discovered there. In the late afternoon you will see the ruins of Sayaqmarka (3,625 meters), with good views of the Vilcabamba range. Sayaqmarka was probably used as a tambo, or resting spot, for priests and others journeying to Machu Picchu . The complex is divided into a rough lower section and a more elaborate upper area that was probably used for ceremonial purposes. Most trekkers camp this second night at Pacaymayo, with views of snow-covered peaks, including Humantay (5,850 meters) and Salcantay (6,271 meters), the highest peak in the area.
This is a relatively easy day with plenty of time for meandering and lots of memorable sights. You enter the cloud forest, full of orchids, ferns, and bromeliads, to reach the ruins of Phuyupatamarka, a ceremonial site from where you first see the back of Machu Picchu , marked with a flag. Look out for hummingbirds, finches, parrots, and the crimson Andean cock of the rock. Most groups rest at a halfway lookout point that is often shrouded by clouds. From here, it is a two-hour hike straight down, dropping 1,000 meters to the third campsite at 2,650 meters, where there are hot showers, cold beers, and a restaurant.
There is usually plenty of time in the afternoon to see the ruins of Wiñay Wayna, a spectacular ceremonial and agricultural site that is about a 10-minute walk away. We were lucky enough to see these ruins under the light of a full moon, which was truly mesmerizing. This complex is divided into two sectors, with religious temples at the top and rustic dwellings below. The hillside is carved into spectacular terraces and the Río Urubamba flows far below.
Most groups rise very early in the morning in an attempt to reach the sanctuary before sunrise, and it can feel like walking in a herd of cattle. The walk is flat at the start and then inclines steeply up to Inti Punku  (the Sun Gate), from where you will be rewarded with a 180-degree view of Machu Picchu. Your guide will take you through the ruins, leaving you time to wander on your own and to climb Huayna Picchu  if you haven’t had enough.