For four days we'd schlepped over mountain passes in Peru's Andes, muddy trails and slippery rocks. My head was aching from a collision with a tree branch, my left cheek filled...

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For four days we’d schlepped over mountain passes in Peru’s Andes, muddy trails and slippery rocks. My head was aching from a collision with a 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 city of the Incas.

The magical moment was worth all the work. But soon I was surrounded by yakking Germans, prattling Englishmen and two American Peace Corps volunteers singing loudly and badly.

The hordes of gawkers and snapshot-shooters weren’t blue-haired ladies and potbellied retirees who’d 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 a historical treasure, Peru has drastically limited the number of 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.

Llamas and their handler look over the ancient city of Cuzco, Peru. Native people in traditional costumes plant themselves in scenic parts of the city, expecting tips from tourists taking photographs.

The results are mixed. On our May trek, parts of the trail were very crowded. Hikers trampled on delicate high-altitude grasses to get better photographs. And the high season was still two months away.

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’d been 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 up images of being trapped in a pack of cosseted gringos being shuttled about in air-conditioned buses.

We decided 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 our past practice and current inclination.

High and mighty

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 and wasn’t “discovered” by explorers until 1911.

A porter carries supplies along Peru’s Inca Trail, which winds through terraced fields and up mountain passes before ending at Machu Picchu.

Cuzco, the Inca capital, is the gateway to Machu Picchu, but at 11,000 feet, the city is a shock to the system. Trail guides recommend that visitors spend at least two days in Cuzco to acclimate; three is better.

There are many ways to get to Machu Picchu. You can spend a week hiking in from Salkantay, the area’s highest mountain. Or you can hop on a tourist train from Cuzco. We decided on the “classic” four-day trek.

Our adventure started with a harrowing three-hour bus ride from Cuzco to the trail head. In addition to our 13 guides, cooks and porters, our group included a Dutch couple, two California lawyers, a Czech diplomat and a brother and sister from Scotland. Ranging in age from early 20s to late 40s, they were fit, enthusiastic and, for the most part, fun to be around.

At the trail head, known simply as Kilometer 82, we strapped on our packs and hit the trail for the first day’s trek, a 7-½-mile hike following the Vilcanota River. The weather was mild and sunny. We each carried a backpack with our clothes and personal items, a sleeping bag and a foam sleeping pad. For an extra $70, you could hire a porter to haul up to 40 pounds of your stuff.

The porters carried tents, food, kitchen supplies and other serious equipment. They literally ran up and down the mountain wearing little more than rags and flip-flops. Part of the new regulations limit the total weight porters can carry and require companies to pay them $10 a day, about double the old rate.

Chicha beer and coca leaves

In the end, six of the 11 members of the group were knocked off their feet to one degree or another by altitude or accident. But none of the setbacks proved serious, and all members recovered enough to make it safely down the mountain on their own power.

Our lead guide, Manu, whose kind heart and wry sense of humor made up for his poor English, deflected our questions about the frequency of altitude sickness among trekkers, although he did not seem surprised at the number of fallen. After a short break for chicha beer, a homemade brew made from corn, we headed to our first campsite, outside the village of Wayllabamba. Dinner that night, like all the trip meals, was an elaborate feast served on tables and chairs in a dining tent.

The next morning, to help us prepare for the seven-mile climb, Manu pulled out a bag of coca leaves and passed them out to the group — an Inca ritual asking for divine assistance in our day’s journey. He showed some of us how to chew the raw coca leaves for some additional Inca energy. Besides a mild numbing of my cheek, I didn’t notice much of an effect, although chewing the stuff did take my mind off my screaming quadriceps. The leaves are legal in Peru, but don’t try to bring any back to the United States.

The trail became congested as we joined other groups of trekkers at Dead Woman’s Pass. A rare flat grassy spot made a good lunch stop, but dozens, if not hundreds, of trekkers chowing on PowerBars and gulping Gatorade detracted from the vistas.

Farther up the trail, hot steamy jungle air turned to cold mountain wind. At the top of the pass, after hours of marching straight up, we took in the views of snowcapped mountains and two valleys, and felt a true sense of accomplishment. We cheered each other on as we climbed the last few steps of the pass.

City in the sky

And then it was straight down, a knee-crunching series of rocky steps and gravel slopes that tested already rubbery legs, to our campsite. Our sore legs were tested the next day as we hiked 10 more miles, but our heads were buzzing with the beauty of the misty valleys, dotted with exotic flowers. The Inca ruins at Sayacmarca and Phuyupatamarca, long-abandoned outposts seemingly carved into the mountains, were astounding not only for their location but for their excellent engineering. The water systems still worked, as small streams trickled along stone-carved channels into ceremonial pools.

On the final day of our trek, we awoke at 4 a.m. and hiked for more than an hour by flashlight. I tried to keep my eyes focused on the ground in front of my feet, not on the sheer drop-off immediately to my right.

As light began to define the clouds, we made a turn and there it was: Machu Picchu, looking like a stage set in the middle of the sky, surrounded by an auditorium of mountain cliffs. It was difficult to take in all the beauty.

For the next few hours we wandered around the mountaintop city, bounding up its ancient stone steps, staggered as much by the location as the city itself. Minute by minute the weather changed, as the clouds and the sun altered every vista.

Later, at a goodbye lunch with our group, there were beers, photos and promises to keep in touch. My wife and I realized that being part of the group was one of the biggest highlights of the trip.