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The clouds swathing the enormous jungle-covered mountains slip away, and from your spot on the high trail, you finally see it. A sprawling hallucination of a city tucked into an impossible crook of the Andes: a mad, Lego-like construction of squared-off roofless stone buildings with eerie empty windows perched at the edge of a 2,000-foot precipice. It is Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas, and one of the world’s most storied archaeological sites.
This is no cushy European getaway financed with frequent-flier miles. No, this is part pilgrimage, part Indiana Jones adventure—an ideal vacation for restless type-A’s.
Bring the same iron will that’s helped you scale the corporate ladder: The trek up the 27-mile Incan Trail, with its passes as high as 13,800 feet, is a four-day marathon that fells even hard-core hikers with altitude sickness and buckled knees. In the 1530s, the Spanish crushed the Incan empire, but even they never made it this far. Machu Picchu was then forgotten for nearly 400 years, until it was rediscovered in 1911 by the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham. Some experts theorize that the lost city, built circa 1460, may have been a royal estate. Others believe it was a religious retreat. In the end, its use—and what the hell it’s doing on the lip of a cliff at 8,000 feet—remains a mystery.
Begin by flying into Cuzco, the Incan capital, and check into the baroque Hotel Monasterio, then take a couple of days to acclimate to the altitude. Once you’re on the trail, you’ll pass through cloud forests that choke out sunlight with thick foliage and across high mountain plains where llamas ignore your gasps for whisper-thin air.
On your last night, you’ll stay at the campsite of Wiñaywayna, known for a partying atmosphere and flagrant tent-hopping. Pull your hungover self out of the tent early, though, to avoid the camera-clicking masses who simply caught the train up for the day. Arrive alone at the famed Sun Gate and its panorama of the entire city just as the sun kisses the mountain spire of Huayna Picchu. Smile. Take a photo. Later, you can stare at it in your office.