Machu Picchu, Peru - For years the name Machu Picchu has had an alluring ring for me. The well-preserved Incan ruins high in the Peruvian Andes have a unique mystique and attraction.
Research indicates that a four-hour train ride plus a half-hour bus ride up a winding road will get me to the site from a nearby town. It sounds too easy.
One link, however, mentions the Inca Trail, a four-day hike over trails and mountain passes that culminates at Machu Picchu at sunrise. In the spirit of adventure travel, which trumpets the virtues of getting there over being there, I decide that a few days' hike to build anticipation is just the prescription.
There's the small matter of getting to Cusco, the nearby town. Buying the airline ticket for a flight via Los Angeles and Lima isn't that hard. Arriving on the tarmac at 3,200 metres altitude fresh from Toronto's thick sea-level air is another matter entirely.
There are two keys to avoiding altitude sickness, one obvious, the other a well known by veteran high-altitude climbers.
The first: take it easy on the first day or two; the second: drink lots of water. Obediently, I do both and avoid the nasty headaches several other travellers I meet experience.
There are three ways to do the Inca Trail. The hard way is to fill a backpack with food, sleeping bag and tent and set off on your own at minimal cost. The easy way is to book in Toronto, get met at the airport in Cusco and be guided the whole way, having everything carried for you except your camera, all at considerable expense. I've chosen the third way, to book a tour in Cusco, carry my own pack, but let the guide and porters look after the food and sleeping arrangements.
The trail itself is a challenging three-day walk offering tremendous views of snow-capped peaks. Although the highest mountain pass is at 4,200 metres, higher than anything in the Canadian Rockies, a wilderness trek this is not. This is the "easy" way of doing the Inca Trail, more of a gringo trail.
Hiram Bingham, who macheted his way through dense undergrowth to "discover" Machu Picchu in 1911, would barely recognize it today.
Year after year of tourists' tramping - as many as 200 a day - has turned the trail into a hikers' expressway, just one more piece of the pristine past lost to the intrepid eco tourist.
There's talk of further limiting the numbers, but the lure of tourist dollars in a poor land make that a remote possibility.
Cynicism aside, there are few tourists, or even travellers, who would not keep a special spot in their memory for their first view of Machu Picchu.
I wake at 3 am for the three-hour walk in the dark to catch the sun's first rays on the ancient ruins. The discomforts of camping food and three nights of fitful sleep in a tent at high altitudes disappear in a nanosecond. The first sight of this ancient city is one of those moments you know you'll never forget.
Together with the mountain backdrop, ruins of the 200 or so residences, temples and storage structures provide a truly remarkable vista. A closer look reveals the architectural brilliance of the Incas, the granite blocks so tightly fit together that no mortar was required.
Gringo trail it may be, but this is adventure tourism at it best.