for National Geographic News
Each day up to 2,000 tourists flood the ancient Inca mountaintop city of Machu Picchu in southern Peru. They come to marvel at temples built from perfectly chiseled blocks of granite and pay homage to the sun.
Most of the tourists travel by train from nearby Cusco. Others ride the bus. A few hundred heartier souls arrive on foot after a four-day slog along the famed Inca Trail.
"For the average tourist, [the Inca Trail] could be the adventure of a lifetime and a real stretch both physically and psychologically," said Karin Muller, a writer, photographer, and adventurer based in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Walking the Inca Trail demands that hikers clamber over several high mountain passes. These range roughly between 11,000 feet (3,300 meters) to 14,000 feet (4,300 meters) in altitude. Well-preserved remnants of Inca architecture dot the route, which itself is paved in stone.
The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu is but a 20-mile (32-kilometer) spur off the Inca High Road. The 500-year-old, 5,300-mile (8,500-kilometer) route follows the spine of South America's Andes and linked the Inca Empire from southern Colombia to central Chile.
(Muller's own travels along the length of the Inca Road were the subject of a National Geographic documentary and book, Along the Inca Road: A Woman's Journey into an Ancient Empire, published in 2001.)
The road is known as the Gran Ruta Inca in Spanish or Capaq Ñan in Quechua, an indigenous language of central Peru.
The World Conservation Union, a conservation nonprofit based in Geneva, Switzerland, is heading an initiative to restore and revitalize sections of the Gran Ruta Inca. The project aims to provide unique resource for tourism and to promote the sustainable development of the high Andean corridor.
"The world will know portions of the Gran Ruta Inca that are 12-meters [40-feet] wide or more, paved with stones, over 4,000 meters [13,000] feet above sea level, and it will be thousands of kilometers in length," project participants said in an e-mail statement.
Gran Ruta Inca
The Gran Ruta Inca project will initially focus on conservation and revitalization of the High Road, which served as the main artery in a network of ancient footpaths totaling more than 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers).
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