Having just done a 4 day trek to this wonderful archeological site, I would have to say it was all totally worth it and I would do it all over again just to see it!
Machu Picchu known as the `Lost City of the Incas` is one of the Seven New Wonders of the World and too rightly too! When we got our first glance at this wonderful site, attraction and definitely what looked like an illusion or something you can only dream of.. wow I felt I really had achieved something from doing the Inca Trail.
Hiram Bingham was the explorer who spread the word about this `lost city´ although it was said that there were many other explorers who found it before him. The American explorer founded Machu Picchu in 1911, whilst he was at Yale University at a lecturer and not a archeologist as most might have thought.
Machu Picchu is located at approximately 2430 metres in altitude so altitude acclimatization is vital before visiting this site. How bad would you feel if you spent all that money on your trip and all your hopes to see one of the Wonders of the World and just because you didnt allow yourself time to acclimatize!
The name of this archeological site simply got its name from the mountain it was sitting on. `Machu`- Big, `Picchu`- Mountain in Quecha the native Inca language which is still used in Andean communities today. There is also a mountain nearby called ´Wayna Picchu`- Small Mountain (which you can also climb once at this magnificient site.
There are currently a number of ways of getting to Machu Picchu, which include:
- By Train from Cusco or Ollantaytambo (even though its from Piscacucho (KM82) at the moment) Hiram Bingham now has his own train service named after him on PeruRail´s top notch executive (and slightly pricey) service.
- The Classic Inca Trail
- The Salkantay Trail
- Temporary service by car via Santa Teresa
Once there you can explore its terraces, temples and its wonderful architectural work. I didnt realise just how big this place actually was until I got there. What I particularly liked about this was that it houses llamas which adds to the stunningness of this wonderful site.
`The Temple of the Sun` and `The Temple of the Condor` are located at the top of Machu Picchu and you need to climb some long steep steps before getting there. The theories are that these places were for the people with higher statuses.
This Incan site was said to be built not only for one purposes but a series of purposes as the Incans were very very intelligent people. Their building structures are so well thought out that it really does baffle you. With the flooding that happened in January 2010 and no damage done to Machu Picchu, well that really shows you something. The way their buildings are built with thought of every brick in place, its no wonder that their buildings are `for life´.
Machu Picchu is a truly amazing place and I highly recommend anyone to go if you havent already. You will not be disappointed!
Machu Picchu is an ancient Inca site built in the 1450s but abandoned about a century later (possibly due to an epidemic). It remained a mystery to the outside world, known only to locals until American explorer Hiram Bingham re-discovered it only in 1911. It has since become one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world and was recently voted one of the seven new wonders of the world.
I went as part of an organised tour and we travelled from just outside Cusco, by train, to the incredibly unattractive and touristy town of Aguas Calientes ('hot waters' in Spanish, due to nearby hot springs). The journey itself is quite pleasant, but long and slow and takes about three hours. There is some lovely scenery in places en route, and it is nice to see rural scenes go by. Aguas Calientes is on a steep slope so you will need to either walk up a slope or some steps to get to your hotel, unless you have booked one near the bottom. From Aguas Calientes you can get a bus to Machu Picchu which runs regularly for a modest fee, or you can walk. I didn't do the Inca trail or any of the other treks as I am essentially quite lazy! You can climb the mountains and hills around the sites for a few hours or a day if you wish, but tickets and passes run out quickly, so you need to start very early in the morning. If getting the bus, you wilL find it takes a zig-zag route up the side of the mountain and is quite hairy at times, especially when it meets another coming the other way. Vertigo sufferers are advised to make sure they are looking the other way at all times - due to the twists and turns it doesn't matter where you sit on the bus.
The altitude here is about 2400m, so lower than Cusco and other parts of the mountain range, therefore it is easier to walk around than in those places but I certainly felt the affects of the altitude on some of the uphill climbs though. Machu Picchu is on a slope, so there are a lot of steep up and down hills and steps to do. Although well looked after, ground is uneven, so sensible flat shoes need to be worn also. Llamas and alpacas graze at the site keeping the grass mowed, beware if you are walking up some steps and they are coming down, regardless of the rules of the road in your country, they are bigger than you and won't give way - I speak from experience! Bring water too, as although there is a little shop, you can probably get some cheaper elsewhere (like Cusco!).
We had a guide with us as part of our tour group, and he was worth his weight in gold. He clearly explained what everything is, how the city operated in its heyday 500 years ago, and gave us a lot of information on Incan history. Many Inca sites were destroyed by the Spanish when they conquered in the early 16th Century, razed to the ground and cathedrals built on top. This site was not discovered by them (if access is difficult now, imagine how hard it was 450 years ago!) so although in ruins it is essentially unharmed by humans having been hidden in the jungle for centuries. The location was no doubt chosen for strategic purposes by the Incas and it certainly worked as the two main access points are over mountains, at altitude. The climate and soil was suitable for farming and was terraced, and there was access to clean spring water. All in all this was a busy and sophisticated Incan city.
Climb to the funerary rock hut for your picture postcard views of the site, don't worry, the walk down is easier! I loved the view so much I had to be persuaded to move, assured that the site would live up to the view and to my expectations I continued on. This is also a good sunset viewing spot. Here you are also looking down on all the terraces that would have been used for farming. After this we went down to some of the buildings, still above the main plaza, and saw where some of the more important Incas may have lived and even an Incan toilet (also known as a hole in the ground), there are windows still in the walls, although no roof, so you can admire the views that they may have enjoyed. Here also is the royal tomb, but at the time I visited we could not go inside it for safety reasons. Nearer the main plaza is the intiwatana stone, used by the Incas to track the sun's movements as a kind of calendar. The surviving building work is impressive, with many large stones, the logistics of getting these stones (some were identified as coming from Cusco region, some from further afield), across one mountain, let alone many is mind boggling.
The site is a UNESCO world heritage site, and may yet become one of their more endangered sites due to the increased volume in tourists; it already has a no fly zone above it. Recent landslides at the beginning of 2010 will have increased concerns, although the site should re-open to tourists in April 2010.
It is a popular site to see for sunrise and many people walk to the Sun-Gate to see it and then carry on into the site. This is probably the busiest time to visit. We visited mid-late afternoon and in the last hour before closing we almost had the place to ourselves.
It is possible to do Machu Picchu in a day from Cusco by getting the early train, missing the 'delights' of Aguas Calientes, and getting the late afternoon train back, but I'd hate to be rushed. Overall I think we were only there about 2.5 hours (this didn't include stops for food, we ate before) and this is plenty of time, I certainly felt happy with the memories I got from here and we didn't miss anything.
* Given Torr's superlative piece on Machu Picchu, which covers just about everything anyone could ever want to know about the site, this review focuses more on the Inca Trail that leads to the citadel, which is in many ways inextricable from its destination, and is very much part of the classic "Machu Picchu experience". *
== A Little Background ==
Originally built during the 15th century, Machu Picchu is unusual for the fact that the relentless Spanish conquistadors who sought to wipe out the Incas never discovered its location. However, with the passing of those who built it, the citadel was reclaimed by the jungle and lay hidden from the outside world until it was (officially, at least) discovered by American scholar Hiram Bingham in 1911. The ancient city straddles the crest of a ridge above the Urubamba River, some 2,500 metres above sea level, overlooked by the peak of Huayna Picchu. There is still no real consensus as to what Machu Picchu was used for - theories have seen it as a sun temple, a refuge for the 'Virgins of the Sun', the last city of the Incas and numerous other variations. The favourite modern conception of the site is a rather simpler one - that it was a winter retreat for the higher echelons of Incan society, favoured for its relatively warmer climate and fertile terraces.
Whatever its genesis, Machu Picchu is now one of the most celebrated man-made sights in the world; the iconic vista overlooking the site from the Funerary Rock adorns countless publications and advertisements, and almost sells Peru to tourists on its own.
== Tourism & Machu Picchu ==
As stoutly as the Inca Empire was able to resist the advancing Spaniards, the influx of tourism has proved rather more difficult to hold back. That's not to say Peru wants to discourage tourists, far from it - although there are a number of fairly strict safeguards in place to prevent the immensely popular site and the Inca Trail which reaches it from being overrun. Only 500 people a day are allowed to use the Trail, and development in and around the Unesco World Heritage site is minimal. This is for the most part a positive thing, and means Machu Picchu retains the ethereal splendour that people have come to see, untainted by the outside world.
While those wishing to trek the Inca Trail should book well in advance (although it can be possible to find places at short notice, but is a risky strategy), entrance to Machu Picchu alone is easier to arrange. Trains - both local services and the tourist one, named after Hiram Bingham - depart Cusco daily, and take a couple of hours to reach Aguas Calientes (named after the slightly grubby thermal baths in the town) via a stunning route through the mountains. The site itself is only a short hop from here.
The alternative route referred to at the outset is the Inca Trail. Beginning at the Kilometre 82 waypoint, a network of Inca roads lead up, over and through the mountains, reaching Machu Picchu twenty-six miles, or three-four days' walk later.
== The Inca Trail ==
The walk to Machu Picchu isn't an enormously difficult one, although it does demand a fair level of fitness, and is as comfortable as one would expect from four days and three nights camping at a reasonable altitude.
The trail is only open to those walking with a guide; passes need to be shown at a couple of checkpoints. Your company will provide all the basic sleeping and eating equipment; the most important things you'll need to take with you are a good, warm sleeping bag and a suitably sized rucksack - you needn't take too much with you, although plenty of layers and drinking water/purification tablets are crucial. A torch is also a good idea for those midnight toilet trips and the final day's 4am rise to reach Machu Picchu for sunrise. Otherwise, common sense should dictate what you will and won't need - you're unlikely to miss anything too much in four days, although sound planning will make things a little more comfortable.
Porters can be paid to carry your bags (you'll get used to seeing them sprint past you up an incline with half a kitchen on their backs), but if you're reasonably fit, this shouldn't be necessary. They will also set up camp prior to your arrival - a welcome sight after a long walk.
The first day's trekking, leaving from Km 82, provides a relatively easy introduction to the trail - the climb is gradual, with some promising lookout spots, and the distance of around eight miles is comfortable. Take advantage of a semi-decent night's sleep, with mostly clean, dry gear - it won't happen for another couple of days at least.
Day Two sees a more difficult climb, the gradient increasing to rise through 2000 metres in a matter of hours. The first three or so miles are a tiring uphill slog, though the scenery begins to make up for the exertions - views back across the valley are impressive, growing even more so as you rise above lower cloud cover. However, the going really starts to get tough at the foot of Dead Woman's Pass - a narrow staircase leads to the apex of the highest pass faced on the trail, and the weather is cold at best - be prepared for snow and ice, making for a slightly hairy descent.
Heading down into the valley, the snow should fade about 600 metres down. A few miles later, the second night's campsite is pitched amongst scrubby bushes, with a basic toilet block and a stream. Shattered you may be, but it's encouraging to look back up at the mountain you just scaled, and the view across the valley to the dying sun clinging to the distant peaks is wonderful.
It is this night you will appreciate the warm, dry clothes that remain the most. Temperatures are likely to be sub-zero. The third day's hike is the longest, but is broken up by stunning sights, both scenery and ruins. Runkurukay lies half-an-hour or so up towards the second pass, an egg-shaped structure looking out over the valley. The other side of the pass, a couple of hours on, sits Sayacmarca, a daunting fortress shooting out from the rockface over the tropical forest.
Further on, through a narrow Incan tunnel, Payupatmarca (Quechua for 'Town above the clouds') affords the first view of Machu Picchu Mountain, marked by a lone flag flying on the Sacred Valley's winds. The citadel itself, though, remains hidden until the last day. From here it is a painful descent to the last campsite. The terraces of Winay Wayna are also near here, if one has the energy left to go and see them.
So to the final day, and the early rise to trek to the Sun Gate - the view of Machu Picchu in profile is an unfamiliar one at first, but nonetheless stunning. The most familiar head-on photo waits to be taken half an hour's walk further on, and you'll have several hours' exploration of the site before the arrival of the bussed-up tourists crowds the terraces. There's a great wealth of things to see around the citadel, and plenty of information about this elsewhere, but I won't go into this here; rather, there's enough enjoyment to be had simply exploring. When you're done with the ruins themselves, make your way to the rear of the site, beneath Huayna Picchu - here, two trails lead to the Moon Temple and the peak, the latter affording another refreshing perspective on Machu Picchu.
To return to Cusco, take the bus or walk down to Aguas Calientes and take one of the trains heading back up the valley to the city. The flow of tourists coming in the other direction will point the way to the small town, which has a range of places to rest, wash or fill one's stomach.
== Costs ==
I've quoted prices in US Dollars, as these are often accepted, and sometimes encouraged.
Inca Trail packages - $250-500.
Train to Machu Picchu (Aguas Calientes) - $50-70
Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu - $6
Entrance to Machu Picchu (opens at 6am) - $50
Guides, variously priced hotels and more luxurious/budget tours are also available.
== So why go? ==
Visiting Machu Picchu is unlikely to be anything but an expensive business - air fares to Peru are not cheap, and the above costs can quickly mount up. Additionally, you'll want to allow time for both acclimatisation (altitude sickness is an unpleasant, occasionally dangerous affliction) and exploration of what else the region and country have to offer - which is an enormous amount. However, if extravagant expenditure is ever justified, it is for this; I'm not going to try to summarise Machu Picchu in a sentence, as I'd just be listing adjectives, and doing the site little justice. The most accurate description I could give the no-longer Lost City would be to say that it exceeds its considerable hype.
As such, the Inca Trail also comes highly recommended. It's an incredible walk in its own right, without taking what lies at its end into consideration - for so many reasons, perhaps chief amongst them the chance to explore Machu Picchu at dawn before the rest of the world arrives, it is a wonderful experience that deserves to be enjoyed by anyone with a taste for the spectactular.
Machu Picchu :
If you were asked to write a list of places you MUST see in the world I believe this would be on most people's list. It was certainly on my list; it is a destination of a lifetime, a dream come true and one of the most fascinating archaeological finds of recent times. Everyone interested in travel recognises the picture postcard view but nothing prepares you for your own first sight of Machu Picchu when you see it for yourself the first time.
Machu Picchu was made a World Heritage site by Unesco in 1983 and on July 7th 2007 it was voted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the world. Conservation experts are now becoming concerned about the damage that is being done to the site because of the number of tourists visiting and because of this it is on a list of 100 endangered sites.
A bit of history:
This ancient Inca city set in the Andes Mountains of Peru is about fifty miles northwest of Cusco. The city is built high on the top of a ridge overlooking the Urabamba river gorge. The mountains are shrouded in cloud which sometimes hides the surrounding peaks and at other times just cover them in a light fluffy mist. These mountains are not bare rocks but are covered in dense rain forest and bush vegetation which had buried the city of Machu Picchu until Hiram Bingham, assisted by local villagers from the area, uncovered it the ruins in 1911. This cover of vegetation has meant that we are able to enjoy Machu Picchu as it is today, a fairly well preserved Inca city.
Machu Picchu means 'Old Peak' and the city was built on this mountain between 1460 and 1470 AD by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. It seems a strange place to build a city because of its altitude of 8,000ft and so some archaeologists believe that is unlikely to be an administrative or military city but believe it could have been a royal or religious place of retreat. There are about 200 buildings most of which are houses but there are also some temples, and storage places. It is believed that, at its busiest about 1000 people lived in or around the city and most of these were priests, women and children judging by the mummies that were found in the area. The city, it appears, only thrived for about 100 years and it is not known why it fell into decline. Fortunately the Spanish conquerors in the 1500s did not find it otherwise it would probably have been destroyed like so many other Inca cities of the time.
The buildings were carefully planned and built with Inca precision. The huge, granite blocks are carefully carved and fit together snugly without the use of any mortar or other joining ingredient. They have been built to withstand the earthquakes known to happen in the area. The blocks are of different sizes and shapes yet despite only using basic stone or bronze tools these blocks still fit so cleanly together that even a knife blade cannot slide between them. The houses had steeply thatched roofs and doors in the shape of a trapezium but very few had windows. Some were single story and other had a second level.
Crops grown in this area included potatoes and maize which were planted on terraces because of the steep slopes. This prevented erosion and helped with irrigation. These terraces are still there and today in order to keep the grass short there are llamas freely roaming around the site. They have been introduced deliberately for this purpose. There were also alpacas introduced by they have died out as the weather in this area is too hot for them.
We caught the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes very early so we arrived in Aguas Calientes for 10am. The train had reserved seating and there were 4 people to a table which was at right angles to the window. The views of the river and countryside as we went along were a constantly changing picture through the window. As we climbed higher the train had to switch back along another line in order to climb as it was too steep to go up on the same line - a sort of zigzagging upwards. We had a table with a crisp white cloth laid for breakfast. We were offered fruit juice, coffee, tea or coca tea with a bread roll with cheeses and cold meats.
On arrival at Aguas Calientes station we were able to leave our overnight bags with the porters from the Inka Terra hotel where we were staying for the night before we walked on through the bustling market full of colourful craft and souvenirs stalls. The stall holders were very pleasant and quite happy for us to look and not buy. We were almost running through the market and up the hill in order to get an early -ish bus up to Machu Picchu so we didn't stop and look until later.
We then caught the bus ( about $15US return trip) up to Machu Picchu up the Hiram Bingham Highway - a gravelled track that zigzags rapidly up the mountain perilously close to the edge at times, until finally you arrive at Machu Picchu just outside the hotel - the Machu Picchu sanctuary Lodge.
You go along through the turnstiles and follow the path round until you get your first magical glimpse of the famous sight of Machu Picchu ruins with Huayna Picchu behind. It was raining and the sort of misty look all added to the atmosphere. There really are few words to do justice to the description - you just have to be there. It isn't really the fact that it is such a well-preserved Inca town it has more to do with the mountains surrounding the place, the clouds and the rarefied atmosphere. Whatever it is this place has it in abundance.
What is really amazing to me is that you can walk anywhere at all - very few areas are roped off. There are some very hairy, scary pathways and steps and those with a fear of heights were struggling a little in some places. Health and safety isn't an issue - you are just expected to be sensible yourself; I think if I had had young children with me I would have been very nervous. In fact there were very few children there at all; the age of most people was considerably older. There were quite a few fairly elderly folk who did amazingly well scrambling up and down the steps. In fact in our group we had one man of 70 and a lady of 75 with her husband who was 82 and had had a hip replacement and they were all sprinting up and down the tracks like gazelles!! I felt I had to keep up with them otherwise I would have let the side down. It is not easy at altitude, let me tell you. After about 10 high steps you are finding it quite difficult to breathe and need to stop for a few minutes to recover. It makes you very aware of breathing and you need to drink gallons of water to stop yourself becoming dehydrated which can cause altitude sickness if you are not careful.
We climbed up to the Guard House above the main city ruins for the obvious viewpoint and took several photos. The sun came out for us at this time and so we were lucky enough to enjoy the area in both rain and sun. These are ruins and you need a good imagination to 'see' the city as it might have been and I personally feel that I didn't need to know the fine detail of every temple and building. It is not so much the individual parts but more the whole sight and its setting that is so inspiring but that's just my humble opinion.
We had a guided tour which was interesting as our guide was able to tell us historical facts and beliefs as well as pointing out things like the acoustics in one building that archaeologists believe may have been a music room; the Sacred rock carved in the same shape as the mountain behind but I'm not sure what made it sacred; the Sun temple with all the careful astronomical features built in a round shape; the Intihuatana stone which is constructed to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. We also saw the Condor temple but I think you needed a good imagination to see the shape on the floor joined to the wings of the rocks behind!!
We were told that the last bus goes down from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes at 5.30 but as there is a constant queue it is a good idea to leave a little before that as you may end up having to walk the trail back down to Aguas Calientes where most of the hotels are situated. There is one hotel at the site, The Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, but it is quite small and I do know the prices are really high - about $800US for a fairly standard room for one night! Twenty years ago my husband stayed there with his previous wife and their daughter and they paid back-packer prices in most of their other places so I know they didn't pay anything like that - how times have changed. It would be very convenient to stay there as you could go in after the majority of people had left which would be very special I think but this was not to be as we were based in Aguas Calientes below.
If you want to avoid the crowds the choose a time outside July and August when about 3,000 visitors enter the sight each day, we went in October and we were able to wander around quite easily and get photos without hoards of other people in them. Entry cost about $50US per person for the entire day. You can hire a guide but I'm not sure how much that would cost as we had a guide as part of our tour anyway. I think it would be a very speedy visit to come from Cusco by train and return on the same day and we were fortunate in that we arrived early and were able to stay as late as we liked on that day. We had the opportunity to go again the next morning very early but we felt we had seen everything we wanted to. It will be something I will never forget and I would certainly recommend a visit. It is everything it is 'cracked up to be'.
After spending about 5 and a half hours up on the site climbing up and down stairs, walking amongst ruins as well as the resident llamas , we decided to go and start queuing for the bus down to Aguas Calientes and our hotel. Another review about this gem of a hotel to follow.
A truly wonderful day that is very difficult to describe the majesty, the awe and wonder of this sight. Words can't really do it justice but I hope I have given a taste of the place. Enjoy the photos and take a look at the third site below for a virtual tour.
http://www.macchu-picchu.com this site gives prices for local tours
http://www.sacredsites.com/americas/peru/machu_picchu.html lovely photos and more information about the site.
http://www.247rep.com/machu_picchu/index.html a virtual tour of the site
Also on Ciao under my name
If you mention a trip to SOuth America, or to Peru, people almost always immediately ask whether you have visited Machu Picchu. For many people, coming here is a dream come true. I know, because I was one of them.
I flew into Lima, stayed one night, then flew to Cusco, where I stayed for a few days to acclimatise.
You can do an organised trek to Machu Picchu, or you can take the train from Cusco. I had decided to do the trek, hence the time for acclimatisation. This is very important, because the trek (in fact there is more than one, and tour agencies will help you decide which is the best for you) is difficult. Partly this is because the terrain changes and is often stony, partly because you are climbing up, down and around mountains, and partly because of the altitude. This last one is the reason for the acclimatisation. If you do not acclimatise, you risk altitude sickness, which can be fatal, and for which the only cure is to descend.
The trek takes about five days and brings you to the Sun gate, where you will be able to marvel at Machu Picchu.
If you go to the village of Aguas Calientes (literally below the archaeological wonder), you can take a tour of Machu Picchu with a guide. This is really worth doing as, having got there, it would be a shame not to learn about what you were visiting.
Aguas Calientes is easily reached from Machu Picchu- just take the bus down the hill! There are plenty of places to stay, eat and be entertained there, as the community relies on tourism.
Machu Picchu is a marvellous place, well worth a trip to Peru, and well worth the trek if you decide to do it!
Machu Picchu in Peru is one of those views that you just have to see once in your life. Everyone has seen the classic photo, always apparently taken from exactly the same place on the descent down a mountain towards the ancient site. My trip there, however, was rather eventful and almost a disaster, but I have very fond memories despite something going wrong at almost every stage.
I set off with two school friends, now all grown-up and sensible, with our rucksacks on our backs, with the intention of walking the Inca Trail. The "classic" student way to see Machu Picchu is a four-day journey, three days of walking over undulating mountains and camping at high altitude, finishing on the morning of the fourth day descending into Machu Picchu at sunrise. The alternative route is a fairly short train journey which can all be done in one day or with an over-night stay to allow getting to the site early in the morning, or a helicopter flight in a matter of hours. Looking back at it, we must have been mad, and I was certainly deluded about my own level of fitness, and had apparently completely forgotten that I am scared of heights.
In order to walk the Inca Trail, you need to start from the city of Cusco. We booked flights from London to Lima with the Venezuelan Viassa Airline (the cheapest option at the time) There appeared to be a problem with the plane on take-off and we were surprised to find ourselves being ushered off the plane in Paris, where we sat for hours watching fluid gush out of the plane while "engineers" wandered around the plane scratching their heads. We then all got back on the plane for the onward journey. We landed in Caracas about a day after setting out on our journey, where we waited for two more days for a working plane to take us on the Lima. We were ferried backwards and forwards, for no apparent reason, between the airport and a luxurious hotel that the airline had put us up in for two nights. A guided tour of Caracas, food and entertainment was provided, but we wanted to be up a mountain in Peru. We fortunately hadn't booked any accommodation, nor onward flights, so when we finally did arrive at Lima airport, we just bought tickets and caught the next plane to Cusco, without even venturing into Lima itself.
Cusco (or Cuzco) was the capital of the Inca Empire and the centre of the Inca Cult of the Sun. It is a fascinating place to spend several days with a wide variety of things to do and see, while acclimatizing to the altitude, ready for the Inca Trail. It is usefully at an altitude of 3,300m, lower than many of the higher parts of the trail, yet high enough to allow your body to get used to the reduced air pressure. It really is essential to acclimatize before attempting the journey. We didn't. The delay in Caracas had cut short our time and we wanted to get started. Cusco really deserves a separate review, so I won't go into too much detail here. But one thing really worth doing is The Natural History Museum (just 50p when I was there and worth every penny. I haven't laughed so much in a long time. All of the exhibits had no hair and were stuffed badly and had teddy bear style eyes sewn on. The boa constrictor was stuffed so full that it was completely straight and looked like a draft-excluder.
Food in Cusco was mostly not great, as with so much of South America, but the night before the Inca Trail we decided to have a slap-up meal and a few beverages. The local delicacy of guinea pig seemed like a good idea as the main course, but that proved to be a mistake, first of all looking like my childhood pet, but also, was almost certainly road-kill. We foolishly ate it washed down with much sub-standard booze. I was very ill and didn't sleep at all.
The Inca Trail
The Inca Trail is actually now a selection of several trails of varying lengths all arriving at Machu Picchu in dramatic fashion on the final day, although when I did it, I think there really was just one trail, but huge volumes of tourists have caused the requirement of spreading out the hoards a little. The classic trail takes a full four days, starting with a mini-bus journey to some distance outside Cusco, about six hours a day of walking, camping each night, with the final day spent exploring Machu Picchu, then taking the train back to Cusco. It is probably worth making sure exactly what route is being taken and what you will see en route. Some companies are now offering a short trail with just one day of walking, starting close to Machu Picchu, while others extend the journey to five days. The scenery is stunning and the destination unique, so I imagine even a short trail would be extremely good.
We booked the trail on arrival in Cusco with the least expensive guide we could find and haggled hard, getting a guide and "chef", but no porters, for the four days, shared with another 10 or so tourists for just $65 each. There is no way you will get it for this price now. We met many people on the trail, who even then, had paid several times as much. In exchange for the low price we agreed to carry some of the food and tents etc. along with our rucksacks, which was extremely foolish. A llama joined us on the journey, but she was purely for company and didn't help out at all with the carrying. One group we met on the trail had a team of porters and a pig trotting along for the first half of the journey, although he disappeared at some stage and they did have rather better protein rich food than we did. We had chicken early on, but mostly vegetarian later in the journey, and only edible because we were so hungry and tired.
The most striking thing about the trail is the incredible sheer vertical drops next to the paths we were walking on. I am not good with heights (in a cautious logical kind of way, I am scared when it's dangerous, but not if I am safe, and I would say this was quite dangerous) The surreal sight of tiny helicopters flying almost a mile below us in the valleys, and at one point even watching a thunder-storm from above, which we had to walk down through, made the whole experience even more memorable. The views looking down through the wispy clouds and haze into the valleys and of the Inca agricultural terraces and occasional ruin along the twisting path are spectacular.
One the first day I started getting symptoms of altitude sickness. I was out of breath, and had a terrible headache, but mostly just lacked energy and could hardly lift my camera let alone my body. It could have been exhaustion, or related to the dodgy guinea pig, alcohol and lack of sleep, but heading back down the mountain helped. I was given Coca Cola and high-energy chocolate and almost instantly improved, and the kind guide took my rucksack and my friends shared the burden of my photographic equipment. I was holding everyone up, most of whom had been acclimatized for a month or more, so I had to keep going, fortunately heading down-hill at that stage. Later in the journey I hired a mule to carry my bag for a significant, but worthwhile, fee (probably less than $10). Most tour operators now seem to provide porters to carry your luggage, which I would say is essential to really enjoy the walk. The first day was reckoned to be the easiest walk, with just 13km to cover, but I found it the hardest. The subsequent days involved similar distances, but more steep ascents. The camping facilities were very basic mostly without washing or toilet facilities, although I suspect this was partly due to the extreme budget nature of the tour taken I our case, and things may have improved with the increased popularity of this route.
The Inca Trail has a wide variety or climates as you progress up and down the mountains, some areas approaching zero while others are tropical. Humming birds hovering around us some of the time with snow and cacti in other areas. We camped at such high altitude one night, that we were actually inside a cloud with temperatures below zero. I had packed a lightweight sleeping bag, rather than the three or four-season variety recommended (well it was the equator after-all) and I started to get the first symptoms of hypothermia during the night. I tried wrapping myself in a tarpaulin, but ended up being covered in condensation which only made things worse. Fortunately the sun came up and thawed me out ready for another scary walk with no energy and little sleep.
The Inca Trail was the great communication technology of the day, like the internet now. Relay runner would run between stations along the route passing messages back to Cusco. The route was also used for transferring fresh fish and other supplies rapidly from the coast up to Machu Picchu, taking a tiny fraction of the time taken by us. Along the route there are various interesting Inca constructions, although the more intact buildings were relatively few and far between. Some of them make wonderful photo opportunities and the scenery is stunning. Ruins of small inns, or "tambos" are located at regular intervals along the trails. These were occupied by the relay runners and provided shelter and food. Some Germans in our party regularly ordered beer, whenever we had a break, from various local people along the route and it appeared in no time. I would like to think these modern day relay-runners ran back to Cusco to purchase it, but I suspect they had a fridge tucked behind a hedge somewhere. Under normal circumstances I too would have imbibed with my Teutonic colleagues, but my stamina was impaired and couldn't manage any ethanol until celebrating our arrival on the last night. The last night was actually under cover inside a brick building. We were intending to camp and cook food round the fire, but we were stuck inside a thunder-storm and it would have been dangerous, so someone pulled strings and we were allowed inside with a huge number of other tourists caught in the storm. We ate low quality food, which tasted wonderful under the circumstances and even managed a beer, or five, to make up for my unnatural abstinence along The Trail.
Machu Picchu is stunning, whether you go on the train or walk, but that sight as I walked down the mountain on the last day of the trail is one memory I hope will never leave me. A mixture of emotion, achievement and relief. It is at a height of just 2,400 metres above sea-level, relatively low compared to most of The Trail, which adds to the feeling of euphoria when you arrive. It was built in about 1460 and only occupied for a hundred years or so, abandoned when the Spanish arrived on the continent, although they never actually reached Machu Picchu. It was only "rediscovered" in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. It is only about 50 miles from Cusco and has similar architecture to many of the sites in and around Cusco, using clever earth-quake resistant interlocking dry-stone walls in its construction, but it's relatively impenetrable location has left it surprisingly intact. The sturdy foundations and many of the walls remain. Although, a tall stone column erected by the Incas still stood majestically in the midst of the ruins until it was removed to allow helicopter access. The majority of the buildings look quite modern and very regular in structure, but the setting is amazing, especially when you try to work out how the Incas actually got the building materials to the site. The terraced fields running down the side of the mountain are also remarkable, because the inhospitable location would normally have made agriculture almost impossible. The main buildings at the site are the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. The exact purpose of the site is not known but guides at the site will provide much speculative theory on the subject. The most important thing is to enjoy the remarkable location, marvel in the beauty and the unbelievable construction of the site and try to imagine it decorated with gold and occupied by the Incas instead of hoards of tourists.
Since I went to Machu Picchu it has become a very popular destination, to the extent that measures have been taken to try to reduce the number of visitors, both to the site and also to the Inca Trail. It has become far more expensive to do the trail, and I imagine the stunning sight of the destination will be a little impaired by all of the extra tourists, but still a wonderful place to visit. It is located in a magical location and the neighbouring city of Cusco with all of it's attractions and history also makes a fascinating destination.
Conclusion. Should you walk the Inca Trail?
Yes, but get someone to carry your luggage, acclimatize for several days beforehand, don't get food-poisoning, and definitely don't get drunk the night before. Next time I am taking the train (or helicopter), which would still be a wonderful experience and allow me more time to explore Cusco and its surroundings.
Yes, it looks just like in the photographs. Perched high amid improbably pointy peaks, with sheer slopes dropping away to either side. After you've craned your neck to peer down into the deep canyons, you can gaze up at the surrounding ring of equally precipitous pinnacles, the jagged edges of their rocky slopes softened by a fuzz of greenery. And beyond them again to tier after tier of Andean ridges rippling away towards the horizon, with snow-topped summits standing sunlit and proud above the wisps of cloud.
You know in advance how it's going to look, but, despite that, Machu Picchu doesn't disappoint, because there is more to it than the photographs can replicate. For a start, they can't convey the 360° sweep of the panorama in all directions, the sense of being at the centre of a vast landscape of breath-taking majesty. Nor the changing patterns of light and shadow on the mountainsides. Nor the spine-tingling chill of the breeze. Nor the sounds of the swallows that swoop around the site. Nor, of course, the sounds of your fellow-visitors.
Machu Picchu is one of the world's most famous historic monuments, a World Heritage Site and recently acclaimed by popular vote as one of seven "New Wonders of the World", in the company of such places as the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal. Despite its remote location high in the Peruvian Andes, it attracts nearly half a million visitors a year and their presence takes its inevitable toll both on the fabric of the site itself and on the experience of seeing it. Nevertheless, it is an extraordinary place and, sensibly planned, a visit can be an exhilarating experience. Before discussing how to plan a visit, let's try to answer a few of the basic questions.
* What exactly is Machu Picchu? *
This is a better question than it sounds. Machu Picchu is an Inca construction, of course, and the Incas, working without wheels, must have gone to great pains to put it together up on its inaccessible perch, but no one is now sure of its original purpose.
The name gives little clue; it simply means "old mountain" in the local Quechua dialect. Of course, its position would have made highly defensible, but only for self-protection, not to provide strategic defence for the more populous Inca settlements in the "sacred valley" of the upper Urubamba. Nor is it configured like a fortress; no battlements guard the approach. This in itself casts doubt on the theory that Machu Picchu might have been a citadel of last resort, a final refuge to which the Inca royalty could flee if all else seemed lost. Recent work has in any case shown that it was abandoned long before the Inca Empire fell.
The idea that it was purely a sacred site has also waned. Much as archaeologists love religious explanations for what they do not understand they are not insistent on them in this case. Although there are a fair number of what seem to be temples among Machu Picchu's buildings, they do not predominate. At one time, the high proportion of female skeletons buried there was construed as evidence that it might have been some kind of Inca "convent", but this notion may have been based on a misunderstanding about the human remains that had actually been disinterred.
The preferred hypothesis currently is that Machu Picchu was a royal retreat, a holiday home for an Inca monarch, analogous to, say, Sandringham or Balmoral. This might also explain why it was eventually deserted, on the death of the monarch who favoured it. And indeed, imagining oneself for a moment as an Inca king, Machu Picchu might indeed seem a splendid spot to which to nip off for a quiet weekend away from the cares of office and the lenses of the paparazzi, perhaps cosseted by a few carefully chosen companions whose mortal remains might linger to confuse archaeologists five centuries later.
* The site *
I've said that Machu Picchu looks just like in the photographs, and it does, but one of the aspects the photos fail to convey is how steep the ups and downs are within the site itself. Given that the city - if that is what it is - sits like a saddle on the back of the mountain, most of it clings to the flanks rather than lying flat on top of the spine.
The site divides into two halves, the division being between fore and aft, not lengthwise along the spine. The first half, reached as you approach on the path along the flank of the mountain from the entrance, is devoted to agricultural terraces, like a series of steep steps, each a few metres wide and supported by laboriously-constructed stonework. Maize, fruit and vegetables were probably grown here, though irrigation would have been a problem, and drought is another hypothesis suggested for the site's abandonment. In this area are several stone buildings, partially restored and re-thatched, which may have been workers' accommodation or storehouses for the produce.
As you progress beyond them the vista opens up, with the urban half of the site ahead, the valley falling away to your right, and tier after tier of agricultural terraces climbing up to your left. At the top of these, on what is called Funeral Rock is a ruin known as the Caretaker's Hut. It should be explained that many of the structures have retained the names ascribed to them by the American academic/explorer Hiram Bingham, who "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911. Much of his conjecture as to usage has since been disproved, but the labels have stuck; they just shouldn't be taken too literally.
In any case, it is worth heading uphill to this point first, since it gives you a great overview of the whole site, albeit one you have probably seen on many picture postcards. The photo above must have been taken from near this point. The overview enables you to identify in advance many of the features you will see at closer quarters when you proceed into the urban half.
* Specific features *
The buildings of Machu Picchu are in a ruinous state, mostly with little more than the foundations remaining, and a liberal use of the imagination is required to interpret what is seen.
Although the city was never found by the Spanish conquistadors and was therefore spared the ravages wreaked by those vile vandals elsewhere in the lands they conquered, nature took an almost equal toll in the following centuries during which the site was overgrown by cloud forest. When this was cleared by Hiram Bingham, it was done in a most ham-fisted way, destroying much of what was uncovered in the process. Moreover, he took many of the remains and artefacts "for further study" back to Yale University, which has only recently agreed in principle to return them to Peru.
So what does that leave at the site itself, other than stones? Well, for a start the stones themselves are pretty impressive, massive slabs cut and fitted together with an extraordinary precision. Particularly noteworthy structures are:
~ The Temple of the Sun. Built on a solid granite slab, this retains some of the original elaborate stonework, with a doorway that apparently used to be inlaid with gold and jewels, together with windows cunningly arranged to catch the sun's rays at particular angles at particular dates in the calendar, rather like stonehenge.
~ The Principal Temple, with a massive altarpiece, this has three remaining walls pierced by some elegantly symmetrical decorative niches, though one corner is crumbling. Adjacent is
~ Temple of the Three Windows - very large windows, that provide a landmark when seen from elsewhere in the site, their frames fashioned from intricately carved stone.
~ The Intihuatana, which roughly translates as "hitching post for the sun", a small stone column and integral supporting altar, located atop a small series of terraces. Pointing vertically upwards, its purpose was to mark the solstices and equinox by the degree (or absence) of shadow, making it a sort of Solar Year sundial.
~ The Temple of the Condor, so called because the vaulting stone structure does roughly resemble a condor's wings, opening to take flight. This encloses a carved sculpture in the floor that also represents a condor, with additional white stones inlaid to show the head and ruff around its neck.
~ The Sacred Rock, located at the far end of the site, a huge slab implanted upright so that it stands three metres high and seven wide, its original purpose unclear, but designated "sacred" because that seems to be the pattern of nomenclature at Machu Picchu.
There are also buildings with channels carved for water to run through, which might be baths, either ceremonial or practical, or wash-houses. There is a building believed to be a prison, and another that may have been for preparing food. And a presumed Palace, of course, though this is surprisingly lacking in visible magnificence. Perhaps, on the assumption that the whole complex constituted a kind of palace, it didn't need to be individually grand. Or perhaps it's just that it was stripped bare long ago.
Indeed, if I haven't dwelt long in describing the notable structures, it is because their bare, unadorned state leaves them short of individual character. The atmosphere comes for the site as a whole, its spectacular location and its little nooks and crannies - enclosed corners alternating with wide open spaces where llamas and alpacas graze - encountered as you wander round. There is even a tiny garden where seeds unearthed around the site have been planted and grown, although many originated from quite different altitudes and were presumably carried up by the Inca inhabitants. Passion fruit, grenadillas, coca and different varieties of orchid and begonia are all being cultivated here.
* Round and about *
Apart from ambling round the site itself, there are several other walks you can undertake once there to enhance your visit.
The most strenuous, but allegedly most rewarding, is to the top of Huayna Picchu, the sugarloaf mountain that forms the backdrop to the archetypal view of the site. The trail takes about an hour and a half, and can accessed only at an extra cost (US$20) by a limited number of 400 visitors a day, on a first-come-first-served basis. They were already sold out by 8.30 a.m. on the morning I was there. A pity; vertiginous though the path is, the views must be spectacular.
A similar distance back the other way is a ruin known as the Sun Gate that had ritual significance for the sun-worshipping Incas, but which I didn't manage to reach either. Beyond it lie further ruins and ultimately the Inca Trail, the alternative approach to the site for the fit, rugged and well-acclimatised.
I did manage to explore a little way along the third trail that leads round the side of the mountain to what is known as the Inca Bridge, which crosses a gap in the rocky path around an almost vertical escarpment. This is now considered unsafe and is officially closed, I'm glad to say, since it saved me having to decide whether or not to attempt it.
If you reached the top early and wanted to explore all these side-trails, you could easily spend at least a day on them alone.
* Planning your visit *
Probably the best way to visit Machu Picchu is to walk there, along the Inca trail. If you don't want to do the full five-day trek, there are shorter routes starting from various points along the train-track, but even the shortest involves stiff climbs and high altitude and is not to be undertaken lightly.
Probably the worst way to visit Machu Picchu is to take the train over from Cusco in the morning, see the site at lunchtime and take the train back in the afternoon. You will be among crowds the whole time, won't have long enough to explore once there, and will miss the changing light at each end of the day. Not to mention missing much else to see en route.
Apart from chickening out of the Inca Trail trek, I don't think my wife and I did too badly. We approached slowly, allowing ourselves time to see the Inca sites around Cusco (where Sacsayhuaman, for example, is quite as extensive as Machu Picchu) and in the sacred valley (where Pisac is also spectacularly, though not so remotely, situated), staying at Ollantaytambo (another outstanding site) and catching the train only from there. After arrival at Aguas Calientes, the railhead for Machu Picchu, we did not go up to the ruins until after lunch, just as those who wanted to catch the 3.00 train back to Cusco were beginning to depart. This still gave us several hours before nightfall, when everyone has to be out, and it enabled us to see the site in the mellow evening light when it was relatively deserted.
This approach does mean staying overnight in the vicinity of course. There are a number of hotels locally, including some relatively inexpensive hostels, though they all tend to be priced above the Peruvian norm (see my last review for an admittedly extreme example). There is even a campsite.
Early birds try to return for dawn the next day on one of the first shuttle buses, which start running at around 5.30. I have to admit we didn't manage to be quite that energetic, though there still weren't too many people about when we reached the top and we had a few clear hours before the inrush of the first day-trippers.
There is a fleet of twenty of these shuttle buses, each of which leaves as soon as it is full, providing continuous service up and down the steep hair-pinned ascent to Machu Picchu. Lengthy queues only seems to build up after the arrival of the first train at around 10.00 in the morning (upwards) and (downwards) for the departure of the 3.00 train back. The ascent from the bottom of the Urubamba gorge is about 600 metres of altitude, so taking the bus saves a strenuous climb.
* Your fellow visitors *
One man's boon companion is another man's egregious intruder, and of course everyone else has as much or as little right to be at Machu Picchu as you have, but that doesn't mean you have to welcome their presence.
In common with all historic places of comparable prestige, it does get very crowded, especially in the middle of the day, hence the importance of being there early and/or late if you want to find some solitude and space for reflection. Otherwise you may find it impossible to see the Sacred Stone except as a backdrop for mutual portrait photography by parties of Japanese tourists, or the Intihuatana except surrounded by a ring of Californians holding hands while they exhort each other to breathe deeply to absorb the primal energy, to visualise the molecules that make up their being and to sense the duality of the sun and moon. No, I'm not making it up for satire's sake; that verbiage is taken verbatim from the soundtrack of my video.
On the plus side, by keeping one's ears open one can pick up an almost continual commentary on the various details of the site by listening to the spiels of the various tour guides. Piecing together overheard fragments of English, Spanish, French and Italian, my wife and I found there was practically no aspect of the monument on which we could not eavesdrop some guidance if required. It became quite an enjoyable pastime in its own right. If you have even a modicum of linguistic knowledge, to employ a guide of your own would be entirely superfluous.
* Price and practical detail *
Visiting Machu Picchu isn't cheap. Entry currently costs 120 Nuevos Soles (£20) per person. To this you have to add US$6 (£3) for the bus-ride up from Aguas Calientes, if that's the way you choose to go. Keep a sol or two in your pocket on departure for the Peruvian lad dressed in Inca costume who will run down the hill keeping pace with the bus, waving goodbye and clambering on board to collect tips at the last moment. Okay, it's tacky tourist stuff, but the poor kids deserve some reward for their pains and they do it in style.
If I read the notice at the bus-stop correctly, you can't actually buy your entry tickets at the site itself, so make sure you have them before boarding the bus (ours were supplied in advance through our tour operator, which is probably the safest way, but I believe there is a ticket office to buy them in Aguas Calientes).
The village is also the best place to buy any picnic food or water you want to take with you. Once up at the top there is only a snack bar by the bus-stop or the expensive Sanctuary Hotel, and nothing inside the site itself. Apart from water, make sure to take a hat and sunscreen cream. Even on an overcast day at altitude in the tropics the sun can burn you badly. Insect repellent too. And a walking stick or pole to help you clamber around the ruins.
If the weather's really bad, you might question the value of going up at all, since the drama of the location is half the experience and if there were nothing but mist and rain to be seen that drama would be lost. The rainy season is roughly November-March. Apparently some people like going then because it's less crowded, greener and warmer (you're in the southern hemisphere), despite the danger of missing the magnificent views. The busiest, driest - and coolest - months are June, July and August. We felt we chose well to go in October, though there is a seasonal risk of early rain. April and May are said to be good too.
* Conclusion *
So what does it all amount to, a visit to Machu Picchu? The view from the top is a great view - provided you haven't gone there on too cloudy a day - but arguably it's not much greater than numerous other views in the high Andes, or indeed in other major mountain ranges. It's an intriguing archaeological site, but arguably no more so than others around Cusco and the sacred valley, or indeed in many others ancient places around the world. In any case, unless you're an expert in Inca architecture the fine points probably won't mean very much to you, and few relics of everyday human existence remain. With so little known about its original purpose, you can't - or at least I couldn't - envisage the lives of the people who inhabited the place. If you wanted to be cynical you could say that visiting Machu Picchu has all been hyped up out of proportion, whilst visiting is oversubscribed and pricey too.
But Machu Picchu didn't leave me wanting to be cynical. It does truly feel like a special place when you are there. It is certainly like nowhere else I've been, and I thoroughly enjoyed my two trips to the top. I was indeed exhilarated. Having been, done it and neglected to buy the tee-shirt, I wouldn't particularly want to return - once is enough - but I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone else who has the chance to visit.
© Also published under the name torr on Ciao UK, 2008