on March 14, 2010
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 wil 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, 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.
©Travelocity.com LP 2000-2009