on April 29, 2010
~ 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. 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. ~ Sights of the Site ~Machu Picchu is celebrated for many reasons, but principal amongst them is its location. Constructed on a vertiginous ridge between two mountains – Machu and Huayna Picchu – five-hundred metres above a bend in the Urubamba River, and some 2,500 metres above sea level, views are quite sensational. With snow-capped peaks on your eyeline and sub-tropical jungle and white water below, the site hardly needs any great man-made attractions of its own to merit seeing – although that’s not to say it doesn’t have them.The citadel rises and falls over the crest of its ridge, with clusters of buildings and plazas spilling over the sides across hundreds of carved terraces. Many of these buildings are well-preserved examples of skilled Incan architecture – of which plenty more can be seen in Cusco and surrounding sites – built using great blocks of stone which are believed to have been hauled up to the site by vast workforces when Machu Picchu was constructed. For visitors, two of the most interesting parts of the complex are found just off the grassed-over main plaza, in the site’s urban sector – the Temple of the Sun, a rounded structure, protects a giant ceremonial stone and was designed to honour Inti (the Sun god), one of the most revered and important deities of the Incas. In common with other Latin American ruins, this temple is built with the solstices in mind; when the sun rises on the Winter Solstice, it is lined up perfectly with the narrow window in the structure’s walls, illuminating the great stone.Across the plaza, a raised building, supposedly used as an Astronomical tower, is topped with another large stone of great significance; Intihuatana, the stone (meaning "hitching post of the sun") aligns itself with the March and September equinoxes, and resembles a large sundial in design, casting no shadow at midday of these two points of the year. Many of these stones, considered almost sacred by the Incas, were destroyed by the wave of Spanish conquest, but after their failure to find Machu Picchu, Intihuatana remains one of the few examples still standing.The peak overlooking the site, Huayna Picchu – "young mountain" to Machu’s "old" – is climbable at the cost of dizzying effort. Only 400 visitors a day are allowed to do so, in two waves of 200, so it pays to visit early and get your (free) ticket if you plan on looking out across the exceptional vistas and getting a perspective on the site that relatively few see. It takes an hour or more to climb up, less coming down, and one can also follow the trail downwards towards the river to find the Moon Temple, a counterpoint to the Sun Temple which doesn’t, unfortunately, enjoy the same state of repair.At the other side of the complex to Huayna Picchu, the Funerary Rock stands slightly above the site and offers the views that grace a thousand postcards and tourist brochures. It’s a clichéd photo, but there’s a good reason it’s so popular, offering a perspective which seems to pull together the entirety of the site and surroundings into a single, exquisite natural frame.~ There and Away ~Two routes access Machu Picchu; time and fitness determine which you’ll take. Two tourist trains run regularly from Cusco ($50 for the standard service, $80 for the panoramic, glass-walled option), taking around four hours to chug through the Sacred Valley. The other option, of course, is to walk the Inca Trail – places are strictly limited, though if you do want to hike it and can’t find availability, there are other Inca trails that cut through the mountains which are less hyped but equally spectacular – the Salcantay route is one of these.Entry to Machu Picchu is around $50, with a 50% student (ISIC) discount – buy tickets in Aguas Calientes, the town below the site if you’ve come by train. Open from 6:00-18:00, it pays to visit early to see the best of the site before the crowds and heat descend. Buses connect Aguas Calientes and the site, taking about 30 minutes to switchback up the hill.There are plenty of places to stay in Aguas Calientes, plus if you're extremely well-off but intensely dislike being so, the Sanctuary Lodge inside the grounds of Machu Picchu is a great way to bankrupt yourself at $800 a night.~ The Hype and Then Some ~There's no end of superlatives appropriate to describe Machu Picchu, and they’ve all been snagged already by the reams of literature and promotional material urging you to visit. In the hundred years since its rediscovery, the ruins have become anything but a secret – however, this is one case where the hype only begins to evoke the genuine impression the site makes on you. I’ve been once, would love to go again, and will I’m sure be saying exactly the same thing if and when I do.
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