Machu Picchu: Mysterious Ancient City
Machu Picchu… just a whisper of its name brings to mind an ancient lost city in the mountainous jungle that slept for centuries under vine cover, waiting patiently to be rediscovered. Indiana Jones, eat your heart out! It seems only befitting that this archaeological treasure trove be approached in the traditional way, on foot via the Inca Trail – a 4-day trek at altitude through steep terrain, where you feel just like the ancient Incas must have felt when they finally broke through the jungle after such a long walk to find a shining city on a hill.
Hiking vs. Taking the Train
Unfortunately for us, this hike was not meant to be – my friend Val had hurt her knee, and such a strenuous journey would have been impossible for her. Luckily for us, there is another fantastic option for getting there – train! Machu Picchu is just a 4-hour train ride from the station of Poroy just outside of Cusco. We were able to purchase tickets in town the day before our trip, as well as entrance tickets to the park. The train ride itself was absolutely beautiful. Our carriage was glass-topped, giving a spectacular view all the way as the train zig-zagged on a switchback system down mountain slopes and through valleys.
As we went along, we passed the hikers who were setting out on the Inca Trail. I felt a twinge of envy as I saw one man raise his walking poles in a triumphant gesture, but then I settled back in on the lovely food and tea that had just been served in our carriage, and I felt a bit smug myself.
When the train arrived, it wasn’t to the site but rather at a little tourist town that has sprung up at its base. There, if you wish, you can book a hotel to stay the night. In retrospect, it probably would have been good if we had planned to spend the night: there are two sites for Machu Picchu, and you can only spend a half-day – morning or afternoon – at either of them. We chose to do the afternoon at Site 1 and then return to Cusco. Had we stayed the night, we could have done the morning slot at Site 2 – something for another trip.
Getting to the Citadel
There are two ways to get up to the sites – by walking, which apparently takes five hours, or by bus, which takes 20 minutes one-way and $25 for a round-trip ticket. Considering that we needed to maximize our time at the site, this was clearly the best way to go for us.
When we arrived, we produced our tickets and were let in through a turn style and began our climb up to the site. Despite the fact that Machu Picchu is actually at a lower elevation than Cusco (2,430 meters vs. 3,399 meters ), we were feeling the altitude with every step of the slow climb up, as the entire city is built on a terraced mountainside. I can only imagine the blood hemoglobin levels the ancients who built the city and lived there must have had!
The buildings of Machu Picchu are built in terraced rows on the mountain slope, interspersed with fields for farming. Each house is connected to the next, and an alleyway snakes behind them all. Narrow tall windows open from the front of each house onto the scene looking the mountain. Talk about a room with a view! While fellow tourists are the main wildlife to be seen, a number of llamas also roam the ancient city. If you’re lucky, you can get close enough to pet one of these ornery critters.
From the looks of it, one might think that Machu Picchu was a truly bustling metropolis in its heyday, but prevailing archeological theory suggests that at its peak, only about 700 people ever lived there. As such, it may have just been a ‘summer getaway’ city or possibly one used only for religious purposes. This makes sense when you consider its history – it’s not as ancient as it seems, having been completed around 1450, and it was abandoned shortly after the Spanish conquest of Peru, in 1550. This means that it was only inhabited for a short period, just 100 years. What an incredible waste given the effort it must have taken to build such a city in such a location! It’s all the more amazing when you realize that the Incas built it by pulling heavy stones up the mountain without the aid of wheels, which their civilization never invented.
The abandoned city lay relatively untouched until the American explorer, Hiram Bingham, ‘rediscovered’ it in 1911 with the help of some local farmers. Now, it is a bustling city once again as it welcomes over a million visitors from around the world each year. If you would like to be one of those visitors, here are my top tips for Machu Picchu!
Kelly’s Top Machu Picchu Tips
- First, if you are even remotely susceptible to altitude, keep taking those altitude pills, as Machu Picchu will give you a workout whether you hike there or not!
- If you want to hike the Inca Trail, here’s a website: http://www.incatrailperu.com/
- If you prefer to go by train, you have two options. We used PeruRail and it was absolutely fine, but IncaRail looks great as well:
- Be sure to take your passport, as they want to see it for some reason when you purchase your bus tickets to the citadel; also, you can get a special Machu Picchu stamp for your passport when you get up to the Citadel!
- Take an umbrella or poncho as sudden cloudbursts seem to be frequent!