There are few sights I have seen in my life to compare with the Lost City of Incas, Machu Picchu. Perched high in the Andes, the Machu Picchu is so isolated and well hidden that the modern world didn’t even discover it until 1911, when explorer Hiram Bingham was led there by a group of local inhabitants. It is one of the most famous and best-preserved historic sites in the world.
The closest major city is Cuzco, a place notable for picturesque squares and the fact that they sell personal-sized oxygen tanks at the airport. A popular option for avoiding the altitude sickness and its associated effects is drinking the local herbal tea. In this case, the herb is coca leaf, and while you can find old women selling it by the branch throughout town, it also comes in more respectable tea bags. Acclimatizing in Cuzco is a good idea because at 14,000 feet above sea level, it actually makes it easier on your body when you get to Machu Picchu, a mere 9,000 feet above sea level.
The Market in Aguas Calientes
There are a few options for getting to this amazing site: a four-day hike along the Inca trail, a shorter one-and-a-half day hike, and a train from the Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley). The first option takes you through tiny villages, lush valleys, forest and mountain passes. It’s a gorgeous journey, but the hike is physically demanding and should be tackled only if you’re fairly up to date on your exercise routine. The hike will take you up to the Sun Gate, where you can crest the mountain and see the ruins spread out before you. We spoke with a couple of backpackers who had gone this route. They said it was one of the most difficult but rewarding things they had ever done. There was the option of arriving at sunup, but they took the trek that brought them over the ridge toward sunset because the morning arrival does involve a bit of climbing in the pre-dawn darkness.
The shorter hike begins a few miles out of Aguas Calientes and involves a short walk through the area outside of town before starting on the 1,000+ foot climb up the side of the mountain, crossing the snaking road and dodging the endless stream of tour buses crisscrossing the serpentine trail to the main entrance gate.
Because we had a short window of opportunity, we went for one of the most popular routes into the area — a small train out of Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. The three-hour ride shows off the lush countryside nicely as the sun climbs out from behind the mountain peaks. A crowd of peddlers gathers around the Ollantaytambo station, but you will have to carry anything you purchase the rest of the day. Best to save your shopping for the large and colorful market at the rail’s (and the day’s) end. Seats on the train are assigned, but it was easy enough to swap with other groups of passengers when we discovered our seats weren’t together.
Entry into the site used to be unlimited, but a few years ago the Peruvian government began limiting the number of entries to 2,000 people a day into Machu Picchu and only 400 onto the Huayna Picchu trail, so book early. Our train arrived in Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the mountain, just before 10 a.m., so we made a dash to get to our 11 a.m. entry time. It wasn’t a problem though; tour buses to the top leave from a depot a couple of blocks from the rail station, and it’s very easy to find your way there. Once the bus is full, there’s a 20-minute drive to get to the main entry gate and visitors’ center. If you don’t book a tour guide through one of the tourist sites online, there are dozens of local guides ready to show you around. We skipped through the area to make our assigned hike time.
Huayna Picchu from Machu Picchu’s Main Square
We signed in and noted our entry time on the guest book at the start of the trail. An experienced hiker/climber should take about 45 minutes getting to the top of Huayna Picchu. For normal people not affected by the altitude, tack on an extra 30 minutes. I prepared for the trip with moderate doses of cardio and elliptical workouts thrice weekly, which, along with the coca tea I had on the train, did a world of good. I’m not saying this is necessary preparation, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Like great hiking trails the world over, the way to the top of Huayna Picchu consists of short swatches of trail between hundreds of stairs carved directly into the stone. Ropes are provided when the way gets steep or narrow, but they’re rarely that necessary on the way up. If you decide to stay in the area overnight and start the climb in the 7 a.m. window, you will likely spend much of the climb down the mountain navigating the path around the ascending climbers from the later window. Taking the late time meant we had the path to ourselves on the way down, which undoubtedly made the already somewhat complicated descent less so.
When you reach the top of the mountain, the spectacular vista of Machu Picchu 1,200 feet below and the Urubamba River 1000 feet beyond that is nothing short of breathtaking. Though that might also be the altitude.
The top of the mountain is crowned with the residence of the high priest of Machu Picchu and a house for the local virgins. The area is arranged in a series of terraced platforms laid out around the peak. It was a wonderful time exploring the area, jumping from rock to rock, climbing around the steeper structures and sliding down the huge rock wall at the summit. Taking a few moments to admire the view and chat with the other English-speaking tourists, we spotted a number of brightly colored birds winging around the peak and even some lizards hanging vertical on the rock walls.
You can take a secondary trail down the mountain and into an area called the Gran Caverna and Temple of the Moon. These natural caves are positioned on the northern face and nestled lower than the trail’s starting point. If you take that route, the trail will eventually curve around to rejoin the main hiking trail and lead back to the main entry point.
My advice is to take your time, enjoy the scenery as it opens up before you, look at the flowers and watch the birds wheeling through the sky. I took a few hundred pictures during the climb and, upon return, wish I had taken even more. You will want to make sure you stay sun-protected and hydrated during the climb. The park website warns against bringing water bottles onto the trail, but we brought some sturdy non-disposable bottles with us and it wasn’t a problem. I did see a disposable bottle left on the trail, so I picked it up, put it in my bag, and deposited it in the trash back at the main entrance.
Machu Picchu’s Only Permanent Residents
The famous part of the park, the “Old Peak” and holy city of the Incas, is far larger than the famous pictures — taken from the Guards’ House — may lead you to believe. The entire vista is laid out if you take the Inca Trail over the peak and through the Sun Gate.
Having come by train and cut through the city to get to Huayna Picchu, we doubled back to the city and re-entered at its eastern edge near the sacred rock. There are a couple of representative houses where you can see how buildings were constructed, but there is much more to learn as you go through the city’s many terraced levels.
This is the point where you will want to have a guide nearby. You can tell when a particular building or rock sculpture is important, but guides will be able to add valuable detail about the temples, royal houses, sacrificial altars and intihuatana — an astrological construction used by the ancient priests to study the motion of the stars and, most importantly to them, the progress of the Southern Cross. It is also worth noting that in lieu of professional landscapers, a family of llamas resides in the park and can be found wandering all around the mountain. They are adorable and safe to be around, but it’s probably best to stay out of spitting distance.
You can find an assortment of souvenir booths and food stands at the park entrance, but you will also find the only bathrooms on premises. Make sure you have a few pesos handy because there is a fee to use the restrooms.
As a cute additional service, park attendees have a Machu Picchu picture stamp they will happily use to tag your Passport. This doesn’t cause any problems with customs and is a nice reminder of the visit.
When you return to Aguas Calientes, there is a very large and colorful marketplace that covers a few blocks of town. Find your gifts there and haggle with the locals for the best deals on everything from traditional blankets, alpaca hair crafts, silver jewelry and hand-constructed instruments to toys, local produce and fresh-cooked foods. There are cafes along the market perimeter if nothing inside appeals.
All in all, our Machu Picchu was a magnificent experience. The friends we made on the train had come to fulfill a bucket list wish, and by all accounts it was everything they could have asked for. As for me, the peaks and deserts call. I can’t wait to go back to explore more of the area around Cuzco, to experience the other remarkable hikes and find more fascinating pieces of history to explore.