Magnificent Machu Picchu

Like many who have watched Ian’s South America presentations I have always been fascinated by Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas. I finally got there in April – sadly not on foot – insufficient time and a questionable fitness level kyboshed that idea from the start. However, arriving at Machu Picchu – however you do it – is wondrously spectacular! It is as green as you imagine but nothing prepares you for the sheer wonder of these ruins.

My journey started in Cuzco with a transfer to the Ollantaytambo Station in the Sacred Valley. Here I boarded my train for a scenic 90 minute journey following the Urubamba River Valley to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the citadel of Machu Picchu. I then zigzagged my way up the mountain by bus – a scenic journey in itself, before arriving at Machu Picchu. Walking through the gates and seeing this ancient citadel sprawled out before you is absolutely breath-taking. No amount of History Channel shows can prepare you for how stunning it actually is.

I had a wonderful guide who spent 3 hours showing me all the highlights including the many temples, mausoleums, squares and royal houses in the sacred sector. The degree of perfection in the construction of these buildings is fascinating. Coming from CHCH you can appreciate their architecture – the walls lean slightly inward to protect against earthquakes. The construction was fascinating – mostly stone but roofs were a combination of tree trunks and thatching all tied down. I still have endless questions about how the Incan people moved great slabs of rocks weighing tonnes into such perfect positions – they were so incredibly resourceful!

After a good overview of the citadel I spent another hour marvelling at the workmanship, saying hello to the ubiquitous llamas grazing on the terraces and taking more photos than I would ever need! I then took a walk round the hillsides to see the ancient Incan bridge – this is actually just a very narrow wooden plank wedged on the side of the mountain. It is terrifying to think that the Incans walked across this with at least a 1,000 metre fall should they misjudge their footing – definitely not OSH approved! There is a small section of vertiginous walking along a narrow path to get here, but there is a steel rope to give you confidence.

After returning to Aguas Calientes and a superb dinner and night at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (needed another day here as birdlife fantastic) I was up early the next morning and on the bus back up to Machu Picchu. I hiked up to the Sun Gate (this is the arrival point for those that hike the Inca Trail) – from up here you can sit with a panoramic view and watch the sun and clouds play across the citadel below you. Absolutely stunning! After a couple of hours I tore myself away and walked down again. This walk is an absolute highlight for anyone who enjoys orchids – there are many wild orchids along the path, including tiny miniature stunning purple ones – a real highlight!

Machu Picchu was for me a wondrous highlight and it certainly should be on everyone’s travel bucket list!

Things you need to know:

  • Wear good walking shoes – there are huge amounts of large steps to negotiate. If it is hot make sure you take a hat, sunscreen and water – there is very little shade!
  • Altitude – Machu Picchu is 2,350 metres above sea level so don’t be surprised if you need to take things a little slower.  Cuzco (probably where you will come from) is at 3,400 metres so quite a bit higher so you may find it much easier to breathe and walk up on Machu Picchu.
  • Best time of day to visit: Anytime! However, first thing in the morning is pretty quiet and by around 11am the citadel gets hugely busy with tour groups. The Sun Gate is best visited in the morning as the sun is behind you. After 2pm is a good time to explore as most of the tour groups have departed and the Incan Bridge is best in the afternoon as the setting sun lights it up.
  • As part of visiting Machu Picchu you will be given tickets for the bus and tickets to enter Machu Picchu – make sure you have these with you. Don’t be worried if there is a big queue for the bus to go up – they have a person managing the buses and are very efficient at moving lots of people.
  • Huayna Picchu – Book in early (minimum 30 days in advance) if you want to climb Huayna Picchu. Limited to 200 people at 8am and 200 people at 10am. Very steep, narrow and not suitable for anyone with vertiginous tendancies. It does however provide breathtaking views over the mountain and citadel below.
  • A guide will really bring the citadel to life for you and you will learn a huge amount.
  • If you plan on hiking the Inca trail to Machu Picchu you need to plan early as permits are limited – read all about it here.
  • If you like stamps in your passport then take it with you as there is a Machu Picchu stamp at the entrance/exit gate – just look for the queue!

Machu Picchu, set at 2,350 metres above sea level in the midst of a lush jungle, was believed to have been built in the mid-15th century, then lost in history until it was discovered in 1911.