Machu Picchu, Peru
The archaeological jewel of South America, Machu Picchu has always offered magnetism, mysticism and unique architecture, harmoniously integrated with its natural surroundings. And now, getting to the “lost city of the Incas” is a whole lot easier – and staying there is a lot more comfortable – than ever before! Machu Picchu is a complete Inca fortress city, set on a saddle of a high mountain with terraced slopes falling away. Its altitude is at 2,350m above sea level and the position stunning. The Urubamba River can be seen down in the valley winding in hairpin bends below.
You reach Machu Picchu by a 42 km rail trip from Ollantaytambo, or by a 112km by rail from Cuzco, or by walking the historic Inca Trail. Bring insect repellent and suntan lotion. Climate is more humid and hotter than Cuzco.
When you leave the train at the station, you are brought up a windy 8km long road by a bus. You can explore the ruins yourself or with a guide.
Macchu Pichu means “Old Peak”, and the higher Huayna Picchu (“Young Peak”), stands vigil over it. Machu Picchu´s remains are in a comparatively good state of preservation because the Spaniards never found it. It was buried in the jungle for centuries, until Hiram Bingham discovered it in 1911. Even after Bingham’s discovery, the city remained inaccessible until the 1940s, when an archaeological expedition working at the site discovered the Inca Trail cutting through the valley.
Theories about what happened to the inhabitants range from epidemics to their occupants being isolated at the time of the fall of the Inca Empire. Excavations only added to the mystery to what happened to the city. They found 173 skeletons, of which 150 were women. At the tomb of the high priest skeletons of a women and a dog were found. The women suffered from syphilis.
Macchu Pichu was home to priests, high functionaries, craftsmen and servants and, most importantly, the mamacunas, or virgins chosen to dedicate their lives to the sun god.
Nowadays find altars, temples, terraces and staircases. The Temple of the Three Windows allows sunlight to pass through its windows to the Sacred Plaza. At the astronomical observatory there is the Intiwatana, the curiously-shaped stone block believed to have been a solar clock or, “the hitching post to the sun”, where the sun rays cast shadows used for the planning of seasonal activities and religious ceremonies. What amazes architects today is the precision with which building stones were cut and assembled.
A steep and perilous path rises from the site to the top of Huayna Picchu. From the Temple of the Moon, which is at the skirt of the mountain, and from the summit you have an extraordinary view of the ruins and the Urubamba Valley.
Operated by Orient Express, the train service to Machu Picchu has been upgraded with renovated cars and stations, as well as improved schedules and on-board service. The scenic three- and-a-half-hour ride from Cusco continues to be the favorite way to go, while the shorter one-and-a-quarter-hour ride from Ollantaytambo is now available five times a day, for groups of ten or more. If you want a faster trip, try the half-hour helicopter ride between Cusco and Machu Picchu, flying through the Sacred Valley. The twenty-minute bus service to the site from Aguas Calientes town, where the train and helicopter arrive, is now provided with better vehicles and more frequency. And if you wish to follow in the footsteps of the incas, (and are overnighting in Machu Picchu) get off the train on kilometer marker 104 and take a full day hike (7 miles), along the inca Trail. Admire the magnificent view, look for some of the area’s 120 bird species and 450 kinds of orchids, enjoy a picnic lunch at the Winaywayna inca site and, in the afternoon, arrive at the Sun Gate – Intipunku – Overlooking the Fabled citadel.
Although visiting Machu Picchu for the day is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, overnighting there is highly recommended. You may return to the site in the early morning when it is covered in clouds, which then evaporate as the sun rises and the magical city gradually appears before your eyes, you can climb the Huayna Picchu mountain for excercise and a bird’s eye view of the complex, or you may simply wish to have more time to explore the site at your leisure. The nightlife in the neighboring Aguas Calientes town is not bad either. Stay at the refurbished Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge run by Orient Express and the only hotel conveniently located next to the site. The Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel sits on a hill by the Urubamba river and has individual bungalows distributed around lush gardens. Here you can see lots of tropical orchids and spot a variety of birds, including, with a little luck, the Peruvian cloud-forest’s own Cock-of-the-Rock. Other recently renovated properties in Aguas Calientes town are the Hatuchay Towers and the Machu Picchu inn.