If you are a regular blog reader you know I have done extensive international travel, much of it before I even started the blog. My bucket list for travel ebbs and flows, but for many years now the number one thing on the list has been a visit to Machu Picchu in the Andes Mountains of Peru.
We expanded the trip by adding a cruise on the Amazon on the front end by booking a package with Uniworld Boutique River Cruises. I covered that portion of our trip in eight previous posts. After flying to Cuzco at the end of the river cruise, yesterday we started our exploration of the Inca heritage sites traveling through the sacred valley and boarding the train in Ollantattambo.
Leaving Ollantattambo, you can hike the magnificent Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, a four day-three night walking excursion with the assistance of sherpas who carry the heavy loads and set up the tents. On our way into Ollantattambo, we passed a field where all the clean gear had been laid out to dry. We later saw the sherpas in town. Hiking the Inca Trail is the only option if you want to enter Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate.
You can not drive to Machu Picchu. If you are not hiking, your other option is to take the train up. The train was definitely the right choice for Natasha. Not only it is a better fit given my physical health after two foot surgeries and a later fall down the stairs, but I didn’t have to give up the spectacular views. The train tracks run right along the Urubamba River and right between the canyon walls. Our vista dome car meant we had large windows, including ones in the roof. I spent the 2 hour and 15 minute trip staring out the windows. We took the 3:55 afternoon train up. The number of tourists that can visit the site on a daily basis is now limited-only 75 are let in each hour. There is an adequate number of trains offering service to the site, but you want to be sure to book your travel well in advance.
If you are not touring other destinations in the Sacred Valley, you can take the three and a half hour train ride from Cuzco. There are various levels of luxury depending on what company you choose. The end of the line for travelers from either Ollantattambo or Cuzco is Aguas Calientes, named for the warm springs. Its official name is Machu Picchu Pueblo. Here there are hotels, restaurants, and other tourist services. We ate at our hotel after our evening arrival, but there are other restaurants in town and plenty of places to buy souvenirs. If you really want to stretch your budget, there is a Belmond Sanctuary Lodge at the entrance to the ruins. We stayed at the SUMAQ Machu Picchu Hotel which has a lovely view of the mountains. It is one of two luxury hotels in Aguas Calientes.
In the morning, we took the 30-minute bus ride from the hotel up to the entrance to the ruins. Aguas Calientes sits at 6700 ft. Machu Picchu sits at almost 8000 ft. We originally thought we were going to have to go to the community meeting point where guests line up for buses that begin running at 5:30 am. However, given the size of our group-we almost fill a bus-they are bringing a bus to us at the hotel. The alternative to the bus ride is a 90-minute to two-hour strenuous walk up to the citdel.
There were no written records mentioning Machu Picchu until Europeans visited the site in the 19th Century because unlike the Mayans, the Incas did not have a written language. As we toured, various locations were referred to by specific names like the Temple of the Sun, the Sacred Rock, and the Temple of the Condor. These names are the inventions of the explorers who came later and are based on the tombs and other physical evidence found.
“Most recent archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was constructed as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas”, it is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization. The Incas built the estate around 1450 but abandoned it a century later, at the time of the Spanish conquest. According to the new AMS radiocarbon dating, it was occupied from c. 1420–1532. Historical research published in 2022 claims that the site was probably called Huayna Picchu by the Inca, as it exists on the smaller peak of the same name.” Wikipedia
After it was abandoned by the Incas, few beyond those in the immediate area even knew of its existence. The jungle completely overtook the landscape, effectively hiding the ruins. It was Yale lecturer Hiram Bingham who began writing extensively about Machu Picchu after he was led there in 1911 by locals Melchor Arteaga and Pablito Alvarez. In 1912, he led an expedition to begin clearing the site. If this story sounds vaguely familiar, it is the basis of the opening scenes of the Indiana Jones movie with Harrison Ford in the lead role, a character based roughly on Hiram Bingham.
In 1983, Machu Picchu was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Today it is one of world’s favorite tourist destinations and after a closure for COVID has reopened to visitors. The only restrooms are outside the ruins. There is a small fee to use them. You can not reenter the citadel, so although water was recommended throughout our visit, I was afraid to drink much in case I needed to go to the toilet and then couldn’t come back in.You must tour Machu Picchu with a guide. Due to the size limitation for tour groups, our group was split into three. There are four routes: long upper route; short upper route; long lower route; short upper route. For ease, we are taking the long lower route which is also the one recommended for first time visitors. The iconic views we see in familiar photographs of Machu Picchu are taken from the upper route. The lower route offers you the opportunity to enter many of the structures.
We walked along side the amazing terracing we have come to associate with the Inca sites. Our first stop was the Temple of the Sun, (Temple du Soleil or “Torreon”) and the the Royal Tomb (Tombeau Royal) “Only priests and other high ranking Incas were likely [sic] only permitted access into the Temple of the Sun, one of the most sacred temples in all of Machu Picchu. Adapted to the natural environment, the unique semi-circular construction of the temple is built over an enormous granite rock and there’s a tower with a trapezoidal window. In this sacred temple, it’s believed that Incas worshipped their Sun God, Inti [sic]and may have served as a royal tomb.” machupicchu.org.
“A trapezoid window of the Temple of the Sun was positioned along its curved wall to capture sunlight during the winter solstice on June 21st…There is a natural cave under the Temple of the Sun, Originally, it was believed that this cave may have contained the remains of the Inca Pachacutec, but more recent studies indicate that the space was likely used to do ceremonies in honor of Mother Earth (Pachamama).” machupicchu.org
The next stop was what might have been the royal residence (Maison de l’Inca). You are able to tour this series of structures with amazing views, sources of water, and wonderful acoustics. The Incas truly were early masters of architecture.
After viewing the residences, we went on to see the Sacred Rock, Wank’a in Quechua. The Rock resembles the mountains behind it. The spot was a shine and a place of rituals and offerings to the earth. The spot also afforded us our best view of the high point of Huayna Picchu, the mountain seen in all the iconic pictures of Machu Picchu and arguably the best spot to get a photograph of the citadel ruins. The ruins sit on a lower point of the mountain. You can climb to the top of Huayna Picchu, but you must make reservations very early. Only 650 people are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu each day.
After circling behind the Sacred Rock, we went to visit some of the lower structures and the Temple of the Condor. “The Temple of the Condor in Machu Picchu is a breathtaking example of Inca stonemasonry. A natural rock formation began to take shape millions of years ago and the Inca skillfully shaped the rock into the outspread wings of a condor in flight. On the floor of the temple is a rock carved in the shape of the condor’s head and neck feathers, completing the figure of a three-dimensional bird. Historians speculate that the head of the condor was used as a sacrificial altar. Under the temple is a small cave that contained a mummy.” Peru.com
The lower structures offered us terrific views of the hilltops, canyons, and valleys below. We could also look across and see the sun gate where hikers on the Inca Trail enter the historic site.
Near the bottom were some amazing lookout points. There was also a wonderful view if you looked back toward the terraces in the agricultural sector.
The site was totally deserving of its number one designation on my bucket list. I would encourage everyone to visit this true wonder of the world. –Natasha