Zealously guarded by the ancient Apus of the Andes, we find Machu Picchu, the most famous of the Inca settlements in Peru. Years after its construction, the grandeur of this city has not diminished and continues to amaze visitors from across the globe with the exceptional architectural and agricultural skills it displays. Now one of the seven wonders of the world, Machu Picchu attracts more than a million visitors every year, thus it is wise to book tickets ahead of time if possible, in particular if climbing the Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu mountains is within the plans.
Despite the rapid development that tourism has triggered in the area, the town of Machu Picchu remains accessible only by train or by foot, thus providing the visitors with a unique opportunity to enjoy wonderful landscapes of the Peruvian forests. If it is within the budget, locals and tourists alike recommend taking the train. The train obediently follows the path set out by Pachamama as it swiftly glides alongside the river under the vigilant eyes of the colossal mountains on either side. From the commodity of their seats, passengers can enjoy the breathtaking sceneries that make up the Andean maze; on a foggy morning the imagination is set ablaze as it speculates how high the mountains rise after entering the realm of the clouds and, as the sky starts to clear, the river resembles an exquisite diamond necklace as it gently glitters under the morning sun.
For those who dispose of more time there exists the option of hiking through the Inca Trail. Similarly to the train, the Inca Trail requires pre-booking, especially during high season, as there is a limit to the number of people allowed by the Peruvian government to take this route each day (it is closed during February for maintenance). The trek offered usually has a duration of four days, however this investment in time is quickly paid off as one is embraced by the emerald canopy in a journey to discover the numerous Inca cities that hide within. Or so I’ve heard. If I ever have the chance to go back and find out I’ll be sure to give an update on this front.
However, if you are a last minute kind of person, do not despair, for there exists the option of taking a car, which is also significantly cheaper. From what I gathered taking a car consists of being driven from Cuzco to Hidroeléctrica and then taking a short trek from there to Aguas Calientes. I cannot talk about the car ride, however the walk is pleasant enough, provided that it’s not raining. To add a little excitement to the trek, one can stop for a break at Los Jardines de Mandor where you can take a dip at the waterfalls and enjoy a snack in one of the palapas scattered around.
After the short journey one is gladly welcomed by Aguas Calientes, a quiet little village that serves as something like a base camp for those seeking to conquer the heights of Machu Picchu. Divided in one direction by the train tracks and in another by a stream, this town patiently provides for the constant flow of visitors during their short stay. Over the years it has come to resemble an old matron who, with a never faltering smile on her lips, has resigned itself to living under the shadow of Machu Picchu. However some light might be shed on the little treasures that make its matronly eyes twinkle. On the main road, Avenue Hermans Ayar, directly across the road from the bus stop one can find the food market, offering a perfect example of quasi-perfect competition as a chorus of jovial voices invite the visitor to sit down for a bite, the inviting smiles being the only lead when choosing among the identical-looking menus. If you are fortunate enough, you might even enjoy a serenade of people conversing in Quechua while you struggle to finish your generously served meal. Of course, if you’re in search of some privacy and mainstream food instead, you can enjoy a great pizza in the contiguous street, Avenue Pachacutec, heavily populated by tourists scrambling up and down under a myriad of luminous signs.
In the main square, Pachacutec, flanked by the Peruvian and the Tauhantinsuyo flags, welcomes you with open arms; a beautiful composition for a picture to take home. On the far side of the square one can pay a visit to the local church, a fairly new construction timidly standing among the buzzing hotels and restaurants that surround the square. On the other side of town, strategically neighbouring the train station, is the crafts market luring the tourists to enter and acquire a piece of the rainbow that has been imprisoned there and skilfully moulded into whatever shape one might desire.
A little further from town, on the road leading to Machu Picchu, one can find a butterfly park. The austere structures that house this institution do no justification to the fluttering beauty within. As one slowly walks with a vigilant eye among this encapsulated piece of nature, it is possible to discern a stunning sample of the immense variety of Peruvian butterflies. Housed in small wooden structures, it is even possible to see the beautifully vulnerable cocoons that patiently await for the exquisite transformation taking place in their insides to conclude. Unfortunately, the origin of this institution is a reaction to the diminishing population of butterflies in the area as a consequence of the human intrusion, mainly the dusty wake of the buses going up to Machu Picchu.
Now boasting to be one of the world’s seven wonders, Machu Picchu is cradled between the Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains. Due to its popularity it is advisable to book in advance to avoid the disappointment of getting there only to find out it is sold out – they are very strict when it comes to ticketing in Peru. If time allows, make sure to buy the entry including the hike up to either of the mountains, for at their cusp you will be able to contemplate the ancient city and its surrounding in their fully glory, provided that is not a foggy day of course.
To get there, one has a choice between trekking up to Machu Picchu through the heavy foliage that guards it or, alternatively, taking a bus for a few minutes. For those with the physical capability of trekking, this would be the recommendation for then a true feeling of discovery and accomplishment will accompany the breathtaking view of Machu Picchu. I had someone ask me ‘Why is it that people say they go “up” to Machu Picchu if when you enter it is right there?” clearly illustrating the relevance of climbing up in order to gain a full appreciation of the difficulty the Incas had to overcome to build this wonderful city. If that is not enough reason to persuade you, think that you are saving the butterflies by diminishing the ecological damage the buses make in their journey. On a rainy day, however, I will understand if you choose to take the bus instead. Once you reach the top don’t forget to stamp your passport at the booth next to the toilets. It is a small, yet a satisfying token of the point reached in the journey.
I feel that I am not dextrous enough with words to attempt a description of Machu Picchu, so a description of my impressions will have to suffice on this occasion. This ancient Inca settlement was an archaeological site unlike any I had encountered previously; it is a city of imposing buildings made of a jigsaw of colossal stones perfectly fitted together. In contrast to other cultures the Incas did not attempt to reach the heavens through tall constructions, but rather climbed to the heavens and built their cities there. The veil of fog that lingered among the ruins as I wondered around enhanced the mysticism of the city by capriciously hiding the horizon from my feeble eyes, forcing me to explore every corner with body and soul to truly discover every secret there was: the perfectly shaped windows, beautifully framing the breathtaking beauty of the landscapes beyond; the skilfully engineered drain system, still in work after five centuries; the Temple of the Condor featuring the abstract, yet imposing representation of said bird in flight; the wondering llamas that still populate certain areas, and the sites formerly used for astronomical observations inviting you to imagine what the firmament would have looked like through the Incas’ eyes.
It is worth noting that, unlike archaeological sites in other places, Peru preserves the true essence of the experience by abstaining from littering the site with signs and explanations. It is therefore advisable to hire a guide who can explain the significance and history of the place during the visit. Alternatively it is also possible to do some background reading independently, preferably previous to the visit. To compliment this one can also visit the site museum, at an extra cost, which is situated at the base of the mountain; the museum is fairly small but contains a wonderful explanation of how life worked in Machu Picchu, which is illustrated with artefacts found on the site, thus allowing the visitor to create a more vivid image of the place at its peak. The museum also includes a marvellous insight into the workings of the andenes that are often seen as part of the Andean agricultural landscape. In addition, adjacent to the museum one find a modest botanical garden to take a tranquil stroll while discovering the immense variety of flora that the Andes have. This pleasantry is further complimented by rustic huts scattered among the undergrowth where one can contemplate the surroundings for a few minutes before continuing on.