Editor’s note: The Department of State has issued a Peru Travel Advisory due to civil unrest. Now may not be the time to go, but tuck this one away for future planning.
I can remember curling up with National Geographic when I was a kid, poring over photos of Machu Picchu and imagining the people who lived in that mystical city in the clouds.
How did they get there? Where did they sleep at night? Did anyone ever topple off the edge? And who discovered it?
So when I traveled to Peru in December, on a mission to visit places not every American tourist has already read about, I made an exception and kept Machu Picchu on the schedule.
Some places are too iconic to miss.
Taking the train to Machu Picchu
From Cusco, the bustling city of about 489,000 people where I stayed, I hopped a PeruRail train from the Poroy Station. My train departed at 6:40 a.m., but it takes three and a half hours to reach Machu Picchu, just 46 miles away. (You can also do a three- or four-day trek to get there, but I didn’t have time.)
The train ride itself is its own form of entertainment. I rode in a Vistadome car (about $20 more than the regular car) and got a panoramic view of the rural scenery as we rumbled along the roiling Urubamba River. We passed tiny villages and farm fields. Periodic announcements explained the significance of small archeological sites along the way, and the crew passed out snacks and drinks.
In Ollantaytambo, where the train paused to take on passengers, we peered up at a cluster of glistening pods hanging from a cliff wall. That, an attendant explained, was the Skylodge Adventure Suites.There, overnight guests climb 1,312 feet in harnesses attached to a via ferrata to access their rooms. The next day, they take a zipline to get back down.
Once we got to Machu Picchu Pueblo, formerly known as Aguas Calientes, I met my private guide, Jaime Farfan.
Exploring Machu Picchu Pueblo
Given the chance, I’d stay a night in Machu Picchu Pueblo and get an early ticket to the ruins, to see them in the morning light. And after having a brunch of fresh fruit and quinoa pancakes with Farfan at a local hotel, I know where I’d stay: Inkaterra. The eco lodge, a collection of bungalows tucked into a hillside, has a spa, a nature trail and gardens that are home to 372 species of orchids. I glimpsed a crimson-colored Andean cock-of-the-rock, the national bird of Peru, and several hummingbirds.
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From there we walked into the village to catch the bus for the 20-minute ride to the ruins. The driver invited me to sit next to him in the front seat. From there, I felt like the Grinch looking down on Whoville as we zigzagged our way up the mountain.
If you opt to hike instead of riding the bus from Machu Picchu Pueblo, plan on a steep, 5-mile walk up 1,600 steps.
The re-discovery of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu is located at the edge of the Amazon Jungle, on the slopes of the Andean Mountains. The site is perched on a vibrant green mountain saddle just shy of 8,000 feet.
Archeologists believe the city was built around 1450, then abandoned less than a century later, during the Spanish Conquest. But the Inca didn’t write down their history, and a steady growth of ferns, shrubs, and vines slowly concealed its secrets.
Yale professor Hiram Bingham, the inspiration for Hollywood’s Indiana Jones, largely gets credit for finding ––– or rediscovering ––– the ruins in 1911. “For three years he looked,” Farfan told me. “He found the Inca Trail and some small ruins.”
Then, the big discovery: Polished, dry stone structures hidden under a web of vines, bushes and branches. “It was covered by the jungle. Locals didn’t go up there, because they said the last Incan (to leave the city) put traps and poisonous snakes there to protect it when he left,” Farfan said.
At the time, Bingham, who was 35 years old, thought he’d found the Lost City of the Incas. Archaeologists now believe that, with the help of local guides, he uncovered a royal estate where Inca leaders and their attendants spent summer months. (Technically, Bingham was not the first to find Machu Picchu; local farmers knew about the ruins and had visited them, and a German adventurer named Augusto Berns apparently visited – and looted –– the site in the 1860s.)
Bingham wrote about his discovery in National Geographic in 1913, and his photographs and words created a sensation. He also excavated bones, stone tools, and pottery, which he shipped back to Connecticut. (A dispute about where those artifacts should be housed was resolved in 2010, and hundreds of items were returned to Peru. Visitors can see them in the Museo Machu Picchu in Cusco, which opened in 2011.)
My first look at Machu Picchu
I knew that my first glimpse of the ruins would be a doozy, but I didn’t know just how much it would affect me. After clambering up a few dozen worn stone steps, I got my first peek at the hilltop hive of temples, terraces , and stone buildings that make up the famous site.
It made me tear up. Some people say Machu Picchu holds mystical powers or energy that can recharge your life. Whatever it was, it stunned me.
Farfan, who has worked as a guide for eight years, told me lots of tourists have the same reaction. His mother also worked as a tour guide, and Farfan remembers tagging along with her when he was a child. But because he grew up in Cusco, the historic capital of the Inca Empire, these mountaintop ruins didn’t overly impress him at the time.
“It just seemed normal,” he said.
Not to me. I stood there a long time, trying to absorb the gorgeous, mysterious feel of the place, which is ringed in mountains. The city looks different from every angle and I wanted to watch the weather change over its shoulders.
I got my wish.
The rainy season ––– summer ––– generally runs from November to April. In the hour or so that I stood at the top, taking in one of the most magnificent views of my life, white clouds turned to gray, thunder rumbled, and sheets of rain started to fall.
I dug out my rain jacket and rain pants and we continued the tour.
Into the ruins
We descended stone steps to the main ruins, which included stone temples dedicated to the sun, the moon, and the condor. We peered through the blocky rock openings of the Temple of Three Windows. Farfan pointed out a football-sized viscacha, a chinchilla-like rodent, taking shelter in one of the stone windows. Down on the main plaza, a trio of llamas munched grass in the rain. In one spot, visitors had left offerings: A pile of coca Click here to enter text.leaves.
We admired a flat, car-sized rock carved in the exact silhouette of the mountains behind it, and looked at dozens of terraced farm fields, where residents once grew corn and potatoes.
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I couldn’t stop thinking about the lifespan of the place. Houses built just 75 years ago in my Austin neighborhood are torn down and replaced. But Machu Picchu has survived torrential rains and earthquakes over the centuries, a testament to the engineering skills of the Inca people.
“I love it because it’s simple and it’s complete. It’s only one city with everything,” Farfan said.
Contemplating Machu Picchu’s wonders
Today Farfan says he loves to educate visitors about Machu Picchu and the Incan people.
“Why come here? To meet this culture, these people who gave others their interpretation of the world,” he said afterward, as I sipped a beer and he drank a purple corn drink called chicha morada at a restaurant in Machu Picchu Pueblo.
My brain was burbling, a natural high inspired by seeing a place I’d dreamed about for half a century. I was ecstatic. I looked out the window, into the jungle, and thought about what it meant to me.
My visit connected me to a different culture, people who lived here more than 550 years ago.
But it did more than that. It reminded me of my own past, and the wonder I felt flipping through a magazine and dreaming about the adventurer pulled back the vines that had cloaked Machu Picchu for so long.
If You Go
You can reach Machu Picchu either by a two- to four-day trek, camping along the way, or by taking a train to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly Aguas Calientes.) Two rail lines offer service, PeruRail or Inca Rail.
I caught the 6:40 a.m. PeruRail train from Poroy Station on the outskirts of Cusco. On the return trip, I got off at Ollantaytambo Station, where a driver met me and drove me back to Cusco. Bring a passport and arrive 30 minutes before departure. Round trip tickets range from about $120 to about $180. The bus from Machu Picchu Pueblo to the ruins costs $24 round trip.
If you can stay the night, book a room at Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, which has its own orchid garden and nature trails.
Explore the Machu Picchu ruins. Admission numbers are capped, so purchase tickets in advance. If you can, hire a guide to help you interpret the site. You can hire one at the entrance area or check with your hotel or travel agent. A tour typically takes about two and a half hours.
Eat & Drink:
I enjoyed snacks and beer at Full House Peruvian Cuisine, 620 Imperio de los Incas, in Machu Picchu Pueblo. The restaurant serves traditional dishes like lomo saltado (sauteed beef, tomatoes and onions served with French fries), daring fare like oven-baked guinea pig (it’s a thing, but I just couldn’t do it), or American favorites like cheeseburgers.
You won’t find many explanatory signs at Machu Picchu, which is why a guide can really help. Or stop by the Museo de Sitio Manuel Chavez Ballon, about 30 minutes from Machu Picchu Pueblo, for background information.