When I last left you in Peru, Mr. Buzz and I were headed to the “Lost” City of the Inca, Machu Picchu.
As I explained in, Ingenious Inca Legacy of Peru Sacred Valley, hubby took the high and I the low route. While I traveled there via the tourist-friendly train that hugs the river valley, he went vertical — hiking the Andes.
Later that afternoon, we met high above the archeological site, as Mr. Buzz entered through the Sun Gate at the end of the Inca Trail. It’s the same route and entrance the Inca used hundreds of years ago.
That lofty perch afforded stunning views of the mountains all around us, and the ruins below. By then, it was late in the day and the site was nearly empty of tourists. That’s because most visitors are day-trippers from Cusco and had trains to catch.
Since we overnighted down in the valley, we were able to stay until closing time. As the sun continued to blaze hot, the Andes cast long shadows across Machu PIcchu. We used the elevation to take pictures from high ridges and terraces above the citadel. On our return visit, we walked among the structures for an up close look at the Inca’s amazing architectural and agricultural achievements.
Join me now, as I take you along both routes to Machu Picchu. Then we’ll explore the iconic and mystical landscape and ruins over two days.
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Mystic Mountain Setting
My bucket list dream had been all about seeing the archeological site itself. I was unprepared for how dramatic, rugged, and breathtaking Machu PIcchu’s setting is.
In the picture above, you can see just how mountainous and remotely-located Machu Picchu is. Hubby entered the archeological site via the Sun Gate, nearly 1,000 feet higher in altitude than where we are seated.
My route to our meeting spot involved a train ride, and hair-raising, 25-minute bus trip up a series of switchback turns from the valley. Once inside the main Machu Picchu entrance, it took another hour hiking uphill to reach Mr. Buzz. That doesn’t include the times I need to pause for breaks!
I had already spent the morning climbing around another Inca fortress. By 2:00 in the afternoon, the strong sunlight, heat, and high altitude had me feeling my age.
But, not my much more fit, marathon-runner husband! Who do you think had the bigger challenge? Me or the guy who hiked for over seven hours in the Andes? Did I mention the first three hours were up from the valley floor?!
Riding the Rails
After spending the morning touring Ollantaytambo (Inca Legacy in Sacred Valley), my guide Rosabeth and I boarded the train to Machu Picchu.
PeruRail is the longest-serving train operator to Machu Picchu; offering three classes of service. Our Vistadome car offered great views, and service that included a light meal and beverages. Travel time was just under two hours. Along the way, I was captivated by the river valley, Inca ruins, and terraces still used today for farming. Eventually, the environment changed to a tropical cloud forest as we approached Aguas Calientes.
Travel Tip: Try to book seats on the more scenic, river side of the train. It’s also preferable to sit facing the direction the train is traveling.
Hubby had boarded an early morning train with his trail guide, so to arrive at Machu Picchu before the most intense sun and heat of the day. Hikers get off at KM 104, where there is a base camp for the Inca Trail. That’s also where they met up with a porter, who carried a box lunch, sun tent and extra water.
Because Rosabeth is also an Inca Trail guide, she was able to point out sights and provide a timetable of Mr. Buzz’s progress — including crossing this high alpine waterfall.
Afterwards, I got to live vicariously through my husband’s incredible photographs and descriptions of the stunning scenery and isolated ruins along the Inca Trail. While hiking, he saw mountain tops, clouds, and glaciers at eye-level.
So while I was riding the rails down along the Urubamba River, hubby was hiking the ridges above.
Hiking the Trail
Located in the Andes Mountain range, the high altitude Inca Trail passes through several types of environments; including alpine tundra and cloud forest.
Cloud Forest: a moist tropical or subtropical forest that is characterized by persistent low-level cloud.
Winay Wayna Wow
Along the way, are remote Inca settlements and ruins. Below, hubby is approaching Winay Wayna, one of several sites along the trail. It may have been a spiritual or religious destination, or just a place for the Inca to rest before reaching Machu Picchu.
Consisting of upper and lower collections of buildings, the site is connected by stone steps arranged in curves. A precarious staircase between the levels hugs a line of ancient fountains.
Additionally, the site is surrounded by steep agricultural terraces. All those terraces served two purposes for the Inca; erosion control from heavy spring rains, and for growing crops. And, they’re still there!
It’s amazing how the Inca constructed places like Winay Wayna and Machu Picchu, without the wheel, mortar, and nothing more than implements made from bronze or stone. They carved the stones to fit together like Lego pieces.
The amount of human labor required for such massive construction is hard to imagine.
Hiking the entire 26-mile Inca Trail takes four days and is one of the world’s signature treks. Part of the original Inca supply route between Cusco and Machu Picchu, taking the trail requires a permit and a licensed guide. Only 500 permits are allowed per day, of which just 200 are hikers — the rest are guides and porters.
Are you game to hike the Inca Trail?
One of the reasons we chose the Cox & Kings tour (recommended by Travel the Seven), was the unique opportunity for Mr. Buzz to hike the final day of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
Grand Entrance to Machu Picchu
Few travelers enter the citadel via the Inca Trail. And, most visitors lack the time or the ability to make it all the way up to the Sun Gate‘s 8,924 feet elevation. Nearly 1,000 feet higher than Machu Picchu, it served as the ancient checkpoint into the city.
A year ago, my brother-in-law and his wife visited Machu Picchu as part of a Tauck tour. We had previously gone on another excellent Tauck tour to Spectacular Spain.
Here they are hiking up to the Sun Gate during their two-day stay.
Spectacular, Sacred Site
No one knows for certain what purpose the citadel served or why it was abandoned. However, most believe the site for the mystical city was chosen for the formidable mountains cradling it and the cosmo’s overhead. Machu Picchu is also nearly surrounded by the revered Urubamba River.
Today, many scientists believe it was a fortified royal retreat.
These terraces to the left of the photo are on the far-less visited and photographed side of the citadel. Just above those terraces — in the center of the photo — are what’s still left of the onsite stone quarry.
Likely a city of about 200 homes and 1,000 residents, Machu Picchu had agricultural terraces to supply the population’s needs. It’s strategic position overlooked the valley floor, but can’t be seen from there. The Inca built it during the 15th century, and only populated the citadel for three generations.
Not So Lost
The world did not become aware of Machu Picchu until 1911, when Yale University historian Hiram Bingham announced he had “discovered” the site. “Rediscovery” is more accurate. At the time, area residents knew of its existence and were still farming there.
But, Machu Picchu’s ruins were indeed obscured by jungle growth. We found it really interesting to view and compare the black and white photos from Bingham’s expedition and excavation, with how the site looks today. According to Rosabeth, somewhere between 40-60 percent of Machu Picchu (primarily terraces down the mountain sides) remain hidden under jungle growth. While we were there, digging and restoration work was underway on several terraces.
This is the quintessential Machu Picchu vista, taken from the area near the Guardhouse and Funeral Rock. Rosabeth was keen on getting as many pictures of us in the spectacular setting as possible while we were at that vantage point. Besides, there was always the chance cloud cover or rain would obscure views the following day.
Name Lost in Time
As I explained in, Provocative Peru Trip, the Inca did not have a written language. So, we don’t know the actual name of the citadel. It’s called, “Machu Picchu”, because that’s the Andean language (Quechua) name for the “Ancient Mountain” behind us — where the Sun Gate is.
Huayna Picchu, meaning “Young Peak” in Quechua, is the name of the sugarloaf-shape mountain seen in the iconic photographs of the city.
Now we’re down in the urban sector. During the Inca occupation, all the buildings would have had thatched roofs. A few have been reconstructed in the archeological area.
I couldn’t believe our good fortune as we headed down into the citadel — virtually no people in sight! That affirmed our decision to visit in early to mid June — after the rainy season ended but before the hordes of tourists arrived. June is the beginning of Peru’s dry winter season.
Traveler Tips: Machu Picchu is limited to 2,500 visitors a day — although Rosabeth was skeptical they didn’t squeeze in more tourists during peak season. A passport and licensed guide are required for entry — even for those entering via the Inca Trail. For those not part of a tour group, guides can be hired at the entrance gate. There is almost no signage within the citadel. Timed entry tickets were strictly enforced. Bus tickets are purchased separately and must correspond to entry ticket times. If you are not part of an organized tour, purchase these online at least a month in advance.
Only llamas and alpacas still live in Machu Picchu, and are a part of it’s natural landscape. They were important to the Incas, who did not have domesticated animals like horses, goats or sheep.
There are presently about 15 tagged llamas and alpacas freely wandering the site and grazing. Think of them as Machu Picchu’s lawn mowers, LOL! We saw about five different llama’s as it neared closing time.
My favorite llama picture was this guy, right on the pathway as we were working our way to the citadel exit. I actually took lots of llama pictures, but many of them are either washed out by the harsh sunlight, or obscured in dark shadows.
Here I am, being totally ignored by a munching llama. Above us are another llama and young white alpaca. In the upper left corner, is the Guard House and adjacent Funeral Rock, where we had worked our way down from.
What I really wanted is a awesome photo like my sister’s. She and her family of five visited last August. It was another trip planned by her son (and my nephew), Zachary.
Cloud Forest Overnight
After a very full day, we took one of the last buses down to Aguas Calientes. Tucked in the river valley below Machu Picchu, the town is set in a tropical cloud forest. Staying overnight there, allows you to experience the ruins after the day trippers have left — as we did. It also means (with tickets), a repeat visit the next day — before the first train and tour groups arrive.
Aguas Calientes is where the train station is located. There is no road access to the town, which means everything (but Inca Trail hikers!) comes in and out via train. That includes the buses that transport tourists to and from the ruins, fuel, food, etc.
We stayed at the elegant ecolodge, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. Guests stay in rustic, but well-appointed stone bungalows with exposed beams, cathedral ceilings and fireplaces.
Part of the Relais & Chateaux collection of boutique lodgings with exceptional dining, it is also a National Geographic, Unique Lodge of the World.
Inkaterra is set in a mini tropical cloud forest; with waterfalls, stone pathways, 212 bird species, and the world’s largest collection of native orchids.
Breakfast and dinner are included in the outstanding restaurant. Inkaterra also has another restaurant adjacent to the train station, that’s open to the public.
Did I mention it was my actual birthday when I met hubby up at the Sun Gate?
While I shamelessly bragged to everyone I met that Mr. Buzz had hiked the Inca Trail, Rosabeth continued to spread the word about it being my birthday. That meant I received a mini birthday cake — our second dessert of the evening! While my husband could well afford the extra calories, I knew I had some work to do the next day!
We finished our incredible day by a romantic fire, while I happily chatted on the phone with our sons back home.
Wonder of the World
Rather than a 4:30 AM wake-up to watch sunrise over Machu Picchu, we opted for sleeping in, a fabulous breakfast, and leisurely morning exploring the cloud forest surrounding the ecolodge. After an early lunch, we headed back up to tour the lower elevations of the citadel with Rosabeth.
Traveler Tips: Dress in layers, and don’t forget that passport, along with water, a hat and sun protection. See my other tips on altitude sickness and what to bring while in Peru Sacred Valley.
Built without the use of mortar, metal tools, or the wheel, Machu Picchu is an engineering marvel. The sun illuminates windows at the solstice, and crops grow in an inhospitable climate.
Since it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2011, Machu Picchu has become a top travel destination.
Touring the Citadel
Machu Picchu is formed of buildings, plazas, and platforms connected by narrow lanes or paths. After passing the agricultural terraces, the first structures are the Storage Houses.
A series of 16 small fountains are linked to the Inca worship of water. According to our guide, a benefit of touring the citadel when it rains is being able to see the extensive irrigation system at work.
In this picture, we’re looking up at the high ground; where we were the day before. All those terraces would have been planted with food, mostly corn.
Inca windows and doorways are mostly trapezoid-shaped; to help structures withstand earth tremors.
Now, we’re on the far side of Machu Picchu, near the sugarloaf-shaped Huayna Picchu. Look closely — can you see the terraces near its peak?
Climbing the mountain also requires a hard-to-acquire permit; with a limit of 200 hikers each morning and afternoon. I had naively thought I’d be able to make the hike LOL! It’s an arduous, vertiginous hike up a steep (often slippery) narrow set of Inca-carved steps.
Instead, we spent the time exploring buildings and structures, including temples that were a marvel of stone and cosmological positioning. Not only were the Inca masters of construction, but astronomy as well.
As the mountains once again began to cast long shadows, it was time to end the day with high tea at the Belmond Sanctuary Hotel — uniquely located adjacent to Machu Picchu.
Train Travel in a Class of Its Own
Belmond also owns the premium Hiram Bingham train, and tea was included in the luxury travel service. Afterwards, a special bus carried train passengers down the mountain, to a special waiting area. Our luggage from the hotel was waiting, along with glasses of champagne.
Unfortunately, there was no time to change or freshen up before the Hiram Bingham left the train station. I felt a little grubby and underdressed, but that was true of many of the other passengers. But, I sure wish I had something other than my hiking boots to wear!
Once underway, Rosabeth hurried us to one of the two bar cars for cocktails and live music sing-alongs. She also took video of both of us taking a turn at solo dancing with tambourines — too embarrassing to share!
Included in the Hiram Bingham luxury service was a sumptuous meal, with cocktails and wines. After dessert, I was presented with a beautiful cake as the band appeared for a rousing version of “Happy Birthday” in Spanish and English. Rosabeth strikes again! Maybe, just maybe, I’ll post the video on my Instagram feed!
It’s a very pricey upgrade (about $500), if not part of a packaged tour (like Tauck). Both my sister and sister-in-law raved about their experiences.
Three and a half hours after leaving the train station, we arrived in the colonial city and capital of the Inca empire —Cusco.
Have you been to Machu Picchu? Or, is it on your bucket list?
Continue the journey with me to see the volcanic landscapes and amazing wildlife while on a Galapagos Islands Cruise.
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