Just after dawn, we arrived at Machu Picchu on the first shuttle bus from the small Peruvian town of Aguas Calientes, some 20 minutes down the mountain. After climbing a short but steep trail shaded by large trees, we stepped onto a ledge into sunshine. Swirling clouds partially obscured two peaks and the ruins directly in front of us.
Gradually, the clouds thinned to reveal the magnificent Incan citadel. We excitedly photographed the panorama as the interplay of sunshine and clouds altered the scene from one minute to the next. Llamas grazed here and there, unperturbed by our presence, and occasionally walked into our viewfinders.
Against a backdrop of sheer mountains, the citadel’s stone structures and facades have endured for centuries as evidence of the vast Incan Empire that once stretched from Ecuador to Chile. It’s little wonder this testament to human ingenuity has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site—and one of the Wonders of the World. Each year, over a million people visit Machu Picchu, which dates to the 15th century. The gateway is Cusco, a high-altitude city in the Andes that was the crown jewel of the Incan Empire before the Spanish conquest in the 16th century.
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Casa San Blas Boutique Hotel (Cusco)—an attractive, mid-price
Hotel Belmond Monasterio (Cusco)—a historic monastery converted
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Belmond Sanctuary Lodge (Machu Picchu)—a luxurious mountain lodge.
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It’s possible to make the journey several ways. Assuming you’re not a backpacker and won’t be doing the four-day hike from Cusco to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail (once a pilgrimage route for Incan nobility), you’ll travel by train. Or, as we recommend, you can combine traveling by train and private car. The latter allows time to explore, at your own pace, indigenous villages and markets as well as other Incan archaeological sites in the Sacred Valley, a rich agricultural region hugging the Urubamba River. This trip will take the better part of a day.
After you arrive in Cusco by air from Lima, the country’s capital, relax a day or two to get acclimated to the high altitude (11,152 feet) before going on to Machu Picchu (7,972 feet). And why not? There’s plenty to do there.
A blend of Incan and Spanish colonial cultures, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere. Its gold-adorned stone temples, dedicated to the Incan sun god, are marvels of engineering and construction. When the Spanish took over in the 16th century, they used the Incas’ precision-cut stones and walls as foundations for opulent churches, monasteries and convents that survive to this day. Cusco is also home to artisans who produce intricately patterned textiles as well as handicrafts, including wood carvings and elegant silver jewelry.
Make your way through the city’s cobblestone streets to Plaza de Armas, the main square. The Cusco Cathedral and the Church La Compañia de Jesús, two iconic Spanish colonial buildings that date to the 16th century, provide a magnificent backdrop for the plaza’s wide stone pathways and gardens. If you’re lucky, you’ll see brass bands, performing dancers, roving troubadours or even a religious parade.
Restaurants in the area offer everything from traditional Peruvian food to international dishes. A great way to get oriented is to enjoy a latte or cappuccino on the balcony of one of several cafés that border the square and watch the spectacle below.
A short walk from the Plaza is the San Pedro Market, an indoor marketplace where farmers, bakers, butchers and other vendors hawk foodstuffs, clothing and handicrafts. The aromas of fresh vegetables, fruits, cheeses and spices fill the air. If you’re adventurous, you might be tempted to sample local delicacies, such as hard-boiled quail eggs or roasted guinea pigs.
For high-end shopping, check out boutiques such as Kuna (alpaca scarves, sweaters and other apparel) near Plaza de Armas and Ilaria Perú (handmade silver jewelry) inside the 5-star Belmond Hotel Monasterio, a historical landmark that was once a monastery.
Cusco also has excellent museums. Be sure to visit the Inca Museum, the Pre-Columbian Art Museum, and the Archbishop’s Palace, which is full of colonial religious paintings. Last but not least, don’t miss a tour of the famous Incan archeological site of Sacsayhuamán. Overlooking Cusco on top of a hill, this alfresco “museum” features some of the largest Incan stone walls ever discovered. Some of the precisely cut, multi-angled stones, secured in place without mortar, weigh over 100 tons!
Through the Sacred Valley
The first leg of the journey through the valley from Cusco to Machu Picchu is a drive to the small town of Ollantaytambo. From there, it’s necessary to board a train to reach Aguas Calientes, the staging point for your ascent to the Machu Picchu citadel. Allow a full day at minimum for the trip to Aguas Calientes (you’ll do it in reverse on the way back).
Along the way there’s much to see. Don’t miss the enormous Incan agricultural terraces and panoramic views of the valley at Pisac. Also, if time allows, peruse the lively market in Chinchero, where vendors in traditional dress sell handmade textiles and crafts.
Before boarding the train to Aguas Calientes in Ollantaytambo, climb the giant staircase of Incan agricultural terraces. Then relax at one of the many sidewalk cafés in town. While sipping coffee or beer, you can watch backpackers and outdoor enthusiasts from many countries hobnobbing with locals. If you’re adventurous, allow an extra day or two here for white-water rafting, rock climbing, trekking or horseback riding excursions.
The two-hour train ride to Aguas Calientes is considered one of the most beautiful routes in Peru, so be prepared for extraordinary scenery, including snow-covered mountains and the white-water Urubamba River, which parallels the tracks. Following an overnight in Aguas Calientes (where accommodations range from luxury to budget), you’ll awaken early the next morning to board one of the many shuttle buses up the mountain to the Machu Picchu citadel.
When you finally see Machu Picchu, you’ll understand— given its size and dramatic setting—why it draws travelers from around the world. Built by the Incas, some say as a sacred site, it was abandoned after the Spanish conquest of Peru in the 16th century. Unlike other Incan sites, however, it was never found by the Spanish; it remained hidden by jungle vegetation until American historian and explorer Hiram Bingham discovered the citadel in 1911.
Located at the confluence of the Peruvian Andes and Amazon Basin, the citadel consists of over 150 structures, including houses, temples, fountains and ceremonial plazas. There are more than 100 separate staircases with some 3,000 steps, the majority of which were carved from a single stone slab. Constructed without the use of mortar, metal tools and the wheel, the ruins are an engineering marvel that, to this day, haven’t been fully explained.
Machu Picchu is normally open 12 hours daily (early morning to late afternoon). If you want to spend more than a day here, you’ll have to return to Aguas Calientes to overnight, then catch a bus back up the mountain the next morning.
On the other hand, if you can afford to indulge, stay at the luxurious Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the only hotel adjacent to the entrance to Machu Picchu. Here, you’ll be able to leisurely enjoy excellent cuisine, a first-rate spa and the serene mountain atmosphere by night. What’s more, you can enter the archaeological site early the next morning before the crowds arrive and enjoy the sunrise.
If you’ve come this far, why not stay on the mountaintop? After all, this is the trip of a lifetime, one you’re not likely to repeat.
• Avoid the rainy season from November through March. Peak season is July and August, but expect the highlands to be busy throughout the year.
• Plan your trip well in advance. Accommodations, train tickets and entrance passes to Machu Picchu sell out early.
• Consult your doctor about medications to prevent or alleviate altitude sickness. Go slowly on your first day so you can adjust gradually. Drink coca tea or chew coca leaves (available at most Cusco hotels) to help acclimatize.
• Check train luggage restrictions. Take only a small overnight bag to Aguas Calientes. If you have large bags, you may have to leave them at your hotel in Aguas Calientes or Cusco.
• Pack comfortable walking shoes, plenty of sun block, insect repellent and a rain jacket or poncho. (Weather can be highly unpredictable.) Drones, walking sticks, trekking poles and tripods are currently prohibited at Machu Picchu.
The Loves are journalists based in the Southeast. Website: imagyn.com