Located at the border between the Sacred Valley and the jungle, at an altitude of only 2430 m, Machu Picchu is the result of one of the most beautiful accidents in history.
Left in haste and for reasons still unknown, by inhabitants somewhere around 1572, this Inca village, escaped the destructive fury of the Spanish conquerors, becoming today one of the 7 wonders of the modern world.
Forgotten by the world for over 400 years and completely covered with vegetation, it is accidentally rediscovered by American explorer and adventurer Hiram Bingham in 1911.
What amazes you at Machu Picchu is the high degree of conservation of all buildings and facilities, agricultural terraces and the water collection system.
Once you get here you have the strange feeling that you are in a village that has only just been abandoned by the inhabitants. It would be sufficient to cover the houses again with thatched roofs to make it functional again.
From the perspective of history, Machu Picchu is a posthumous revenge of the Inca civilization, the living proof of his genius, for whose erasure from the history books, both the Spanish occupation and the Catholic church have made so much effort.
All the constructions and the arrangements of this exceptional site lead to one conclusion: the absolute respect of this civilization towards living in harmony with nature, Pachamama or “mother earth”.
It is a lesson that, just five centuries later, our “modern” civilization is beginning to take into account seriously.
History and legend
Most modern researchers agree that Machu Picchu is not a fortress but an Inca sanctuary.
This sanctuary is in a region filled with Andean mythological symbols: the mountain, represented by the Huyana Picchu peak, the snake represented by the Urubamba river and the bird, always present in the sky.
Machu Picchu is actually the name of the peak that guard the archaeological site and means in the Quechua language “the old mountain”.
Along it’s ridge, you find the famous Inca Trail, used by the Incas to move from Cuzco the capital, to Machu Picchu.
Here is the picture of this peak, as seen from the main square of the site.
The steep peak that rises almost vertically from the Urubamba river valley, visible in the background of any photography with Machu Picchu, is called Huyana Picchu, in translation “the young mountain”.
In fact, according to the Spanish historian Martín Rubio, the real name of the sanctuary is Patallaqta, resulting by the chaining of two words from the Quechua language: “pata” – above or step, and “laqta” – place / city.
The construction of the site began around 1440, during the time of the Inca king Pachacutec, the founder, who reigned between 1438 and 1471.
It was continued by his followers until 1572, when the site was abandoned, most likely due to the Spanish invasion.
How to get to Machu Picchu?
Machu Picchu is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the world. Every day, on average, 4300 people from all over the world come here. In the main season, that is in July, August and September, it reaches up to 6000 visitors per day. Thus, the number of visitors reached last year an amazing amount of 1,578,030.
Considering the unstoppable appetite of tourists from all over the world to visit this site, the Peruvian authorities were forced to introduce strict access regulations in the area, in order to limit, as far as possible, the number of visitors to protect the historical vestiges.
This is the reason why the access in the region can be made exclusively using the railway, along the Urubamba river valley, between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes (now called Machu Picchu Pueblo).
There is no road to Aguas Calientes, and tourists access is tightly controlled from the train station.
Without a pre-booked nominal train ticket, which is usually purchased together with the entrance ticket to Machu Picchu, you are not even allowed to enter the train station. The name is verified by the passport and if it does not match the one on the ticket, access is not permitted.
You can reach Ollantaytambo following the road that starts from Cusco and gradually descend through the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Along this road, points of particular tourist interest are: the Awana Kancha alpacas farm and the Pisac ruins.
We arrived at Ollantaytambo at 4 pm and although we were not in peak season, we were impressed by the intense traffic in this small town. On the narrow streets you could not throw a needle.
The car access is hardly controlled by the local police, which lets the cars pass in one direction at a time, until they reach the central market of the city.
Ollantaytambo is the only city in Peru inhabited continuously, from the time of the Incas until today. It’s narrow streets, the sewerage system using cobblestones on the edge of the streets, the houses with facades finished with clay, all, are from the time of the Incas and are still used today.
As you approach the main street leading to the train station, the traffic becomes suffocating and you begin to realize what logistical problems can generate the huge number of visitors from all over the world who want to reach Machu Picchu.
This is probably one of the reasons why, from here on, tourists with big luggage are not allowed, only a relatively small backpack being accepted.
Train travel, operated by the state-owned Peru Rail, is more than decent. The luggage is stored at the ends of the wagons, and the journey generally takes about two hours.
Due to the narrow line, on which runs wagons with standard width, the pitch is quite large at curves (and not quite pleasant), so the speed cannot exceed 40 km/h.
Once we arrived at Aguas Calientes, after solving the accommodation problems, we hurried to visit the city.
We were actually amazed by the difference from the other cities we went through in Peru. Everything seems newly built, the center is impeccably lit, there is a sports hall and a large stadium, as well as plenty of guesthouses or hotels and countless restaurants or taverns. It is probably the result of capitalizing on the huge interest of tourists from around the world for this region.
From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
If you want to be able to quietly admire the site, you must wake up early. Otherwise, at noon, you will find a crazy rush in the mountain trails.
We woke up, at the instructions of our guide, at 4 o’clock in the morning, so we sat arrived the first at the bus queue, somewhere at 5:45 am.
The buses start to go on the route at 06:00 and operate in two shifts: from 06:00 to 12:00 and from 12:00 to 05:30. The objective is that everyone who climbs in the morning shift have the opportunity to descend until the second part of the afternoon visits begins.
When boarding a bus, a controller scans your boarding pass with a mobile terminal, the data being centralized. The same thing happens when you get on the descent bus, so at any given moment they know the number of people who are climbing the mountain and who has been late.
If the maximum number of visitors has been reached, the buses are suspended until the accepted number of tourists is reached and then resumed.
The buses, of medium size, are clean and modern, leave almost one after the other and descend at the same pace, to make room for the next ones.
The access road was built in the modern period and has a length of about 9 km linking the town of Aguas Calientes, with the point of entry to the site.
The level difference of 400 meters is covered in about 30 minutes.
For backpackers, it is possible to climb by foot, a well-mentained trail, which frequently crosses the road, called Hiram Bingham trail.
On the trails of Machu Picchu
The Machu Pichu sanctuary is completely hidden by the mountain peaks that surround it. From the access road and even from the parking place from the entrance to the site, nothing can be seen. It is as if it doesn’t exists…
On March 24, 2019, at 06:55 am, I entered the access gate to Machu Picchu. I marked this date in my mind. For me it was the date when I lived an experience that seemed to me, just a few years before, impossible. It is a sensation that I wish you all those who will follow our footsteps at Machu Picchu!
I had the privilege of entering among the first in that day in the sanctuary. That is why the feeling was even stronger, because the interaction with the mountain was more intimate, more personal.
After passing the gate, the path goes around the left side of the valley and then climbs a few stairs through the clearing.
You climb up a few minutes and with the exception of some reconstructed houses, visible among the branches, nothing prepares you for what follows after the last curve …
It’s a breathtaking image! Especially if you are alone on the mountain and you are lucky to find a sunny weather as we had.
Dominated by the peak of Huyana Picchu, in solemn silence, the entire Inca shrine was suddenly revealed to us in all its splendor.
No wonder that, like all the other visitors, we didn’t know how to get a quick photo there!
After the euphoria of the first images, we began to explore the sanctuary more thoroughly, under the guidance of the local guide.
Basically, Machu Picchu is composed of three main parts: the waiting area, located outside the city walls, at the entrance of the site, the upper city and the lower city.
The waiting area was intended for those who came from the entire Inca empire to visit temples and to bring offerings to the gods.
To some extent, Machu Picchu must have been for them, what is Mecca today for the Islamic religion.
In this area, the pilgrims were housed and sheltered before being allowed to enter the sacred area through the main gate of the sanctuary.
Right in the center of the waiting area is a ceremonial altar. Around it were found a large number of boulders, which are not made of the same material as the local rock. It is therefore supposed that those who came to pray, brought these stones from a great distance, carrying them on their backs up the mountain, where they deposited them at the entrance to the temple as an offering to the gods.
As the road bypasses and descends from the waiting area to the upper town, the famous terraces and built-in works begin to be noticed. As a whole, they fully respect the shape of the mountain, without changing the slope or inclination in any way.
The Inca considered the earth to be holy, calling it “mother earth” or Pachamama and that is why everything they built had to be in symbiosis with it.
This conception is observed in all the constructions from Machu Picchu but especially in the Temple of the Sun, which is actually built as a complement to a huge boulder existing in the location, which was naturally incorporated in the construction.
The entrance to the upper town is through a gate that was normally closed at night, to prevent the access of wild animals to the city and during the day was raised, through a system of ropes whose traces are still visible in the stone at inside.
As it is easy to suspect, the upper town was intended for the priesthood and the ruling caste, whose first representative was the almighty Inka.
In the lower town lived the workers, servants and craftsmen who ensured the smooth operation of the entire settlement.
Between the two areas, there is a large market, where public activities took place.
In the lower town, there was a room that never had a roof called the mirror room. On its floor, in two stones buried in the ground, there are cavities filled with water. In the mirror of the water in these cavities, the inkas watched the night sky or day sun and made observations related to astronomical cycles.
Another amazing aspect of the site is the way Inkas collected and used the water. At Machu Picchu this is visible through the water collection and management system from the springs on the slopes.
The water follows a path dug in the rock that passes between the houses and then leads to the agricultural lands on the terraces, being used to the maximum.
Somewhere, behind the ceremonial mountain-shaped altar in the lower town, is the entrance to the trail that climbs up, to the top of Huyana Picchu. The entrance is blocked by a gate, which is open only between 7:00 and 8:00 and between 10:00 and 11:00 to allow access for those who wish to climb.
The climb is indicated only to tourists with experience in mountain treking, who do not suffer from height sickness, the trail being exposed on a few portions where cables are mounted.
A climb ticket for Huyana Picchu is purchased separately from the access ticket to Machu Picchu and is reserved even with 6 months in advance, due to the maximum number of 400 people accepted daily.
Conclusions and recommendations
The trip to Peru represented a completely different experience from the expectations I left home with.
Escaped recently by the danger of terrorism and civil war, Peru is facing unfortunately the global flagel, of high-level corruption.
For example, the last elected president, Alan Garcia, committed suicide nearly two weeks before our visit, when he was being arrested in a bribe-taking scandal.
The vast majority of the population still lives on the brink of poverty, struggling hard to secure their daily lives. Thief and robbery are the most widespread crimes, and a man’s life still has a small value, especially in the outskirts.
On the window of a restaurant from Miraflores county of Lima, on an A4 paper sheet, I was surprised to read an ad that, to an European, may seem shocking. The announcement sounded like this: “According to the government decision …, discrimination in this place is forbidden.” Hmmm! Shocking isn’t it?
However, among the educated Peruvian society, of the middle class, there is a positive, optimistic current, focused on finding its own roots, around the Quechua language and the old Inka traditions.
From this perspective, tourism is a national priority, and the presence in Peru of world-renowned sites such as Machu Picchu, Pisac, Moray, Nazca and others have led to its constant development.
The main challenge, if you want to get to Machu Picchu, is not the tourist infrastructure, excellent in my opinion, by contrast with the general state of poverty, but the need to plan and coordinate all the means of transportation and to reserve in advance the necessary access tickets for each visit.
It’s easy to get confused, and losing a link can be equal to the failure of your entire vacation, because the access ticket to Machu Picchu is nominal and can only be used for the day it was purchased.
Therefore, my recommendation is to buy online, one of the tour packages available on sites like www.ticketmachupicchu.com, or the like, which include all the tickets and transfers required, along with an authorized guide, to help you visit Machu Picchu on time and safely return to your hotel.
Last modified: 11 October 2019