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Machu Picchu & Inca Trail

More and more people are putting Machu Picchu on their bucket lists each year, and it lives up to its fame as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It is indeed a wondrous sight to see, so don’t let the need to check off a box on your to-do list get in the way of taking the time to really appreciate it. If you can, go there by trekking the Inca Trail—sleeping in the Andes, walking on paths that the Incas themselves took to get to this sacred site, and entering at dawn through the Sun Gate is absolutely breathtaking. Take some time as well to relax in Aguas Calientes before rushing back to Cusco. It may not have the same charm as that colonial city, but being nestled among green mountains, not to mention getting a hot shower and massage in after hiking around Machu Picchu, is definitely the icing on the cake.

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MACHU PICCHU

The world did not become aware of Machu Picchu’s existence until 1911 when Yale University historian Hiram Bingham (1875–1956) announced that he had “discovered” the site. “Rediscovered” is a more accurate term; area residents knew of Machu Picchu’s existence all along. This “lost city of the Inca” was missed by the ravaging conquistadors and survived untouched until the beginning of the 20th century.

The exquisite architecture of the massive Inca stone structures, the formidable backdrop of steep sugarloaf hills, and the Urubamba river winding far below have made Machu Picchu the iconic symbol of Peru. It’s a mystical city, the most famous archaeological site in South America, and one of the world’s must-see destinations.

You’ll be acutely aware that the world has discovered Machu Picchu since Hiram Bingham’s rediscovery in 1911 if you visit during the June–mid- September high season. Machu Picchu absorbs huge numbers of visitors, though, and even in the highest of the high season, its beauty is so spectacular that it rarely disappoints.

The Storage Houses are the first structures you encounter after coming through the main entrance. The Inca carved terraces into the hillsides to grow produce and minimize erosion. Corn was the likely crop cultivated.

The Guardhouse and Funeral Rock are a 20-minute walk up to the left of the entrance and provide the quintessential Machu Picchu vista. Nothing beats the view in person, especially with a misty sunrise. Bodies of nobles likely lay in state here, where they would have been eviscerated, dried, and prepared for mummification.

The Temple of the Sun is a marvel of perfect Inca stone assembly. On June 21 (winter solstice in the southern hemisphere; sometimes June 20 or June 22), sunlight shines through a small, trapezoid-shaped window and onto the middle of a large, flat granite stone presumed to be an Inca calendar. Looking out the window, astronomers saw the constellation Pleiades, revered as a symbol of crop fertility. Bingham dubbed the small cave below “the royal tomb,” though no human remains were found at the time of his discovery.

Fountains. A series of 16 small fountains are linked to the Inca worship of water.

Palace of the Princess, a likely misnomer, is a two-story building that adjoins the temple.

The Principal Temple is so dubbed because its masonry is among Machu Picchu’s best. The three-walled structure is a masterpiece of mortarless stone construction. A rock in front of the temple acts as a compass— test it out by placing your smartphone with a compass app showing on top of it.

Three Windows. A stone staircase leads to the three-walled structure. The entire east wall is hewn from a single rock with trapezoidal windows cut into it.

Intihuatana. A hillock leads to the “hitching post of the sun.” Every important Inca center had one of these vertical stone columns (called gnomons). Their function likely had to do with astronomical observation and agricultural planning. The Spanish destroyed most of them, seeing the posts as objects of pagan worship. Machu Picchu’s is one of the few to survive—partially at least. Its top was accidentally knocked off in 2001 during the filming of a Cusqueña beer commercial.

The Sacred Rock takes the shape in miniature of the mountain range visible behind it.

Temple of the Condor is so named because the positioning of the stones resembles a giant condor, the symbol of heaven in the Inca cosmos. In this temple priests likely sacrificed llamas, pouring their blood onto the “condor’s” head. The structure’s many small chambers led Bingham to dub it a “prison,” a concept that did not likely exist in Inca society.

HIKES FROM MACHU PICCHU

If you come by train, you can take a 45-minute walk on a gentle arc leading uphill to the southeast of the main complex. Intipunku, the sun gate, is a small ruin in a nearby pass. This small ancient checkpoint is where you’ll find that classic view that Inca Trail hikers emerge upon. The walk along the way yields some interesting and slightly different angles as well. Some minor ancient outbuildings along the path occasionally host grazing llamas. A two-or three-hour hike beyond the Intipunku along the Inca Trail brings you to the ruins of Huiñay Huayna, a terrace complex that climbs a steep mountain slope and includes a set of ritual baths.

Built rock by rock up a hair-raising stone escarpment, the Inca Bridge is yet another example of Inca engineering ingenuity. From the cemetery at Machu Picchu, it’s a 30-minute walk along a narrow path.

The Huayna Picchu trail, which follows an ancient Inca path, leads up the famous sugarloaf hill in front of Machu Picchu for an exhilarating trek. Limited to 400 visitors daily at two entrance times (7–8 am and 10–11 am), tickets must be purchased at the same time as your entrance tickets for Machu Picchu (combined price S/152, S/128 for Machu Picchu plus the S/24 for Huayna Picchu). The arduous, vertiginous hike up a steep, narrow set of Inca-carved steps to the summit and back takes between two and three hours round-trip. Bring insect repellent; the gnats can be ferocious. An alternate route down from Huayna Picchu (at least 1½ hours to 2 hours down and back over to Machu Picchu) takes you to the Temple of the Moon/Great Cave (Templo de la Luna/Gran Caverna). It’s not an easy venture, but well worth the opportunity to be in nature without the crowds. Give yourself 5 hours for the whole route.

INCA TRAIL

One of the world’s signature outdoor excursions, the Inca Trail (Camino Inca in Spanish) is a 43-km (26-mile) sector of the stone path that once extended from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Nothing matches the sensation of walking over the ridge that leads to the lost city of the Inca just as the sun casts its first yellow glow over the ancient stone buildings.

There are limits on the number of trail users, but you’ll still see a lot of fellow trekkers along the way. The four-day trek takes you past ruins and through stunning scenery, starting in the thin air of the highlands and ending in cloud forests. The orchids, hummingbirds, and spectacular mountains aren’t bad either.

You must go with a guide and a licensed tour operator, one accredited by SERNANP, the organization that oversees the trail and limits the number of hikers to 500 per day (including guides and porters). There are some 250 such licensed operators in Cusco.

May through September is the best time to make the four-day trek; rain is more likely in April and October and certainly the rest of the year. The trail fills up during the dry high season. Make reservations months in advance if you want to hike then—weeks in advance the rest of the year. Bear in mind that not only are the number of permits limited and early birds get the preferred campsite on the third night of the trek, which is much closer to Machu Picchu. The trek is doable during the rainy season but can become slippery and muddy by November. The trail closes for maintenance each February.

AGUAS CALIENTES

But for the grace of Machu Picchu discoverer Hiram Bingham, Aguas Calientes would be just another remote, forgotten crossroads. But Bingham’s discovery in 1911, and the tourist boom decades later, forever changed the community. At just 2,050 meters (6,724 feet) above sea level, Aguas Calientes will seem downright balmy if you’ve just arrived from Cusco. There are but two major streets—Avenida Pachacutec leads uphill from the Plaza de Armas, and Avenida Imperio de los Incas isn’t a street at all, but the railroad tracks; there’s no vehicular traffic on the former except the buses that ferry tourists to the ruins.

You’ll have little sense of Aguas Calientes if you do the standard day trip from Cusco. But the cloud-forest town pulses to a very lively tourist beat with hotels, restaurants, hot springs, and a surprising amount of activity, even after the last afternoon train has returned to Cusco. It also provides a great opportunity to wander around the high jungle, particularly welcome if you aren’t going to make it to the Amazon. Although you won’t see wildlife other than several species of hummingbirds, the flora (especially the many varieties of orchids) are worth taking a wander to see. You can find information about the easy and relatively flat walk to Mandor Waterfalls or the more intense hike up Putucusi Mountain at the local iPeru office.