It’s a bit like viewing the Taj Mahal. Even if you have seen a thousand picture-postcard versions and read about it in a hundred travel stories, standing in front of it is an unparalleled experience. The same is true of Machu Picchu. For most people, this famous landmark is the first thing that comes to mind when Peru is mentioned. And for most travellers to this country, being amidst these remarkable ruins marks the highlight of their trip.
Indeed, it was difficult not to gasp — in wonder, in delight — when after a short, steep climb, I caught my first glimpse of this lost Incan city in the distance. All around me, all I could hear was, “This is a dream come true.” And I thought, “Yes, for me too.”
An air of mystery surrounds Machu Picchu, since most of what we know about the site now was derived by historians and archaeologists largely through conjecture. The most accepted theory is that it was created by the Inca civilisation sometime in the 15th century. But was it meant to be a city for everyone? Was it a military citadel? Or, was it an elaborate set of palaces, and religious and ceremonial enclaves for the kings? There are still more questions than answers about these ruins.
Whatever it was, the UNESCO, which granted it ‘world heritage’ status in 1983, says, “The Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu is among the greatest artistic, architectural and land use achievements anywhere and the most significant tangible legacy of the Inca civilisation.”
A citadel survives
While the Spanish invaders wiped out a large part of Peruvian heritage in the 16th century, Machu Picchu survived. It was only because it remained hidden under an overgrown forest for centuries, discovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911. As it happens, even Bingham stumbled upon it by accident during his search for another Incan city. The name Machu Picchu means ‘Old Mountain’ in the local Quechua language, which is how the peasants who first pointed the way to Bingham’s group, described it.
When I first shared a few photos of Machu Picchu on social media, friends immediately asked if I had done the Inca Trail. An arduous four-day trek of 43 km on a relentlessly steep territory? No, thanks. This might be the most popular trek in South America, with bookings filling out months in advance (only 200 trekkers are issued permits per day), but it was not for me. Instead, I took the plush Hiram Bingham train from Cusco, the gateway town, to Aguas Calientes, the nearest railway station. It proved to be a delightful journey, with a three-course brunch, and the craggy Andes providing company all the way through.
After a bus from Aguas Calientes deposited me at the site, I huffed and puffed my way up on the tall, uneven stone steps towards the sentry’s hut. It was all for that unbroken view of the ruins, bounded by the lush Andean mountains. In fact, it felt like the complex itself was carved out of sheer rock face, as if in extension of the mountain. And framing the ruins from behind was the smaller Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), which also beckons the more adventurous.
I could also see the dozens of rough steps criss-crossing through the site, steps that I would have to negotiate to get around the various structures. If the Incas indeed braved these ups and downs on a daily basis, they must have been an extremely fit lot.
That was not the only reason I found my admiration for the Incas growing. The grand scale on which this had been planned and built over 80,000 acres; the clever control of precious water through fountains and terrace farming practices; the Intihuatana rock that served as an astronomical clock or calendar; the skill involved in interlocking the huge rocks together without mortar, helping the site withstand several earthquakes — all of this was revealed bit by bit as our guide Irma walked us through the different areas.
Smug with the satisfaction of having finally experienced Machu Picchu, half-way across the world, I returned to Cusco for the night. The next morning, I woke up to a charming town, with a languid European air marked by narrow cobblestoned lanes, old-fashioned boutiques, large open spaces and ornate cathedrals.
To break the browns of these ancient buildings were the colours of local Quechua women in traditional costume, casually walking on the streets, leading a llama or alpaca on a rope. I could have easily spent the day sitting on a bench at the Plaza de Armas, opposite the main cathedral, watching locals and tourists enjoy the city in their own way.
In their rush to reach Machu Picchu, most travellers overlook Cusco, using it just as a temporary base. More’s the pity. As for me, I found Cusco attractive in its own right, and was delighted to discover a Peru beyond Machu Picchu.
Getting there: Fly to Lima from any major Indian city, connecting via the US or Europe. From Lima, it is best to take a domestic flight to Cusco, nearly 1,100 km away. And from Cusco, there are daily luxury and economy trains to Aguas Calientes, and connecting buses for the 20-minute journey up to Machu Picchu.
Accommodation: The Aranwa Cusco Boutique Hotel is located in a 16th-century colonial mansion in the heart of the town. There is only one accommodation option at the base of Machu Picchu, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge.
Good to know: Start and end your Machu Picchu trip with a day at Cusco, first to acclimatise to the altitude (11,150 feet), and then to explore the town, before heading off to explore the city or surrounds.