Making the most of Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu evokes images of trekking through impenetrable jungle in search of an ancient city shrouded in mountain-top mist. Thankfully, in reality, The Lost City has already of course been found, and is meticulously manicured by the local Incan people and their llamas!
Machu Picchu is a scenic 5 hours by train from Cuzco, arguably Peru’s most hip colonial city. An essential stop on any Peru trip, you can easily spend three days wandering Cuzco’s cobbled streets stumbling across ancient Incan walls, Spanish cathedrals and chaotically colourful markets. Three days is also highly recommended to aid acclimatisation to the higher altitude – especially if you plan to undertake a trek on the Inca Trail. Cuzco is higher than Machu Picchu sitting at 3326m/10,910ft.
It is in Cuzco where travellers gather before their Inca Trail trek or to take the train through the Sacred Valley to the little town of Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu. A great place to stay in Cuzco, is the Novotel or for a treat, stay at the glorious and historic Palacio Nazarenas Hotel, both a convent and palace in an earlier life. I’d also highly recommend the luxury of the Belmond Hiram Bingham train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes – especially if this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The Inca Trail is a 4 day hike through the Sacred Valley, arduous at times but can be a life changing experience. You can enter the site of Machu Picchu through the Sun Gate at the end of your Inca Trail trek. Alternatively from Aguas Calientes there’s a 25 minute zig-zag bus ride to the top. Do take note that as trekking numbers are now strictly limited to protect the environment, you do need to book well ahead of time, especially if wanting to trek over the peak months of May through August. Trekking is possible in all months except February when the trails are closed for maintenance (Machu Picchu itself remains open).
On reaching the summit, walking through the gate may well take your breath away. Atop its dramatic mountain peak, you can understand how Machu Picchu was quickly hidden and became overgrown and lost to the Spaniards for centuries, only to be rediscovered in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham.
Most tours spend a full day at the ruins which is great, but I’d recommend you overnight in Aguas Calientes so that you can take fabulous photos in the late afternoon light, and re-visit in the morning to enjoy the crowd-free early sun. You can also enjoy a steep climb to the top of nearby Wayna Picchu (not recommended for those without a good head for heights, you also need to pre book) for a spectacular view over the Lost City, or hunt for bargains in the colourful markets and mingle with other travellers in the town’s many cafes. Another must do if you have the time and energy is to visit the impressive Inca Bridge, which may be reached by a 40 minute side-trip from the main ruins. This is one of the most impressive sections of the Inca trail and well worthwhile if you don’t have time to take a longer trek.
The Sacred Valley of the Incas is another worthy stop before or after Machu Picchu. Just 90 minutes from Cuzco, this region was the heart of the Inca civilisation in the 14th century and the local people to this day live life much as they did prior to the Spanish arriving in the 15th century. Here you can relax at a choice of quaint and traditional accommodations in stunning settings. My favourites in the Sacred Valley include the Sonesta Posada Yucay Hotel (another built on the site of an old convent) or the impressive Rio Sagrado Hotel.
Other diversions include the famous Pisac Markets where you can haggle to your heart’s content, and the impressive ruins of Ollantaytambo Fortress, its steps rising into the sky reminding me of vast Roman ruins.
To get the best feel for what was an incredible era in history, and what is now one of the most fascinating places to explore, you really need to spend a full week in Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu. Despite all the hype, Machu Picchu will not disappoint.