MACHU PICCHU is one of the greatest of all South American tourist attractions: beautiful stone architecture enhanced by the Incas’ exploitation of local 250-million-year-old rocks of grey-white granite with a high content of quartz, silica and feldspar, set against a vast, scenic backdrop of dark-green forested mountains that spike up from the deep valleys of the Urubamba and its tributaries. The distant glacial summits are dwarfed only by the huge sky. The site’s mysterious origins are central to its enduring appeal, but even without knowing too much about its history or archeology, or the specifics of each feature, it’s quite possible to enjoy a visit to Machu Picchu: for many, it’s enough just to absorb the mystical atmosphere.
The name Machu Picchu apparently means simply Old or Ancient Mountain. With many legends and theories surrounding the position of the site, most archeologists agree that its sacred geography and astronomy were auspicious factors in helping the Inca Pachacuti decide where to build this citadel here at 2492m. It’s thought that agricultural influences as well as geo-sacred indicators prevailed, and that the site secured a decent supply of sacred coca and maize for the Inca nobles and priests in Cusco.
Never discovered by the Spanish conquerors, for many centuries the site of Machu Picchu lay forgotten, except by local Indians and settlers, until it was found on July 24, 1911 by the US explorer Hiram Bingham. It was a fantastic find, not least because the site was still relatively intact, without the usual ravages of either Spanish conquistadores or tomb robbers. Accompanied only by two locals, Bingham left his base camp around 10am and crossed a bridge so dodgy that he crawled over it on his hands and knees before climbing a precipitous slope until they reached the ridge at around midday. After resting at a small hut, he received hospitality from a local peasant who described an extensive system of terraces where they had found good fertile soil for their crops. Bingham was led to the site by an 11-year-old local boy, Pablito Alvarez, but it didn’t take him long to see that he had come across some important ancient Inca terraces – over a hundred of which had recently been cleared of forest for subsistence crops. After a little more exploration Bingham found the fine white stonework and began to realize that this might be the place he was looking for.
Bingham first theorized that Machu Picchu was the lost city of Vilcabamba, the site of the Incas’ last refuge from the Spanish conquistadors. Not until another American expedition surveyed the ruins around Machu Picchu in the 1940s did serious doubts begin to arise over this assertion, and more recently the site of the Incas’ final stronghold has been shown to be Espíritu Pampa in the Amazon jungle.
Meanwhile, it was speculated that Machu Picchu was perhaps the best preserved of a series of agricultural centres that served Cusco in its prime. The city was conceived and built in the mid-fifteenth century by Emperor Pachacuti, the first to expand the empire beyond the Sacred Valley towards the forested gold-lands. With crop fertility, mountains and nature so sacred to the Incas, an agricultural centre as important as Machu Picchu would easily have merited the site’s fine stonework and temple precincts. It was clearly also a ritual centre, given the layout and quantity of temples; but for the Incas it was usual not to separate things we consider economic tasks from more conventional religious activities. So, Machu Picchu represents to many archeologists the most classical and best-preserved remains in existence of a citadel used by the Incas as both a religious temple site and an agricultural (perhaps experimental) centre.
Though more than 1000m lower than Cusco, Machu Picchu seems much higher, constructed as it is on dizzying slopes overlooking a U-curve in the Río Urubamba. More than a hundred flights of steep stone steps interconnect its palaces, temples, storehouses and terraces, and the outstanding views command not only the valley below in both directions but also extend to the snowy peaks around Salcantay. Wherever you stand in the ruins, you can see spectacular terraces (some of which are once again being cultivated) slicing across ridiculously steep cliffs, transforming mountains into suspended gardens.
It’s easy enough to get into the site before sunrise, since the sun rarely rises over the mountains to shed its rays over Machu Picchu before 7am. Make your way to the “hitching post” of the sun before dawn for an unforgettable sunrise that will quickly make you forget the hike through the pre-dawn gloom – bring a torch if you plan to try it.
The competitive services offered by the three Cusco-based train operators – Perurail, Inca Rail and Machu Picchu Train – between Cusco and Machu Picchu provide one of the finest mountain train journeys in the world, with all the thrills and vistas associated with riding tracks through fantastic scenery, along with very good service and comfortable, well-kept carriages.
The longest of the train options (the others leave from Ollantaytambo and Urubamba), only offered by Perurail, rumbles out of Poroy station, 15–20 minutes by taxi from Cusco centre. The wagons zigzag their way through the backstreets, where little houses cling to the steep valley slopes. It takes a while to rise out of the teacup-like valley, but once it reaches the high plateau above, the train rolls through fields and past highland villages before eventually dropping rapidly down into the Urubamba Valley via several major track switchbacks, which means you get to see some of the same scenery twice.
The train reaches the Sacred Valley floor just before getting into Ollantaytambo, where from the windows you can already see scores of impressively terraced fields and, in the distance, more Inca temple and storehouse constructions. Ollantaytambo’s pretty railway station is right next to the river, and here you can expect to be greeted by a handful of Quechua women selling woollen crafts. The train continues down the valley, stopping briefly at Km 88, where the Inca Trail starts, then follows the Urubamba River as the valley gets tighter (which is why there’s no road) and the mountain becomes more and more forested, as well as steeper and seemingly taller. The end of the line is the new station at Machu Picchu Pueblo (also known as Aguas Calientes), a busy little town crowded into the valley just a short bus ride from the ruins themselves. From Cusco (Poroy Station) the journey takes 4 hours; it’s 2 hours from Ollantaytambo and 3 hours from Urubamba. Whichever route you’re taking, buy tickets well in advance online.
This most dramatic and enchanting of Inca citadels, suspended on an extravagantly terraced saddle between two prominent peaks, is believed to be in danger of collapse. The original Inca inhabitants temporarily stabilized the mountainside, transforming some of the geological faults into drainage channels. They also joined many of the construction stones together, using elaborate multi-angled techniques, making them more resistant to both tremors and landslides. Nevertheless, these spots remain weak and significant damage can be seen on nearby buildings. The National Institute of Culture, which administers Machu Picchu, acknowledges the problems, but correcting them is an ongoing process.