Journey to Machu Picchu
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Machu Picchu, or The Old Mountain in the traditional Quechua language, is one of the most sought-after bucket list destinations in the world. If you're reading this, there's a good chance it's on your list too.
Surprisingly, however, very little is actually known about this historic site. The Incas did not keep written records of their empire, so all we know is that this site was abandoned around 1572, in fear that the Spanish would conquer and destroy it. However, the Spanish never came, and instead, the site sat empty for nearly five hundred years.
There have always been rumours about a lost city of gold in South America, so when the site was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, many suspected it to be the legendary city. However, instead, they found a stone city covered in thick jungle and – assuming the same insect life that was there when I visited – around a trillion hungry mosquitoes.
Although what Machu Picchu was has been lost to time, there are many speculations. The stonework is beautifully made, with the stones being large and smooth, and nearly impossible to move. Yet, they were created in such a way that when the terrain shakes during an earthquake, they bounce harmlessly and then fall back into place. This means it was built without mortar and is completely self-standing. It was built to withstand whatever nature could throw at it. Because of this, there is a belief that it was a holy or sacred site, perhaps even for a pilgrimage of sorts. There are various buildings in the ruins, such as the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows that help validate these beliefs.
For most people though, it's the stonework that they are fascinated with. Machu Picchu was built from the top down, with stone quarried from the top of the mountain and brought down to build the base. This can be seen by the two types of stonework found around Machu Picchu, with a thicker, stronger stone around the perimeter, and a smaller stone inside the make the buildings.
The location of the site is also important. Three sides of the city face the winding Urubamba River, with the back side of the city lined up against the mountain. Only one side is accessible by road, and that path leads all the way through The Andes to Cusco. The path is known as the Incan Trail and is the way many travellers find their way to the sacred site.
My friend Sarah Jukusf did a four-day hike through the Incan Trail and wrote about her experience on her blog. The four-day hike is the most common. There is also a two-day hike, but it's nicknamed a "Gringo Killer" since it is so extreme. We were told that the Incan Trail hike used to be much more dangerous, where tourists were often attacked or killed by marauders. There are even stories of serial killers on the trail. However, these days the hike is more organized, more patrolled, and a lot safer. It's still a long, strenuous hike, but the scariest things you'll encounter along the way are just snoopy alpacas and various ghost stories.
Sarah did the trip with G Adventures, and I did mine with Remote Year. Although G Adventures was more adventurous, Remote Year is casual, and instead of doing the hike from Cusco, we took a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, and then a bus up the mountain. After getting off the bus, we had to climb about fifteen minutes' worth of stairs to get to the "superior view" of the ruins.
I found this fifteen-minute climb very challenging, and at one point our Remote Year City Coordinator Fransisco even took my bag from me to help me out. He had done the climb before and was used to it, but I was not. I think one of the reasons why I was struggling so much was because of the elevation. Although Machu Picchu has a lower elevation than Cusco, it was still high in the mountains, and the air was much thinner. I really felt it in Cusco, just by walking around, so climbing here was significantly harder than normal.
Another reason, which hopefully you will never be able to relate to, is that I was recently recovering from COVID-19. My test that morning was only slightly positive but I am not sure if I actually should have been there. But, the whole reason I went to Peru was to see Machu Picchu. My mom said she had always wanted to see it, and I wanted to see it for her. It would have broken my heart to be in my hostel room in Cusco, only mildly sick, unable to make it after traveling so far. I would have regretted it my entire life.
So, if you make the trip, you might struggle with the elevation, but hopefully not with a novel respiratory virus too.
Once we reached the cliff above Machu Picchu, we learned a bit about the history of the site and gained a better appreciation of the landscape and the remoteness of the city. Not everybody tuned in for this history lesson, but there would be more to learn as we got closer to the ruins. I also learned later that there is an interpretive center not too far from the site, but I never saw it when I was there.
We then ventured into the ruins, through the main gate, and into the stone streets and buildings. It took them a hundred years to build Machu Picchu, and then after only occupying it for another hundred years, they abandoned it. It's sat empty longer than it was actually used. We got to explore some old houses and sit on the stone bed. It was a humbling, sorrowful experience. This long-forgotten family was in the process of building their house when they left. The bricks were still piled on the floor, and the niches were only partly cut in the walls. Five hundred years ago, a couple lived here with an exciting dream that was never meant to be.
Machu Picchu is built in levels, with the royal families and clergy living near the top, and the common folk near the bottom. The high levels of Machu Picchu also had historic sites, like the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. We saw both the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows but weren't able to visit the Intihuatana. We arrived at the site during the mid-afternoon, and the sun sets there around 5:30. We only had about an hour or so to explore before we were ushered out, back to the main gates.
There are many sacred sites in Machu Picchu, and I don't think we even explored a quarter of the city. While we saw The Royal Tomb, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows, we missed sites such as the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Condor. It's also important to mention that the city stretches all the way to, and up, the mountain. Most people just explore the grounds, but there is much more further into the site that the general public never gets the opportunity to see.
This was the first of two sacred sites I visited in Peru, and was something I was very excited to finally see. I wish I had seen more of it, but similar to how I wish I had seen more of the Collesium in Rome or Teotihuacan in Mexico, I don't think I could have ever seen enough of it. Perhaps one day I will return to see more of The Old Mountain, but I am happy with the lessons it taught me and content with the secrets it retained.
Some people feel a spiritual experience when visiting Machu Picchu. Perhaps that is for those who hiked the Incan Trail and had to fight against their own body and spirit to do it. Personally, though, I did not feel the experience so many others have claimed. This might be because I had already experienced something similar in the Amazon rainforest, or maybe because I was too concerned about my own health to be swept up in the magic of the mountain. Nevertheless, it did feel surreal to walk the streets of a city that was forgotten by time.
Before I end this, I want to mention the llamas and alpacas. Yes: we saw many of them. From what I understood, these animals live there and are moved around the site by security guards throughout the day. However, the next day we would meet even more llamas and alpacas while at the Sacred Valley, and I felt that experience was much more noteworthy. These animals were cool because they are the mascot of Machu Picchu, and although there looked silly and were very fluffy, there weren't overly friendly. We would meet better llamas and alpacas later. If you're interested in seeing more of these furry critters, please check out my upcoming Sacred Valley article.
Have you ever visited Machu Picchu? Would you do the hike up, or just take the train and bus? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below.
PS: For a price breakdown of my month-long trip to Peru with Remote Year, please visit How (And Why) I Spent A Month in Peru.
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Categories: Hiking, Peru, Remote Year, Travel Tips