In 1450, at the height of the Incan empire, King Pachacuti ― the ninth Inca ruler ― began expanding his empire and constructing a royal estate deep in the mountains of Peru, where the sacred Urubamba river snakes around a bend. It is said Machu Picchu was built because of the King’s spiritual connections to the site.
The city was abandoned a century after its construction during the Spanish conquest, but the Spanish never found the abandoned city on their journey for riches. Over the centuries, the jungle invaded the city, and the stone metropolis was nearly forgotten, until it received international attention in 1911 from American Historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, millions of people have decided to plan a trip to Machu Picchu to see some of what the Spanish missed.
The stones used to construct the city were cut so precisely and wedged so closely together that a credit card can’t be inserted between them. Machu Picchu was built atop two fault lines in an earthquake-plagued region. However, thanks to the construction method, the stones are said to bounce and dance instead of crumbling and collapsing.
It’s estimated that around 5,000 people built Machu Picchu, but the city could only accommodate 750-1,000 inhabitants. 140 buildings were erected ― mostly houses, temples, and depots, with a guardhouse at the edge of the city. In these dwellings were rooms for food deposits, fields for sports, water fountains, sundials, and a jail. The Incas built waterways and irrigation systems running between buildings at the edges of the city. Most aqueducts were constructed to minimize water leakage. Securing water for drinking, bathing, and irrigating agricultural terraces was a part of the architectural genius of the ancient civilization.
Machu Picchu is open year round. But keep in mind that it can rain at practically any time, although October to April is the official rainy season. A rain poncho my mother packed for me helped immensely. However, I did end up drying my socks under a hand-dryer in a bathroom in Aguas Calientes. When a downpour occurs in the ancient town, you’re likely to stand in a foot of water.
A piece of good advice: Pay for a tour guide. It doesn’t cost much, and you can learn about the history and the culture easier, as well as get a local’s perspective of this legendary site. Bring coins to use the toilets. Even if it’s sunny, bring a rain poncho, and a light jacket.
When you plan a trip to Machu Picchu, you usually schedule a flight into the city of Cusco, and then review your options for traveling around the destination. There are several ways to get to this sacred site, all depending on how you want to go about it.
The Cusco train station is in the nearby town of Poroy. It’s about a 20-minute taxi ride from Cusco. You can choose between trains. Expedition is the cheapest option. Vistadome is a bit more expensive, but every seat has a full window view. The Hiram Bingham is a luxury train run by the Orient Express and offers a tablecloth meal with wine. Whichever train you choose, allow yourself ample time for booking.
There’s also the option of taking a roughly two-hour bus ride to the city of Pachar, where you can board the train of your choice for another two-hour journey to the tiny but wonderful town of Aguas Calientes, where hotels, markets, restaurants, and Internet cafes are plentiful. In town, buses haul people up the snaky road to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Alternatively, you can decide to do the steep, 90-minute walk from town.
The most famous hiking opportunity in South America is the Inca Trail ― a 43 km (26 mi) trek that leads you to the door of Machu Picchu. You can choose to do this independently or with a tour guide. A great way to plan your hike is to visit the site: www.incatrailperu.com.
After a long tour of Machu Picchu, head back to explore the town of Aguas Calientes. It was named after the thermal springs found there, which are open to the public for an entrance fee of $10 US. The market in front of the train station is worth visiting. But be advised, you may get lost in its tricky corridors. You can also visit a tea plantation and walk through an orchid garden.
When you plan a trip to Machu Picchu, there’s also the destination of Huayna Picchu to consider. The location is a separate peak, and you should book your arrival in advance, as there are limited train tickets. It’s a strenuous hike, but the view looking down at the Incan ruins is breathtaking. Just don’t hike when it’s raining. Doing so has created many horror stories, as the steep inclines became slippery.
Overlooking the steps leading to Huayna Picchu is a bench made of rock. My tour guide told me whoever sits on the rock is filled with immense happiness, hence the rock’s name: Happy Rock. I challenge you to sit on it and try not to smile, as you ponder the wonderful sights you’ve seen!