Most visitors to Machu Picchu fly into Lima, then connect by air to Cuzco. From there, trains go to Aguas Calientes. Rail options range from low-budget to the luxury Hiram Bingham Train. Sanctuary Lodge stands adjacent to Machu Picchu itself; all other accommodations are down at Aguas Calientes.
Tours can be arranged in Cuzco and Aguas Calientes, but we opted to make our plans well before departure through Southwind Adventures in Littleton, Colo.
One can also approach Machu Picchu via a hike on the Inca Trail. Trains allow passengers to disembark at trailheads for three-day and one-day treks.
The majority of visitors leave from Cuzco in the morning for Machu Picchu, then return that afternoon. Don't do that. There's simply so much to see and absorb.
Advance reading pays off. John Heming's "The Conquest of the Incas" provided the necessary background for the trip. Subsequent scholarship has shown flaws in some of Hiram Bingham's speculations, but it's worth experiencing Machu Picchu's discovery through his still-in-print book, "The Lost City of the Incas."
— Richard Frost
When former colleague Duane Record urged me to put Machu Picchu on my lifetime to-do list, I hardly knew anything about it.
Now that we've traveled to Peru, South America, and seen this remarkable site, I can report that few visions are more indelibly etched into my mind.
My grasp of South American history was admittedly weak. I did vaguely remember how Francisco Pizarro and his group of Spanish conquistadores arrived in Peru about 1530. I didn't realize how developed a society they found in the Incas.
Over the previous century or so, the Incas had conquered or annexed multiple other native tribes. It's estimated that the land under Incan rule matched the extent of the Roman Empire. When the Spanish arrived, they found a stone-paved road system encompassing more than 3,000 miles, many small villages and a formidable capital in Cuzco, an agricultural system of remarkable sophistication and an absence of poverty or slavery.
For their part, the Spanish brought religion, disease, greed, intolerance and cruelty. Though the conquistadores might be credited with courage, other more base qualities dominated their behavior.
Armed with superior weapons, the Europeans seized control. They imprisoned then killed Inca leader Atahualpa in the small village of Cajamarca. They marched on through the Andes Mountains and captured the capital city of Cuzco. They destroyed temples, melted down gold (of which the Incas had seemingly unlimited quantities) into bricks to be shipped back to Spain and treated a once noble people as slaves.
Pockets of Incan resistance held out for several decades, but by 1572, the Spanish were firmly in control of a new colony.
Let's move forward to the first decade of the 20th century. Hiram Bingham, a young Yale University history professor, had organized an expedition to rural Peru. Told of ruins that had not yet been discovered, he traveled to a remote region about 50 miles northwest of Cuzco. There he made one of the world's most remarkable archaeological discoveries, the settlement that we now call Machu Picchu.
Bingham knew that during their final days, Incan leader Tupac Amaru and a group of supporters had lived in a village known as Vilcabamba. Brought by a young guide to these stone buildings on an isolated plateau July 24, 1911, Bingham claimed to have found the "lost city of the Incas." Though it turns out this wasn't Vilcabamba, now known to be elsewhere, Bingham's find is no less remarkable.
Today, one can take a train to Aguas Calientes, once an area of coffee and tea plantations but now essentially a staging point for visitors to Machu Picchu. Our ride offered spectacular scenery, from snow-capped peaks and rushing rivers to agricultural terraces and picturesque ruins. After leaving luggage at our hotel, we boarded a bus for the 20-minute ride to our destination.
A first glimpse of Machu Picchu can prove overwhelming. One looks out at a complex of stone buildings, multitudinous grassy terraces, staircases that descend the entire extent of the village, and a rugged mountain named Huaynu Picchu solemnly guarding the entire scene.
My first thoughts concerned the intactness of the structures. After all, this is more than 500 years old. And this is a preservation, not a reconstruction like, say, Fort Ticonderoga. Then I wondered how Machu Picchu could stay undetected for so many centuries. The rapid growth in the jungle explains that.
Finally, I wondered how something this extensive could have been constructed in the 1400s by a society with no written language and not even the discovery of the wheel.
Our guide Jorge helped us understand what lay before us. After leading us up to a corner structure known as House of the Guard, he explained that Machu Picchu was likely an administrative center. The Urubumba River winds around the plateau on three sides. With a mountain on the fourth side, the security of the site becomes obvious.
Next, he showed us how the area was divided into agricultural, urban and religious sectors.
We had already learned how the Incas literally cut terraces into mountain walls then layered them with sand, gravel and humus, providing a rich and well-drained soil to meet the society's agricultural needs. There's evidence that they experimented with crops at different elevations and planted multiple crops so as to mitigate chances for large-scale failure.
Closer at hand, we examined construction technique. There may be no culture that has surpassed the Incas for quality of masonry work. No two rocks are the same, yet all are fitted together expertly. Near the top of each wall, narrowed stones protrude, allowing thatched roofs to be securely lashed. Doorways are uniquely trapezoidal, and walls incline slightly. These features promote stability in an area subject to earthquakes and seismic forces. When necessary, large boulders and outcroppings of bedrock were assimilated into the design.
In the urban section, we found buildings large and small, some rising up to four stories. Two-story structures likely were private residences. Incas had little furniture; trapezoidal niches provided shelf space. Larger buildings with multiple entrances probably served as schools and workshops. The actual use of much space will forever be unknown.
Jorge explained the Incas' advanced concepts of water conservation and distribution. Systems of canals and aqueducts dating back centuries still function in much of Peru.
The religious sector of Machu Picchu boasts the finest work. Stones in the temple are fitted together without mortar; one can only imagine the work involved in achieving such tight joinery in the absence of any metal tools. It's impossible to slide a piece of paper between many of the rocks.
Niches in the walls likely held icons and precious stones. Temples also served astronomical functions. The Incas had a detailed understanding of the heavens. Windows and shrines are lined up so as to mark the seasonal solstices.
A FULLER EXPERIENCE
An estimated 500 people, mostly of higher social standing, probably lived at Machu Picchu. Thousands more would have been housed nearby.
On one of our three days at the sanctuary, I climbed Huaynu Picchu with Jorge. We largely followed the original Inca route up the steep mountain. Apparently they weren't big on the idea of switchbacks; they were more inclined to blaze straight up to their objective. I climbed steep staircases hovered by precipitous cliffs and had to squeeze through a tight tunnel.
We passed more terraces along the way. I have difficulty believing natives would climb this high on a regular basis just to tend agricultural plots; perhaps there was some other significance to whatever was planted up there. At the top, there's a stone shrine — and perhaps one of the most fabulous views in the entire world.
For a fuller experience, time at Machu Picchu should be complemented by visits to other Incan sites.
The Incan capital of Cuzco has grown to a city of 400,000 people. Yet its central plaza by the cathedral and its narrow streets make it feel more intimate. Architectural details like wooden entryways and balconies are Spanish, as are the ubiquitous tile roofs. Many of the building foundations, though, date to the era of Inca rule.
Outside of Cuzco stands Sacsahuaman. Built as a temple and observatory, it's easy to see why the Spanish called it a fortress. Inca chief Manco Inca used this as his base during an unsuccessful attempt to recapture Cuzco from the Spanish.
In the end, however, all thoughts go back to Machu Picchu. For all the road networks, the agricultural advances and the construction techniques, the real genius of Incan society may have been its organizational ability. Add the astronomical knowledge and the religious functions as you ponder the place, and you also feel a sense of great spirituality. An Adirondack guide atop Mount Marcy once proclaimed, "I feel what it is to have all creation placed under one's feet."
From the crest of Huaynu Picchu, I felt the same.
E-mail Richard Frost at: firstname.lastname@example.org