It’s easy to see why Machu Picchu is Peru’s biggest tourist attraction. It was our primary reason for wanting visit to Peru (although during our trip we discovered so many amazing places) and we had high expectations. We weren’t disappointed.
There are several ways to visit Machu Picchu. The most famous is probably the hike along the Inca Trail. The Incas built an intricate and sophisticated network of trails throughout their enormous empire that encompassed Quito (Ecuador) in the north to Santiago (Chile) in the west and to Mendoza (Argentina) in the east. The trails ran to around 40,000km. But the best known trail is that which runs approximately 43km from Peru’s Sacred Valley to Machu Picchu via the sites of Runcuracay, Sayacmarca, Phuyupatamarca, Wiñay Wayna. You can’t just turn up with your walking boots and rucksack – you have to book via a tour operator who is both registered and owns a licence. Access to the trail is controlled and can get extremely busy – up to 500 people, including porters, make the trip each day. High season runs from April until October and it is usually worth booking well in advance. The classic four day Inca Trail starts at a place called Km82 (82 km along the railway track that runs between Cusco and Machu Picchu). It reaches a maximum altitude of 4200m so it is really important to have acclimatised fully before attempting the hike. Some operators offer a shorter trek, about 15km, which starts much closer to Machu Picchu, and can usually be completed within a day.
An alternative approach is to travel from the Cusco area, Urubmaba or Ollantaytambo by train. Again, it’s worth getting help with the transport arrangements and ticketing from a tour operator. There are a number of options depending on your budget, from the relatively cheap to the downright decadent. Some trains are for Peruvian visitors only, so that local people can visit their country’s most famous attraction. We travelled on the mid-range Vistadome from Poyroy, a station located around 20 minutes from Cusco. It was an early start and the trip took around three and a half hours to arrive at the valley. A light meal and drinks were provided on the way and the views were stunning.
Transportation will be waiting close to the station when you arrive and you will need to buy a ticket to catch a bus that will take you up a road with an inordinate number of hairpin bends to the entrance, on a journey that takes around half an hour. You need to have a ticket for entry to Machu Picchu and they are timed these days, showing the earliest time you are allowed to arrive, in order to control the crowds.
Whether you arrive by trail or train it’s the most spectacular sight.
Machu Picchu was an Inca city that wasn’t located by the Spanish Conquistadors and hence wasn’t plundered or destroyed. It was discovered by American professor Hiram Bingham in 1911. Inca architecture really is remarkable (note the amazing structures at Sacsayhuaman near Cusco). The dry stone wall structures are not square, doorways are trapezoidal and the stones are laid in such a way as to provide strength and flexibility. Many of the stones have multiple angles and are cut and sometimes polished to fit together perfectly. They have survived centuries of earthquakes, remaining standing long after the Conquistadors’ flimsy structures had toppled over.
Although the functions of many of the buildings are not known for sure, archaeologists and anthropologists have determined that Machu Picchu was an important ceremonial site and have made some assessments as to what many of the features were – probably – used for.
The function of the Funerary Stone is not fully clear but it is thought that it might be a sacrificial altar.
The Temple of the Sun was likely to be an astronomical observatory. Niches in the walls may have been used for offerings. There is a rock in the centre which lines up with the morning rays of the sun at the summer solstice.
The Royal Tomb – Palace of the Princess may have housed the Sun princesses or Ñustas. This structure takes full advantage of the natural rock formation.
The Temple of Three windows is in the area considered to be the Royal Sector. Most archaeologists now believe that the site was built as an estate for Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth Sapa Inca, that is, the emperor of the Inca empire.
The Principal Temple is the largest of the temples in the Royal Sector and has three sides with huge foundation blocks and carefully cut stones.
It is thought that Intihuatana was used by the Inca people as a sundial. It could have been used to predict the solstices. The shape of the rock resembles Huayna Picchu, the mountain located directly behind the stone.
The mortar district is characterised by the stone circles carved into the rock. The area is also known as the industrial sector. It was originally thought that the mortars were for crushing grain but there doesn’t seem to be evidence for this.
The Condor Temple was originally considered to be part of a prison zone but experts these days believe it was more likely to be a temple. One of the rocks has the appearance of the head of a condor, a bird considered to be sacred to the Incas.
And the terraces – both internal and external – are simply spectacular.
You’re allowed to wander all around Machu Picchu as long as you’re careful with the ruins (stewards will blow a whistle at tourists who touch the stones). The site is huge and there’s still more of the city still to be reclaimed from the jungle – archaeologists are working at uncovering more ruins.
Most visitors are day-trippers but we decided to spend one night at the local village Aguas Calientes (which literally means ‘hot water’ on account of the hot springs) also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo or Machu Picchu Town, in the valley below, which meant that we could hang around the site until sunset when it becomes significantly less busy. (There is just one hotel at Machu Picchu itself and it is expensive.)
Aguas Calientes is set up for tourists – there are plenty of places to stay and restaurants to eat at. There are also thermal baths if you feel the need for a good soak at the end of a day’s exploration.
We climbed Huayna Picchu on our second day. It’s the mountain you see in the background of the classic shots of Machu Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed up there each day, so we started off early in the morning and caught the first bus from Aguas Calientes.
You have to sign in and out and you are not allowed to start your hike after 1pm.
It’s actually an easier climb than it looks, although you do need to be reasonably fit, and took us about an hour to get right to the very top.
There is a need to wiggle through some rocks on the path.
Needless to say, the view was stunning.
A rufus collared sparrow clearly took the easy route up.
There are llama and alpaca lawnmowers roaming freely around the whole site and they’re clearly very used to hordes of tourists passing through.
Much of Peru is at altitude as the Andes mountain range takes up a considerable part of its land mass. This can be a problem for visitors as a visit to this marvellous country can result in altitude sickness when staying at height. While the amazing Inca ruins at Machu Picchu are at an altitude of around 2400m, the city of Cusco, from where most trips to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail begin, is at an altitude of around 3400m and that is a bit of a shock to the system.
When arriving in Cusco, especially if you fly in from Lima, the coast or the jungle, it is advisable to take things easy for a couple of days.
It’s a lovely city to wander around – gently – with a variety of good restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets, and some interesting museums.
Cusco’s Centro Historico is a UNESCO world heritage site and sees colonial architecture sit alongside Inca ruins in a fusion of cultures and history. Plaza de Armas is right at the heart of the city centre, a large square with the city’s cathedral located in the north-east corner. There are various shops and restaurants lining the perimeter of the square and it is frequently used for bands, who play concerts, and dance troupes – a lively place where locals and tourists intermingle. As with most central squares across the world the restaurant prices are likely to be higher than if you wander through the back streets and discover some of the less prominent, although no less quality, dining options. And there are likely to be vendors wanting to sell their wares to tourists.
There are some sites to visit close to the city, the most notable of which is Sacsayhuaman, a dramatic citadel initiated by the Killke and expanded by the Inca, located on a hillside about Cusco. The construction is remarkable, notably the enormous stones that form the terrace wall which is adjacent to the plaza. The tallest parts of the wall reach over 6m in height and the huge stones are apparently packed so tightly that it’s impossible to slip even a single sheet of paper between them. If you’re lucky you might even get an impromptu concert from a visiting band.
There’s a lovely view of Cusco from the site as well.
There are also some fascinating day trips to take around the Inca Valley. And, of course, Cusco is the main city from which to access the railway stations that run the trains to Aguas Calientes for access to Machu Picchu or to head out for the Inca Trail.
At altitude you really notice the thinner air and the lack of oxygen. You don’t feel it initially but climbing a seemingly innocuous flight of stairs, even a single storey, can leave you puffing and panting and wondering if you need to be working out more. More serious reactions include headaches, nausea, tiredness and dizziness. If you do feel poorly, stop and rest. Make sure you are well hydrated, avoid consuming alcohol and smoking. And acute mountain sickness can be fatal – if symptoms get worse, seek medical advice immediately.
One local remedy that is reputed to help with mild symptoms is coca tea. It won’t cure altitude sickness but is apparently helps alleviate the headaches. (It’s not recommended for those with high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes.)
Our hotel had free coca tea available all the time and this is the case with most accommodation in the city. A nice cup of hot tea after a morning or afternoon’s sightseeing was always welcome. The tea is brewed from the leaves of the Coca plant, which the Incas considered to be sacred. It’s not tannic and has a pleasing flavour, a mild, refreshing taste that is a bit like green tea.
You can buy coca tea bags in Peru to bring home. They last ages and can still be enjoyed at altitudes much closer to sea level.
Just brew them as you would any cup of tea: teabag in a cup, add boiling water, steep to the strength you like, sit back, put your feet up and quaff.
While Peru may be more famous for the remarkable Machu Picchu, cosmopolitan Lima, the enigmatic Nazca lines and the serenely beautiful Lake Titicaca, a significant part of the country lies within the Amazon basin and hence it is possible to visit the rainforest. The Rio Tambopata is a tributary of the Madre de Dios which flows into the Mamore River, becomes the Madeira River and eventually meets the Amazon. You can fly into Puerto Maldonado, catch a boat upriver and visit a number of lodges, all located within the Tambopata reserve. There are loads of excursions available – all in pristine rainforest and the wildlife viewing opportunities are plentiful. The jungle is hot, sticky, humid and full of mosquitoes and other creatures that can give you a really nasty bite. But it is also wild, exciting, loud, beautiful and utterly fascinating.
The trip also triggered an interest in plants as food and medicine that continues to this day. We stayed at a lodge located in primary forest, a three hour journey up the Tambopata river.
At the lodge, our room had 3 internal walls and no external wall, so it looked out at the rainforest. It was amazing to be able to lie in bed listening to the incessant cacophony of sounds, primarily from the birds and insects.
When you gaze out at the jungle, the jungle gazes back at you. It can also invade your room and cause jolly mayhem when you find frogs in the shower, possums on the bed and giant insects that fly in while you’re sitting on the loo. There was no electricity in the rooms so we relied on candles and kerosene lamps and the showers were cold water only (not a problem when it’s hot and humid). The guides and staff were excellent, the food was great and there were cocktails in the evening – which was most refined.
There are lots of guided excursions on offer, walking in wellies along muddy trails or canoeing across an oxbow lake (which was apparently full of piranha and anaconda – eep!).
The birds and animals were fascinating and indeed we saw capybara, peccary (wild pigs), caiman (alligators), beautiful macaw, piranha, giant guinea pigs, taira, stinky birds and caught just a glimpse of a shy tarantula that wouldn’t come out to play. We avoided fire ants and hairy caterpillars. And fell over in the mud.
One of the foods eaten by locals is termites. You can find their nests in trees. They’ll come out quickly enough if you disturb the nest. You can let them run onto your finger and just eat them. They taste minty. Obviously make sure you know what a termite looks like; the ants in the jungle bite and their bite is painful.
The plants were particularly fascinating. The trees were amazing – so huge that their roots alone were taller than we were, a strangler fig that we could walk inside.
Our guide showed us how the plants are used by the local people. There were leaves that produced a purple dye when you squeezed them, leaves with an underside so rough it could be used as sandpaper, vines that can be woven, vines that are strong enough to swing on (Tarzan style) and quinine bark.
This is a walking tree. It grows straight up but in a jungle where the canopy is so dense that the forest floor is very dark, it needs to ‘move’ to find the light. It does this by growing roots from the stem in a particular direction. Old roots on the other side just die off. In this way the tree can slowly shift across the jungle and grow towards the light. You can see the new root here is a light brown colour – the tree is ‘moving’ to the right.
We were also given a tour of the medicinal uses for the plants by a shaman. He talked about our perception of plants as ‘alternative medicine’ commenting that these are really natural remedies that have been used for centuries. We ate leaves that made our tongues numb – a natural anaesthetic. He used a variety of plants to cure various ailments, from a natural viagra to a concoction that will dissolve rotting teeth painlessly. There are trees that exude a resin which hardens and can be used as a natural plaster cast to set bones. And the sap from a blood tree will cure simple cuts, bruises and mosquito bites.
The symbiosis in the jungle was amazing: the bullet ant has venom similar to that of a cobra and they say that if you get bitten by one, it feels like being shot. Apparently the pain is excruciating for 24 hours. The best relief for the pain can be found in the shape of a vine that grows on the tree under which the bullet ants nest. The vine is pollenated only by bullet ants – the cure located right next to the source.
The plants of the rainforest have, unsurprisingly, been used by pharmaceutical companies, many of which extract the active ingredient from the plants, patent them and sell them back to the Peruvians at hyper-inflated prices. Sigh.
The lodge is run in a sustainable way that benefits the local people and environment. 60% of the profits from tourism go back to the local community. These have helped build a secondary school and some of the pupils have been educated there, studied English in Lima and have returned to the jungle to become guides. Local farmers can’t get enough money at the market for their fruit to cover transportation costs, so the lodge buys fruit directly from the farm across the river. We visited the farm and tasted fresh bananas, star fruit (much more tangy than the ones that have travelled halfway across the world), sugar cane, lemongrass, pineapple and more.
We also followed a brazil nut trail and had a bash at opening the hard pods (which contain about 18 nuts) with a machete. We still have all our fingers.
Exploring the jungle was exhausting and elating – a truly fascinating place. And at the end of each day we could relax, watching the sun set over the Tampobata before going to bed. And then we would see whether the possum had beaten us to it.