Sweat is dripping from glands you didn’t know you had. You’re maybe halfway to the summit of Machu Picchu, but you can’t really be sure because each time you reach a plateau, more stairs are there to greet you on the other side of the road. Luckily, it’s stopped raining so you’ve shed your ridiculous plastic poncho and are trying to ignore the umbrella bumping against your thigh with every step. You can barely breathe and your legs are burning, but you know from the one water break you gave yourself that it’s that much harder to start again if you stop for even a moment. So you push. Left foot, right foot, left foot. The sun is starting to rise and you can see the darkness lifting off the trees. Right foot, left foot, right foot. You pass by your friends taking a break in the road and can barely manage a tired smile as you adjust your backpack and trudge your way past them. Left foot, right foot, left – the steps end. You look up. There, in front of you, are masses of people who took the bus up the mountain and are already queuing for the entrance. It doesn’t matter. You fight the urge to fall to your knees and kiss the ground like you’ve seen them do in movies. It’s only taken forty minutes or so, but it feels like you’ve been climbing for days (if you’ve just completed the Salkantay trek or Inca trail, you have been). Just a few more stairs and you make it to the entrance. When you step out onto the grassy hills of Machu Picchu, you see in person what you’ve only ever glimpsed in your friends’ Facebook photos. There’s the mountain, there are the ruins and fortunately you’re there early enough that there still aren’t a lot of people around. Mist swirls around you, obscuring your view and then revealing it, a different photo-op every few seconds. You’ve finally made it. You’re finally here.
There’s not much I can say about Machu Picchu that hasn’t already been said. Historians are still unsure as to the actual use of the site. Most agree that it was some kind of temple or estate used only briefly by the Incans before they were forced to abandon it following the Spanish Conquest. Much of Machu Picchu is remarkably symbolic. Doorways often face in the direction of the rising or setting sun, in honour of the Incan sun god, Inti. A seemingly random rock in the shape of the Southern Cross constellation points directly South. According to the Andean people, the Southern Cross represented the centre of the universe. Images of the chakana or Inca cross can also be found amidst the ruins.
The architecture is equally impressive. Massive stones fit snugly together without the use of mortar, using a forgotten construction technique to produce the polished dry-stone walls for which the Incans are famous. Approximately 200 buildings are housed in the valley, bordered by extensive terraces cut into the rock, used for agriculture and irrigation. And let’s not forget the general ambiance: mist is swirling constantly, moving in updrafts around Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountain range. Regardless of your personal spiritual beliefs, the entire scene is, in a word, mystical.
So, how does one get to Machu Picchu? There are a number of ways. The quickest and easiest is to take a train from Cusco to the nearby town of Aguas Calientes. From there you can either bus or walk up the mountain. The alternative is to do a trek. There are three main ones: the Inca trail, Salkantay or Jungle trek. The Inca trail is the most famous route. It’s a four-day hike that books up months in advance, so be sure to make your reservations early. The trail you follow isn’t the exact route used by the Incans – that path has been obscured by time and highway construction – but it’s enough to give you a feel for the strength and motivation of these 15th century people. The Salkantay trek is a little easier. It’s a five-day hike that spreads out the journey and can usually be booked just a day or two in advance. Last is the jungle trek, another four-day hike that includes mountain biking, rafting, ziplining and a visit to some natural hot springs. Of the three, the Inca trail is the most expensive (around $700 USD) while the jungle trek is the least expensive (around $200 USD). Depending on the company you book with, it is possible to negotiate these prices, but bear in mind that the cheaper options usually mean very basic food and accommodation. I managed to get on a jungle trek for $160 USD and while the activities were fantastic, the accommodation was very low-budget, food was mediocre and our unenthused guide was constantly trying to get us to buy extras offered along the way.
If trekking isn’t really your thing but you still want to see Incan ruins, consider visiting a few Sacred Valley villages instead. The Sacred Valley region stretches for roughly 60 kilometres, encompassing both the city of Cusco and Machu Picchu. This fertile area once formed the heart of the Incan empire and today is still littered with isolated villages and small towns. On a day trip into the Sacred Valley, most companies will visit Pisac, Urubamba, Ollantaytambo and Chinchero. There’s also usually the option to skip Chinchero and catch the bus from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, for those interested in seeing Machu Picchu. I loved exploring all the nooks and crannies of Pisac, while Ollantaytambo was a fun walk around ruins carved into the side of a mountain. In Chinchero, a village famous for its weaving, we met with local women who explained their art and showed off some of their pieces (available for purchase, of course). If you’d rather not go on an organized tour, you can always take the bus out to most of these villages or even hike to some sites a little closer to Cusco. Be an explorer and get out there!