It’s stunningly beautiful and immediately familiar; one of those places you’ve seen a thousand times in photos, which still don’t prepare you for how amazing the reality is. Words fail you when trying to describe it and you find yourself using a string of breathless adjectives: incredible, astonishing, gorgeous… It’s perched in the most impossibly rugged and uniquely picturesque setting imaginable, with thousand foot cliffs and rocky spires rising above a river gorge sitting far, far below. It’s not much of a riddle at this point- it’s Machu Picchu.
Like most people, we got to Machu Picchu from the access town of Aguas Calientes, which is only a kilometer or two away. The trip isn’t as easy as it sounds since most of that distance is vertical. It’s a long, exhausting climb up a seemingly never-ending series of stone steps and switchbacks from the town to the ruins, but it was a symbolic finish to the Salkantay Trek that we’d just completed and besides, the bus that most people take to avoid the climb costs US$8 per person. Spendthrifts! We woke up early enough to make it to the locked gate at the bottom of the trail by five in the morning where our tickets were checked and we elbowed our way into a large group of other travelers waiting to start the hike up. Once the gate opened the race was on and the faster hikers took off ahead of everyone else. We pushed ourselves but in the end it didn’t matter how quickly it took to hike to the top because once there we all ended up waiting in another line for the actual gates to Machu Picchu to open.
It felt like ages before the entrance line started moving and once through we had to push past a bottle neck of people to even see anything, but finally we were rewarded with a perfect first view of Machu Picchu, empty except for the people around us. The houses and temples are made of a white granite that is cut so precisely that no mortar was used at all to fit the pieces together and an irrigation system of carved rock still works just as well today. All of this is set on a sharp mountain ridge sandwiched in between the two peaks of Wayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. On the other two sides of the ruins the bright green hillside falls off steeply down to the Urubamba river which meanders its way around a horseshoe bend far below.
We spent the next hour following our guide around while he gave us a general overview of the history and showed us a couple of the more important points. We were happy when our short tour was over and we could break off on our own and go exploring. One of the most fun aspects of a visit to Machu Picchu is that you can basically walk anywhere you want to; few areas are closed off and you can wander freely through most of the old structures and feel a little like Indiana Jones. One minute you are surrounded by hoards of people and the next you are alone in a 500 year old room without a person in sight.
The previous long days of hiking and early mornings caught up with us pretty quick and before long we found a nice warm spot to take a twenty minute cat nap and absorb the scenery. We woke to a hum of background noise that was getting louder with each bus load of tourists that was dropped off. Purely by coincidence we had happened to reserve our spot to hike up Wayna Picchu at the same time that Machu Picchu started to feel a little crowded. Only a limited number of people are allowed to hike the trail each day so we reserved our spots when we booked our trek in Cusco. Compared to the hike from Aguas Calientes going up Wayna Picchu was a breeze. It only took us 45 minutes to reach the top and the views were amazing. It was the perfect place to unpack our lunch of homemade cheese, avocado, and tomato sandwiches. By the time we hiked back down the crowds seemed to have thinned out a little.
We took our time exploring the buildings and temples and watching the spring water trickle down stone canals. It started to sprinkle on us a bit but we didn’t mind at all; we were having too much fun. When the sky cleared up we walked an easy trail to the Inca Bridge. The bridge is actually just a few logs spanning a twenty foot void of space purposefully left in the middle of an old Inca trail built against a sheer cliff face. The bridge could be removed to keep intruders from entering the Machu Picchu and put back when it was needed by the residents. It’s not possible to cross the bridge now since it was roped off after a tourist fell off and died a few years ago. Even if it was open to the public we probably would have passed on that thin trail where one little misstep would send you falling 1900 feet to the ground.
When we returned to the main site it was about four in the afternoon and most of the people had cleared out. It was really peaceful and I think it was an even better time to enjoy the ruins than the early morning. We sat high up above the city watching the llamas mow the grass and the changing light of the afternoon playing off of the carved granite. We hated to go but finally had to start hiking down to Aguas Calientes before it got dark, a trip that was thankfully much easier on the return segment.