I once heard someone who had been traveling around Peru for several months say that they weren’t going to visit Machu Picchu. When I asked why they said that it was too over run with tourists and there just wasn’t the air of mystery surrounding it like some of Peru’s lesser-known ruins. To a point they are right. Machu Picchu, particularly during the high season, is over crowded and has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people each year. It’s photo graces the covers of books and posters. However, there is a reason why so many people visit the ancient citadel: it is simply stunning, breathtakingly gorgeous. The ancient city is so remote, so high up and surrounded by mountains as beautiful as it. The wind, the sun, the rain, the clouds all seem to converge at this point that remained hidden for so long. It is a dream like setting if there ever was one. If you are someone who can visit Egypt and not see the Great Pyramids or the Sphinx, maybe missing Machu Picchu won’t be a big deal. Personally, I could not.
Machu Picchu is the one location synonymous with travel to Peru. Nearly every visitor who comes to the country makes his or her way there. The site is the most popular on the entire continent and the driving force it tourism to Peru. It is getting overwhelmed with visitors now. Tourism here increases every year. During the high season hotels, trains, and tours need to be booked earlier and earlier. From May-September, the site is very crowded, with thousands of people visiting it daily. By around noon, most are there at the same time. Restrictions are necessary if Machu Picchu wants to remain for years to come. Landslides are frequent in the area, and many officials are worried that the site could be a part of one of them if the tourist flow isn’t slowed down. There were plans to build cable cars from Aguas Calientes to the ruins, though after the UNESCO ruling the government placed more stringent rules and they were disallowed. UNESCO named the site to its list of endangered world heritage sites and argues that if the site sees more than 200-500 visitors each day it will sustain serious damage. That number is nowhere close the present amount. Limiting the number of tourist to the site per day seems on the horizon, even thought the powers that be in Lima and Cuzco don’t seem to be considering it at this time. This has already happened with the Inca Trail. Only time will tell if the restrictions make it before it is too late.
History The ancient citadel of Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 by US explorer Hiram Bingham. A peasant farmer he met in the area told him of the ruins. When he arrived on the scene, there were already peasants farming on the land, so it was not exactly lost as many believed. The name means “old mountain” in Quechua. It sits high above the Rio Urubamba in remote cloud forest. It is so well hidden that the Spanish never discovered it. It was a center of worship, an astronomical observatory, and the private country retreat of the Inca Pachacútec. Considering that the Incas kept no written history and the Spanish never found the site, there is not as much known about Machu Picchu as you may have imagined. Much of the information is clearly speculative. When the American historian Bingham found the site, he was looking for and believed he had found the Incan stronghold of Vilcabamba (which was later determined to be the ruins of Espiritu Pampu further in the jungle in 1964). He hoped it would lead him to the last of the Incan gold that the Spanish had never melted down. The site was overgrown at the time. Bingham returned again in 1912 and 1915 with a team of archeologists from Yale, clearing much of the vegetation and mapping the site. Later the Peruvian archaeologist Luis E. Valcarcel came in 1934 and a Peruvian-American expedition came in 1940-41. However, there is still little known about the Machu Picchu. Pachacutec, who initiated the most and complete Incan building projects in the Cuzco area likely started this one in the mid to late 1400’s. Much of the stonework fell apart only to the test of time and nature, and not by the Spanish, who destroyed a large majority of the Incan ruins in search of gold. Most believe it was not a significant city in the Incan empire, and many theories claim that it was likely abandoned even before the Spanish came. It was created, occupied and abandoned in a short span of time, perhaps less than a century. Bingham believed that the majority of the remains were women. There were more than 50 burial sites discovered here, with more than 100 skeletons, many of which he believed were female. Therefore, he concluded that Machu Picchu was a site for the Incas chosen women, the Virgins of the Sun, and the data stuck for decades. This was later deemed inaccurate and a later tests of the bones proved the make up of the remains were a near 50/50.
The Ruins The setting, 8000-feet above sea level overlooking the Urubamba valley goes, to show how much the Incas appreciated the natural world. It is almost cradled by the tall peaks around it, but directly above there was a wide-open sky. With each sunrise there is magic here. The city is bathed in light, piece by piece, with the rays of the sun charging through the mist and clouds. Parts of different buildings are aligned to trace the June and December solstice. The masonry of the stone blocks is extraordinary. Rows upon rows of terraces, likely used to grow corn and coca leaves, line the steep mountainsides. There are stone aqueducts, and canals, temples, and staircases of the finest masonry. Generally speaking, the citadel is split into two areas: the agricultural zone, made up of terracing and food storehouses; and the urban zone, featuring the sacred sector, with temples, squares and royal tombs. Upon entering the ticket booth, you will walk for about 100 meters, and most likely, although this may depend on your guide, you will climb a series of steep stairs that breaks off to the left. This will bring you eventually to the Caretakers Hut, a restored thatched roof hut where you will see the classic photographic view of the ruins with the Huayna Picchu Mountain in the background. The early you get there the better, because the photos become more and more obscured as the day goes on and the ruins are filled with tourists. The Inca Trail culminates on the path just below the hut. If you follow it back, you will encounter Intipunku, or the Sun Gate. If walking away from the hut, down into the ruins, you will soon come across the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Condor, depending on which combination of paths you take. The Temple of the Sun is the only round building in the complex and was likely the site of astronomical functions. The stonework here is perhaps the finest in the entire complex. The trapezoidal window, which looks out onto the site, has been nicknamed the Serpent Window. Nearby, there are a series of connected canals and aqueducts that still work after all of these years. The Temple of the Condor is thought to be a giant carving of the Andean bird. You have to use your imagination a little bit, but the resemblance doesn’t appear to be an accident. The angled rocks at the top are the wings and the smaller, lighter toned one below is the head. You can crawl through the narrow space behind it and emerge on the other side. The Temple of the Three Windows, comes next. It borders one end of the Sacred Plaza. The trapezoidal windows, typical in Incan architecture look out onto the plaza below. The House of the High Priest is at another side of the plaza. Connected to it is the more interesting Sacristy. The small room offers an intriguing look at the polygonal rocks used in creating the temple. Each of the two rocks at the entrance have 32 angles. The hollowed out window like features on one wall are usually filled with tourist yelling into them to hear an echo. There will be a staircase behind the Sacristy that climbs to the Intihuatana, or the hitching post of the sun. This is a sundial like carved rock that served as an astronomical and agricultural calendar. The shape of the rock, when looked at from one angle, almost shows a scale model of Huayna Picchu, which sits in the exact same position far beyond.
Huayna Picchu, which means “Young Mountain” in Quechua, is the mountain that looms over the ruins. It can be climbed up a steep stone-paved trail. The climb provides bragging rights to those who complete it. I personally climbed it in my first attempt in 23 minutes. The record is 17. In other attempts I have walked much more leisurely and it takes about 45 minutes to an hour. The average times range from about 45 minutes to an hour and a half. The view at the top is incredible and you can see the entire site, as well as excellent views of the mountains and valleys surrounding you. There are several buildings and terraces, which at the end of 2005 were being restored. The path getting there is steep and at some points very narrow and passing someone coming down can be tricky. If you are afraid of heights this may not be you cup of tea, as there are many points along the walk that will probably send you whimpering. A recent rule requires reservations for Huayna Picchu at either 7 or 10am (limited to 200 people per time slot).There is also an additional fee. You can to reserve when you buy your ticket. You must sign in at the hut at the beginning of the trail and sign out when you leave.
The Temple of the Moon can be reached on the way up or down from Huayna Picchu, although few make the trip. There is a turn off near the bottom of the mountain that descends lower into the trees before climbing back up again. There is some interesting stonework consisting of a carved altar, throne, and other caverns and niches that have very little to do with lunar observation. The name is likely to be just that. The trip takes about an hour each way.
Admission The ruins can be seen in a day, although many stick around for a second day to make sure they see every nook and cranny. The site is the most crowded between 10am and 2pm. Sundays are particularly full as tourists on a one-day tour that combines the Pisac market and other places in the valley, visit Machu Picchu. The complex is open 6:30am-5:30pm. The entrance fee is $40/ students and nationals pay $10. The Boleto Nocturno, most likely offered during a full moon, gets you into the ruins at night for an extra $10. Guides are available. They are best to arrange in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes and run about $10 per person for a 2-hour tour.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.