Machu Picchu, also known as The Lost City of the Incas, is an ancient archaeological site discovered fairly recently. In the early 1900s, American archaeologist Hiram Bingham uncovered it with the help of a team of local Peruvians. Incredible that such a remarkable site survived the Spanish conquistadors by remaining hidden high up in the mountains.
Like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Taj Mahal in India, Machu Picchu is one of those bucket list destinations that lives up to the hype.
Taking in the size, the scale and the magic of a place so sacred is a true privilege.
In typical last-minute backpacking style, we secured our plans to Machu Picchu a few days before while staying in Cusco. In lieu of the four-day Incan Trail hike, we took a local community van to the small village of Ollantaytambo. From there, we switched to a tourist train heading for Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu set along the Urubamba River.
A free, fancy upgrade offered us a nicer train car and complimentary neon yellow Inca Kola, Peru’s version of Mountain Dew. Being on a budget, otherwise insignificant perks like these became small luxuries. We sat back and let the scenery unfold during our hour and a half journey. Winding through the Sacred Valley of the Incas, we enjoyed amazing panoramic views via the train’s Vistadome.
By late afternoon, we arrived in the quaint village – enough time to find a place to stay, get our bearings, and grab an early dinner. Wandering the town, it’s clear Aguas Calientes exists expressly to provide hotels, restaurants and shops to its daily onslaught of tourists.
Purposely staying off the main tourist drag, we stumbled on a cozy mom-and-pop eatery for dinner.
Restaurante Orquideas provided a delicious, home-cooked meal with a cold Pilsen Callao from Lima, Peru to wash it down. From our previous Europe travels, we make a point to try the different national beers in every country we visit. A hard job, but somebody’s gotta do it.
Our guidebook encouraged an early start for exploring Machu Picchu. The next morning, our alarm woke us up at 4am to complete darkness. After a quick breakfast of coffee and buttered rolls, we walked to the nearby bus stop. Here, buses made the steep ascent through the cloud forest up to the former citadel. Dozens of tourists had already lined up, waiting patiently in the wet, chilly air. Finally, the first fleet of buses began to load up with passengers. We quickly found seats and within minutes, the buses were off. Within twenty minutes, we had arrived.
Those first moments entering Machu Picchu were surreal. We had the grounds all to ourselves. Everything was still and serene.
As we were on a lower level, we couldn’t really grasp the enormity of the area just yet. The beautifully groomed terraced hillside, dotted with watchman’s huts, gave way to stone ruins below. It was incredible to be part of such a small group taking in the grandeur of this special place. After a few minutes, we followed signs to the trailhead for Huayna Picchu. Only 400 visitors can go on this particular hike each day (out of 2,500 tourists who visit each day). Being first come, first serve, we wanted to ensure we made it into that elite group.
We began the ascent up, navigating steep, stone staircases and narrow paths. At times, we got down on our hands and knees to scramble along precarious cliffside rocks. Up and up we climbed. After a couple of hours, we approached the top, preparing ourselves for that iconic view of Machu Picchu.
We expected a dramatic reveal of that majestic peak in all its glory jutting out against the rugged landscape. But it wasn’t there.
Now, we should caveat that we hadn’t fully done our research beforehand. We had heard that the next best thing to hiking the Incan Trail was hiking Huayna Picchu. As we stood and looked out from our 9,000-feet stoop, it took a moment, but we finally made the realization. We were standing on top of Huayna Picchu… amazing.
With only a handful of people up there so early in the morning, it was a powerful experience. The panoramic views were breathtaking. We could understand why the Incan people believed this to be such a sacred place. The low-hanging clouds and silent mountain air added to the already mystical, otherworldly vibe.
We spent the rest of the day exploring all the sites within the ancient ruins, including various temples and the famous Sun Gate. Brian, eager to practice more Spanish, struck up a conversation with a helpful volunteer. He reiterated that this site was still fairly new. Eventually, we found the vantage point offering that classic image of Machu Picchu. Looking out on Huayna Picchu towering above, it was hard to believe we’d been at the top just hours before.
Machu Picchu is one of those places where it’s hard to believe you’re actually there. Which makes it all the more difficult to leave.
As the day went on, the crowds grew larger and we knew it would be time to go soon. We decided to escape for a moment, heading past the caretaker hut and following signs for the Inca Bridge. Referred to as the “secret entrance” to Machu Picchu, the bridge is part of a stone path carved into the cliff rock. Made of planks of wood, it spans a 20-foot gap with the canyon almost 2,000 feet below. To keep out unwelcome guests, Incans could raise the bridge. Those determined to cross risked plunging to their deaths. Since our last visit, a wooden gate has been erected to prevent visitors from going further, protecting them from the same fate.
Retracing our steps, we made our way back to the main viewing area for one last glance at that iconic peak. It would remain in our memories long after our short time here.