Machu Picchu is one of the world’s most iconic travel destinations yet it is not the least bit overrated. If you take just one adventurous type of trip in your lifetime I highly recommend Machu Picchu be your top choice.
Nestled in a dramatic natural setting, Machu Picchu was built on a narrow ridge between Machu Picchu (“old peak” in the local Quechua language) mountain and Huayna Picchu (“young peak”) mountain at an elevation of 8,000 feet. Part of the allure of visiting the Lost City of the Incas is the shear effort required just to arrive at the sacred ruins. Some take the famous Inca Trail, arriving after four days of strenuous trekking just in time for the dramatic sunrise from Intipunku, the Sun Gate. Others may take the high road, literally, hiking at altitudes as high as 15,200 feet and covering 35 miles over 6 days while “camping” in luxury inns along the way.
Yet even the “less adventurous” route to Machu Picchu entails taking a four-hour train trip from Cusco that is capped off with a 30 minute death-defying bus trip up the mountain while negotiating numerous switchbacks with only inches separating the bus from plunging over the edge into the Urumbamba River 1500 feet below.
The Iconic Journey to Machu Picchu
The iconic journey to Machu Picchu starts in Cusco where trekkers are advised to spend a couple of days acclimatizing to the high altitude before embarking on their adventure by foot to reach the sacred ruins four days later. Due to Peruvian Government regulations all hikers must join an organized group tour with licensed guides and porters who accompany them during the entire journey. Travelers visiting by way of train to Aguas Calientes simply need to have a day pass to enter the ruins.
While Cusco may be viewed by many as merely a necessary stopover en route to Machu Picchu, it is a fascinating destination in itself and boasts some of the most spectacular Incan masonry and unprecedented shopping opportunities. A guided tour is the best way to experience historic Cusco and the surrounding sights.
It all begins at the Plaza de Armas, which was once the epicenter of social life where major religious holidays were celebrated by the Incas. Other highlights include gorgeous Cusco Cathedral, which dominates the plaza and is said to be one of the most beautiful and significant monuments in the Americas; Qoricancha, meaning “Golden Courtyard” in Quechua and considered to be the most sacred site in the Inca religion; as well as the famous fortress, Sacsayhuaman, that was built with huge boulders adjoined with incredulous accuracy.
The first glimpse of Machu Picchu is one that will be etched in your memory for a lifetime. I recommend allotting at least two days to savor the experience in different ways. If there are no delays on the train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, visitors generally have from late morning until closing time at sunset to explore the ruins. It’s best to arrange a guided tour so that a knowledgeable guide can explain in detail the cultural significance and interesting history of how Machu Picchu was formed and discovered. Travelers will learn that the Incas revered nature and worshipped Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) as evidenced by how the Temple of the Condor points in the direction of the sun; or how in the Temple of the Sun, the sun actually enters through one window during Summer Solstice and through another window during Winter Solstice; or how the Sacred Rock takes the shape of Yanantin Mountain that is directly behind it. You’ll even hear about how if you look at the Sacred Rock carefully, you will notice that it is formed in the shape of a guinea pig, a local delicacy in Peru. You mind even be brave enough to ask where the best places in town are to sample cuy.
For the adventurous, a trek to the peak of Huayna Picchu and the unprecedented opportunity to peer down at the ruins of Machu Picchu nearly 1,000 below is the perfect must-do experience at the ruins to complement the guided tour on the previous day. Huayna Picchu is that renowned precipitous peak jutting high up in the clouds behind the Citadel of Machu Picchu. The trek is not for the faint of heart, in some places on the precipitously steep path up your only means of support is cables that are anchored to the side of the mountain. But the reward is inexplicable as you peer down on the Lost City of the Incas as though you are literally on top of the world!
Once you negotiate your way down the same precipitously steep trail, at times inching your way down backwards using your hands on the steps in front of you for support, you can spend the rest of the day exploring the ruins on your own. Or if you have some energy left, you can trek an hour and a half up the actual Inca Trail to Intipunku, which is the Sun Gate. That is where Inca Trail Trekkers get their first glimpse of Machu Picchu before making their last push to the Lost City after a grueling three and a half day hike.
An added benefit of planning an adventure to Cusco and Machu Picchu is that it is easily combined in a customized itinerary with the Sacred Valley; the easily accessible southern Amazon Rainforest; and a visit to Puno, gateway to legendary Lake Titicaca which is the highest navigable lake in the world.
In addition to boasting more fascinating ruins and spectacular natural scenery, the Sacred Valley has added more upscale spa resorts in recent years so it offers weary travelers the opportunity to rest and relax while being surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
The Manu Biosphere Reserve and the Tambopata National Reserve are two of the most isolated and pristine areas of the Amazon Jungle in Peru, as well as the best in all of South America.
The trip to Lake Titicaca from Cusco is an adventure in itself as the all-day bus or private land transfer crosses peaks at more than 15,000 feet, with a scheduled stop to see a glacier. At Lake Titicaca travelers revel in the chance to visit the Uros Floating Islands where indigenous communities reside on islands constructed out of tortora reeds.
A trip to Machu Picchu should be on every adventure traveler’s bucket list as it is one of the world’s best iconic journeys that will be remembered for a lifetime. It also serves as a convenient starting point to visit one of the most culturally diverse and fascinating countries in all of South America.
(This article was published on Tours.com and in the Travel-Intel Newsletter, that is accessed at http://www.tours.com/travel-intel/machu-picchu-aventure-peru/#more-6651)