A million photos were probably taken at Machu Picchu today. Well, consider that 2,000 visitors come every day and each takes 500 digital images, whether with top-quality cameras, telephones and even iPads. This is truly one of THE wonders of the world, and thinking you can do it in a day is like trying to do Shakespeare in 60 minutes – better than nothing, but only a teaser for what you are missing.
Every year more is opened up by archaeologists, every visit you see more than before. Locals say serious visitors should try and stay at least three days, if not a week. On previous visits, the gal has climbed the two main mountains, Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) and Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain). This time, she managed the Inka Bridge route, and climbed to Intipunku, the Sun Gate, 8,923 feet above sea level.
In 1911, Hiram Bingham, an American researching the military campaigns of Simón Bolívar, came to Cusco with his interpreter. They were travelling along the Urubamba River and at Madorpampa a local farmer, Melchor Areaga, told them about ruins at the top of Old Mountain, 72.5 miles north-east of Cusco.
They continued on and found two farmers working there, Anacleto Alvarez and Toribio Richarte, and one of their kids led the explorers into the ruins (for a good short guide-book, see JPM Guides’ PERU by Kathy Jarvis, who heads Andean Trails).
Today, as a UNESCO site, it is run by the Regional Management of Culture-Cusco and entrance is strictly contolled. Pre-bought tickets list your age and passport number and you must carry your passport in with you. Entrance is S.152 (about £40) for full day (0600-1700), and Rs128 for half day, which is just fine if you come in style via the Hiram Bingham train, which gets you into the ruins by 14:00.
It’s best then to take a 2.5-hour introductory tour of the Inca buildings and the surrounding terraces – travelling with Orient-Express, there is then a really slap-up tea buffet, with everything from smoked salmon sandwiches to scones and fruit salad. The ideal is then to stay over, to get back in again at 0600 tomorrow, before the hordes arrive.
Tour guides have to be re-registered annually so they keep themselves up to date. We learned that much of the construction dates from the reign of the Inca Pachacuti, around 1430 AD, and the city was at its height 1450-1500. Around 200 houses were built and the population may have been between 1,000 and 2,000.
Longevity at that time seems to have been around 60 years for women, 55 for men. One of the thousands of varied buildings at Machu Picchu is the carved Funeral Rock, for laying out bodies to be dried by the sun. Each family had a mummified ancestor as a trophy – missing teeth were replaced – which was carried around as a precious symbol.
Thousands of artisans had been brought in to build the city. Fortunately the area is part of the Vilcabamba Batolite igneous rock belt, dating back some 250 million years. Its grey-white granite containing high quantities of quartz, mica and feldspar, is relatively easy to shape. Wood pegs were thrust into cracks in the rock and moistened.
As they expanded a crack, and later a break, could be effected within days. The buildings were dry-stone, no mortar. Two huts have been restored to show how roofs were formed of thatch on top of beams held in place by plant strings.
As you walk around the main area you come across temples, and what had been multi-storey buildings. The conservation is so good that you can wander at will, and you are actually unperturbed by the 1,999 other visitors here, most of them making a ‘once in a lifetime’ trip.
It is generally only returnees, or those staying longer, who will head for the mountains to climb yet higher above the ruins. If you want to do Huayna Picchu, you must be one of 200 entering between 0700 and 0800, or one of 200 going in between 1000 and 1100, and everyone must be out by 1400. (Climbing Machu Picchu Mountain, latest entry is 1100 and you must be out by 1400.)
The whole area encompasses over 15 square miles, so even though there are many other awestruck visitors around you can be completely alone, just you and nature. Some climb up and down the stone-walled terraces, which for the Incas provided their food and crops so close to hand. The area is so fertile that feeding themselves was easy.
Maize and potatoes flourished – so did the coca used by Inca nobles as a mild narcotic and offered to the gods during religious ceremonies. Now the terraces are purely decorative, and they are kept immaculately manicured by alpacas and llamas which roam at will.
The place is magical. When the clouds roll in, often below the summits of the mountains around, the mysticism increases. Sit anywhere in Machu Picchu and sometimes, looking around you, the mountains seem to be peak-topped vertical flats, in a theatre: you might have a dark green flat in front, a mid-blue behind and, at the rear, palest blue grey.
Every hour is different, every day is unique. I find myself looking around in awe, and thinking about my personal list of Ten Best Manmade Sites – it would also include the Pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an; Leptis Magna in Libya, the Taj Mahal in Agra, and the mosques of Isfahan…. but it is time to head for my home tonight, the uniquely-incomparable luxury hotel that is Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge.