Ask any dedicated traveller and they’ll almost certainly tell you that the fabled Inca city of Machu Picchu — high in the Peruvian Andes — is either at, or near the top of their bucket list.
It’s the ultimate travel destination — and these days — a chance to capture the ultimate travel selfie. Sure, we’ve all snapped a travel trophy at Big Ben; the Eiffel Tower; the Statue of Liberty; even the Pyramids of Giza. This is different. Machu Picchu is a rite of passage for travellers; a holy grail for those that have dedicated their lives to the art of wandering. Once you’ve made it here — you’ve made it. Here’s my story of the big day and some top tips for visiting Machu Picchu — including the answers to some FAQs.
We wake early in Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley to begin our journey to the lost city — around 4.30am for a 6 o’clock departure. There’s an air of great expectation within our group. The long awaited day has finally arrived.
We board the Vistadome train for the 90-minute journey from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes — the small Andean outpost that exists purely to service Machu Picchu. It’s a wonderful journey. The train weaves its way along the valley floor beside the surging white waters of the Rio Urubamba.
As we travel to Machu Picchu, former Inca agricultural terraces line the route, before the open terrain gives way to a verdant jungle of vines and flowering wild orchids. All eyes are on the thick cloud visible through the domed roof. Will the weather hold? The majestic limestone peaks that have stood silent sentinels over this river valley for millennia seem to whisper in return. It will be what it will be.
The train slowly pulls in to Machu Picchu station. Aguas Calientes is wedged precariously between sheer cliffs and a raging torrent of water where two rivers merge. The place feels temporary. As though one good flood through the gorge could flush the entire town away. This is the last frontier for travel to Machu Picchu. We transfer to small buses to begin the ascent to the celestial city, high on a plateau hundreds of metres above us. The winding dirt road seems hopelessly inadequate for the task of transporting 2,500 tourists a day to the peak.
Slowly we make our way up the mountainside. Rock falls are not uncommon here. Trees cling precariously to the steep hillside. I’m afraid to look down from the hairpin bends.
Then suddenly, through the trees at the top of the precipice, I catch a glimpse of a stone wall; then a buttress of huge stone blocks. Just as quickly however, the view is obscured by the jungle and the ruins dissolve back into the dense foliage. Be patient. After what seems an eternity our bus comes to a halt at the modest tourist gates. As we disembark, the sun suddenly bursts through the thinning cloud cover. It’s as if the Inca gods themselves are smiling down on us. Welcome friends.
The first sight of the mighty mountain citadel will mean something different to everyone. Each visitor to Machu Picchu will have a different memory of that moment. For some it will be the spectacular circle of mountain peaks around the plateau on which the ancient city sits; for others it will be the vivid emerald green of the grass terraces once used to grow crops to sustain the city’s inhabitants; for others it will be the golden stonework of the temples and storehouses, shimmering in the sunlight; or for others still — the towering form of Wayna Picchu rising majestically behind the city. Whatever it is, it will remain with you forever.
No-one is entirely sure why Machu Picchu exists. Some suggest it is a royal citadel where the Inca elite retreated for their pleasure. Others surmise it was designed as a stronghold to maintain Inca culture in the face of Spanish invasion. Whatever the truth, the citadel was abandoned at some point and left to the jungle, until re-discovered by the awestruck world at the turn of the 20th century. Today of course, travel to Machu Picchu is incredibly popular.
Back to the job at hand. Don’t give in to temptation and follow the throng heading straight for the plateau. Take the steep stairs to the left that lead all the way up to the Guardhouse, for an unparalleled view of the entire site. There are a lot of stairs. Well, you don’t build a kingdom in the sky without them. My calves and quads scream in agony. My lungs expand to capacity I didn’t know I had. Don’t stop.
We reach the top. I stumble forward, my lungs drawing in as much oxygen as possible. I pause for a moment to recover, before moving towards the edge of the grassy terrace to look down upon the plateau. Wow. Behold the prize. It’s magnificent.
After a moment or two I turn my back on the citadel, raise my phone and in one click secure my immortality with the Incas. It is done.
I shrug off the contemptuous sneers of those that have trekked in that morning on the punishing Inca trail. Hey buddy, my selfie’s no less valid than yours. Our journeys may have been different, but our destination is the same.
Now is the time for reflection. To find a space for yourself; to sit and to contemplate everything that has brought you to this moment in time and everything that is yet to come. I sit on the green grass with my back against a stone wall laid centuries before by Inca hands, my eyes closed. I feel the sun on my face and hear the hubbub of distant voices below. They gently fade away. I sleep.
Most people access the site from the city of Cusco, which is an hour and a half flight from Lima, the capital of Peru. Cusco is located at one end of the Sacred Valley, and Machu Picchu is at the other. It’s a distance of 70 kilometres between the two.
There are various options to travel to Machu Picchu from there. The train is the most popular and there are different standards, including the Belmond Hiram Bingham luxury option or the Vistadome, which is the mid range option. The trains takes you to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu town) and coaches meet the train to take visitors up to the citadel.
Depending on how much time you have, a guided day tour from Cusco is an easy option and will take care of all the details. Be warned though: it will be a huge day!
You can also do extended walks to the site, like the famous Inca Trail. Book through a reputable tour company. The trail is closed in February.
Tickets to the site can be booked online.
Machu Picchu is open all year, seven days a week. A maximum of 2,500 visitors are permitted per day. April to October is the dry season, but this is also peak season so it can get very crowded. November to March is rainy season, but visitor numbers are significantly lower.
Machu Picchu sits at an altitude of 2,430 metres above sea level. Seek advice from a medical professional for the best way to deal with possible altitude sickness. Generally, the advice is to drink lots of water, move slowly, eat small meals and limit alcohol intake. Most people adjust to the altitude within a couple of days. Many visitors choose to acclimatise in Cusco before heading to Machu Picchu. The locals drink coca tea or chew coca leaves to alleviate the effects of the altitude.
Preparation is the key. You need good walking shoes, a hat, a walking stick and plenty of water. Have your passport with you to get a Machu Picchu stamp.
The weather in the mountains can change extremely quickly so be prepared. Rain can roll in very fast. But that also works the other way. A bleak day can suddenly clear completely. Make the most of sunshine for your photos. It may not last. Early morning is the best time to get the ring of clouds in the background.
Finally, go with an open mind. It will be a fabulous experience, whatever the weather!
Do you have any top tips for visiting Machu Picchu? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Additional images: Bigstock
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has travelled extensively through Europe, Asia, North America, Africa and the Middle East. Adam worked as a travel consultant for a number of years with Flight Centre before taking up the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten. He loves to experience everything a new destination has to offer and is equally at home in a five-star Palazzo in Pisa or a home-stay in Hanoi.