Have you actually been to Peru if you haven’t visited Machu Picchu?
As well as firmly cementing its position as a UNESCO World Heritage site, the renowned Inca ruins rightly top the majority of Latin American travel guides. Towering 2430m on a steep ridge in the depths of the Andes and recently voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the historical site provides an incredible insight into the workmanship and building capabilities of the Inca people as well as offering breathtaking panoramic views of snow-topped mountains.
There are a number of theories surrounding the history of the site and how it survived the Spanish inquisition, however its actual use still remains unknown. Historians have previously suggested that the site was a temple, a royal retreat from city life, a nunnery and also a hiding place for the Inca elite. Theories stretch much further as artefacts found around the site can be traced to a plethora of distant locations from around the empire, which points its trading uses as well. This is combined with folklore that Spanish invaders were led away from discovering the site by brave Inca soldiers.
The story goes that in just 1911, an American explorer was visiting the area when a local farmer had mentioned to him that atop the mountain could be found an old Inca site. Throughout the decades the location had been used by Peruvian farmers, unbeknown to them that it’s exposure would transform the entire valley into the overpopulated tourist attraction you can experience today.
There are a number of ways in which travellers can reach Machu Picchu. This can involve an all inclusive Inca Trail or Saltankay Trek, as well as options to take a bus tour directly to the site. For the budget travellers amongst us, however, the DIY route is a far more exciting way to reach the ruins, as we recently discovered.
Having already taken a six-hour minibus that weaved around staggering mountain views and past sheer cliff sides with terrifying drops to the closest town of Aguas Calientes, our real journey began at 4am the following day.
Following the sound of a gushing river, there was excitement in the air as we quietly tread along the path in complete darkness. Before long we had reached the entrance to the Machu Picchu mountain where a long queue of fellow climbers eagerly awaited for the park opening at 5am. Though there are many routes to Machu Picchu such as bus or train, as one fellow hiker perfectly put it ‘God gave me legs so I can save money,’ and what lay ahead of us was a two-hour steep upward climb that would cost us nothing apart from aching leg muscles. As dawn crept over the mountain and 5am ticked, by the climbers, consisting mainly of healthy, twenty-somethings began the ascent and the race against the tourist buses who were already making headway to the top.
The enduring stone staircase was steeper than anticipated and before long our excitement had transformed into sheer determination. It was also whilst climbing that the sun cast its first rays over the steep cliff sides and the green jungle mountains flourished around us. By 6.15 we had finally reached the top, meeting with hordes of happy tourists who had just jumped off the bus.
Having finally gained entry to the park it was now a case of battling past the swathes of slow walking tourists to finally catch a glimpse of the famed site. My thrill grew as we passed Inca terraces that lined the mountainside and we crept upwards. Before long the dark shrubbery that had surrounded the cobbled path began to clear and as a crystal blue sky opened up around us and we finally came face to face with Machu Picchu. It was as breathtaking as everyone had suggested.
Our adventure, however, was far from over. We took our pictures and pushed past groups of girls doing their make-up, past Llamas aimlessly trotting around the buildings and large tour groups and pressed onto the next mountain. Huayna Picchu is the lesser known mountain that climbs hundreds of metres higher and offers a perfect bird's eye view of Machu Picchu below. Due to its steep climb, only 200 people are allowed to ascend per day - we excitedly signed our names in the hazard book and began another staircase.
With legs numb from the last two hours, I grabbed the rope and began hauling my tired body up the steep crevices with nothing below but hundreds of metres of the jagged cliffside. The reason, of course, that such a little number are allowed to climb is a result of several falls down the cliff - meaning it had to be taken seriously. At every pause, however, ignoring the drop below and lack of safety measures, the view of Machu Picchu grew with magic and intensity.
It took another hour to finally reach the summit of 2700m where a series of vast rocks nestle into the mountain and offer a perfect place to reflect on the power of the surrounding setting. At this height, Machu Picchu looked miniature and peaceful as I watched the dots of tourists still huddle taking pictures below. The sky was a potent blue and the sun reflected off the white snowy peaks leaving me in absolute awe. I was alone, away from my climbing group and face to face with the spectacular beauty of the nature that had captivated the Inca people hundreds of years earlier.
Not to mention the sense of achievement you feel from descending past wearied climbers, it takes visiting Machu Picchu to truly understand why the site is quite so famous, and quite so magical.