Machu Picchu: Head in the Clouds

The ruins of Machu Picchu, rediscovered in 1911 by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham, are one of the most beautiful and enigmatic ancient sites in the world. While the Incas certainly used the Andean mountain top, erecting many hundreds of stone structures from the early 15th century, legends and myths indicate that Machu Picchu (meaning “Old Peak” in the Quechua language) was revered as a sacred place from a far earlier time. Whatever its origins, the Incas turned the site into a small but extraordinary city. Invisible from below and completely self-contained, surrounded by agricultural terraces sufficient to feed the population, and watered by natural springs, Machu Picchu seems to have been one of the Incas biggest secrets.

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There are just some places around the world so iconic, so recognisable that they don’t need an introduction, and certainly Machu Picchu in Peru falls into that category. This Inca city high in the mountains is a place of wanderlust for most of us. Those fog-covered mountains and the promise of exploration, real exploration, and discovery, the likes of which most of us thought had long since vanished from the world. At least that’s the promise, one that drives millions to visit. For me, to ascend to the top of the Andes and to explore the once forgotten town of Machu Picchu for myself was a dream come true – and no amount of backpacking in Asia could make up for missing out on this Incan citadel.

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There aren’t many ways to actually reach Machu Picchu, and it is an expensive process, to be honest. If you don’t choose the 4 day “Inca Trail” hike, then your only other option is the Machu Picchu Train, operated by Peru Rail. This scenic railway leaves from the small town of Ollantaytambo, the launching pad for all explorations of the ancient Incan monuments (incidentally, you can expect to pay $56 each way on this train, in the cheapest class). Onboard the train, you can find large windows and comfortable seating during the 90 minute train ride to Aguas Calientes, from where a bus will take you the final distance to begin your ascent to the world famous ruins.

Admission tickets now cost $45 per person to enter Machu Picchu ruins, and you need your passport to buy them. Tickets are purchased at the ticket office in the Aguas Calientes Town Square.

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Two thousand feet above the rumbling Urubamba river, the cloud shrouded ruins have palaces, baths, temples, storage rooms and about 150 houses, all in a remarkable state of preservation. These structures, carved from the gray granite of the mountain are wonders of both architectural and aesthetic genius. Many of the building blocks weigh 50 tonnes or more yet are so precisely sculpted and fitted together with such exactitude that the mortar-less joints will not permit the insertion of even a thin knife blade.

One of Machu Picchu’s primary functions was that of astronomical observatory. The Intihuatana stone (meaning ‘Hitching Post of the Sun’) has been shown to be a precise indicator of the date of the two equinoxes and other significant celestial periods. At midday on March 21st and September 21st, the sun stands almost directly above the Intihuatana stone, creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun “sits with all his might upon the pillar” and is for a moment “tied” to the rock, which itself influenced Incan ceremonies.

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Shamanic legends tell that when a sensitive person touches their forehead to the Intihuatana stone it opens their vision to the spirit world. I was always wondering during the hike that perhaps the “spirit world” was just the real world when people were looking down upon the spectacular scenery below them – after all, it is very otherworldly up here! A private guide (hired for around $140 per group) can give you all the information you need if titbits like this can enhance your experience, but we found the price a little too expensive. Then again, I have successfully visited other amazing sites around the world like Bagan and Angkor and didn’t need a guide, so I thought it was certainly doable at Machu Picchu. And it is. It’s just that, considering the surroundings and the whole shebang, maybe the more information you get the better, so a guide would be useful. They know this, too, and that’s why they charge so much…

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The Spaniards never found Machu Picchu, even though they suspected its existence, thus the Intihuatana stone and its resident spirits remain in their original position. The mountain top sanctuary fell into disuse and was abandoned some 40 years after the Spanish took Cusco in 1533. Supply lines linking the many Inca social centres were disrupted and the great empire came to an end. All great civilisations must come to an end some day, and I have been very fortunate enough to have seen ancient ruins and old cities from the Romans, Ottomans, Egyptians, Mayan, Aztec, Angkorian, Cham, as well as ancient Chinese and Japanese civilisations. The Incan ruins a Machu Picchu were probably more impressive than most of those others, if only for the interesting backstories behind the legend!

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There are so many Incan ruins around Cusco (and all over Peru, in fact) that it can be somewhat difficult to keep yourself motivated to see more and more. However, Machu Picchu simply the ultimate ancient ruins that you will find in all the Americas. They are more impressive than any of the other sites in Peru or Bolivia, and even more satisfying than the Mexican temples and pyramids such as at Teotihuacan, Uxmal, and Chichen Itza.

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Although Hiram Bingham was the first person to bring word of the ruins to the outside world in 1911, other outsiders were said to have seen Machu Picchu before him. For me, it doesn’t matter who discovered them first really, as nowadays tourists from all over the world are eager to be in line to see them with their own eyes. It really is a touristy place, but you can forgive that because, after all, it’s Machu Picchu!

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