Machu Picchu conjures dreams. A lost Incan city nestled high in the Andes Mountains, it was virtually unknown outside of Peru until 1911, when American archaeologist and historian Hirum Bingham was taken there by local residents. Today, intrepid travelers by the hundreds of thousands make the journey to this Andean fortress each year.
Construction is believed to have begun around 1450 CE, at the height of the Inca Empire. It was abandoned 100 years later, during the time of the Spanish Conquest, however there is no record of the Spaniards ever having reached the site, almost 8000 feet above sea level. This fact alone renders Machu Picchu a very important and intact cultural site. Machu Picchu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007 via worldwide Internet poll.
My visit to Machu Picchu in November 2011 was the culmination of five months spent exploring Peru’s many other treasures. I had been amazed by the ancient ruins of the Moche people in the north of Peru, the headwaters of the Amazon river near Iquitos, and the vibrant city of Lima. I was unprepared for the magnitude of this Andean citadel.
We arrived shortly after sunrise, and the peaks were obscured by clouds, which is common. What is uncommon is that the clouds parted and burned off within an hour, displaying the ruins in unparalleled splendor. The verdant green of the terraces combined with the blue of the clear sky present a view that I feel to be unmatched in the world. Despite the thousands of people that poured onto the mountain, I was utterly and completely and joyously alone.
Machu Picchu can be accessed by the average traveler quite easily. Typically one travels by train from the city of Cusco to Aguas Calientes, and then by bus to the entrance of the site. Tickets cannot be purchased at the entrance, so it is mandatory that you purchase one in Aguas Calientes before boarding the bus, or in Cusco. Additionally, only 2,500 visitors are allowed to enter per day, so tickets may need to be purchased well in advance. Climbing Huayna Picchu, the iconic peak located within Machu Picchu itself, requires an additional purchase of a timed ticket, and only 400 of these are sold per day. Despite the seemingly strict rules regarding ticket purchases, I was able to purchase my ticket in Aguas Calientes the day before with no issue.
For the more adventurous traveler, a journey along the famed Inca Trail is an option. Only 500 people per day are admitted onto the trail, with over half of this number being guides and support staff. Advance booking is a must, and in some cases, such as the May to October peak season, a 12 month advance purchase may be necessary. Information regarding travel to Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail and regarding entrance ticket purchases can be found at the official Peru travel website, www.peru.travel
Traveling is an intensely personal experience, with destination selection reflecting the choices of the individual. That being said, Machu Picchu may not be on every traveler’s list. However, the relative ease with which one can journey to this iconic place and the reward for having done so is monumental.