No amount of pinches could have made it feel any less surreal. I had just boarded the glass-encased PeruRail Vistadome train and a lifelong bucket list tick was about to be fulfilled, on a continent I’d never set foot on until then.
As we sipped on cups of piping hot coca tea, with (I kid you not) the unmistakably Peruvian song El Cóndor Pasa playing festively overhead, I asked my private guide, Jimmy Vasquez-Calderon, how many times he had been to Machu Picchu.
He contemplated it for a moment, and his answer surprised me. “I think it’s more than 400 times now.” With the most contagious grin and undeniable pride, Jimmy was also quick to correct my ashamedly Westernised mispronunciation. “It’s actually pronounced ‘pik-chu’, not ‘pichu’.”
“I never get tired of going there,” Jimmy explained. “It still feels very special and magical to me. Every time I visit, I see it through different eyes.” He explained that new walking trails open up and other ones close down, giving fresh perspectives and different angles. Sometimes he’ll encounter new birds and unexpected wildlife, while other times he’ll follow fluttering swirls of butterflies in the dense jungle mist.
Jimmy has explored this world-famous (both cultural and natural) UNESCO World Heritage Site at sunrise and sunset (and every hour in between) and has weathered its trails in all four seasons. Each time, he has been rewarded with contrasting weather patterns, ever-changing cloud formations and varying light. He casually flipped through a few recent photographs on his phone and I was captivated. I couldn’t wait to get up there to see this mystifying New Wonder of the World through my own eyes.
Through the jungle’s eyebrow
We were deep in the heart of ancient Inca territory now. As the train steadily climbed its way through the verdant, mist-shrouded slopes of the Sacred Valley and into the Andes, we never lost sight of the raging Urubamba River right next to us.
With wraparound skylight windows and a window seat to boot (thanks Jimmy!), I was afforded an uninterrupted, panoramic view of the lush scenery that surrounded us. Machu Picchu, which is only accessible by foot and by train, is concealed within a 33 000 hectare (82 000 acre) national park. And as we edged our way through this dense, mountainous and largely tropical protected area, the scenery was as changeable as the weather.
It felt like three seasons in one day, as dark, moody clouds gave way to steady downpour that soon dispersed into bursts of brilliant sunshine. Moments later, we’d be shrouded in a swirling mist once again, the droplets of drizzle collecting on the glass all around us.
On the other side of the glass was a thick green wall of never-ending dewy vegetation. Machu Picchu sits high in the Andes in a cloud forest right at the edge of the eyebrow of the jungle, literally where the mountains and jungle meet.
As the train wound its way through this rainforest and up to the cloud forest, Jimmy pointed out everything from eucalyptus, cacti, wild tobacco and avocado trees, to orchids, coral trees and bromeliads. If you’re lucky you’ll catch a glimpse of the endemic Andean cock-of-the-rock (Peru’s national bird) or the Andean spectacled bear (Jimmy has seen four, so basically that’s one bear sighting for every 100 visits).
Don’t look down
From the Ollantaytambo train station, it was a 90-minute journey through the rainforest to the picturesque town of Aguas Calientes, which sits at an altitude of 6 693 ft (2 040 m).
Travel tip: bring a small overnight bag so that you can separate your luggage for your Machu Picchu adventure. Leave your (locked) suitcase and all unnecessary items behind in Ollantaytambo with your driver, who will deliver them safely to your onward hotel in Cusco. Your overnight bag will be handed over to hotel porters at the Aguas Calientes train station and delivered to your hotel, leaving you with nothing to carry up to the citadel but your day bag of essentials.
We queued in Aguas Calientes for the last leg of our ascent. High up in the clouds, Machu Picchu is 7 972 ft (2 430 m) above sea level, meaning the bus we were about to board would climb nearly 1 300 ft (400 m) in just 20 minutes through the final stretch of the tangled eyebrow.
Snag a window seat if you can, the views are extraordinary. As the bus chugged along the narrow road, our driver navigated the back-to-back hairpin curves with the ease of someone that had done it countless times before. We all gazed down, gobsmacked, at the sheer vertical drops that allowed fleeting glimpses of the Urubamba River some 1 300 ft (400 m) below.
A long-time hidden secret
Sure, the build-up was dramatic, but nothing can prepare you for the stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks beauty of Machu Picchu itself. Before we turned the corner upon the famous ruins, Jimmy and I paused on the path to take in the surreal scenery. The rain had stopped and as thick mist clouds swirled furiously overhead, we could see the snow-capped Andes in the distance. Yes, there are crowds. This is unavoidable, so just take your time. Stop to let the crowds pass so that you can appreciate and admire the wonder and undeniable awe of Machu Picchu.
Built in the mid-1400s by the Inca Empire, Machu Picchu is the most famous icon of the Incan civilisation, not to mention one of the most significant archaeological sites and most frequented tourist destinations in South America.
In the local Quechua language, ‘machu’ means ‘old’ and ‘picchu’ means ‘mountain’. Machu Picchu actually sits behind the citadel, and it is Huayna Picchu (young mountain) that appears in every iconic photograph of these crumbling ancient ruins.
The collapsing stone walls, decrepit steps, once-grand archways, symmetrical farming terraces, wild llamas and verdant landscape are cradled perfectly between the two peaks, Machu and Huayna. It is a breathtaking collision of natural beauty and manmade architectural (way before its time) wisdom.
Strangely, the impressive citadel was only inhabited for approximately a century (this is an estimate as there are actually no written records of the Incas), before it was abandoned. And although it is only a mere 75 km (47 miles) – as the crow flies – from bustling Cusco (the then capital of the Inca Empire), Machu Picchu remained, thankfully, undiscovered (and therefore not destroyed nor defaced) by the Spaniards during their brutal invasion.
In fact, given its extreme altitude, relatively inaccessible location and heavily overgrown jungle surroundings, Machu Picchu remained hidden from the outside world and was known only to the local people. It was Peru’s best-kept secret until 1911, when it was rediscovered by American explorer/academic, Hiram Bingham, on an archaeological expedition guided by local villagers. Although Bingham was not the first to discover these ruins, he was considered the scientific discoverer that gave this mystical masterpiece global attention.
Shrouded in mystery
Although Machu Picchu was eventually revealed to the outside world, its original purpose remains a long-standing mystery to this day, as does the exact reason for its abrupt abandonment.
There are countless theories that are tirelessly debated among historians, archaeologists, theologians, anthropologists and travellers alike. Was it a hidden fortress or a royal emperor’s palatial estate? Was it the legendary Lost City of the Incas or simply the culmination of a lengthy pilgrimage? Some believe it was a burial ground and sacred place of religious worship and sacrifice, while others hypothesise still that it was a nunnery, a university, or even a celestial observatory.
And why was it abandoned? Most historians believe that the Inca emperor caught wind of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and ordered his people into the jungle for safety. Another school of thought believes a mass smallpox outbreak was to blame.
Besides its architectural marvel and dramatic, postcard-perfect location, part of Machu Picchu’s allure and mystique certainly lies in the fact that it remains an unsolved mystery that only the Incas hold the key to. Perhaps its secret will never be uncovered, but the mysterious site certainly makes no secret of the many things modern civilisation has learned from the Incas.
Here are five of the many learnings the highly sophisticated and technologically advanced Inca legacy left behind.
1. Civil engineering and architecture
There’s no denying that the Incas were leaps and bounds ahead of their time in terms of the puzzlingly sound and advanced structures they built, the road networks they introduced, the baffling stonework they managed to carve, and the earthquake-proof architectural masterpieces they designed.
The Incas did not use draft animals or the wheel, so how were they able to cut, transport, smooth and expertly assemble those enormous stone blocks that fit together like perfect puzzle pieces? Research dictates that they used jiwaya rocks as hammers. No one knows with absolute certainty how they were able to transport such giant rocks up to such a high altitude to build their glorious Andean citadel.
The Incas also cleverly devised their own accounting system. Similar to an abacus, the Incan khipu was a series of coloured ropes and alpaca/llama wool strings that were used to tie knots in order to keep stock, record transactions and communicate. The full realm of the khipu code remains largely unsolved to this day.
In addition to their enviable architectural and engineering expertise, the Incas also perfected the art of irrigation. Given Machu Picchu’s altitude and steep mountainous slopes, efficient farming terraces were built into the mountainside to enable proper drainage, make best use of the area’s high precipitation and promote soil fertility and crop abundance, while also eliminating erosion and avoiding destructive landslides.
Understanding the importance of water, the Incas also constructed state-of-the-art, ahead-of-their-time hydraulic systems, aqueducts, fountains and drainage systems.
4. Respect for the earth
The Incas maintained a deep connection with, and unwavering respect for, the natural world. Their belief in the Goddess ‘Pachamama’, which literally translates to Mother Earth, was the fundamental core of their civilisation. Instead of religious gods, their deities were divinities of the natural world. They worshipped the sun, moon, stars, mountains, rivers, rainbows, and so on.
With our precious planet in the precarious state it’s in, we could all certainly take a page from the Incan book of knowledge and pay respect to the earth and give thanks for its beauty, abundance and providence.
Next time you pick up a bag of quinoa from the expensive health food aisle, think of the Incas. This is not a new age food; quinoa is an Andean crop that actually dates back thousands upon thousands of years. It was later domesticated by the pre-Incas and eventually became the staple ingredient in the Incan diet because it provided the necessary energy, strength and endurance.
In fact, some of the most powerful and popular superfoods of today were all consumed regularly by the Incas. Things like maca root powder, kiwicha, pichu berries, cacao, purple corn and purple potatoes. Did you know that there are over 3 000 different types of potatoes grown in Peru? The Incas adhered to a fresh, wholesome and healthy diet and consumed organic foods that were full of vitamins, nutrients, powerful antioxidants and immunity boosters. This, in turn, would give them the power, stamina and vitality needed to maintain their empire.