Machu Picchu, Standing at the Top of an Ancient World
If there’s one place that had always been on my bucket list, it was Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan settlement that has attracted visitors from all over the world since the 20th century. When I went on my gap year (gap yah!) volunteering trip to Peru and Bolivia in 2016, my team and I all knew that it was an opportunity that could not be missed. It truly is a magical place, providing a beautiful hike and the perfect gateway to Peru’s pre-Columbian history, and it ticked absolutely all of our boxes and more!
The citadel as we see it today is thought to have been built by Incan leader Pachacutec in the 15th century as a religious site and/or a strategic refuge for Incan aristocracy – archaeological evidence does suggest that both of these purposes were served at one point or another given the presence of 5 identifiable temples and the ‘royal enclosure’. Surrounded by mountains and only accessible by a narrow entrance, it would have been pretty defensible from attack. The site was abandoned in about 1572, but nobody really knows why, as there is no evidence that the Spanish ever found it. It’s possible, however, that the community there was wiped out by a smallpox epidemic, which I guess still means the blame lay mostly with the Conquistadors!
It was officially 'discovered' by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911, but there is evidence that the site had not been completely lost before then - 3 visitors from 1901 left their names inscribed there, and when they arrived they found a farmer who had already been there for 8 years. Later, when Bingham arrived in the area having been in search of something else, he was told about the ruins by some locals, and at Machu Picchu itself there were 2 families who had settled on the platforms, so ‘discovered’ isn’t really the right word!
Before you can see that classic postcard view, you do, of course, have to get there. Like most visitors to Machu Picchu, we used Cuzco as our base. Cuzco is by far Peru’s most popular city; it was an ancient Inca capital and boasts some pretty spectacular architecture and plenty to do for any tourist. Aside from that, however, it is an excellent place to stay if you want to visit places like Laguna Humantay, Rainbow Mountain, and the Sacred Valley, as well as Machu Picchu.
The way to get there sounds a little bit roundabout, but it’s by far the best if you’re not doing the full Inca Trail. From the bus stop (there’s a specific one that gets you to where you need to be – all the taxi drivers will know where to take you), it’s about a 2-hour journey to the town of Ollantaytambo, from which you then catch the train. This was by far the best part of our journey. We decided when booking that we wanted an entire day there, so we settled on a 5:45 am train which sounds like madness, but it takes you through some seriously stunning scenery which is all incredible at sunrise – the Urubamba river, the Andes mountains, and some pretty lush jungle. Honestly, the excitement at the prospect of going to Machu Picchu combined with seeing the sun creep over the tops of the Andes is a feeling you never forget!
The train takes you to the town of Aguas Calientes, from which you can either take the bus up to the site entrance or trek up the mountain. We chose the former – the altitude isn’t too bad at this point (the site is about 2,400 metres above sea level), but it can still be pretty exhausting! The bus is a bit expensive, but worth it if you don’t feel up to a trek.
The other way to get there is, of course, by walking the Inca Trail, which includes tons of amazing pre-Columbian sites and famously ends with Machu Picchu. I’ve not done it myself, but it’s definitely pretty high up on my list of life goals!
Exploring the site
Walking around Machu Picchu was incredible. The surrounding Andean peaks and the Urubamba river winding around the base of the mountain all provide a breath-taking view. The whole day I was just walking around thinking to myself, "I'm achieving a life goal right now." It really is one of those places that you can feel the significance of the experience as you wander about. As an ancient historian it was obviously a huge thing to do from that point of view, but even if you’re not that into history it’s still entirely amazing!
When you reach the site entrance, there are tons of tour guides about, most of whom speak English and will generally be willing to negotiate on price, which it’s definitely worth having a go at. Getting a guide isn’t compulsory, but I’d say it was definitely worth it if you’re a first timer as it really helps you to understand the site a lot better, as it’s not all stuff you can just glean if you go around by yourself. Our tour took around 2-2.5 hours, then we had the rest of the day to explore by ourselves.
The insight you can get into the history of this citadel is quite something. Everything is so well preserved, you’re really able to get a feel for what life would have been like. The houses are all pretty small and cramped as are some of the streets, but these are beautifully juxtaposed by the spacious temples and the wide main plaza. Looking out from the terraced farmland on the mountainside, or from any direction really, the gorgeous view makes the whole space feel incredibly vast and open.
As well as the main site, the entrance ticket you buy also allows you access to either the Inca bridge, the Sun Gate, or Machu Picchu mountain (it’s your choice which of these you do), and access to Huayna Picchu (the tallest peak you see in the picture-postcard view) is a little extra. Also, a standard ticket usually allows you to enter up to 3 times during the day, so if you want to structure in a break to wander around Aguas Calientes, go outside the site to grab some food, or use the loo then you can. There is a restaurant just outside the entrance, but we chose to bring our own and ate on the benches just around the corner.
The other aspect to the site that you can’t miss is the llamas! There are quite a few of them that wander around up there, and they make a great picture if you can get them looking out on the classic view, or even as a selfie buddy! Do watch out though, there are some fenced-off areas (with very low/subtle fences) that are specifically for them, and don’t get too up close and personal as I didn’t get the impression that they’re totally tame.
Tips for visiting Machu Picchu
• Take plenty of water – there are a lot of steps to get up and the site is bigger than it looks in the photos.
• There are no toilets inside the site so go before you get in!
• Take it slowly if you’re struggling with the altitude. In relative terms, it’s not that high up but it affects everyone differently, so don’t push yourself.
• Don’t be afraid to try and haggle one price when sorting out a guide – bartering is pretty standard in Peru.
• Make sure you don’t miss out on getting the Machu Picchu stamp on your passport. There’s a booth outside the main entrance, and it doesn’t cost any extra.
• Pick your arrival time well. There will always be a lot of people there whenever you go, but by lunchtime it was definitely a lot busier. Also if you’re going later in the day, check what time the site closes so that you can leave enough time to do it properly.
• It’s also worth leaving time at the end of the day before heading back to Cuzco if you’re not staying in Aguas Calientes. The town has a seriously great market for tourists, I think each of us bought at least one or two things there including some cosy alpaca wool jumpers, and it’s also great for finding gifts if you’re planning on taking something back for family and friends.
• Make sure your ticket includes what you want it to. There are several options available and given that the standard ticket doesn’t cost a huge amount, it’s worth considering whether you want to include extra things like climbing Huayna Picchu.
• Spend some time really taking it all in and enjoying where you are, it’s not worth rushing around!
¡Disfruta tu visita!
The Classicist with an Atlas is a blog put together by Amelia. She takes you on a journey to countries with her interesting insight as a Classics MA graduate. She has such amazing pieces especially her assessment of BBC's Race Across the World and her looking at the reality of the Great British Empire. So go check out her stuff.
We would like to thank Amelia for this piece and I am sure everyone who has read it now has some great insight in what to do and how to travel to Machu Picchu.