It was still dark outside when I found myself trudging heavily through the darkened streets of Aguas Calientes and along the road to Machu Picchu. It was only 4.30 a.m., but I was determined to reach the site before the tourist hordes.
But when I got to the first checkpoint, I realised the hordes had the same idea. This is, after all, Peru’s pièce de résistance, the Incan citadel built among the clouds. Its incomparable beauty draws more than 75,000 people here a year. Some come by train in a day. Others hike for days along the Incan Trail or on a jungle trek.
But their destination is the same. The lost city of Machu Picchu. A citadel of ruined palaces and plazas set on a ridge surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River over 600 metres below. And it’s understandable why they come…
Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu
After passing through the long line at the checkpoint, I began my 500-metre climb over 1,800 steps to Machu Picchu itself. I was barely awake. It was still dark and I stumbled up the stairs, guided only by torchlight. I didn’t dare look up to assess my progress.
It drizzled as I followed the switchbacks, the slipperiness only worsening my stumbling in the dark. The walk sucked the breath from me and strained my muscles, but I kept up my mantra: Machu Picchu. It was a mantra, I realised, that had thrummed in my head long before I had even boarded my flight to South America.
Soon my legs were just doing the motions whilst my eyes wandered over the eery grey hues of the cloud forests around me, steadily lightening as the sun rose. The air was humid and the surroundings deathly silent.
It felt that Machu Picchu would be just around the corner, but the turns kept coming, the trail kept going. I passed groups of fatigued climbers who’d succumbed to the need to rest.
At the top, crowds gathered outside the control gates, though it was only 5.30 a.m. Anticipation grew, and when the gates were finally opened at six, I blitzed ahead. I tore up one set of stairs after another until the bushes cleared and the steps gave way to flat ground…
Machu Picchu: Love at First Sight
At first, I saw nothing but whirling mists.
Then, they parted.
I was staring at the haunted ruins in all their poetic, poignant, glorious beauty.
The sight surpassed anything I had imagined it would be. The crowds hadn’t streamed in yet. The ruined chambers were empty, perched upon a ragged, formidable mountaintop surrounded by steep valleys, soaring mountains and swirling clouds.
A 16th-century city created, inhabited, and abandoned in only 100 years.
My shock passed and euphoria filled my bones. I shrieked with friends. I jumped and danced. We hugged. We allowed bliss to overwhelm us. And then we descended to explore.
Llama fed on the grass at the entrance to the ruins, natural lawn-mowers, unperturbed by the ghostly ruins around them. A baby peered shyly from behind its mother, the only animal to acknowledge the humans.
The clouds and rain came and went with the day, but they only served to enhance Machu Picchu’s mystic atmosphere.
Nobody knows the real name of this citadel; Machu Picchu only means ‘Old Mountain’ in Quechua and refers to the mountain rising beside the ancient complex. So little is known of this place. Why it was built. Why it was abandoned. But that’s what makes it so magical.
The main buildings cover two sides of an immense grassy courtyard and are surrounded by 700+ terraces descending into the valleys below and rising up the slopes of Mount Machu Picchu.
It was an impossible location to dream up such a city. At the time it was built in the 1500s, the Incans had no iron or steel or wheels. They created an entire village using the same dry stone walling techniques you find in Cuzco.
We braved the climb up Huayna Picchu, a higher point from which visitors have a bird’s eye view of the complex.
From below, Huayna Picchu, or the ‘Young Mountain’, was so shrouded in cloud that we couldn’t see the towering protuberance.
The climb – 360 metres up – is almost directly vertical, necessitating not just courage but steep staircases and a supply of rope to grip on to.
Up here too there are ruins – triangular buildings, crafted terraces, and knobbly staircases. To reach the apex we had to scramble on hands and knees through a cave.
At the top, there was nothing but a blank canvas, the cloud cover so dense that our surroundings were white. Tourists planted themselves on rocky outcrops in the direction of Machu Picchu and waited hopefully.
A small patch of cloud eventually, obligingly, cleared in just the right spot for us to glimpse the condor shape of Machu Picchu. It looked so mysterious and wonderful and peaceful and ingenious that our curses against the Incas for their difficult stairs and love of building cities in the heavens evaporated, replaced with nothing but awe.
By the early afternoon, the rain settled in for the long run. It washed the site clean of visitors and drenched those who stayed. In the exodus, my friends and I remained to enjoy the empty sights. In the downpour, the city was abandoned once more.
In the downpour, the city was abandoned once more. And only then did I grasp its mysticism, its spellbinding beauty. And that appreciation has stayed with me long after my skin has dried.
Later, people would commiserate about the poor weather conditions. Inside, I smile. My group had the ruins to ourselves that day. How many people could say that?
Machu Picchu: The details you wanna know
You can’t buy tickets at Machu Picchu. They must be bought in advance, either online, with a tourist agency, in Cuzco at the Instituto Nacional de Cultura near the Plaza de Armas, or in Aguas Calientes at the Machu Picchu Cultural Centre.
If you want to climb Huayna Picchu, you’ll need to buy a separate ticket. Only 400 people are permitted to climb Huayna Picchu. You can select from two designated times to climb the mountain. I HIGHLY recommend it.
Tickets for the two sites come to 150 soles.
Getting there and away
There are a few ways to get to Machu Picchu from Cuzco. A popular route is by train. It carries you there in no time at all. And from the train station, you can hitch a bus straight to the Machu Picchu entry.
If you’re a bit more adventurous, you can always hike the Inca Trail. More often than not, you’ll need to book this a few months in advance since only 500 permits per day are allowed. And that isn’t ideal if you’re the kind of backpacker who, like me, likes to wing it.
The third option is, as I mentioned, through an alternative route, such as the jungle trail. Cuzco is filled with tourist agencies who will be more than willing to give you the rundown on your various options.
Personally, I recommend at least a night’s stay in Aguas Calientes. The town itself is charming – and it’s a pleasure to soak aching muscles in the hot springs in town. It also increases your chances of getting Machu Picchu to yourself by getting there early or staying late.
Now, as for getting Machu Picchu to yourself. It’s a nearly impossible task, but you can increase your chances by going out of season and staying beyond peak hours. June to August are the busiest months at Machu Picchu, though you’ll struggle with crowds any time of year.On the other hand, the site is flooded between 10am and 2pm, but crowds do dwindle in the afternoons. If you’re lucky, you could get a few happy snaps in without the hordes.
On the other hand, the site is flooded between 10am and 2pm, but crowds do dwindle in the afternoons. If you’re lucky, you could get a few happy snaps in without the hordes.
Make sure you bring plenty of food and water with you. There are no bins on site, and you’re kind of expected to eat just outside the vicinity at a cafe. But it’s cool to find your own little nook to chow down on lunch, as long as you’re respectful and take all rubbish with you.
That cafe is the only place you’ll find toilets, so I hugely recommend you go before you head off so you’re not struck down with a full bladder when you’re, say, atop Huayna Picchu.
OK, so now you’ve got the info, there’s nothing for it but to book one of the most amazing experiences you will ever have in your life. And hey, while you’re in Peru, don’t forget to check out some of the other awesome things you can do…