It's Peru's tourist claim-to-fame and one of the most visited sites in the world, on many people's bucket list, with up to 5,000 visitors daily.
Which is precisely the reason Kim and I did not add Machu Picchu to our original Peru itinerary.
We don't like hordes and try to avoid crowds (this is a tiny part of the mass of humanity waiting just outside Machu Picchu when we arrived). We're much happier being alone in the jungle or on the African plains or in our little Indiana cabin than anywhere people congregate.
But when our trip planner insisted that no one comes to Peru without visiting Machu Picchu and pretty much twisted our arms to at least consider it, knowing we may never pass that way again we reluctantly tagged it onto our itinerary.
In retrospect, I'm SO GLAD we did!
There are times in our lives, and this was one of them, where you face the wild beasts people for the experience.
Ansel Adams is an icon in the world of photography, and this quote of his in our Aguas Calientes (also "creatively" known as Machupicchu Town) hotel room gave me the inspiration I needed to face the crowds.
Aguas Calientes is the bustling little town high up in the Andes Mountains just below the "Lost City of the Incas," as Machu Picchu is often referred to. "Lost" in that it was only rediscovered by the outside world (specifically American explorer Hiram Bingham) in 1911 after having been abandoned when the Inca Empire crumbled in the 1500s. For nearly 400 years, only the locals knew of the ancient ruins which the jungle growth quickly overtook hiding it from sight. After Bingham's discovery, the Peruvian government began recovery and reconstruction and found themselves with the proverbial goose that laid eggs when National Geographic designated it a World Heritage Site in 1983, and the tourists (and their money!) have been flooding in ever since.
There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu. You can do the Inca Trail, a 4-day hike up sheer Andes cliffs, climbing on the same steep dirt and stone trail like the Incans did 500 years ago. Or you can take the 90-minute train + 25-minute bus route.
I'll let you guess which one we used.
No, really. It's only because we didn't have 4 extra days to add to our trip....
As you can imagine, many tree-hugger types consider Machu Picchu to be a spiritual mecca, and the most popular time to go is very early in the morning to experience the "mystical" sunrise there. In reality, most days it's hazy and foggy high up in the mountains and a spectacular sunrise is rarely seen. So hoping to avoid as much of the daily human crush as possible,we opted to go mid-day when the morning people would be ready to leave.
See that white ribbon of road zig-zagging up the mountain? That is the road that dozens of buses meander along daily bringing visitors to Machu Picchu.
Once you get off the bus and get through the entrance gate, you still aren't "there." Over 3000 ancient stone steps link the huge mountain citadel together, and our guide Joel led us as we climbed, huffed, climbed, puffed, and CLIMBED until we got to the very top.
At times there were handrails, but most often not. And a few ankle-high ropes that are more likely to trip someone than actually keep them safe. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that there were some scary moments for this flatlanders girl. But I kept trekking along because what choice did I really have at this point???
But when we finally got to the top...it literally took my breath away!
Do NOT lean back, Terry...DO NOT LEAN BACK!!!
And even though there were hundreds of other people there at the same time, the Machu Picchu complex is so massive and spread out...
...that we often felt it was ours all alone.
We looked down into the ancient city ruins from above, then gradually made our way down to see it up close.
They don't have to worry about mowing....the llamas keep the grass trimmed.
As you can imagine, I took oodles of photos as we meandered up and down and all around...
This is believed to be where llamas were sacrificed to appease the apus...the spirits of the mountain gods.
It's hard to even get a handle on how HUGE those rocks are (for perspective, look at the people in the left margin of the photo) and they were all carved by hand and pieced together without mortar to hold them. They've survived basically intact for many centuries despite frequent earthquakes.
The homes would have had thatched roofs, long ago rotted away.
The Incans were amazing scientists...not only engineers but also physicists and astonomists. This stone is a compass stone, perfectly pointing to the 4 mountains surrounding Machu Picchu and perfectly aligned with the 4 compass points. Incredible!
These shallow pools of water were used to reflect the constellations.
Such an amazing place!
There were a couple of optional hikes we could have taken, but the 3000 steps were enough for us, so we stood in line and waited for the bus to take us back down to Aguas Calientes...
...where we strolled through the village and had ice cream for supper.
The next morning, Kim (affectionately known to me as my pack alpaca!) and I boarded the train which took us back to Ollantaytambo, where our next guide Javier and driver Alex met us for the 2 1/2-hour drive back to Lima.
Along the way, atop this mountain is a HOTEL for the REALLY adventurous...
There are ropes to help you climb the mountain to get there. No thanks....
Beautiful scenery along the way...
Peru's tallest snow-capped mountains make a gorgeous backdrop as we made our way back into Lima on our final trip through the Andes.
For now, anyway...
So very glad we chose to experience...