PERU IS A HUGE COUNTRY that packs in a long Pacific coastline, the spine of the Andes mountain range and the sprawling expanse of the Amazon rainforest.
With such diverse environments within easy reach of each other — you can drive from Lima to the jungle in a day — it’s no wonder Peru proves a popular destination for adventurous travelers. One of the biggest attractions remains the iconic Inca citadel of Machu Picchu, which sits in the forested mountains near the city of Cuzco. Reaching the site presents a bit of a logistical challenge, but countless visitors per year can attest it’s worth the effort.
Machu Picchu is one of the most photogenic tourist attractions in the world, a monument to human ingenuity that appears to hover over the steep peaks and canyons of the Andes. But photos cannot do it justice. To truly understand why the Incas chose to build their greatest city here, you have to see with your own eyes the mist whipping over the temples and palaces, and climb the steep stone terraces to the Sun Gate. Built around 1450–1460, Machu Picchu was abandoned just 100 years later. However, the colonizing Spanish never found the city despite their victory over the Incas in 1572. It took until 1911 for Machu Picchu to be revisited by foreigners, namely Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham. The incredible images he brought back revealed a remarkably well-preserved site that retains its magic despite huge numbers of visitors today.
To get here, you can take a flight into Cuzco’s international airport or travel overland on one of the many tourist buses. Once you reach Cuzco, choose from a number of ways to continue your journey to the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu itself. One option, the train, drops you off at the town of Aguas Calientes near the site, after a three-hour ride. Two companies — Peru Rail and Inca Rail — make the journey, although it’s worth noting neither has permission to run tourist services from Cuzco’s central station. To board the train, you will have to take a bus or taxi to Poroy, some eight miles from the city center. Choose from a number of ticket options, from a basic seat to Peru Rail’s luxurious Hiram Bingham offer. It includes gourmet food, cocktails and entertainment on board as well as entrance to Machu Picchu and a guided tour. For those who are able, however, it is best to embark on a hike to the ancient citadel.
The most famous route to Machu Picchu is the Inca Trail, a four-day trek following ancient paths through the mountains. A mere portion of the tens of thousands of miles of trails built by the Inca Empire around 500 years ago, the section around Machu Picchu is usually just a few yards wide. Trekking these trails made from large rocks arranged in steep steps makes for a serious workout, and some historians say that’s because they were designed with llamas in mind. While the Incas expanded their empire using these routes, the section we now know as the Inca Trail was only used for pilgrimages. The 26-mile trail winds through cloud forest, alpine tundra and jungle, passing a succession of archaeological sites before reaching Inti Punku (the Gate of the Sun), where you will be able to see Machu Picchu laid out below you.
Because of the popularity of the classic Inca Trail route, visitor numbers are restricted and the trail is closed periodically. Make sure to check the latest information and book ahead of travel to ensure you get a place. If you can’t hike the classic route, the Salkantay Trek offers an alternative. This route involves a night in the town of Aguas Calientes rather than arrival directly through the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu, but it features slightly lower prices and equally beautiful scenery.
Another option involves taking public transport through the Sacred Valley to the village of Santa Teresa before embarking on a one-day hike along the train tracks to Aguas Calientes. It proves an interesting route — and by far the cheapest option. Extend the jaunt with a night in Santa Teresa on the way back, and you can spend an evening in the town’s thermal pools to rest your weary legs.
Whichever way you choose to get there, Machu Picchu should not to be missed. A true wonder of the world, it will make you feel like a member of a special club as you gaze out over the spectacular ruins with the jagged Andes as a backdrop.
Machu Picchu Info to Go
Alejandro Velasco Astete Airport in Cuzco, the closest airport to Machu Picchu, offers domestic flights to and from Lima (LIM), Arequipa (AQP), Puerto Maldonado (PEM) and Juliaca (JUL). Less frequent international flights connect to Santiago de Chile (SCL), La Paz (LAP) and Bogotá (BOG). The Cuzco airport lies just more than three miles from the middle of town. Local buses known as “combis” run frequently, but a private shuttle or taxi transfer offers the best option if you have a lot of luggage.
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