Mysterious & Mystical Machu Picchu

Verdant lands and stunning vistas characterize this historic site.
Words and photography by Gay Peppin

machupicchuMachu Picchu, the “lost” city of the Incas, sits in the saddle between two mountains shrouded in mist and mystery. It’s one of the most visited archeological sites in South America, and is a cultural and natural wonder.

Some believe it was built around 1450 AD as the royal estate for the Inca ruler Pachacuti, while others feel it was a sacred spiritual sanctuary or a political/administrative site. It was mysteriously abandoned as a city before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1532. Consequently, it was not discovered damaged or destroyed, as were most of the Incan cities and culture. Though not lost to the local people, who continued to farm some of its terraced lands, it remained unknown to the wider world until 1911 when Hiram Bingham III, a Yale University professor, was led there by a local guide.

Bingham had been trekking through the jungle searching for Vilcabamba, the city where Incan royalty withstood the Spanish invaders for a time. Instead he found Machu Picchu; the site’s significance to the Incas is still being debated. Subsequently, Bingham received funding from the National Geographic Society and returned with a multidisciplinary team to clear, excavate and document the site. Accounts of his adventures are reportedly the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones!

Fast forward to 100 years later. If you are the outdoors sort you can hike the Inca Trail or an alternative trail, and camp along route to the site. Or you can take the train from the Sacred Valley or near the former Inca capital of Cusco (at Poroy Station), which will whisk you through the rainforest and beside the Urubamba River to the town of Aguas Calientes. There you can hike and then climb to the site, or take the bus that ascends the mountain on a switchback road with sheer drops and heart-stopping hairpin turns.

At the entrance, guides can be hired to show you around, or you can wander at will. A pamphlet with a map and brief history is provided, but other than directional arrows and one-word signs for specific structures, there is no interpretation given. To know more, a good guidebook is essential. All facilities are outside the check-in where you can get the official Machu Picchu stamp in your passport. Upon entering the site, you will see before you the breathtaking beauty of this citadel city with paths leading off in different directions.

Head northwest past the storehouses and cross the terraced fields to the urban sector and principal plaza to reach Huayna Picchu, the mountain famously featured in photos. Climbing this mountain requires that you purchase a separate ticket when you pay your admission, and is limited to 400 people per day.

Alternatively, you can turn left and hike a steep and winding path through the forest to the top of the terraces that provide a spectacular view overlooking the city. The trail branches here—left takes you to the Sun Gate and Machu Picchu Mountain, up the hill to the Guardhouse and then on to the Inca Drawbridge. You can also follow the path on the right to the Main Gate and beyond to see the temples of the Sun, Condor and Three Windows, plus the fountains, Inka’s House, Group of Three Doorways, the Astronomical Observatory, Intihuatana, Ceremonial Rock and other structures.

The trapezoid windows and closely fitted and shaped stonework speak to the skilled design and construction of the city, which has withstood encroaching forests and earthquakes. The area is considered to be a semi-tropical highland jungle, and Machu Picchu encompasses verdant lands with fragrant foliage and meandering llamas grazing the grassy hillsides.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, this once-lost city is suffering from its success, and with over a million visitors a year, the Peruvian government is working to conserve this historic sanctuary for the future.


Gay Peppin is a freelance writer and photographer who loves to travel the world.

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