How can anyone not love a place surrounded by place names like Vilcabama and Urubamba and Salkantay. Indeed, the name “Machu Picchu” itself rolls off the tongue in such tantalizing fashion that it’s easy to like even before you know how amazing it is. It’s the “lost city of the Incas” which, as with the city of Sleeping Beauty, was covered by dense vegetation for centuries before being rediscovered.
In the case of Machu Picchu, rediscovery had to wait from around 1530 until July 24, 1911, when American archeologist Hiram Bingham was snooping around those dense, green mountains looking for something else. (Technically, he didn’t “discover” it—the locals knew something was there and, indeed, farmed some of Machu Picchu’s terraces.) Bingham, through an April, 1913 article in National Geographic, brought the site to the world stage, making it now the most-visited tourist destination in South America.
And dense these mountains are! As our group walked 42 miles from a less-traveled direction toward Machu Picchu, I often mused about how difficult it would be to go off-trail, given the intense thickness of the vegetation once we dropped below the alpine zone into the cloud forests. No way! Even our trails, I was told, have to be hacked back annually, or they would disappear within a couple of years. Before long, I was convinced how easily a 5-mile-long settlement with 150 buildings and sectors including a farming zone, a residential neighborhood, a royal district and a sacred area could get so covered up, so lost.
Machu Picchu was abandoned around the 1530s, when the Incas were valiantly trying (and, sadly, mostly failing) to fight off the Spanish conquistadores. As iconic as Machu Picchu is, with its gorgeous rock walls and 3,000+ steps and terraces that hover at the top of 1,500-foot cliffs on three sides above the Urubamba River, the ridge it rests upon is nothing notable given the surroundings. Much higher peaks distract the eye from the simple saddle—except that with excavation you can now see the site, which is at “only” about 8,000 feet (about the elevation of Vail, CO). It’s easy to imagine how it’d be darned hard to find once it was subsumed by the jungle.
It was unseasonably hot the day we were there, and crowded. But the site is well-managed by the locals, and we never felt that the crowds interrupted our enjoyment of it. Busses depart from the mountain town of Aquas Calientes about every 20 minutes. The ride up the 17 switchbacks to the tourist gate is an exercise in quelling motion sickness, and a certain degree of fitness is needed to properly see as much of Machu Picchu as a tourist might like. That said, if it’s on your Life List (I reject that ugly term, “bucket list”), it’s worth the trip.
Besides, there’s always the rest of Peru to see once you’ve been to Machu Picchu! Of something like 118 ecological zones, it has about 88, everything from 20,000+ mountains to seaside to the headwaters of the Amazon River. What an amazing, diverse, interesting, and yes, captivating place.