Machu Picchu illustrates the real estate adage, location, location, location. Everywhere you look you are assaulted by beauty. For the mathematicians, MP sits on a saddlepoint so if you look North (I’m not sure of the directions but you will get the idea) you see one mountain, turning South you see another, on the East is a sheer cliff falling onto a river, on the West another cliff falling down onto the tiny town of Agua Calientes. Even further out on the East and West horizons are snow-capped peaks. And then there are the ruins themselves, majestic and mysterious. The picture to the right, taken from Putucusi (see below) gives some idea of the location but no picture can take your breath away like the real thing (or perhaps that was just the altitude!). Click to expand.
Adding to the magic is the fact that getting to MP is still relatively difficult. The most common route is by train from Cusco. It’s only 68 km but takes over 3 hours because the train must go backwards and forwards along trackbacks to make it up some of the steep terrain. The ride is not boring, however, as it takes you through mountain ranges alongside a raging river. As you get further and further into the Andes you begin to understand why MP was not formally discovered until 1911. At Agua Calientes you board a bus which takes you on a one-lane dirt road up the mountain. There are no guard rails on the road and the bus drivers periodically have to slam on the brakes as they meet one of their fellows coming in the opposite direction – one of them then has to back up to let the other pass. True, trains and buses are not the stuff of Indiana Jones but neither is this like negotiating the traffic of Rome in order to see the colliseum, there is a definite sense of exploration.
The ruins are a tourist site, of course, but the poverty of Peru means there are few guard rails, plaques or tour guides pushing you on (you can hire a local guide if you want). Again, to me at least, the experience was more like exploring ruins than visiting ruins.
My most important recommendation is to stay the night in Agua Calientes. Most people come in from Cusco for the day – what this means is that they don’t arrive at the site until about 10:30 and they leave by 2:30 to catch the 3:30 train back to Cusco. Outside of these times there are surprisingly few tourists. If you stay the night you won’t have MP to yourself but in the morning or late afternoon you will be able to explore at leisure and take pictures of the site sans tourists.
On the morning of my second day, I climbed the mountain opposite MP, Putucusi, and had the whole mountain to myself on the climb and the summit. Only on the way down in the afternoon did I meet others.
I recommend climbing both Huayna Picchu and Putucusi (but not on the same day!).
Huayna Picchu is the mountain in all the photos directly connected to MP. Climbing it is not technically difficult but it can be arduous as the air is thin. When I reached the top huffing and puffing, I was shocked to find an ancient Incan laughing at me. At the top is a fort! After doing the climb yourself your appreciation of the work and engineering that went into building at the top of a mountain is increased immeasurably. Also the ruins at the top are dangerous! No guard rails, guides, or people telling you where to go or what to do. Very cool – see picture to the right – off the equilibrium path and you are a goner.
Putucusi is more difficult to climb, there are long sections where you are climbing nearly vertical ladders but reaching the top is worth it.