On a 1911 Yale University Peruvian expedition, Professor Hiram Bingham III (noted academic, explorer and treasure hunter) was led to an ancient sacred site in the Cusco Region of Peru’s Urubamba Province, high in the Andes Mountains. As the expedition progressed, an impressive cityscape, heavy with rainforest growth and the dust of time, appeared before their eyes. Bingham brought word of this discovery back to the United States. Returning to Peru a year later with National Geographic in tow, Bingham revealed this once-forgotten, high-altitude enclave to a curious world.
Uncovered after centuries of solitude, researchers and explorers debated whether this rock-star estate was once a retreat for 16th-century Incan emperor Pachacuti or a sacred landscape encircled by the Urubamba River with perfect alignment between mountains and equinox/solstice dates. Either way, the site is a magnificent representation of an Incan Empire city, complete with expertly polished dry-stone walls. If those walls could talk, they might be able to shed some light on a few other curiosities surrounding the city.
Traveling to Machu Picchu at its elevation of 7,790 feet can be a little tricky, but the experience is worth every hurdle. The city is believed to have been built around 1450, but was abandoned just a century later. Rather remote, its heart and soul have remained intact with well-preserved Peruvian landmarks like the Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows and other treasures of the Sacred Valley.
Your visit to one of the new Seven Wonders of the World, as judged by a global Internet poll, might very well begin in Cusco. Though this option is popular, Cusco’s 13,000-foot altitude has thrown many a traveler for a loop with symptoms of altitude sickness. We suggest a more relaxing start to your journey, beginning in Lima. As soon as you land, make tracks for Aguas Calientes. And by making tracks, we mean take the railway.
Trains from Lima to Aguas Calientes, a city nestled up next to Machu Picchu, run frequently. Staying in Aguas allows visitors to trade Cusco’s ethereal altitude and its accompanying acclimation for a more tolerable sub-8,000-foot initiation. Still, there are oxygen machines to help you breathe easier and coca leaves to chew that assist with the symptoms. Or you could just rest, drink lots of water and tea, and let your body do its thing with the ultra-thin air. You should be ready in a day or two.
The trains come in three flavors, suitable for any budget. There’s the great option of the midpriced Vistadome, with big windows, skylights, leather seating and air conditioning. Then there’s the la-tee-dah Orient Express Belmond Hiram Bingham, with its white tablecloths, fine wines and attentive service. And at the more affordable end of the spectrum is the Expedition version, the choice of the budget traveler. They all get you there, with emphasis on differences in style. Or you could do a five-day hike along the Classic Inca Trail at 9,000 feet, beginning 50 miles from Cusco. It’s really up to your abilities and adventure levels.
Aguas Calientes has some very nice accommodations to enjoy while you’re acclimating. Between the Orient Express property at the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo and the Hatuchay Tower, options from all levels of hotel stardom are yours. Plus, you’ll be close to the entrance of the park (meaning you can enjoy the AC for as long as possible) for an early start to your Incan exploration.
Buying advance tickets for just about everything is advisable. Planes, trains, shuttle from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu, admission to Machu Picchu and trail passes for the Huaynu Picchu Trail are all more easily purchased online. Since there is no ticket window at the entrance to Machu Picchu, you’ll have to acquire those in advance.
What else will you need? Your passport. It is required to enter the park, so bring it, along with as much cash as you will reasonably need, on top of the coins required for restroom facilities. There are no ATMs in the park, and only one in Aguas Calientes that is reliably stocked and operational. (One more important note: there are no restrooms once you’re inside the park. Take care of business at the entrance facilities, then prepare to put that function on hold until you’re on your way out of the park.)
You will not want to miss the Temple of the Moon, accessed by taking the Mt. Huayna Picchu Trail. Only the first 400 eager beavers get a pass to explore the temples, shrines and caves along this route, so being first in line early in the morning will ensure your position. General entry to the park allows 2,500 visitors per day, but this trail to a sensitive area has a strict visitor cap. The view is priceless and worth a lot more than the sacrifice you made to get up so early. You’re welcome.
Other stops worthy of your own personal sacrifice include Intimachay, or Cave of the Sun, the Intipunku, or Gate of the Sun, and Serpent Rock in the Rock Quarry. Also, consider climbing Mt. Machu Picchu as opposed to Mt. Huaynu Picchu. This road less traveled can take about 90 minutes in exchange for “pinch yourself” views of the city of Machu Picchu, the Urabamba River below and majestic Andean peaks in the distance.
While back in the city, enjoy the Aguas Calientes hot springs for a mere pittance, shop the market at the train station and dive into the local cuisine. Then begin to prepare the monologue that will go with your jaw-dropping slide show.