What can you expect when exploring Peru’s iconic Machu Picchu in one day?
Situated in southern Peru’s Eastern Cordillera and perched high on a 2,430-metre mountain ridge, Machu Picchu commands spectacular vistas over the Sacred Valley and surrounding mountains.
Getting to Machu Picchu
If you haven’t already booked a tour in your country, then most travellers arrive in Cusco to book a trek or tour from this city. Typically, it’s the Classic Inca Trail trek, which lasts from one day to three days.
Another easy way to see Machu Picchu is by taking a train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, then a bus to the gates of Machu Picchu.
If you’re after a more challenging trek to also see stunning diverse vistas and less tourists, then I highly recommend the 5-day Salkantay trek, which is difficult but wonderful. Day 5 of the trek is when you finally explore Machu Picchu for one day.
A little background on Machu Picchu
As one of the seventh wonders of the modern world, many theories are bandied around about why the Incas built Machu Picchu. And, in such an isolated region of Peru atop a mountain ridge, at such high altitude that you feel as if you’re in the clouds.
Although over 500 years’ old, the Incas inhabited the city of Machu Picchu for only 100 years, before the Spanish conquistadores arrived, which brought plagues and waged military campaigns. With the fall of the last Incan capital in 1572, the line of Incan rulers came to an end and abandoned, Machu Picchu descended into ruin.
Incorrectly renown as the ‘lost city of Vilcabamba la Vieja’, some archaeologists and anthropologists believe that Machu Picchu is where the Incas were born. But also, where the Incas fought at length, back in the 16th century with the conquistadors. Although, some 50 years after its discovery by the American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911, this theory was proved incorrect.
Other theories include Machu Picchu built as a holy nunnery, or to honour a sacred landscape, or as a royal retreat.
The mystery of Machu Picchu still baffles scholars as to why the city was built and at this strategic location. From above, you can see that Machu Picchu has been made in the shape of a Condor, of which we saw at the Colca Canyon but not at this site.
The Incas could observe any potential threats below, but this magnificent city lay hidden from below. The Quechuan name Machu Picchu translates to “Old Peak”, which refers to the mountain and not the city.
Ready at sparrow fart (Australian term) around 4:30 am, you have an option to either hike an hour to the Machu Picchu entrance and arrive by 6am, or take the official bus from Aguas Calientes, which you need to book the day before.
After walking 75 kilometres over 4 days on the Salkantay trek, we succumb and pay for the expensive bus.
Arriving at the entrance, the air is alive and buzzing with excitement as travellers from around the world have come to lay eyes on this incredible Inca citadel. Visitor numbers are restricted to 2,500 people on any given day.
Your passport is stamped with the obligatory Machu Picchu stamp, before we enter a world of mystery and awe. This year is the 100th year anniversary, since its discovery, so my passport stamp is special.
Our Salkantay trek guide Juan, provides a 1.5-hour tour on the history of Machu Picchu, and then we are free to wander until closing time.
As the most famous archaeological site on the continent and etched into our subconscious just as the Pyramids are, Machu Picchu lives up to every expectation and more.
Early morning mist shrouds this ancient site creating an ethereal back drop accentuating further the mystery, which envelops Machu Picchu.
Whether in my mind or a reality, the thrill of actually being here sends shivers up my spine and goose bumps appear on my arms. It’s a moment of clarity and realisation that makes you feel so insignificant, whilst standing amongst aged fragments and ingenuity of the previous 500 years.
The hostile mountain range and hidden location, suggests that the Incas did not want this city to be found.
Almost completely encircled by the Urubamba River – Incan name of Vilcamayo (Sacred River) – marvelling at how this splendid city was erected from the plateau’s stones and at this altitude, is baffling.
As the Incas believed the sun was their God, viewing a sunrise or sunset from specific locations within Machu Picchu, aligns accurately with important religious mountains, during a solstice or equinox.
Even with this many tourists on the site, the breath-taking views and inspiring atmosphere are not diminished, and still captivate.
Stones strewn around the site are intriguing and some are puzzling. We learn that the Incas chiselled holes in the stones around 10 cm apart and in a straight line, using a bronze bar. With a piece of wood wedged into the hole, then water poured over the wedge, this cracked the stone, which was ready for building – innovative.
Ashlar, the Incan unique construction method sees the large stones cut into jigsaw puzzles similar to bricks, so that mortar was not required. Large foundation stones and complex drainage systems – an estimated 60 percent of the site, lie beneath Machu Picchu. Incan engineers wanted Machu Picchu to last forever.
Built to withstand earthquakes, the 8.5-hectare site containing 172 buildings, is a testament to Incan craftsmanship as Machu Picchu is located on two separate fault lines.
Almost the last to be kicked out before closing time, I never want to leave this alluring ancient city. Although, with the return train and bus, and accommodation booked in Cusco, sadly it’s time.
Llama’a casually roam around the site without any fear of tourists.
The surreal experience of magical Machu Picchu will remain with you forever…
If you are keen, trek up to Huayna Picchu for a spectacular view looking back down to Machu Picchu. You need to book this permit at an additional cost in Cusco, or in Aguas Calientes the day before you climb.
Huayna Picchu is at a height of around 2,693 metres, which is another 260 metres higher than Machu Picchu and the climb takes around an hour. Only 200 people are allowed to climb at the one time and this is only twice per day, in the morning. I hear that the stone steps are extremely steep and it’s a hard climb.
Huayna Picchu is the highest peak, which you see in the classic photos of gorgeous Machu Picchu.
Wanting to spend the whole day at Machu Picchu, I didn’t indulge in this extra climb – although the photos from some of our group’s trekkers that climbed Huayna Picchu are simply spectacular.
For those wanting to learn more detail about Machu Picchu, then this Roy Adkins video provides a documentary.