Machu Picchu. What more can be said? These stunning Inca ruins perched on a high mountain in Peru are one of South America’s top attractions. The Spanish never found their way here and the abandoned city remained lost in the jungle until American explorer, Hiram Bingham, came across it during his search for the lost city of Vilcabamba in 1911. Today 2500 tourists pour into the site every day, but somehow it still manages to thrill.
Bingham’s conviction that Machu Picchu was Vilcabamba, the refuge of the last Inca King, has since been refuted, but in some ways that makes the site all the more fascinating. It remains shrouded in mystery, since nobody knows for sure when it was built, by whom and for what purpose. The buildings, with classic Inca architecture, are incredibly well preserved, but it’s really all about the location.
I arrived in Cusco after travelling overland from Lima through the Central Sierra, an adventurous and scenic route, but a lot less time-consuming now that the roads are mostly paved. It was remote and in places very off-the-beaten track.
Cusco, however, as the gateway city to Machu Picchu, is full to bursting point with tourists and has all the horrors that go with being a top travel destination. For the first time in five months I experienced in-your-face hassle. You can’t walk for more than a few minutes along the main streets without being approached by travel agency touts, trinket sellers and restaurant waiters brandishing menus like weapons. Want your photo taken with a ridiculously overdressed local woman with a llama on a leash? You’ve come to the right place.
Luckily, though, Cusco is more than just a tourist town for foreigners with no taste. It’s the former centre of the Inca empire and has some wonderful examples of their architecture – walls constructed with interlocking stones and slabs without mortar. The Spanish destroyed much of the city and often built their churches and houses over Inca buildings.
One example is the church and convent of Santo Domingo built on Qorikancha, a great palace once covered in gold. The huge irony is that while many colonial buildings have suffered during the years from earthquake damage, the early Inca constructions have survived.
We were also lucky enough to arrive at the start of the festival to celebrate the anniversary of the city. For several days, huge parades snaked through the streets, and it seemed like the whole city was taking part, from children to teenagers and adults.
An hour or two from Cusco is the Sacred Valley where you can find a wealth of Inca towns and ruins. Most impressive are the buildings and terraces above the towns of Pisac and Ollantaytambo.
But the jewel in the crown sits at the end of the Urubamba valley – Machu Picchu. The only way to get to Machu Picchu Pueblo from Ollantaytambo is by one of the biggest rip-off train journeys in the world. That, plus the entrance fee, will set you back at least US$200. In the town you’ll find plenty of overpriced hotels and mediocre restaurants. Unless you want to walk up to the ruins you’ll need to fork out another $24 for the return bus trip, 30 minutes each way. If you need the toilet, which you will if you spend all day there, it’ll cost you extra. And don’t even think about visiting the cafes if you’re on a budget.
All this expense can leave a nasty taste in the mouth, but once you start wandering around in awe, you realise why so many people are prepared to be fleeced. I even paid extra to climb the Machu Picchu mountain, which was a steep two and a half hour uphill slog, but the views from the narrow ledge at the summit were breathtaking. It was the perfect place to sit and contemplate the mysteries of the Incas and also reflect on the fact that five months of travelling in this amazing continent were finally coming to an end.