From a splendidly old-fashioned train journey through the Sacred Valley to losing oneself in the tranquility of the terraced ruins, the Machu Picchu experience is everything but ordinary
Mark Twain once said, “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”
Taking inspiration from Twain’s words, I let everything else take a back seat and took off to South America. Reaching a place that’s diametrically on the other side of the globe requires a lot of patience. After 30 hours of hovering, I finally landed in Lima (the capital city of Peru) only hoping the beauty of Machu Picchu would be worth the jet lag. And, it turned out to be nothing less than spectacular!
My journey to the UNESCO World Heritage Site started at Cusco – a city in the Peruvian Andes that was once the capital of the Inca Empire, and a gateway to the heavenly site.
Taking a three-and-a-half hour train journey is the only way to get to the Inca ruins other than hiking the arduous 4-day Inca Trail that goes through the Sacred Valley.
For the love and romance of rails, I opted for a first-class voyage aboard the enchanting Belmond Hiram Bingham train that departs from Poroy station, located on the outskirts of Cusco (a 30-minute ride from Cusco). The train takes its name from the famous American explorer and Yale University lecturer – Hiram Bingham, who brought Lost City of the Incas to the world’s attention, when he stumbled across the citadel in 1911.
My uber luxury South American sojourn kickstarted from the moment I arrived at the train station. All that excitement doubled up on catching a glimpse of the train’s deep-blue coloured carriages modelled after the British Pullman carriages of the 1920’s and decorated with golden writing. After all, a visit to a once-in-a-lifetime place calls for a once-in-a-lifetime journey!
After enjoying a glamourous welcome with an exuberant performance by traditional Andean dancers dressed in colourful garb and elegant champagne drinks and canapés, I was ready to grab a glass of Pisco sour, sit back and take in the unmatched views from my window seat.
As the train slowly moved towards Aguas Calientes following the fast flowing Urubamba River, the scenery became more dramatic with narrow valleys and towering mountain peaks dominating the skyline.
To the beat of the Peruvian cajón and tambourines and mellow, sweet sounds of the Andean flute and pipes, live traditional Peruvian music played by local musicians in the train’s observatory car set the tone for an unforgettable trip to the the citadel. The lookout car also seemed like an ideal place to catch the magical views, capture some holiday snaps and befriend fellow travellers.
On arrival in Aguas Calientes, all passengers are required to take a 30-minute private shuttle bus ride to the citadel of Machu Picchu. After descending from the bus and reaching the entrance gate, it was time for the very first glance of the renowned site.
A symbol of wonder and beauty, Machu Picchu – which means “old mountain” in the Quechua language – is a 550-year old citadel nestled in what looks like a cradle of surrounding mountains.
Built 7,973 ft above sea level and covering 116 square miles, the ruins are large, almost the size of a village. Stepping inside the structures of Machu Picchu is like stepping inside a natural cathedral!
It’s hard to believe but these massive structures were built by the Incas without using wheels, iron tools, or even mortar. Instead, the rocks were cut to fit together perfectly which makes it an engineering marvel. There is something mysterious about this imposing Incan archeological site – the densely-forested location, the misty atmosphere with swirling clouds, the way Urubamba river wraps around the site in an omega shape, llamas grazing freely on the massive agricultural terraces, the sacred temples, the quiet and tranquil atmosphere despite of the crowds of tourists or the fact that it remains to be a burial ground. It is believed that all the inhabitants in this area died of a smallpox epidemic, thus leaving the city totally abandoned for centuries, without notice of its existence to the world.
When it comes to the ancient splendour called Machu Picchu, there are a million secrets about the place and the people who built it and so much that’s yet to be discovered! I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and asked myself – Have I truly arrived at the legendary “lost city of the Incas”? Machu Picchu has been on my travel bucket list for as long as I remember! All these years, I have only imagined myself posing against the lush-green architectural gem, peppered with aqueducts, granite and limestone temples. And here I was, finally getting to witness the emerald peaks in person! In this age of “Instagram travel” where most people go places only to get an absolutely drool-worthy picture and show it off for bragging rights, these cloud-covered ruins make you want to keep the phone away and unravel its mysteries.
While you may lose yourself in the intricate stone constructions and epic hilltop views, make sure to find a secluded spot and the right angle for a tourist-free photograph! And all this, not for social media but to freeze your once-in-a-lifetime moment!
Upon returning to the bus station, the first thing you’d want to do is grab a book on Machu Picchu to find out Bingham’s original story and how enchanted he’d have been by the idea of searching for the lost city of the Incas! As the train was slowly and gracefully winding its way back to Cusco, the day was drawing to a close with starry skies and the changing scenery of the Sacred Valley. While trying to sum up my experience at the mystical city, I could only think of Bingham’s words:
“Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Machu Picchu was never supposed to be discovered. The Incans were concerned about the Spanish discovering and ransacking the valuables at Machu Picchu. To prevent the same, a few years after the city was built in 1532, the Incans vacated it, burning the forest on the way out so the re-growth would cover the pathways up the mountain. The plan somehow worked and the Spanish never found out about Machu Picchu and it was hidden to outsiders until Hiram Bingham visited in 1911.
1. If you’re planning to trek up to Machu Picchu, don’t make the mistake of flying in the day before you leave. You need time to acclimatise so spend around 2 to 3 days in Cusco before heading to the mountain. Indulging in warm cocoa tea will speed up the process!
2. Do carry your passport to Machu Picchu for entry purpose, and most importantly, to collect one of the world’s coolest stamps. You can do this in a small office just to the left of the entrance to the Inca ruins, anytime between 8 am to 5 pm.
3. Pick a train to suit your budget. While Inca Rail and Peru Rail are budget options, Belmond Hiram Bingham train gives you a chance to indulge in a delicious three-course meal and savour local wine in vintage carriages made out of polished wood and brass. Whichever train you choose, book as far in advance as possible.
4. If train tickets from Cusco are sold out, try to buy a ticket from the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley to Aguas Calientes. Taxis and mini vans between Ollantaytambo and Cusco (a distance that’s little over an hour) are plentiful.
5. Fancy embroidered accessories and handicrafts? You’ll find lots of little stores run by local women in the market near Machu Picchu bus station. Haggle for a good price!
In case you don’t wish to shop, grab a spot at one of the cool cafes and feel the hustle and the bustle of the vibrant bylanes.