Machu Picchu

There are a few places I’ve seen that transcend time and space. Peru’s Machu Picchu is one of them. Forget the surreal location at the top of a mountain reaching nearly 9,000 feet. Forget the stone cutting that fits rocks together perfectly without mortar or putty. Forget that all of this was done hundreds of years ago without the aid of electricity, computers and the like. Forget that there’s no written history whatsoever from the Inca Indians who built it. Forget that Hiram Bingham, the “re-discoverer” of the area said, upon first looking at it, “This is nothing special.”

You can’t forget it, because they combine to be the essence of what Machu Picchu is all about. The guides speak authoritatively of the Temple of the Sun, the Temple of the Condor and more, but it’s all folklore. There is indeed one structure that seems to have three windows; it’s called the Temple of the Three Windows. For certain, there is one stone that is perfectly fitted into others around it. What makes it special is that it has 32 separate corners.

Machu Picchu lay dormant for more than four centuries as it is invisible from the Urubamba Valley below. You begin to get a glimpse of some of it when you take the bus up a series of mountainside switchbacks from the town of Aguas Calientes. Then, after paying the entrance fee, you walk around a corner and, all of a sudden, it’s there before you. And (oh, how I hate this cliché), it really does take your breath away. And it continues to do so along the many paths and structures — and the Huayna Picchu peak to climb.

The local guides are not expensive; just make sure you negotiate the price up front and that you can communicate easily in Spanish or English.

There are two ways to Machu Picchu from Cusco: on foot (ha!) or by train. The three levels of rail service, all of which take about four hours are:

  • Backpacker, which is the most basic but it’s the cheapest
  • Vistadome, with higher-quality first-class service
  • and the classiest of the three by far, the Hiram Bingham, operated by Orient-Express and leaving from its private train station about 20 minutes out of town. This is great luxury service at its best with white tablecloth service and delicious meals, including alcoholic beverages, going or coming. Once on board, you meet your guide for the day (yes, admission and a tour are included) and the ride itself is just lovely.

Many people go up and back in the same day, but  that’s not enough time. It’s better to stay overnight and have more time to explore, especially at sunrise and sunset. Try to stay at the Sanctuary Lodge right at the entrance. It’s not cheap, but the convenience and quality are worth it. The same is true for the Hotel Monasterio in Cusco. It may be simply the most beautiful Colonial type hotel I’ve ever seen. Orient Express operates both of these hotels.