Peru | Machu Picchu

by Melanie and Jim

For many people, their strongest association with Peru is Machu Picchu. Legendary “lost city” of the Inca, it was revealed to the public in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. As a professor at Yale University in South American history, he organized an expedition to Peru to find the last capital of the Inca. Led by local guides, his crew arrived at Machu Picchu, a largely forgotten site.

The world knows now that Machu Picchu was not the last capital, and that others likely arrived at the mountain city before Bingham. He still deserves credit for the movement to reveal the vine-covered community at the edge of the jungle. Excavations he led over the next three decades exposed a magnificent city that continues to baffle the imagination.

(If you’d like to read more from Bingham himself about the discovery, check this book, provided by Project Gutenberg.)

These days, with a burgeoning tourist economy, Machu Picchu is still the largest draw for tourists in Peru. It certainly was the largest draw for us.

Exploring Machu Picchu, Day 1 

Our ascent to Machu Picchu was easier than Bingham’s. From our lodging in Urubamba in the Sacred Valley, we traveled by bus  to Ollantaytambo, where the highway came to an end. (The photo at the left shows Urubamba above the center, Ollantaytambo to the upper left, and Aguas Calientes in the upper left corner. Click the photo to open it in a new tab.)

In  Ollantaytambo we boarded a train with comfortable seating and a pleasant crew, serving tea and snacks. The train proceeded through the valley to Aguas Calientes, a small town nestled between peaks and fed by natural hot springs. It is the town closest to Machu Picchu, busy with hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and markets, and it serves as the access point for most tourists to the mountain. Here is a short video to give you a notion of the town.

Access to the site is restricted, with a limited number of passes provided each day. Morning guests must leave by mid-day, and afternoon guests must leave by late afternoon. We were fortunate to have afternoon tickets for one day and morning ones for the next.

From Aguas Calientes, there are two ways to reach Machu Picchu. One is by dedicated bus — the fleet of buses travels up and down the mountain repeatedly throughout the day. The other is to hike up. Our group, with trip leader Walter at the fore, took the bus up the narrow switchback road. Here is a brief video of part of that ride.

On site, Walter showed us some of the wonders. His depth of knowledge allowed us to grasp a tiny understanding of Inca history and the use of Machu Picchu as a city. The walls, built without mortar, include both small-stone work as well as large stones. The large ones, intricately fitted, are believed to have been used for structures of great importance such as religious buildings.  The small stones were used for more ordinary terracing and residences. Click on any photo to open the gallery and view larger.

Inca astronomy was used to track the seasons and study the stars. These sacred buildings and others were built with large boulders, carefully carved to a tight fit, with no mortar. Click on any photo to open the gallery and view larger.

In the distance we often caught sight of Huayna Picchu. “Huayna Picchu” means “Young Peak” in Quechua, the Indian language.

As we neared the end of our exploration at Machu Picchu that afternoon, drizzle began to fall. We all took ponchos out of backpacks and covered ourselves before it rained somewhat harder. We’d been lucky so far, but the rainy season was just beginning. What would the next day bring?

Hiking to Sun Gate, Day 2 

The next morning broke, and four in our tour group joined Wilson after an early breakfast. Walter was our primary trip leader, and Wilson was a local guide. When we met Wilson the day before, he was wearing a ball cap made by the Wilson Sporting Goods company, with the company name displayed. When Jim asked if “Wilson” was really his name, he showed us his name badge. Indeed, he was Wilson! He explained that his mother named him after Woodrow Wilson. He also has two brothers, one named “Eddie,” for Eddie Murphy, and one named “Jones,” after Indiana Jones.

Wilson escorted us back up the winding road to the gates of Machu Picchu, where we entered again. This day’s objective was to hike the Sun Gate Trail. In the days of the Inca, it was the primary entrance into Machu Picchu; today it serves as the entrance for those who take the 4-day hike in on the Inca Trail.

The Sun Gate trail climbs from an elevation of about 8,000 ft to about 9,000 ft at the peak. It’s a gradual climb and the trail is mostly smooth, large stones. As we climbed, we had views of the switchback road, and the river and city of Aguas Calientes below us. Click on any picture to open the gallery and see them larger.

We could see Machu Picchu, with a wider and wider perspective from higher up the trail.

And we had a view of the city with Huayna Picchu in the background. The first photo is broad; the second is the top of Huayna Picchu; the third shows hikers taking a break at the top of a lower nearby peak.

The view from the top is beautiful. Here is a screen capture from a video of climbing Huayna Picchu by Annees dePelerinage on YouTube.

Finally we reached the top, Inti Punku, the Sun Gate. Wilson took a photo of us.

Video including some of the views during our Sun Gate adventure.

As we descended, we felt a great sense of achievement. Melanie told Wilson she also felt “un poquito cansado,” or “a little tired.” He smiled and shrugged. “Es un parte del viaje.” “It is a part of the journey.”

The journey has been long, reaching from Melanie’s grade school years when the Inca and Machu Picchu captured her imagination. We still had several stops to make before leaving Peru.

Would you like to read more about our travels in Peru? Here are links for all our posts on Peru:
Peru | Lima | First Impressions
Peru | Textiles and Ceramics
Peru | Arts & Crafts
Peru | Pisac & Ollantaytambo
Peru | Machu Picchu
Peru | Tipon and Sacsayhuaman
Peru | Beer Bar – Oxen – Blessings
Peru | Hillside Homes | Traffic Woes
Peru | Everyday Life
Inca Pot | c 1500
Noon @ Ollantaytambo
Peru | Machu Picchu Plus Much More


16 thoughts on “Peru | Machu Picchu

    1. Jim R

      Thanks for your kind words. Taking the pictures only lasts a fraction of a second. Using them in a post gives us many opportunities to review them and the experience. It makes for a vivid diary. Thanks for your comments, Jon.

    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      We would have loved to tackle Huayna Picchu if our time allowed. Now I’m trying to convince Jim that we need to go back SOON to see and do more! Thanks for taking a look.

  1. tierneycreates

    Wow! How many people in their lifetime get to do something like this! Lovely photo of you two and just amazing – enjoyed your photos, videos and stories – that is funny your trip leader and his brother were named for famous Americans!

  2. Eliza Waters

    It is so interesting to see your photos and videos, Jim. As I may have mentioned, I backpacked the Inca Trail nearly 40 years ago, and I was astounded at how much has been excavated since then. The site was then still largely buried. And Aguas Calientes! There were only a few low buildings clinging the the river’s edge and a short trail led to a cement tank that was the hot springs. The water temporarily turned your skin a ghostly pale milky color due to the minerals. I ruined my knees on the hike and it felt good to soak in the hot waters. I was totally exhausted, the altitude was rough!

    1. Jim R

      The pressure of tourism is changing towns and creating some new problems. There is a lot packed into that little town. There is nowhere to go. Our hotel room was directly above the Urubamba River. Rooms at the from had the train right outside their windows.

      I’m glad you are able to compare the views from today and when you backpacked. From the train to Aguas, we saw several groups of hikers on the trail.

      1. Eliza Waters

        Back then, there was a train from Cuzco every day, returning at the end of the day. At night, there were only a few hikers left in town. Deserted compared to today, so very quiet after the last train left.
        I imagine that tourism has had to be managed, particularly on the trail, where I heard there was a plethora of trash and human waste. Some order had to be put in place. Humans often ruin what they love, sadly.


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