I am not sure when I first learned about Machu Picchu, but from that first day I have always wanted to see it. I am happy to report that despite my great anticipation, it was much more than I ever imagined. It was one of the most memorable aspects of my South America trip and I have no doubt that I will return again and again.
The ruins known as Machu Picchu (a World Heritage Site) are built on a saddle between the peaks of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. The structures of Machu Picchu are believed to have been built in the 15th century, possibly as the country estate or retreat for the Inca ruler. The Spanish, mercifully, never found it and it remained unknown to the outside world until "discovered" by an American explorer in 1911 (which explains its nickname as the "lost city of the Incas"). It remains the best preserved site of the Inca empire
Machu Picchu can be reached by a three-hour train ride from Cuzco. The train is very comfortable and offers spectacular views of the countryside along the way. Machu Picchu itself is at about 8,000 feet, and the descent from Cuzco's 11,000 feet is readily apparent from the lush vegetation and wetter climate. Although it is possible to visit Machu Picchu for the day from Cuzco, and many do, you will not experience much beyond a whirlwind tour and hoards of people. The crowds, however, clear out around 4:00 pm and after that, the place is magically transformed. (The only way to experience this quietude is to stay at the site in the Hotel Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, which has become very expensive since my visit, or in the nearby town of Agua Caliente and either walk down at the end of the day or arrange private transportation.)
My appreciation for the site was greatly enhanced by climbing to the top of Huayna Picchu (about ninety minutes straight up) and surveying the area from that lofty perch. Unbelievably, the Incas built agricultural terraces at the top of Huayna Picchu and it is a tribute to their skill as engineers and builders that these terraces and the steps up to them remain intact to this day.
It is impossible for me to adequately convey the grandeur of this place. The stonework, especially when one remembers that the Incas had no metal tools, simply boggles the mind. The setting in steep mountains that fall away to the river valley below is like no other I have ever experienced.