Every year during the dry season between May to September multitudes of visitors from all over the world stand in awe of the spectacular ruins of the Lost City of the Incas. What they feel now must only be a fraction of the awe Hiram Bingham felt when he discovered the ruins stumbling across them accidentally in 1911.
Overgrown with vegetation and almost impossible to reach the ruins then hid what we now see: a tremendously fascinating archaeologically important site with palaces, temples, plazas, dwellings, steps and terraces. It is situated at an altitude of 2,400 meters (some 8,000 ft.) above sea level. Its climate is semi-tropical and the mist that often hangs over the peaks gives it a mystical, ethereal ambiance. The Incan city is laid out in such a way that the Northern half tends to be agricultural steppes and high ritual areas while the southern end/side tends to be agricultural steppes and domestic residences.
Machu Picchu is an architectural wonder with the Incan trapezoidal building techniques very evident. The walls of the buildings are of varying heights and though much of the ruins have been excavated one can wonder what lies yet to be discovered.
Once there, the traveler can find a quiet spot to contemplate but The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu can be daunting. The usual flow of tourists from other countries is through Lima and on to Cuzco by national airlines. Once in Cuzco the ancient capital of the Incas the norm is to allow a day or two to acclimatize to the altitude to prevent altitude sickness or soroche. Do try the traditional welcome cup of coca leaf tea to help you get used to the 3379 m. (11,150 ft) altitude.
While in Cuzco you’ll have plenty to see. Buy a tourist ticket which is valid for the length of your trip. It covers admission to the many archaeological sites, temples and other places of interest in Cuzco or Qosco in Quechua.
From Cuzco, most travelers take the 6:00 AM train to Aquas Calientes located on the Urubamba river at the base of Machu Picchu. There is the local non-tourist train which is always busy, crammed with residents about their business as well as travelers. There are also the tourist trains. You’ll see vendors selling coca leaves with a bit of stone. Chewing them together is a centuries-old practice to make working in higher altitudes easier. The Incas used it; so do their modern day descendants and savvy tourists.
Aguas Calientes, named for the thermal springs, is a bit of a boom town built on the tourist trade and as such is not highly recommended as a destination in itself, but there are reasonable places to stay if you plan to stay more than one day at Machu Picchu. You may want to soak in the hot springs after touring the ruins. If you want to be right onsite, you can stay at the more expensive Hotel Las Ruinas, located at the base of the ruins. You’ll be glad you did for you can stay later in the afternoon to watch the sunset after the bulk of the tourist groups leave to catch their return rides and in the morning you’ll be there to see the ruins at dawn and before others arrive about 10:00 AM.
From the train station, buses travel up the steep mountain road, named for Hiram Bingham, with thirteen hairpin curves. It doesn’t seem so bad going up, but once you can look down at the road, you may be a little more uneasy about the return trip. Be prepared for weather changes with layered clothing you can add as the temperature drops. The climate is mostly temperate throughout the year with temperatures between 8 -11 C. There are two seasons: rainy between November and March and dry and warm between April and October. However, during June July and August the temperature can drop to freezing.
Depending on your starting point, the Inca Trail is 27 to 35 miles long passing through high-mountain desert, cloud forest, and mountain passes with elevations of nearly 14,000 feet and an orchid-rich jungle before it brings you to the fabled Lost City of the Incas.
You look down at deep river gorges and up at snow-clad mountain peaks. There are moments when you may be the only person on the trail and yet feel as though there are other beings there with you. You may feel a spirituality of place, an intense awareness of time and place.
You may also be surrounded by other tourists. The Inca Trail is a highly popular way of getting to Machu Picchu. You may walk it alone with a group or with a guided tour complete with porters and meals provided.