The mysterious ruins of Machu Picchu

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April 26th 2008
Published: May 14th 2008
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Late afternoon at Machu PicchuLate afternoon at Machu PicchuLate afternoon at Machu Picchu

The views just got better and better!
An important pile of stones
As tourist attractions go, Machu Picchu has everything: the location is spectacular, on a ridge high above the Apurimac river, with beautiful mountains in view in all directions; the ruins are incredible with fine examples of famous Inca stonework; there's also the sense of mystery: despite all the excavations and studies, no one still knows for sure the exact purpose of Machu Picchu. Was it a ceremonial site? Or a summer retreat for the Inca Emperor Pachcutec? Or, as Hiram Bingham thought, the legendary lost city of the Incas? And why did it remain unknown to the Spanish? Had it been already abandoned? Machu Picchu seems to absorb and invite questions, without offering any definite answers!

We had little time to rest after the 4 day Salkantay trek from Mollepata to Aguas Calientes, as the early starts continued the next morning. We woke at 4am, quickly dressed and walked down to Apu Salkantay restaurant to meet the rest of the group for breakfast. Those on the Inca Trail have the privilege of hiking through Intipunku (the sun gate) to arrive in Machu Picchu for sunrise, but we had to accept second best, taking the first
Group pose at Machu PicchuGroup pose at Machu PicchuGroup pose at Machu Picchu

Behind us is the Temple of the Sun, further back the terraces.
bus from Aguas Calientes up to the ruins at 5.30 am.

The ruins were covered in cloud when we entered, making it look especially romantic and atmospheric in the early morning light. That first sight of the ruins helped us all shake off our weariness! Hubert brought us and our group on a 2 hour guided tour of the ruins before setting us free to explore it ourselves. He had been a fantastic guide on the trek, but at Machu Picchu, some of the things he told us about the history of the Incas contradicted what I had read! However, as the Incas left no written records, much of the history is guess work...

After Hubert had departed, most of our group set off to climb Wayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking the ruins. Only 400 climbers are permitted to summit it every day, and it was just as well we didn't leave it until later as we were numbers 230 and 231 when we registered at 9.30 am. It takes about 45 to 50 minutes to reach the top, along a steep, typically Inca trail, though much of the time was spent waiting for the slow people in front of us to get a move on. Wayna Picchu also contains ruined buildings which spill down over a large area, so we explored the lower ones first and took in the views before heading to the summit. There's not too much space up on the top, and it was very crowded, but that was all forgotten once we saw the spectacular views of the ruins below.

Sad farewells
Then came the difficult moment saying goodbye to our group. Over the last few days we had been very much like a family so it was quite a sad moment when we went our separate ways. We did meet up with Mark, Tiffany and Trang back in Cusco but the others I didn't see again. Most of them were returning to Cusco that day while we had an extra day so we wanted more time in the Wayna Picchu area. We followed a remote trail to the Gran Caverna, on the north face of Wayna Picchu. Wayna Picchu may attract 400 visitors per day but only about 1%!((MISSING)based on how many we met) continue on to Gran Caverna. It's a steep descent, mostly following an Inca path, though in
It's 6am but we're still smiling!It's 6am but we're still smiling!It's 6am but we're still smiling!

We spent 11 hours in Machu Picchu, from opening to closing time.
places the path has disappeared and had been replaced by ladders or reconstructed steps. The Inca's were supposedly a short race but some of the steps on their path were even difficult for me at 6 foot four!

Gran Caverna is in a lovely spot, with ruins spread out over a large area, ruins which offered more examples of the stone crafting skill of the Incas. We ate lunch here, and the quietness and tranquility after Wayna Picchu was striking. Apparently there are plans to reconstruct an old Inca path from Gran Caverna down to the river, but there's a long way to go on this project. We followed the path a short way but it quickly became impassable jungle. The hike back from Gran Caverna joins the regular Wayna Picchu path after about an hour but first we had a steep ascent and a hike along some rather narrow ledges.

Before finishing in the Wayna Picchu area we did one more climb, to Huacay Picchu, a smaller peak between Wayna Picchu and the main Machu Picchu ruins. Like Gran Caverna, this can be reached by a turnoff from the Wayna Picchu path, and it's well worth doing

Intiwatana: the hitching post of the sun. Not pictured, the part broken off during filming of a beer commercial in 2001!
at it's only 15 minutes to the summit. Like Gran Caverna, most visitors ignore this. I would advise anyone going to Machu Picchu to see this as you get a good close up view of the ruins from the 2464m summit as well as an excellent view of the terraces on the west side and the Urubamba river.

You're not supposed to bring lunch into the ruins, but nobody searched our bags, and it's just as well we did given the exorbitant food prices in the restaurant at the entrance. It appears that the locals have been banned from setting up kiosks outside Machu Picchu, hence the only option is the vastly overpriced restaurant and cafe outside. They had the cheek to sell Twix bars for 13 soles (5 dollars) and cans of coke for 15 soles!! So my advice to anyone visiting is to sneak in your lunch or at least bring some snacks. Just don't litter the ruins!

After a quick coffee at the restaurant, we returned to exploring the site. We had been here 8 hours already and tiredness was kicking in after the 4 day hike, but we forced ourselves to go on. This
Ruth on Waynu PicchuRuth on Waynu PicchuRuth on Waynu Picchu

The final difficult climb to the top
might be the only time we see this famous sight, so motivation wasn't a problem. This time we headed out to the Inca Bridge, reached by a path to the west of the upper terraces which ends just before the Inca Bridge. You used to be able to go further, but new regulations were introduced a few years ago when a visitor tried crossing the bridge and fell to his death. In Inca times the path continued much further beyond the bridge but over the centuries it's been eroded away.

Another sad farewell
We then turned back towards the ruins and took in the lovely views from the Watchman's Hut and the terraces. Many people were simply sitting here just gazing down over the ruins, lit up by the soft afternoon light. We stopped here a while before walking back down into the ruins for one last look.

Despite all the visitors to Machu Picchu and all the studies by historians and archaeologists, no one still knows exactly the purpose of Machu Picchu. Hiram Bingham, who rediscovered the ruins in 1911, speculated that this was the "lost" Inca capital of Manco Inca, who had attempted to retake Cusco
Ruins of Machu PicchuRuins of Machu PicchuRuins of Machu Picchu

As seen from the top of Waynu Picchu mountain. It's a steep trek up, but worth it for the views.
from the Spanish in 1536. It's since been established that he was mistaken - Vilcabamba, 100km west, is almost certainly the last site. So what was Machu Picchu then? As it was undiscovered (and hence not destroyed) by the Spanish it seems likely that it had already been abandoned at the time of the conquest. Perhaps we'll never know for certain its true purpose. But that only adds to the allure and mystery of what is surely one of the world's most fascinating sights!

Additional photos below
Photos: 25, Displayed: 25


Temple of the SunTemple of the Sun
Temple of the Sun

Beautiful stonework in one of Machu Picchu's best known temples.
Group Picture at Waynu PicchuGroup Picture at Waynu Picchu
Group Picture at Waynu Picchu

Me, Sebastian, Mark, Tiffany, Ruth, Leticia, Trang, Natalia
The Road to the RuinsThe Road to the Ruins
The Road to the Ruins

The zig-zag path on the left is the road up to the ruins from Aguas Calientes.
Summit of Waynu PicchuSummit of Waynu Picchu
Summit of Waynu Picchu

With the ruins of Machu Picchu below us.
At Waynu PicchuAt Waynu Picchu
At Waynu Picchu

Proof that we made it!
Ladder Descent to Gran CavernaLadder Descent to Gran Caverna
Ladder Descent to Gran Caverna

The trek to Gran Caverna is a good place to escape the crowds on Waynu Picchu.
Gran CavernaGran Caverna
Gran Caverna

These beautiful ruins below Waynu Picchu are little visited compared to the rest of Machu Picchu.
A long way downA long way down
A long way down

View of the Urubamba river from Machu Picchu
Central Part of the RuinsCentral Part of the Ruins
Central Part of the Ruins

Intiwatana in the foreground with the quarries behind.
Asleep under the ruinsAsleep under the ruins
Asleep under the ruins

It all proves too much for one of the porters
Llama at Machu PicchuLlama at Machu Picchu
Llama at Machu Picchu

There are about a dozen llamas grazing in the grounds of Machu Picchu. I think they are there just for tourists - as if the ruins weren't impressive enough already!
Inka BridgeInka Bridge
Inka Bridge

You can reach the Inca Bridge by taking a path along the west side of Cerro Machu Picchu for 20 minutes. The path ends just before the bridge. You used to be able to cross it but it's been closed since a visitor slipped, fell and died.
Fountain Caretaker's HouseFountain Caretaker's House
Fountain Caretaker's House

Restored building in the central part of the ruins
Vistadome Train EntertainmentVistadome Train Entertainment
Vistadome Train Entertainment

And we thought the fashion show had been corny...

21st May 2008

Stunning photos
You seem to have been very lucky with the weather and the light, as well as really making the most of your time there, and the resulting images are wonderful! Thanks for reminding me of one of the most magical places I've been privileged to visit.
9th February 2010

Nice pictures! I especially like the one from Wanyu Picchu.

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