Machu Picchu now officially makes our list – along with the Taj Mahal and Venice – of places that are totally worth their enormous tourist hype.
Starting out in the morning at 5.30am it felt like we were going skiing:
- piling on to the buses for the windy climb up the hillside, nobody felt like they’d had quite enough sleep, but everyone was excited
- everyone was hoping the blanket of mist would clear
- every second person was wearing something from The North Face
- some hard core folks were hiking to avoid the bus ride (we were not among them)
When we got to the gates there was a massive queue, but the sight absorbed the thousand or so visitors, just like a good ski field and there was much room to wander.
Machu Picchu is an enigmatic place. Most of its residents had fled by the time of European ‘rediscovery’ in 1911. As a result, beyond knowing it was an Incan city no one really knows for sure what it was for. Intuitively the fact that it’s built atop a steep sided mountain that would be tough to summit, let alone build on, suggests the Incas thought it was a very special place. This was no ordinary Incan city. But whether it was primarily a religious, political or trading centre no one is really sure.
The site is a large part of the spectacle. The mountain is towering. It stands in the way of the Urubamba river which gushes below in deep ravines around a U-shape bend. It feels much higher than it actually is because the slopes are so dizzying. Watching the mist fade from the landscape and the ruins was both a relief, and quite magic.
And then the ruins are great. Unlike most Incan sites the Spanish didn’t know Machu Picchu existed and so they didn’t have the chance to pillage it to pieces. All that’s really lacking is the thatched roofs and the inhabitants. There’s still functioning fountains and aqueducts. And llamas, which add to any attraction. The sunrise still shines perfectly through a single temple window once a year at summer solstice.
The Peruvian government, which manages the site, has capitalised well on the attraction, without over-commercialising it. The tickets are expensive, especially in Peruvian terms. They cost about $70NZD. But the number of visitors is limited per day, as are people climbing adjacent mountains and the Inca trail. And, really pleasingly, the commitment to preserving the site means there is no commerce wherein. Not so much as an overpriced empanada seller. There’s not even bathrooms. Everyone flouts the rule that you can’t eat and drink inside but in doing so become determined to be discrete enough to not even think about littering.
It was an effort to get to Machu Picchu, and a not inconsiderable blip in our budget too. But it’s somewhere we couldn’t have been to Peru without visiting. And that we’d recommend to any tourist without hesitation.