I HAVE always been intrigued by Machu Picchu – the ancient settlement built on a peak in the Peruvian Andes and an Inca city hidden from the world for centuries and only revealed by American archeologist Hiram Bingham in 1911 – but I could never imagine getting myself there.
I thought the only way to Machu Picchu was along the Inca Trail, walking for days, lugging my gear over one tough summit after another and sleeping rough without flushing toilets or running water.
Imagine my surprise when I found Machu Picchu on the itinerary for my first visit to Peru with a note explaining I would “travel by train and bus to the top of the mountain for a guided tour”, with the only hard hiking the very short climb from the front gate to a scenic spot providing the best view over the stone citadel.
Instead of hauling myself up myriad Andean peaks, suffering the effects of mild altitude sickness with a nagging headache and constant breathlessness, I sat with my feet up riding the rails through the Sacred Valley, before a stroll took me to the bus that completed the journey to South America’s most famous ruins.
“You have to be in perfect physical condition to do the Inca Trail,” my Adventure World Travel guide Celina Miranda Zuniga said as I took in my first view of Machu Picchu from above the southern agricultural terraces.
“You need to be very fit, have strong muscles, and be experienced before doing that hike because you will be walking across narrow steps and cobblestones … at the very edge of the mountains,” she said.
“The highest point of the Inca Trail is 5200m, the lowest is 2600m, and the average altitude for the journey is 3000m, which means most will suffer some symptoms of altitude sickness and you have to walk five to eight hours a day.
“The way we did it, catching the train from Ollantaytambo and the bus from Aguas Calientes, is a much easier way to get to Machu Picchu and these ruins can be done by everyone regardless of age or disabilities.
“I have brought very old people to Machu Picchu – we have nice places that are flat and areas that are easy to walk and even people in wheelchairs and some who are blind.”
The Inca Trail is a 43km, four-day trek – considered to be one of the world’s most famous multi-day walks.
I could only imagine the euphoric sense of achievement arriving at Machu Picchu on foot but, standing on the side of the mountain in the still of the morning, I couldn’t believe the first view would have been any more thrilling if I’d lugged my pack over the Andes to get there.
Machu Picchu was overwhelming, one of the few things I’ve seen on my travels that exceeded expectations.
I found I couldn’t speak or even snap a photo for a few minutes while my eyes swept over the traditional structures below and the soaring peaks forming a protective wall around this 15th-century fortress.
The colours were subtle but dramatic, with the scene dominated by a spectrum of green – from the vivid lime of the manicured grass to the deep olive of the dense forest carpeting the peaks climbing skyward from the Rio Urubamba below – and the polished shades of black and grey in the maze of dry-stone walls.
To reach the elevated perch, we followed the winding steps that climbed to the left just past the entrance, resting to catch our breath and take in that first panoramic view, before descending to explore the heart of the ancient city.
It’s true Machu Picchu is all steps, with structures sitting on terraces dug deep into the mountain and designed to support the buildings during earthquakes. But not once after that initial climb did I feel puffed because we trod only a few metres before pausing to take in a new vista.
We walked through ceremonial baths and royal tombs, stood in the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Three Windows, visited the House of the High Priest and the Sacred Plaza, sat on a stone wall above the narrow northern terraces that descended abruptly to the water far below, and passed through a gate said to grant wishes.
We didn’t talk much and after Celina Miranda shared a story about ancient life on the top of this Andean peak, we sat in silence listening to the breeze twisting around the stone walls and taking in the magnitude of the isolated location.
I was expecting to spend a long day on top of the mountain, exploring this vast compound, but after only a few hours wandering around Machu Picchu, it was back on the bus for the 8km return journey to Aguas Calientes and a hearty Peruvian lunch at Sumaq Hotel before a little shopping in the local market.
It was a day trip with an early start and a late night but I didn’t have to walk far, I stayed at the lovely Hotel Rio Sagrado rather than sleeping in a tent, dined on gourmet food and not freeze-dried rations, and experienced the magic and mystery of Machu Picchu when I thought that was something I would probably never do.
Machu Picchu is 70km from Cuzco in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, with Peru’s official tourism website providing information (peru.travel).
LAN Airlines (lan.com) flies from Sydney to Santiago in Chile six times a week, with a short stop in Auckland, and there are regular flights that continue on to Cuzco the gateway to Machu Picchu going via Lima.
Peru Rail (www.perurail.com) has several trains a day departing from Cuzco and Ollantaytambo, with just as many options for the trip back but locals recommend return reservations, and the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu leaves the ticket office on the main road with the first service at 5.30am and the last trip down at 5.45pm.
If you prefer to visit Machu Picchu on an organised tour with an expert guide, then Adventure World (adventureworld.com.au) has a variety of itineraries covering every corner of this captivating country including a three-day jaunt through the Sacred Valley and a comprehensive 12-day expedition called Highlights of Peru.
Stay at the comfortable Sonesta Hotel (sonesta.com/cusco) or luxurious Hotel Monasterio (monasteriohotel.com) in Cuzco, the peaceful Hotel Rio Sagrado (riosagrado.com) beside the Urubamba River and a 15-minute drive from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley, or the Sumaq Hotel (machupicchuhotels-sumaq.com) in Aguas Calientes.