NESTLED in the heart of the Peruvian mountains more than 2400m above sea level is one of the world’s most famous archaeological sites.
Built by the Incas in 1450, Machu Picchu, 80km northwest of Cusco on the eastern slope of the Andes, is a creation of ancient, awe-inspiring stone ruins, surrounded by Amazonian jungle.
For centuries the ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu which sits high above the Urubamba River, remained undiscovered and hidden from the world, with only a few locals privy to its existence.
It wasn’t until 1911 that American explorer Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the ruins during a South American expedition.
Yet the history of Machu Picchu remains vague.
Some researchers believe that the pre-Columbian site was built as an estate for the Incan emperor Pachacuti.
Another historian maintains that due to its unique position in relation to sacred landscapes such as mountains – which were considered to hold religious significance – Machu Picchu was created
as a spiritual site.
Other theories suggest that it was constructed as: a settlement to control the economy of conquered regions; a prison to house those who had committed heinous crimes against Incan society; or an
agricultural testing area.
Whatever its purpose, construction of Machu Picchu was never completed: the Spanish Conquest forced the Incas to abandon the region in 1572.
The Spanish, however, did not find the ruins. When Bingham discovered it, much of the region was overgrown by thick vegetation.
He eventually cleared the site, and the stonework of the giant walls and terraces has since been reconstructed to give visitors a better understanding of what it once looked like.
Built using natural raw material in the classic Incan dry-stone method (which doesn’t require mortar), Machu Picchu is a testimony to the Incan civilisation, with the detail and meticulous placement of each rock apparent.
The ruins – which are divided into urban and agricultural sectors – comprise more than 100 structures including temples, residences with thatched roofs, stone steps and water fountains connected
by an impressive drainage system.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, and voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, Machu Picchu attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists annually.
While some visitors travel to Machu Picchu by bus, the majority walk there via the Inca Trail: the same route that Incas travelled thousands of years ago.
There are hundreds of Incan pathways leading to Machu Picchu but the four-day trek, which starts in the Urubamba Valley, is the most popular and is widely considered to be one of the most famous treks in the world.
The 43km path winds through the tropical jungle of the Sacred Valley, passing other Incan ruins and over the Andes mountain range.
After days often spent battling rain, exhaustion and altitude sickness – the trail reaches a height of 4200m – trekkers climb an almost vertical flight of 50 steps to the Sun Gate, which reveals the ‘lost
city’ below in all its glory.
Most groups arrive at the Sun Gate just before dawn so they can see the first rays of light shine across Machu Picchu – a truly breathtaking experience.
From there it’s only a short walk down to the ruins, where tourists are able to explore freely for the remainder of the day. For extra-keen hikers – or those who have travelled to Machu Picchu by bus –another peak is available for climbing: Huayna Picchu.
At 1640m, the peak offers an incredible bird’s-eye view of the ruins below and the Urubamba River snaking around the base of the mountain on which Machu Picchu sits. Visitors need to be quick, however, as only the first 400 in line are able to climb it.
Despite Machu Picchu being a major revenue generator for Peru – it is the country’s most popular tourist destination – there have been growing concerns over the increasing number of people who visit.
In 2011, the Peruvian Government enforced entrance restrictions to reduce the impact of tourism and ensure the ruins remain intact. Now only a maximum of 2500 visitors are allowed through the
gates daily and UNESCO is considering placing Machu Picchu on its List of World Heritage in Danger.
Travellers who want to visit Machu Picchu via the Inca Trail can only do so as part of a guided tour.
There are many tour operators to choose from and prices range between US$500 and US$600 for the typical four-day tour.
A five-day trek – which includes stops at various other ruins – can cost anywhere between US$600 and US$900 depending on the group size, and a two-day trek to Machu Picchu costs about US$300.
The tour price includes transport to the start of the trek, all entrance fees, meals, porters (to carry food, tents and bags) and return to Cusco via train.
Travellers are urged to book their tour well in advance as places are often filled very quickly – especially during the peak season between May and September, when the weather is fairly dry and sunny.
Visitors should note that it takes at least a couple of days to acclimatise to the altitude in Cusco, so arriving a few days before the trek is recommended. The only option for those who don’t wish to hike for several days to see the ruins is to take a bus to Machu Picchu from the nearby town of Aguas Calientes.
Travellers are able to organise this themselves, and busses leave every hour.
The journey takes 20 minutes one way and costs US$12 for a return ticket. A three-and-a-half hour train journey from Cusco to Aguas Calientes costs about US$70.
Aguas Calientes is an attraction in itself: unbeknown to many, there is a museum 30 minutes walk from the town centre that explains the history of Machu Picchu.
Flights from Perth and Sydney to Cusco cost about US$3500 and US$3000 respectively for return tickets, with stopovers in Auckland, Santiago and Lima.
Flights between Lima and Cusco are US$180 one way, with flights from Buenos Aires in Argentina and Rio in Brazil both costing about US$700 one way.