Like most everyone else, before visiting Machu Picchu I had seen THE photo from everyone who had journeyed there before me. You know the one, the photo looking down onto the ancient site with the mighty peaks of the Andes behind and perhaps a light mist or a precocious llama stealing the shot. Granted, it’s a beautiful photo and it defines the experience for many, but as I learned after visiting the city of Machu Picchu with Intrepid Travel, there’s a lot more to the Inca getaway in the clouds than that one point of view. Spending two hours visiting Machu Picchu with a guide, I was amazed by the many other beautiful views found all around the city and so I wanted to share today what a visit to Machu Picchu really looks like, more than just that one shot we all know so well.
After arriving by bus, the first thing all visitors to Machu Picchu do is make the steep walk up to the lookout point to get that first shot. Many times guide books and travel magazines present famous sites in ways that aren’t realistic. Camera angles or conditions that are rare, leading to a certain level of disappointment amongst visitors. That’s not the case at Machu Picchu. Every postcard you’ve ever seen is accurate, it really is that beautiful and anyone can capture that famous photo. I was lucky that morning, there was no morning fog and the conditions were just about perfect. With a slight nip in the air, the sun shone down brilliantly on Machu Picchu itself, drawing out the fine lines and features I’d never before noticed when I gazed at the images in print.
But then the necessary question comes, now what? It’s a good question actually as there’s no interpretive center and the one Machu Picchu museum isn’t actually on-site, which is admittedly odd. The answer is to hire a guide at the wonder itself – Intrepid hired one for our group – who lead visitors on a two-hour circuit around and through Machu Picchu. From my experience, the tour was informative and better yet, showed me areas of the site I would have missed had I just done it alone.
As a history and antiquities nerd, I was in tourist heaven. I’m not alone in marveling at how the Inca were able to construct not only a remotely situated city on top of a mountain, but how they did it so very well. Finely chiseled stones through which not even a piece of paper can slide and temples and other outbuildings that look like they could be open again for business in just a few days. What’s found around the city is just as amazing though; the hills surrounding Machu Picchu are covered in meticulously constructed terraces used for farming and irrigation. Gently brought back to life by archeologists, the terraced hills are especially beautiful in the gentle light of dawn. Looking out across those hills and down to the valley below, THAT was the moment that gave me chills, more so than when I first saw the site itself.
After the two-hour tour, the guide finished at the exit point for Machu Picchu and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wondering if that was all there was. Getting to Machu Picchu is a process involving either a 4-day hike or a couple of days of travel via car, train and bus. To leave after only a few hours seemed bizarre to me, so I went back to the beginning, where I started my morning, and set off to do something else. There are a couple of hikes available to visitors, one to the Sun Gate which is a fairly long walk, and a shorter hike known as the Inca Bridge hike. I opted for the bridge hike and set off through the jungle to see what was waiting for me ahead.
Round-trip the hike to the bridge is about an hour, and along the way hikers find themselves looking straight down in spots to the valley floor below. The stones lead you through the clouds on a path that hugs the mountain through some of the most lush vegetation you’ll ever see. The hike was easy and I was glad to have done it, but after its finish I was once again left wondering what to do next. The answer was to simply leave. As hard as it was for me to believe, I had seen all of what Machu Picchu has to offer, I had experienced the wonder in person and it was time to go. I don’t know if I expected a daylong event, or fireworks and fanfare, but I was content as I boarded the bus to return me to the odd mountain village of Aguas Calientes. Unlike so many other famous places around the world, Machu Picchu really does live up to the hype and exploring it is just as amazing as I thought it would be.