After much planning and anticipation, I finally arrived at Machu Picchu, the legendary lost city of the Incas. I was psyched-up and ready to go when a guide met me for an early morning trek to one of the most celebrated tourist destinations in South America. Could this adventure possibly meet my expectations?
Ubiquitous videos and photos of the sacred complex almost always show a heavy cloud cover, often accompanied by heavy rain. Luck was with me however, and the sun was so bright and warm I was able to doff my heavy parka despite the normally cool temperatures at 8,000 feet.
We left the little town of Aguas Calientes and took one of the full buses leaving every 15 minutes for the half-hour climb up the dirt road. The bus chugged back and forth on hairpin switchbacks, causing plenty of white knuckles as we passed buses coming down on the other side.
Near the summit, a lodge overlooked a small parking lot. Hundreds of tourists were milling around and waiting in a long line to enter. My guide advised me each ticket allowed two entries, which could be useful because there were no restrooms once you entered. She then pointed to another long line for the restrooms. You could take care of business for one Peruvian Nuevo Sol – about 30 cents.
Once inside the park, the guide gave me a brief history of the site. It was built by the Incas around 1450 and abandoned a century later when the Spanish Conquistadors conquered the Inca Empire. The vast citadel was discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham of Yale University after being hidden under heavy vegetation for almost 350 years.
We rounded a corner on a tight little path and – Voila! There it was, the iconic view seen in photos everywhere. Cameras were clicking all around me and I quickly learned why this vantage point is so popular for photographs. A wide ledge overlooks the stone-walled structures below and easily accommodates dozens of tourists taking selfies to record their visit.
Next, we went down a stone stairway through the main entrance into the compound. My guide told me that concerns over responsible preservation, competing with a desire to share the site with the public, had finally reached a compromise. They were now limiting access to a few thousand visitors per day.
I asked about a man walking on the large grassy Central Plaza below, supposedly off limits to tourists, and was told he worked for Google. A Google team had been there for several days mapping and filming Machu Picchu for Google Street View using their 15-lens Trekker Camera.
Most of their work had been completed under heavy clouds and rain earlier in the week.
Playful chinchillas and llamas occasionally showed themselves as we explored the ruins. I learned about the tight fit of the stones used in construction, the terraces, the irrigation system and sacred locations like the Temple of the Condor, the Temple of the Sun, and the Temple of the Three Windows with its unique orientation to the summer solstice.
Morning crowds were too big for me to visit the astronomical observatory, Intiwatana, so I returned to see it later after a nice lunch at the lodge. The next morning I watched llamas grazing near the Sacred Rock and talked with a member of the Google team about their project. This video gives you a sense of its immense scope:
I left with a special stamp in my passport for an adventure that exceeded all my expectations!