Weekly travel: Judy Bailey visits Machu Picchu

Once left abandoned, Machu Picchu is now one of the most visited historic sites in the world. Judy Bailey is spellbound by its mystery.

Machu Picchu is one of the great wonders of the world. It is also one of the great mysteries – a centre of Inca civilisation that was left abandoned, high on a mountainside at the head of a remote valley in the Peruvian wilderness.

You can’t help but get caught up in its allure. The easiest way to access the great Inca site is to fly south-east from the Peruvian capital, Lima, to Cusco, the ancient town known as the gateway to the Sacred Valley of the Inca. The flight takes just one hour and 20 minutes.

Cusco was the most important city in the Inca empire. It is a World Heritage site and deservedly so. Don’t be deterred by the rather dusty, down-at-heel airport that greets you on arrival, as the historic city centre is delightful. Set around a series of gracious cobblestoned squares, there are some wonderful examples of 15th-century Spanish architecture, much of which is sited on top of Inca ruins.

The cathedral and church of la Compania dominate the main square, the Plaza de Armas. The cathedral is all Catholic magnificence, its high altar covered in silver, but the pièce de résistance is the painting of the Last Supper, in which a guinea pig, considered a gastronomical treat in Peru, features prone on a platter in front of Christ.

The dark side of the Spanish rule here is preserved in the tiny chapel to the left of the cathedral’s main entrance – apparently this was where religious prisoners were routinely tortured during the days of the Inquisition.

On the hill above Cusco are the mind-boggling remains of Saksaywaman (sounds very like ‘sexy woman’ to the Kiwi ear… I was wondering if I was on the right trip there for a moment!). Saksaywaman is thought to have served as a citadel in Inca times.

Like Egypt’s pyramids, it’s a marvel of engineering – huge granite slabs cut and wedged together with such precision you can’t even get a slip of paper between them. Some of these boulders are thought to weigh about 200 tonnes. How did they do it? Where did the granite come from? It is an extraordinary site.

Cusco sits more than 3000 metres above sea level. The air is thin here. We find ourselves struggling for breath. Just a short walk up the hill to the hotel is enough to leave us gasping. Just as well then that the hotel, an art-filled 15th-century Spanish mansion, has oxygen-enriched air pumped into its rooms.

We had previously met others who’d succumbed to the lack of air and been hospitalised without even setting foot on Machu Picchu. Altitude sickness is not pleasant, causing nausea, dizziness and cramps.

Although Machu Picchu itself is slightly lower than Cusco, at nearly 2500 metres, it is worth taking time to get used to the altitude, given that you’ll be doing a lot of climbing when you get there. It’s also worth taking altitude pills to help acclimatise, along with copious quantities of the local brew, coca tea, which the Peruvians will tell you prevents altitude sickness. It’s a mild stimulant though, so avoid it before bed!

We base ourselves in Urubamba, just an hour’s drive from Cusco. En route we pass through the tiny town of Urquillos, almost completely given over to celebrating the consumption of guinea pigs. There’s a large statue of a guinea pig, complete with bow tie and waistcoat, on the main street.

Tiny ramshackle stalls all offer their own very special take on the local delicacy, spit-roasted guinea pig. A small boy waves a stick, on which a hapless guinea pig is skewered. I can’t quite bring myself to try it but my husband Chris takes one for the team (guinea pig drumsticks… not a large meal) and reports they’re chickenish.

We stay at Sonesta Posadas del Inca Yucay, a former convent. Its garden is a picture with its own tiny stone chapel, fountains and masses of pink hydrangeas. It’s the perfect place to relax and acclimatise before we begin the journey to Machu Picchu.

The famed Inca trail is not for us. We’ve opted to take the Vistadome train to Aguas Calientes, the village that nestles at the foot of the vast mountain of Machu Picchu.

From there we’ll take a bus up the steep switchback dirt road to the site itself. This is the only way to reach Machu Picchu other than on foot. Private cars are banned.

The train departs from the town of Ollantaytambo, famed as the last living Inca city. You can still see the open drainage canals that were built in Inca times, and locals have built their homes over existing Inca ruins.

The town is overlooked by the spectacular ruins of a fortress crowned by a temple. Of course we have to climb to the top, driven by that innate human urge to see what’s on the other side. It’s hot as we slowly make our way up the huge granite steps. Were they particularly tall, these Inca? I don’t think so.

It’s worth the hike though – the view of the valley is spectacular.

It’s easy to become blasé about the history that surrounds us. Ruins are everywhere. Local farmers now grow corn and quinoa on the ancient Inca terraces that line the lush valley.

Apparently the Inca copied the natural terraces of the Andes to prevent landslides. Puma roam these ancient hills, and giant condors wheel overhead.

The Vistadome train is aptly named. The towering vistas we see through its clear roof are truly awe-inspiring. There’s entertainment onboard as well. The Peruvian penchant for masks comes into its own with masked clowns fooling down the aisles.

Then the very capable crew, who’ve already served food and drinks, become models to show off the latest alpaca fashions. Diversification is the name of the game. A group of Russian women take a shine to the handsome male model and he manages to offload an armful of clothes.

Thousands of tourists visit Machu Picchu every day but the Peruvians have the whole influx managed to perfection. It somehow doesn’t feel crowded, but maybe that’s because we are visiting in the morning, before the heat and crowds of the afternoon.

I notice a man gently scrubbing the giant granite blocks with a toothbrush. He’s part of an army of local people charged with preserving the site. It’s painstaking work, but such is the reverence in which this place is held.

To gaze upon one of the wonders of the world is something truly special.

To tell the truth, Machu Picchu had not been on my bucket list, but to be able to experience it is sublime. I feel what must be a fraction of the excitement of the American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, as he broke through the jungle in 1911 to discover an entire city.

And so much mystery envelops the site today. What happened to the people who lived there back in the 15th century? Machu Picchu is thought to have been a centre for religion and education in Inca times. It’s believed its residents fled into the jungle to escape the Spanish.

In the past few years, a new trail has been discovered directly across the valley from the sacred site. The trail leads off into the jungle… Could there be another equally mind-blowing site yet to be uncovered?

Getting there: We flew Lan Chile to Santiago, then to Lima in Peru.

When in Lima…

  • Watch for the ‘garua’ in Lima. It’s a misty sea fog that tends to blanket the city from around May to October, giving the settlement an ethereal, other-worldly quality.

  • If you’re keen on a spot of shopping, head out to Miraflores district, south of downtown Lima. It boasts a huge shopping complex that tumbles down a sheer cliff face towards the Pacific Ocean.

  • Sit with one of Lima’s famous pisco sour cocktails in one of the many bars and watch the paragliders launch themselves from the cliff top.

  • The Larco Herrera museum is well worth a visit. It houses some of the best Inca artefacts in the world.

  • And for Lima’s equivalent of Auckland’s Ponsonby, head to Barranco and explore the myriad restaurants and bars clustered near Puente de los Suspiros (the Bridge of Sighs).

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