What it’s really like visiting Machu Picchu

It’s early, really early when we drag ourselves out of our hotel rooms and trek down to the centre of town.

You might think at this time, with the streetlights flickering and the night sky still enveloping the city, that the streets would be empty, that we would be alone in our pilgrimage.

And yet we’re not. The streets are abuzz with people, throngs of travellers setting off on the same adventure as my tour group.

Our guide had warned us that we had to get to the bus stop early, that people would begin queuing well before dawn breaks.

He wasn’t exaggerating. At 5am the queue winds its way well beyond the edge of the bus stop and along one of the two main streets in Aguas Calientes.

We’re all here in Peru to visit one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Machu Picchu. Our guide has told us which side of the bus to sit on to get the best views of the Incan Citadel as we round the corners on our way up. He hasn’t told us quite how narrow the road is or how delicately it winds its way around the mountainside.

We’ll have to find that out for ourselves.

You see, for those who don’t fancy the four-day trek into Machu Picchu there is an easier way. Take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes and then a bus from the city centre directly to the main gates of the Citadel.

The train ride is a stunning experience in itself; two hours chugging through some of the most beautiful valleys in the world. We wind our way alongside the Urubamba River, in the Secret Valley of the Incas, surrounded by soaring mountain peaks. To say it’s spectacular doesn’t quite seem to do justice to the landscape.

My group is silent, watching through the windows at every turn, every water view. We see snow capped mountain peaks, seemingly tinged with gold as the sunlight reflects off the stark white peaks and peer at the remnants of Inca ruins dotting the landscape.

We spend the night in Aguas Calientes, just long enough to visit a Butterfly sanctuary, to stroll alongside the Urubamba River, pose for photos in front of the giant letters that spell out Machu Picchu and wander through the quaint town.

But we’re really here to tick Machu Picchu off our bucket lists.

Our first view of the citadel is shrouded in clouds. We walk between the crumbling drystone walls – walls that have remained somewhat intact (with the help of some restoration work) despite the lack of mortar, which we now rely on to bind bricks or large rocks together. We follow our guide up and down steep steps, past llamas. We learn about the different rooms, the houses and the church that made up this Incan City.

But most of all we marvel over the size of the citadel and incredible feat at lugging all those rocks through the valleys and mountains to build such a vast city.

Built in the 15th Century 2430 metres above sea level in the Andes Mountains the site was abandoned in 1572 and lay hidden for years before American historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911.

The entire site is almost 326 square kilometres. It was, afterall, the site of a city.

At the end of our tour some of the group decide to make their way back into town out of the rain, which has fallen in a gentle mist around us throughout our tour. A few of us stick around, braving the mist and a lengthy trek up to Sun Gate, once the main entrance into the site.

If you do the four-day trek this is how you’ll enter Machu Picchu.

It’s a long, but interesting walk from the main grounds of Machu Picchu up to the Sun Gate and it’s from this path, about a third of the way into the hike, that you can see that iconic view, you know the one that makes its way onto almost every tourism promotion for South America? But the mist shrouds the view and we can barely see three feet in front of our faces, let alone make out the citadel and the mountains in the background.

We make it to Sun Gate, marvel at the valleys below, at the rock walls that surround us and the Inca ruins dotted along the way.

And as we head back down toward the main site, the clouds part and we get to experience the full impact of this stunning site. The remains of Machu Picchu, the intricate structures and vast expanse is breathtaking, but so too is the surrounding vista.

Machu Picchu – which translates to old or ancient mountain – is located at the top of a soaring mountain surrounded by the Andes Mountains. In the background, just behind the Inca City we can see the peak of Huayna Picchu.

The impact is visually stunning.

Read more about things to see in Peru here and here

Want to experience this for yourself?

Find out about our upcoming tour to South America here.

*Diane Squires is a tour host with Two’s a Crowd.

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