Machu Pichu: Exploring One of the Seven Wonders of the World
My heart sank as we reached the top of the path and gazed down into the valley at a pillowy white wall of clouds that threatened to ruin a moment I had awaited for years.
I spent hours researching the perfect timing to avoid the calamity that lay before me. I sank to the ground among the llamas and other forlorn travelers to see if I could wait out my misfortune.
As the sun began to peak over the mountains to the east, its rays cut small slits in the airy barricade allowing glimpses of deep green and earthy brown below.
The crest of Huayna Picchu broke through and with each inch of dissipation my excitement rose to where it had been an hour earlier on the zig-zagging bus ride up the mountain.
Suddenly, the sun broke free; flooding the valley with golden light and vanquishing the last remnants of cumulus shroud. I jumped to my feet, ran to the edge of the cliff, and finally drank in the sight I’d waited so long for — Machu Picchu!
The view was even more stunning than I imagined. Built on the edge of a remote cliff high above the Urubamba river valley and set against the lush background of a landscape caught between the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon basin, the 550-year-old Incan city is a true architectural marvel.
The city contains more than 200 houses, squares, palaces, temples and observatories. The Incas built the city using stones cut so precisely that no mortar was necessary. The stones fit together so tightly you can’t even fit a credit card between them. Machu Picchu is built on two active fault lines. Because of the Incan construction method, the stones bounce in place during an earthquake, but the buildings never crumbled.
Because of the tough mountainous terrain, the Incas, being the master engineers they were, surrounded the city on all sides with a system of terraces. The smaller terraces help prevent erosion, and larger terraces were for growing food.
The city also has an exceptional irrigation system that allows for drainage and fresh-flowing water throughout the city.
The beginning of the path through the city is one of the highest points overlooking it and provides the best place to get a photo of the entire area. To conserve the site, new rules were enacted in January 2019 that only allow 2,500 visitors a day. Entry into Machu Picchu is staggered throughout the day by a timed ticket system.
This new system helps to reduce the crowds, but you still may have to wait in line for your photo op.
Another rule that went into effect is that visitors must enter with a guided tour, or hire a private guide. Both options can be booked ahead of time, or at the entrance.
Not wanting to be rushed through the city, or overwhelmed by other visitors, I chose to hire a private guide.
Before making our way down into the city, our guide took us to the end of the Sun Gate trail. The narrow path offers dramatic views down into the Urubamba river valley and a glimpse up at the Sun Gate which, even though it is a two- to three-hour trek from Machu Picchu, is the official end of the Inca trail.
There are only two ways to get to Machu Picchu: A train from the Sacred Valley to Aguas Calientes and from there a bus or hike to the entrance. Or, a 26-mile trek from Cusco, which takes four days to hike and reaches altitudes upwards of 14,000 feet before reaching the Sun Gate on the final morning.
From there, the hikers are rewarded for their efforts with a front row seat to watch the sun rise behind Machu Picchu from the sky-high vantage point. As romantic as this trek sounds — and I fully intend to attempt it one day — I took the train.
On the way down into the city, our guide explained how it was laid out. The Incas were scholars and most of the city was dedicated to education — some researchers believe this is why the city was built. Many of the houses around what is believed to be the university building are thought to be student housing.
They were also religious and worshiped several gods, the most important of them was Inti, the sun god. The Temple of the Sun is one of the most important structures in Machu Picchu. Only priests and nobles were allowed in.
The temple has two main windows that priests used for religious purposes and which align perfectly with the sun during the summer and winter solstices. The circular temple was constructed without a roof so Inti could always see inside.
The Incas were also advanced astronomers. One of the things I found most impressive at Machu Picchu were the water mirrors. Two small stone bowls which, when filled with water, allow you to look at the reflection of the sun, watch an eclipse, or study the constellations through magnification. They used their knowledge of astronomy mostly for religion and farming, but it also allowed them to measure time and the seasons.
Even though the Incas were amazing engineers, farmers, architects and astronomers, they had no written language. Everything we know about them today has been passed down through hundreds of years, or discovered through archaeology.
It took us about three hours to make our way through the city. We stopped to see the observatory, the Temple of the Condor and to admire the incredible view. There are so many interesting things to see and learn at Machu Picchu. Pair that with the incredible vistas and it’s not hard to see why this is one of the seven wonders of the modern world.