Through a Sacred Valley to the Lost City of the Incas
On a continent endowed with magnificent pre-Columbian archaeological sites, this is the supreme showpiece. Machu Picchu’s strategic and isolated high-altitude setting coupled with its mysterious significance in the ancient Inca universe make this “lost city” one of the world’s most beautiful and haunting destinations. Abandoned by the Inca and reclaimed by the jungle, the 100- acre complex of temples, warehouses, houses, irrigation terraces, and stairs remained hidden from outsiders until American explorer Hiram Bingham was led to it in 1911 by a ten-year-old local boy. It somehow had been entirely overlooked and unaccounted for in the Spanish conquistadores’ otherwise meticulous records. Speculation about the age and significance of Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) continues, although current thinking suggests it was a retreat for Inca nobility most likely built in the 15th century.
On a clear day, the very fit should consider the hike to Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain), where the near-vertical scramble to the summit is breathtaking in more ways than one. The truly athletic can arrive at Machu Picchu’s 500-year-old Gate of the Sun after a three- to five-day trek along the Inca Trail. The Inca built many mountain trails, but this was their “royal highway” through the 100-mile-long Urubamba (or Sacred) Valley, the cradle of the Incan civilization. The trail affords an awesome journey through the scenic splendor of the valley – the bread basket and favored vacation spot for the nobles of Cuzco. The 35-mile Inca Trail crosses two passes – the higher just over 13,500 feet – and requires that travelers be tolerant of thin air in order to fully appreciate the drama of the scenery, the wealth of Incan outposts, fortresses, and mysterious, terraced ruins, as well as the colorful Andean villages all along the way. The trip is well worth the effort. The Sunday market in Pisac draws vendors and tourists from all parts; even more memorable is a trip to the network of linked hilltop Incan strongholds. Ollantaytambo, with its well-preserved, formidable fortress, is the valley’s other most-visited spot – an authentic Incan town that has retained its original street names, layout, irrigation system, and houses.
Machu Picchu has forever been known for its lack of decent hotels, leaving the market open to a nortorious hodge podge of backpacker’s crash sites – which is why the renovation of Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge has tourism officials heaving a great sigh of relief. Luxurious only by comparison with its competition, the refreshed hotel’s rustic simplicity is nonetheless as welcome as its envied location, just steps from the entrance to the ruins. Hotel guests have the unique privilege of wandering about the moonlit ruins after the crowds leave.