The ruins of Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, when he was searching for the Inca city of Vilcabamba, the last Inca stronghold. When he found Machu Picchu, he thought he had discovered the lost ruins of Vilcabamba and his error remained uncorrected for 50 years, until the actual ruins of Vilcabamba was found Gene Savoy, further into the jungle. Hiram Bingham found the ruins of Machu Picchu 80% intact, though it was covered over with moss and vegetation and hardly visible.
The city is believed to have be constructed during the time of Inca Pachacutec, less than 100 years before the arrival of the Spanish. The location was probably chosen because of its unique position surrounded by the jungle and 3 important mountains and overlooking the Vilcanota or Urubamba river. To the Incas who lived in utmost respect for nature, this position may have been sacred.
A guided tour of Machu Picchu ruins will take only 2 hours, leaving ample time to explore on your own. Hence, a day trip from Cuzco will be sufficient. However, if you want a better crowd free experience, watch the sun break over the ruins or climb Wayana Picchu, then it is recommended that you stay the previous night in Aguas Calientes, a town at the base of Machu Picchu. There are buses plying every 10 min from 5:30am. The bus journey takes about 20 min. On our way back, there was a small boy in native costume, racing against the bus to get down the mountain. He was running down the mountain in a vertical line while the bus was using the road with the hairpin curves. At very turn, this boy would be waiting for the bus, with the cry of ‘Gra-ci-as’! He never failed to beat the bus and was generously applauded and tipped at the bottom of the mountain. The only other way to get up to the ruins is by trekking.
The highlight of our Machu Picchu visit was climbing Wayana Picchu, which is the sugar loaf shaped mountain looming over the ruins, as seen in most pictures. Wayana Picchu means ‘young mountain’ in Quechua. Entry up this mountain is restricted to 400 people a day, on a first come first served basis. Also, people are not allowed up the mountain after 1pm. In other words, to climb Wayana Picchu, you have to be among the first 400 and you have to do it before 1pm. There is a check-post at the entrance to the mountain and you have to record your entry and exit in a book kept there. We began climbing at around 9:30am (i.e even before the people from Cuzco arrived for the day) and there were already 190 people who had gone ahead of us!
The climb up Wayana Picchu (takes about an hour uphill and lesser downhill) is not very easy. But there are proper steps cut in the slope. At some places, the steps are so narrow that a whole foot wouldn’t fit in. Near the top, we had to crawl through very narrow cracks. So huge backpacks and clothes you wouldn’t want to dirty are not recommended. There is very little place at the very peak of the mountain, to sit and relax. The peak is not very flattened out and can accomodate only about 15-20 people at a time. The view from the top is amazing! A nice bird’s eye view of the ruins below. However, the view was brief and rare due to the constantly moving clouds. However, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and even a brief glimpse was totally worth it.
At the gate to the ruins is a small office where you can get your passport stamped with a Machu Picchu seal along with the date of your visit. So don’t forget to bring along your passport for this free souvenir!