Machu Picchu, a must-see stop on a PERU TOUR, is majestic and awe-inspiring but perhaps not the best place to learn about the Inca
Machu Picchu – Wonder of the World
There you are in magnificent Machu Picchu, declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983. Glorious, majestic, awesome—pick your synonym. It is difficult to exceed the bounds of hyperbole when describing this mountain complex, said by some to have been a sort of royal getaway, albeit one that took about a half century of conscripted labor to build.
How fun to also keep reminding yourself that this piece of paradise eluded the Spaniard conquistadors. Curiously, even in books by Peruvian authors one finds references to Machu Picchu being “discovered” by a Yale professor, Hiram Bingham, in 1911, as though something is not real unless it is on the radar of the keepers of Western Civilization. For this writer, that factoid makes experiencing Machu Picchu a very good sequel to viewing the famed painting in Cuzco’s Cathedral that casts Pizarro as a gold-clutching Judas joining in the Last Supper feast of Cuy (guinea pig).
Keeping Machu Picchu secret from the Spaniards may well have been a major triumph in a subterranean culture war back in the day. However, that day is long, long gone. Today, the visitors seem even more diverse than those you find in Angkor Wat. Sitting out a light rain on the stoop of a large window/door granary building, one sees a stream of tourists from Asia (especially Japan), Australia/New Zealand, North America, South America, Central America, Eastern and Western Europe, and Russia. In hindsight, only Africa seemed underrepresented. They come in groups with translators, in small gaggles or solo. Mainly, they come, and come, and come.
Curiously, there is no small number of older people needing canes more than walking sticks—at least on the larger mountain that is easier to climb and doesn’t require an additional entrance fee. If you are relatively fit but still contending with altitude challenges you will see more than one person who seems like their next stop might be a nursing home, and wonder how on earth they got to this summit with you.
Photo Opp Gridlock
Alas, the most common type of visitor is the selfie-stick smiler. Whatever time you plan for the hike up make sure to include chunks of waiting time due to photo pose gridlock. It is annoying.
If your Peru tour has allowed visits to other Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley —such as Ollantaytambo, Pisaq, Tipon, etc.—you will have a distinct advantage in being able to recognize the various ceremonial, residential, military and agricultural structures. The crowd factor alone makes Machu Picchu a less than ideal place to go to school about the Incas.
If you only have time for this one stop on the Inca Trail, your visit will likely be markedly improved by hiring a local guide at the entrance way, if not pre-arranged. The maps in popular guidebooks aren’t that helpful and didn’t seem worth the time to master for those who have already had the ins and outs of Inca architecture explained to them.
A rumored sabotage of the Peru Rail train to get to Machu Picchu made for acute recognition of how all the Machu Picchu guards seem very local, and perhaps a bit conflicted about this tourist glut. Guards are scattered throughout, stationed strategically to point out the correct and incorrect pathways as you climb. They rarely seem to smile.
Best Bet- Hike the Inca Trail
If your fitness level and calendar allow, this writer can imagine, but not report, that the four-day hike on the Inca Trail to get to Machu Picchu would absolutely make arriving at the site a peak life experience, in addition to being able to see other archeological wonders along the way. The ruins are truly majestic, and this is probably one of the world’s best examples of the realtors’ mantra- location, location, location. This is clearly one of the most beautiful spots on the globe.
And, an Inca Trail hike would also spare you from having to spend time in Aguas Caliente, which is just as commercial and soulless as the guide books widely report. Actually, if you don’t want to station in Aguas Caliente in order to be the first into the ruins in the a.m., you really don’t have to spend much time in this town. Leaving the Ollantaytambo train you wend through a train station maze of market stalls with tourista memento fare, to find a fast-moving queue that gets you on a bus to the mountain summit in short order.
Learn About Incas Elsewhere
This writer does hope that you too have time to go to school about the Incas in Peru situs away from Machu Picchu. Most fellow Americans met in various Peru stops were similarly astounded by their ignorance of the Inca reign, little more than a century long, and in human history scale not so long ago. Even with a poor tour guide, you can clearly see the rhyme and reason of Inca architecture at a ruin like Pisac and at Ollantaytambo even better. More, if you haven’t felt awe at witnessing the Inca’s prescient bio-engineering at Moray, or their water engineering at Tipon, among other stops on the modern tourist’s Inca trail, you probably just won’t fully get what you are looking at in Machu Picchu.