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Journey to Machu Picchu

By Charles Hopkins Published 06/14/2007 | Travel

Machu Picchu, as most people are aware, is a mystical archeological ruin high up in the Andes of Peru. Built in about 1450 A.D., its often called the Lost City of the Incas. The view from the city is breathtaking because the Urubamba River winds its way three quarters of the way around the city, thousands of feet below. This gives the city a vertical scale that is perhaps not found anyplace else in the world.

Although the citadel itself is only about 8,000 feet high, there are nearby snow-covered peaks about twice as high. The area has more climatic zones within a short distance from each other than any place else in the world. The floor of the Urubamba Valley in that area is subtropical and lush. Many rare species of flora grow there. In fact, its known for its many delicate, beautiful and rare orchids

Getting to Machu Picchu is a challenge. The nearest town is Aguas Calientes, which means hot waters. This is an appropriate name, since it features a public bath fed by a natural hot springs. No roads lead to Aquas Calientes; the only way to get there is by train from the city of Cuzco, which has an airport.

Flights usually arrive in Cuzco from Lima, Peru, or La Paz, Bolivia, only in the morning, when the air is thicker. This is important because the airport is at about 9,000 feet and most planes do not land or take off very well in the thin air at that altitude. Planes depart only in the morning as well.

Tourists take a bus to the train to Aguas Calientes. Even though Cuzco is only about 50 miles away, the train takes 3.5 hours.

From Aguas Calientes, a bus winds its way up a steep mountain to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu itself has only one hotel, but travelers can choose from a number of hotels in Aquas Calientes. Although you could see Machu Picchu in one day, returning to Cuzco the same day, doing so would be a waste, because theres so much to see.

In particular, the Sugarloaf Mountain that most pictures of Machu Picchu show is worth a visit in itself. Its laced with an intricate system of terraces, and the trail to the top passes through a natural cave. The spectacular view from the top is second to none.

An alternative to taking the train to Machu Picchu from Cuzco is to hike the Inca Trail through the Andes. This takes several days and hikers need to be in decent shape. Its also possible to do a combination of riding the train part of the way and hiking the rest.

Machu Picchu itself is noteworthy for its tight fitting, mortarless masonry walls. To this day, its a mystery how these walls where built. Machu Picchu was buried under vegetation and lichen until its rediscovery in 1910. Even today, a large herd of llama mows the grass in the ancient city and an army of men scrapes the lichen off the walls. Without these efforts the famous archaeological site would soon be completely overgrown once more.

Nearly one half million people visit the Machu Picchu UNESCO World Heritage site every year. Its not easy to get to, but is well worth the trip. Machu Picchu is without doubt the premiere archeological site of the Americas.