The face of Peruvian tourism for years, Machu Picchu is simply awe-inspiring and evokes the very mystery and beauty of South America. The classic photo of the Incan citadel sitting at the base of the towering peak Huayna Picchu adorns every travel brochure and yet this is only a snapshot of the site. Pan around and the Inca terraces drop hundreds of metres towards the raging Urubamba river surrounded by distant snow-capped mountains on all sides. Dating back to the 15th century and rediscovered by the explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, the site is nestled deep in the Andes shrouded in lush cloud-forest.
At first Bingham mistook the site for the legendary lost city of Vilcabamba, final refuge of the Inca, a site more recently discovered at the ruins of Espiritu Pampa. Undetected by the Spanish for centuries and swallowed by vegetation, Machu Picchu is now believed to have been a royal estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti and a centre for study and worship, dedicated to the Sun God.
At the citadel’s base, the small village and once backpacker haven of Aguas Calientes offers a good selection of hotels, restaurants and markets and is linked to the outside world by a spectacular railroad that cuts through the Vilcabamba mountains skirting the Urubamba river to reach the Sacred Valley and Cusco. The only other access to the site is via the Inca Trail, one of the world’s great treks. Now tightly regulated, the Inca Trail is a four day hike which winds its way up into the Vilcabamba through magnificent scenery and a series of Inca outposts to reach the iconic sun-gate and a first glimpse of the captivating site below. The trail is a spiritual journey in itself and reflects the Inca’s worship of Pachamama, mother earth taking you from the dizzying heights of the Andes to lower subtropical valleys always framed with glorious views.