It’s one of the world’s most iconic destinations for hikers, and it’s also a sweet backdrop for a selfie. The Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, is the most famous symbol of the Peruvian empire. Built in the mid-15th century at 7,875 feet above sea level, it was invisible from the foothills of the mountains and completely self-contained. It’s hard to believe, but the Incas transported huge stone slabs up the mountainside, and they fit so perfectly that not even the thinnest knife blade will slide between them. Today, many experts believe Machu Picchu – abandoned more than 100 years ago and hidden from the world for centuries by encroaching jungle – was a religious site.
In case you didn’t know, Machu Picchu was rediscovered by American archaeologist Hiram Bingham. Events celebrating Inca culture take place year-round, but particularly in July, the month Bingham found the ancient kingdom in 1911. The same month it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007. Be an explorer like Bingham. Check out our rundown of the best ways to experience this engineering marvel, but first, here’s a quick take on some of the site’s myths and legends.
Myths & Legends
For hundreds of years, explorers and treasure hunters have searched for enormous quantities of lost gold and precious jewels described in Inca legends. Many linked Machu Picchu with the buried riches, believing the secret city was used to hide treasures from invading Spaniards.
One of Machu Picchu’s most important symbols is the sacred Intihuatana stone. Incas said that when people touched their foreheads to such stones it opened their vision to the spirit world, and if stones were broken, the deities would die. Stones were deliberately destroyed by invaders, but they never discovered Machu Picchu’s Intihuatana stone, which remains intact. Here are a few ways to get to Machu Picchu and explore the sacred site, including the famous stone located in the Sacred Valley.
Many linked Machu Picchu with the buried riches, believing the secret city was used to hide treasures from invading Spaniards.
Machu Picchu by Train
PeruRail’s luxury train service between Cusco – the Inca Empire’s historic capital – and Machu Picchu is named after the explorer who discovered the lost city. The spectacular one-day Hiram Bingham rail journey is featured in several tours that include tailor-made itineraries.
The blue and gold carriages, with elegant interiors reflecting the 1920s Pullman era, seat 84 passengers and include two sophisticated dining cars. Departing at a leisurely 9 a.m., compared to the 6 a.m. start of other services, the train arrives at Machu Picchu when many visitors are already beginning to leave and it returns at sundown. Cocktails and dinner are served on the return journey, and the train arrives back to Cusco at 10 p.m.
Climbing the Inca Trail
The original Inca road system stretched from Ecuador to Chile. Today, the most dramatic and popular stretch of the trail leads to Machu Picchu. A rite of passage for many visitors to Peru, the Inca Trail is a four-day, 25-mile camping trek from the Sacred Valley through cloud forest, jungle and high mountain passes. The end of the trail, called Sun Gate, affords the first unforgettable glimpse of Machu Picchu.
Typical guided packages start with two or three days in Cusco so you can get acclimated to the altitude. Walkers need to be reasonably fit, but local porters carry most of the gear and participants just need a small day bag and, of course, a camera to capture those special moments along the way and the spectacular site at the end of the journey.
Exploring the Inca Heartland
For the ultimate adventure, Machu Picchu can be part of a journey through the Inca heartland surrounding Cusco. Highlights include a boat trip on Lake Titicaca the world’s highest navigable lake. The Inca Empire remains home to the Uros people who live in the lake on floating reed islands.
The sacred Urubamba river and valley offer plenty of opportunities for white-water rafting, horse riding and mountain biking, and at the eastern end of Urubamba Valley is Pisac, known as the market town in the sky.
From Machu Picchu, seasoned hikers can proceed further in a 90-minute climb to Huayna Picchu, the mountain overlooking the city, and trips to the heartland can also be combined with a wild adventure in the Peruvian Amazon jungle. Now, that’s an unforgettable way to explore the lost city of the Incas and much more!