Grabbing walking sticks that were there for the taking, I knew immediately that this wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Far from it. To acclimatize to the elevated heights of the destination of Machu Picchu, I started my journey in Cusco, a city 3,399 metres above sea level with a history dating back 1,100 years.
Cobble-stoned narrow streets are only part of this charming city, which was declared a “Cultural Heritage of the World” in 1978. Cusco is a dizzying place, both literally and figuratively. Seeing the old juxtaposed with the new, an Inca ancestor walking beside a cell-phone-carrying, hipster-jeanwearing, navel-showing girl is not unusual. Old hotels have added glassed-in areas, but retain the original edifices.
But the pièce de résistance of Peru is the sacred “lost city” of Machu Picchu, the Incas’ best-kept secret. This mysterious city, built in the 1400s is situated on the eastern slopes of the Andes in the Vilcanota mountain range, 2,350 metres above sea level.
A comfortable three hour train ride from Cusco, Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, a Yale University historian. On the day I visited, the cloud-shrouded ruins of the Inca citadel had a backdrop of mysterious mist rising from the Urubamba River. A breathtaking sight, the ancient city is connected by alleys, stairways and a narrow watercourse. Like many before me, I marvelled at the roofless remains of more than 150 houses and temples sculpted from granite rocks weighing at least 50 tonnes. There’s no mortar and the huge rocks are so perfectly fitted that not even a knife blade can be inserted between them. It’s still not known as how these gigantic rocks were carved, carried and placed here with such precision and for what purpose. Some say the city was an astronomical observatory, others a site for training priestesses, and no two answers are the same. Perhaps we’ll never know.