The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
Plan the perfect trip to Machu Picchu
Make sure you tick all the boxes on this trip of a lifetime with a little help from our expert, Chris Moss
Go to the Chimú city of Chan Chan on the coast! Try the ruins at Kuélap! Have you seen what the Moche accomplished at Trujillo? No matter how much Peru tries to promote alternative archaeological sites in the country, people still want to see Machu Picchu at least once in their life. It’s a genuine bucket-list classic, up there with Angkor Wat and the Pyramids. Its “discovery” by Hiram Bingham in 1911 and the nickname of “Lost City of the Incas” have imbued the site with a mythical quality that exerts a pull on travellers from all corners of the world.
But it is also very beautiful. Located on a saddle in the Peruvian Andes, between the peaks of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu, it’s framed by rocky slopes and subtropical rainforests, and is often half-shrouded by swirling clouds. When the mists part and the sun breaks through, the stonework glows and the whole ensemble looks glorious. Not for nothing are two of the most famous features the Inti Punku or “sun gate” and the Inti Watana or “hitching post of the sun”.
Machu Picchu has been surveyed, dug and analysed in more depth than perhaps any other Inca site, yet it remains mysterious. It was obviously selected because it was close to the gods and defensible. We know its functions were partly residential and partly religious. But we are still guessing about its cosmic positioning and its academic importance to the Incas. This all adds to the story.
During the pandemic, annual visitor numbers dropped from more than 1.5 million to 270,000 in 2020,
Machu Picchu is as in demand as ever. It’s a target destination – the perfect climax to any trip
and as tourists return it seems the Peruvian government isn’t sure how best to grow its honeypot site. Talk of a glass walkway being installed, and the development of a controversial new airport at Chinchero, 19 miles north of Cuzco, have raised concerns about sustainability. Yet there is now a daily limit of 3,400 visitors, plus restrictions on entering without a guide, while four pre-arranged circuits and a new hike up a peak called Huchuy Picchu have been established to lessen the crowds.
Notwithstanding these issues, Machu Picchu is as in demand as ever. It’s a target destination, a climax to any trip. So my main tip is to slow down your arrival and enjoy the build-up. Stay in Cuzco for a few days and see its magnificent archaeological treasures. Spend a night or two at Urubamba in the Sacred Valley. See the museums and markets, meet locals at sacred or secular sites, learn about traditional costumes, farming and weaving, and the ruins of Ollantaytambo, Pisac, Moray and Mara. Hire a good local guide who speaks fluent English. All this, ideally before entering Machu Picchu, will make the experience deeper and subtler and, in the end, more magical. Afterwards, enjoy the train ride through the Sacred Valley – and, of course, go off to Trujillo, Chan Chan and up to Kuélap to see the competition.
WHAT TO BOOK
This is the main site, which Unesco and Peruvian authorities call the “Historical Sanctuary”. Machu Picchu means “old mountain” in the Quechua language. The site is a 550-year-old citadel built by the most advanced – and in Peru, the last – major preColumbian society in the spectacular setting of a saddle between two forest-clad Andean peaks that has been preserved enough to be recognisable as a city. It’s high (7,973ft above sea level) but lower than Cuzco, so most people arrive somewhat acclimatised. The site, including an adjoining wilderness and forest area, covers some 116 square miles. Four hours is plenty to explore the ruins, which are about the size of a village.
The verdant valley of the Urubamba River is sacred to indigenous people because of its many Inca-era monumental sites. Three towns are well worth a visit: Pisac (famous for its markets on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday), tourist-free Huarán, and pretty Yucay. Urubamba has excellent high-end hotels, including Tambo del Inka, Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba and Sol y Luna. The Explora lodge is at Urquillos, just east of the Urubamba.
MORAY, MARAS AND PISAC
There are interesting Inca ruins at these sites. Moray is an agricultural complex, featuring innovative circular terraces, Maras is a salt mine, and Pisac boasts a large site spread over a mountainside.
THE RAIL JOURNEY TO/FROM
Trains depart from Cuzco’s main station, San Pedro, or from Poroy on the outskirts. Two firms operate, each offering four different classes of service. PeruRail runs Vistadome,
Expedition, Sacred Valley and Hiram Bingham trains (owned by hotel group Belmond). Inca Rail has the Voyager, the 360º, the First Class and the Private. Do you want to sit down, relax and observe the landscape or would you prefer live music and a pisco sour? Do you want to go all the way by train or split the journey between a bus and a train? Take a look at their websites – perurail.com and incarail.com – before deciding, and book at the same time as you reserve your ticket for the site.
THE INCA TRAIL AND OTHER HIKES
The so-called “Classic” trail takes four days and runs from the unromantic-sounding Km82 marker on the rail line to Machu Picchu’s sun gate. It’s only 26 miles, but is quite tough going. You can’t walk the Inca Trail without a local guide. It makes sense to book a package trip of any kind well in advance via a British-based tour operator, as they will protect you in the event of cancellations or delays in setting off due to weather or, say, a landslide. A two-day (7.5 miles) trail is a popular alternative. There are limits of 500 persons per day for the four-day trek and 250 persons per day for the two-day trek, including porters and cooks.
Two good – if strenuous – longer hikes are Salkantay (46 miles; 4-6 days) or via the Choquequirao Inca site (47 miles; 4-5 days). The Lares trek is a two- or three-day, high-altitude hike, starting near the village Lares, approximately 40 miles north of Cuzco and 35 miles east of Machu Picchu. There are no visitor-number restrictions on these hikes.
WHEN TO GO
Machu Picchu’s peak season is during July and August. It’s never totally dry in the Andean foothills, so there’s always a chance of showers. November to April is the rainy season, with January and February being the wettest months, so the shoulders of these – the actual months of November and April – are recommended times to visit.
The Inca Trail closes every February for maintenance work. Machu Picchu remains open.
There are lots of festivals and saints’ days in the Sacred Valley. Inti Raymi, the ancient Inca Festival of the Sun, is held annually around June 21-24, the Winter Solstice. At this time, Cuzco gets especially busy.