Combining history with travel is a definite plus for many people. Imagine how wonderful it would be, if you added a little bit of exercise to the mix. Fortunately there are numerous places to travel which offer historical elements, usually coupled with trekking or long walks, but one of my favourites, has to be Peru’s Machu Picchu.
The archeological site is one of the best preserved in the world, mostly because it was only discovered less than a hundred years ago. The site, an old Inca village, was built in the mid 1400s, but was lost due to the Inca disappearance, and the rapid jungle overgrowth.
Once there, it feels like you are on top of the world, with spectacular vistas, fantastic history and a number of llamas and alpacas. Unfortunately, as in many places, tourism is beginning to have an effect on history. Machu Picchu now has over 3500 visits each day. The site is enormous, but if you're one of those photography types who doesn't want people in your photo, you may be out of luck, unless you get there just before sunrise. If Machu Picchu is on your bucket list, I would suggest doing it sooner, rather than later. You should also be prepared to walk a fair bit, as the site is quite large and you don't want to miss any of it.
There are basically two ways to get there: one is by trekking along the Inca trail. Do this only if you are really confident about your walking, climbing and adventurous spirit. The Inca trail trek can be done in four days, but I recommend doing it in five. That way you can plan to be at the site just before sunrise, which is one of the most spectacular views. Be prepared, because the trail is wet and damp and mornings are chilly, especially after sleeping in a tent.
For those still wishing to be adventurous, just not to the same degree, you can do a shorter version of the trail by beginning at the 104 Km mark on the Machu Picchu train line. May and October are the best months to hike the trail. November to March is the rainy season and the summer months are too chilly, with temperatures often dropping below zero at night. The trail is closed in February. Permits sell out fast, so book early.
If hiking is not in your program, there are much easier ways of getting to the town of Machu Picchu, and then to the site. From Cuzco, the major landing spot for visitors, a train runs daily to the town of Machu Picchu. The trip is nearly four hours and costs about $40. The downside is that all three daily departures leave very early.
Once you get to the town of Machu Picchu, you have to take a bus ride up the mountain. Allow about an hour for lineups, the ride, etc. If you want to do the trip a little more leisurely, plan to stay the night either in the town or at the Belmont Sanctuary Lodge, located on the outskirts of the site. It is a spectacular property, although many say say it ruins the sacredness of the place, but the rooms are fantastic. Mind you, they should be at $1500 a night.
So let's look at what Machu Picchu actually is. The Incas built it in the mid fourteen hundreds as an estate for an Inca emperor and his villagers. Among many things, they built a temple to the sun. The cool thing about its construction is that twice a year, on the winter and summer solstice, the sun’s rays shine through three windows and light up the main altar. Although I have not witnessed the event, it is said to be spectacular.
When the Spanish came into the region, the Incas vanished, leaving the entire city behind and hidden in the jungle, which quickly took over. In 1911, an American historian, Hiram Walker, decided to re-discover the 'Lost City'. It is important to note, it was never lost. Local people knew where it was, and Hiram hired them to guide him along the already cut trails. Because he was the first non-native to visit the site, he claimed it as a major archeological find. Of course he took all the glory, but explained that the site must have been looted, as there were no treasures there at all.
Little care was taken in excavation, and the world began to lose interest when it was announced there was no riches to be found anywhere near the site.
The Peruvian government challenged his statement, and spent many decades arguing that Bingham's expedition did in fact discover gold artifacts, which had been moved out of the country. Finally, in the 1970s, Yale University admitted to having hundreds of relics from Machu Picchu locked safely in its storage cellars. To date, the Peruvian government is still negotiating for their return.
Hiram became famous, and people began to flock to Machu Picchu. The Peru Railroad got into the act and tourism was born. The site is one if the new seven wonders of the World, and well worth the visit.
Caretakers of the site are now very strict with visitors. Several years ago the government granted a permit to a Japanese advertising firm to film a commercial at the site. A large flood lamp fell from a boom directly onto the altar and smashed a corner. A tragic shame for such a beautiful site.
To get there, you have to fly seven or so hours from Toronto to Lima, and then another hour to Cuzco. When you make that trip, be sure to give yourself two or three days in Cuzco to acclimatize. You are at 11,000 feet, and I experienced a constant headache, drinking cocoa tea nonstop. I also used liquid oxygen in my water bottles.
The trip to Machu Picchu is a once in a lifetime undertaking. Combine it with a cruise, a south American adventure, or on its own. You will not be disappointed.
TRAVEL TIP: If you are travelling to Tanzania, note the government has now banned any type of plastic bag, other than “ziplock” bags used as part of airport security procedures. They will be confiscated upon arrival.