Peru: Ancient city is cause for a llama

By Anna Leask

Walking in the footsteps of the ancient Incas among the ruins at Machu Picchu was a surreal experience for Anna Leask.

Your first glimpse of Machu Picchu can never be recreated. Photo / Getty Images
Your first glimpse of Machu Picchu can never be recreated. Photo / Getty Images

There's a single moment, as you sit on a packed and noisy bus jerking its way up a dusty and unsealed winding road, when you see it for the first time.

The vivid green of the grass seems to explode into view and the peaks of the mountains hit the sky creating a spectacular surround.

When you see it, you immediately know that it's a once-in-a-lifetime sight. No matter how good the photo, or what creative ways you try to describe it, your first glimpse of Machu Picchu can never be recreated.

Considered one of the world's ancient wonders, Machu Picchu was certainly a sight for eyes that had been up since before the crack of dawn. To get to the 15th century Inca ruins requires a bit of a mission. Our brief stint in Peru didn't lend itself to walking any length of the Inca Trail, so we took the only alternative.

After a night at the divine Hotel Rio Sagrado where we had our first experience with Peru's national dish of guinea pig (slow cooked and containing tiny rodent bones), we set off before the sun was up to catch the train.

Machu Picchu is about 25 minutes by bus from Aguas Calientes - a tiny mountain town not accessible by road. We joined the hordes of tourists and chugged our way to the town, then weaved through vibrant and packed markets to get in the seemingly endless line for the bus. Once each was full, the buses departed immediately, bound for the ruins. Anticipation was palpable on the ride as we headed to a destination many of us had dreamed of but never really dared think we'd get to.

A few more queues later and we, along with our guide Celina, began the hike into the heart of the ruins.

It was only about 9.30am but the steep step climb combined with the rising heat of the day and slight altitude made it tough work. But we were thoroughly rewarded. We arrived at the spot where Machu Picchu photo dreams are made. The spot where, if you stand in the right place, you can have that picture-perfect frame of you standing above the mysterious Inca estate.

It's unclear exactly what the ruins were built for. Some say a fortress, others say a summer palace for an emperor.

The site was eventually abandoned and lay hidden in vegetation for many years - a deep and magical secret known only to the locals.

But in 1911, Machu Picchu's cover was blown when an 11-year-old local boy took Yale University lecturer and amateur archaeologist Hiram Bingham from the Urubamba River valley up the hill.

Celina - a grandmother who makes the trip to Machu Picchu regularly and makes the steep and precarious climb to the peak of Wanyu Picchu (the mountain peak at the ruins) with ease, speaks about the site with passion. It's her history, it's her story, and she loves to share it.

She leads us through the official entrance of the ancient city - the wishing gate. The perfectly cut stone blocks are smooth and cool to the touch as we pass through and head deeper in to see the famous Temple of the Sun and Room of Three Windows in the city's "sacred district".

The rooms within the ruins are remarkable. It's hard to imagine an ancient civilisation putting together something so solid without the tools we've been blessed with throughout modernity. Today, llama roam among the tourists.

Machu Picchu sprawls across a ridge and is divided into two main sections - urban and agricultural. Terraces built for farming remain and a grassy "main square" sits in the middle.

Being among the ruins gives you a surreal feeling - wandering along the same narrow paths, looking out of the same windows and creeping through the same underground prison rooms that the mighty Incas once did.

But as wondrous and stunning as the ruins are, you also have to have your wits about you to deal with some of the other visitors to the area. All the usual suspects feature - the pushers and shovers, the obnoxious and often aggressive beings who think it's a race and desperately need to see it all first and better.

There are tiny kids far too young to appreciate the site, screaming parents and even some idiots dropping rubbish. It's best to give yourself plenty of time so you can amble through at a slower pace and really take it in - and patience is the key.

Only 2000 people are allowed into the ruins a day - and most make the journey mid-morning. By leaving at dawn we avoided most of the rush and spent a fantastic three hours exploring in the fresh Andean air.

The whistle of the guards is also one to watch. Their shrill piercing blasts alert you to someone doing something wrong - like climbing on or manhandling the Inca's timeless work.

But all of that is worth it. Machu Picchu - or the "Old Peak" - is a place of such unique splendour.

It's a place that children imagine, that adults aspire to and that I was utterly mesmerised by. Get yourself there, it's worth it just for that first breathtaking glimpse.

CHECKLIST

Getting there

LAN Airlines operates six Airbus A340-300 flights a week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Lima and other destinations around Peru, including Juliaca, gateway to Puno and Lake Titicaca. Contact travel agents, call LAN reservations on 0800 451-373 or visit lan.com.

Getting around
Adventure World's 12 day/11 night Highlights of Peru tour costs from $3135 a person, on a twin share basis, for travel until 23 December. For more information visit adventureworld.co.nz or call 0800 465-432.

Anna Leask travelled to Peru and Lake Titicaca courtesy of LAN and Adventure World, with special thanks to Condor Travel.

- NZ Herald

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