Surrounded by dense jungle, Peru's great drawcard impresses, writes Winston Aldworth.
There are plenty of places around the world that we feel we know before we even get there — from the Eiffel Tower to Manhattan and the Great Wall of China.
Peru's big drawcard, Machu Picchu, sits firmly among them. You've seen its image thousands of times before you've left home. But, once you're there, there's a striking thing that the photos haven't been able to convey — it's just how precariously perched the city feels, sitting high up on an Andean ridgeline with seemingly sheer drops to the deep valley floor 600m below. And it's not even the biggest of the peaks in the area. A circle of monstrous mountains looks down on the famous Incan city, marking the near horizon.
The Incas were no slouches. Our guide, Wagner, rattles off some of the stunning mathematical feats evidenced in the design and construction of Machu Picchu. A stone, chipped and whittled to map the Southern Cross sits near the Principle Temple. In the Sun Temple, Incans used our star's arc to chart and measure the seasons. The angle of walls, doorways and windows are all between 9 and 13 degrees, optimal for making buildings stronger.
Incan society and the remains of this stunning city have fascinated visitors ever since American explorer Hiram Bingham brought what was then jungle-covered ruins to international attention in 1911. Local farmers had shown him the way there. Bingham was a Yale academic, looking for an altogether different Incan city, and more than a century later, the fabled American university is only now returning to Peru artefacts the old explorer had taken.
The Incans had up and left around the time the Spanish arrived, and this hilltop city, protected by its isolation and the jungle from development and scavengers, has taught academics much about their society. Machu Picchu operated as a meritocracy, meaning the child of a labourer could move upwards through society.
Left alone on its mountaintop for centuries, the ancient city is in great condition, with more than 60 per cent of the original structures thought to remain. Today, visitors walk the paths and corridors, ducking into the lee of cobbled walls to get swift lessons on mathematics, astronomy and herbology (yes, that's the plant from which cocaine originates) from the enthusiastic and incredibly well-informed guides.
With around 5000 visitors each day, the guides do a great job of swiftly navigating each of their groups away from others. Like so many of those big drawcards, Machu Picchu suffers from demand, and the Peruvian government is considering plans to further restrict numbers (for more on this, read Andrew Stone's article "Flushed with success",). Already, you can only visit with an official guide.
Its popularity is easy to understand. Hollywood star Shirley MacLaine was impressed enough to declare herself to be a reincarnated Incan princess. "Why a princess?" asks Wagner, with an arched eyebrow. "Why not a labourer?"
offers a seven-day, guided hike out of Cusco, which includes four days on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Prices start from $1479.