Wednesday, May 29, 2013



I’ve been drawn to places ancient all my life.  There are some who might say it started when I married the venerable but Reluctant Traveler back when he was a good 11 years senior to my tender 19.  But no, marriage to Stanley wasn't the cause, I began dreaming of distant and remote places long before then.

It all started with childhood tales of stirring exploration and ancient people.  My heroes were Tamerlane, Marco Polo and Alexander and the unsung people who trod the Silk Road.

It’s probably why my itchy feet took me to places today’s young Bali and surfie travellers never have heard of much less wanted to visit:  To Kashmir in India and the backroads of China, to Bukhara and Samarkand, to ancient cities of Turkey and Greece, to Petra (above) and Jerash and now, at long last, at my own now venerable age of 74 I was about to enter the mysterious and glorious Inca city of Machu Picchu. 

Besides all those high and lofty reasons, a good 30 or so years ago my daughter had beaten me to it and I was itching to follow in her footsteps.  I left it a bit late in life, but hey! I finally got there.

But it pays to delve into Machu Picchu’s history before sampling the real thing.  There is a reason for that and I won’t touch on it just yet. Be content for the moment to understand that on two previous visits to South America, side trips to this great site of Incan antiquity had been well and truly thwarted.




Back in 1911 the gentleman on the left, an American professor from Yale University, Hiram Bingham, came upon the ruins of Machu while searching for Vilcabamba, the last capital of the Inca before their ultimate defeat by the Spaniards.  Instead of the capital he came across another set of ruins, high up in a remote mountain range.  The ruins were well hidden, covered in grass and vegetation, and though he realised they weren’t Vilcabamba he surmised these ancient relics were once of considerable importance in the history of the Incans.

He was of course quite right in his assumption, but I doubt he realised at the time just how important to the country’s future economy these ruins would turn out to be.

Early photos of a barely discernible Machu Picchu

After considerable research Bingham could find only one brief reference to the site being known as ‘Picchu’ in a 1568 document which suggested it belonged to the Incan Emperor Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca in the 1400’s.  Back then before the Spanish conquest, the Incan empire stretched from today’s modern country of Ecuador way south to Chile: A vast empire that put the Greeks and Romans almost to shame.

Since Bingham’s initial discovery archaeologists have found evidence to support a theory that Machu Picchu was originally constructed as a royal estate, a holiday palace cared for by trusted servants in the emperor’s absence.  Eventually the Incans were routed by the Spanish and the temples and buildings of Machu Picchu disappeared in the sands of time unknown to the emerging civilisations in the northern hemisphere and not to be re-discovered until the age of modern exploration.

Archaeologists delved into the walled sites illustrious past uncovering temples and places of residence created long ago for an elite and exalted personage, a bolt hole for an emperor, a place of sanctity. 

Hiram Bingham, back when he first chanced on these ruins must have been tingling with the vibrations of ancient history and culture that fairly throbbed and echoed across the remote mountain peaks. 
His initial book sparked the flames of revival and the emergence of today’s much admired Machu Picchu.

 This then is the Incan city of Machu Pichu, set high in Peru’s Andes above the twisting, rushing Urubamba River. In Bingham’s day the site was largely inaccessible;  without a horse one needed to be a mountain goat to traverse the torturously steep trails and penetrate the heavily forested countryside. Today an estimated 900,000 tourists a year make the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu. In fact so successful in terms of tourist marketing has brand Machu Picchu become it is now considered to be Peru’s veritable ‘cash cow’ raking in millions of dollars per annum. 

Such success though needs careful policing.  Hordes of visitors were placing the revered site under severe stress.  At various stages in  its history land slides and earthquakes had wrought their damage.

Blissfully ignorant of all this I made my way to Cusco, deservedly known as Peru’s historical capital as opposed to Lima, the official capital of the country.  I don’t know what I expected to find, well meaning South American friends had warned me of ‘pick pockets’ and anti social violence, so I was pleasantly surprised to find Cusco a beautiful and entertaining destination.  I spent only two days there and wish I had allowed for a longer stay.


The machinations for actually getting to Machu Picchu are extremely intricate and weighed down in official bits and pieces of paper. But such is the overwhelming demand, visitors to the site are restricted to just 2500 per day which means it is essential to purchase and arrange your tickets together with mode of travel and accommodation well in advance.  

Where in the past backpackers could just turn up at the entrance and camp amongst the ruins, entry now is strictly by ticket with conditions attached.  No food is allowed to be taken in, no on site toilet facilities are available, (If you’re caught short bad luck) only the elderly or infirm may use a walking stick. (Though honestly you need two good legs and healthy lungs to cover the entire site, a walking stick isn’t going to haul you up a million steps.)

With no road access to the small nearest town of Agua Caliente the only way in to this mountain stronghold is by train. I opted for a package deal -  accommodation in Cusco, with an early morning bus and train trip included along with a guide once I arrived. Costs can vary according to pocket but even the cheapest will be considerable. 

All up and leaving my Cusco hotel well before dawn, the bus and rail trip to Machu took just on four hours.  A light snack was provided on the train, itself a modern glass roofed carriage providing a thrilling ride along a winding track with extraordinary views of rushing river and snow capped peaks. 

The zig zag road to the top

The arrival in Agua Caliente some 3 hours later, a small tourist trap designed to exchange souvenirs for hard cash, was an exercise in panic;  six carriage loads of tourists each frantically trying to find their allotted guides before being shunted onto buses traversing the 13 zig zag bends on the climb up to a Machu Picchu that was out of sight way above in the clouds.

A word of advice here for intending visitors, do buy a sealed bottle of water from the hovering vendors, plus a tube of suncream, and a tube of bug repellant;  and if like me you need a power boost every now and then, a small bar or two of chocolate.  Believe me, you will need all of these for the fascinating hours ahead. I grabbed hold of the water only and consequently paid the price with a sunburned nose, itchy bites and minor food deprivation.

I found my guide not far from where the train pulled up.  Only two others were part of his flock and to our amazement we found that all three of us were Australians from the same south eastern part of Queensland.  As my Reluctant Traveler would later comment, what are the odds on that?

Our obliging guide took us on his tour of temples and royal residences.  He knew his subject well; any visitors without guide or guide book would have left Machu Picchu as very ignorant travelers indeed. And that is another point I will recap on later.

 Rangers diligently guard the various paths and byways ensuring visitors obey the rules.

There are indeed many steps,  lots of steps.

Order and manicured grass where Hiram Bingham saw only tangled vegetation

Compare this snap with the very old one below of a solitary gentleman standing outside the ruins of a walled house.I took the modern shot myself, not game to scramble along to the spot where he stood.  It is a sheer drop and positively terrifying.


The very desolate nature of the original ruins photographed by Hiram Bingham, the hint of recent occupation is completely absent in today’s Machu Picchu, and that is something I find incomprehensible. 

    Today’s presentation is pristine, neat and orderly.  Where, in Bingham’s time an ancient dwelling was perhaps nothing more than a heap of deserted rock walls, today we find the building has been reassembled, the weeds and falling roofline seen above dispensed with.

The same has been done to terraced gardens and retaining walls that perhaps suffered in prior disasters of nature have all been rebuilt and represented in apple pie order.  A factor is missing, one that is not entirely the dirt and grime of age.

In the back of my mind I struggled with a tiny smidgen of disappointment. I kept saying to myself, people, ordinary human beings struggled and strained to build this monumental city.  They carted rocks, struggled with ancient versions of plum lines, utilised skills learned through the ages. They worshipped ancient gods, looked to the solar system for guidance, putting their trust in the moon, the sun and the stars.
They grew their crops, tended their animals, produced families to carry on their same existence.  They lived and laughed and loved here in this remote part of the Andes and yet we visitors from another life and culture have been given no aid to visualising nor understanding all this.

I hesitate to suggest,  but tastefully designed picture stories placed in unintrusive spots would help fill the gap. (In Petra for instance the local Bedouin still wandered the ruins and that vast site had not been so carefully air brushed to remove the signs of antiquity.)

Those who chose not to follow a guide or failed to consult historical reference would have done their visit a grave disservice.
History is not just about buildings and paths, its about the people who created them.

My clumsy comparison though is largely undeserved. Even in the midst of its perfection Machu Picchu is indeed an amazing destination, one that makes your heart race and your imagination run riot.  I still find it hard to believe I have been there, that I have actually walked its paths, gazed out at the magnificent panorama of windswept valleys and mountain peaks, that I along with all those millions of other tourists have trod in the footsteps of the ancient Inca. 

This favourite haunt of a long dead Incan Emperor deserves its inclusion as a World Heritage Site and Peru needs to be congratulated for preserving its image and welcoming its visitors.

And to prove that daughter Jenny  and mother Robyn have both traversed this same breathtaking path, admittedly a good 30 or so years apart, I include the photographic proof.

Though I have to admit Jenny was far more adventurous than her mum.


Robyn Mortimer ©2013