by Jeremy van Heerde
South America has so many regions to discover and when picturing images of this continent the one that always springs to mind is the picture perfect shot of Machu Picchu. Recently I was lucky enough to travel here with a group of colleagues and explore this amazing place for myself.
Our journey to Machu Picchu, now known as one of the ‘New Seven Wonders of the World’, began from the moment our plane’s landing gear touched down on the runway in Cusco. Making our way across the tarmac, the first thing that hit me was the feeling that we had now arrived at altitude!
After making the short 10 minute drive to our hotel in the centre of Cusco we were greeted with a smile and a cup of the local coca tea. The tea, along with plenty of water and a take it easy attitude, was the perfect way to acclimatise to our new environment. Like all things in life its best to take the tea in moderation, as it can get the heart racing a little and leave you staring at the ceiling counting sheep in the early hours of the morning!
Cusco, the old centre of the Inca Empire, is a fantastic place for an extended stay in Peru as there are so many historic places to see, it’s also a great destination to explore on foot through the cobblestone streets. Our touring took us to the main square which was a highlight in itself and the 17th Century Cathedral.
Our next stop was Koricancha, the Temple of the Sun which used to be one of the most important Inca Temples, now built on its ruins stands a Dominican church. That afternoon we went up to the highest altitude point in Peru, the resting place of Tambo Machay. As the saying goes, easy does it! We ended our day with a visit to Sacsayhuaman, the temple of the lightening god. Here we also got an amazing view of the city of Cusco lying below.
A True Taste of the Local Fare
After a fantastic day of sightseeing we freshened up and headed out for dinner. Just a short walk from our hotel was the Cicciolina Restaurant, it was a bit of a hidden gem as we had to go through a couple of laneways and climb a staircase before being seated at our table. The menu included something for everyone, including the famous local dish Conejillo de Indias.
That’s guinea pig, for our non-Spanish speaking readers, which tastes a little like duck! The local beverages seem to compliment the food here quite well, a glass of the local Cusquena beer was a good way to start the evening and it’s also possible to get wine from their Argentinian neighbours – the Malbec was well appreciated!
After a well-deserved dinner and sleep – I woke with a great feeling as today was going to be the day we’d experience Machu Picchu. We were collected from our hotel and taken to the Poroy Station where we got ready to board the Vistadome Train. Halfway down the platform the conductor yells out ‘all aboard’ and we picked up the pace a little, as of course our carriage was right down the front!
Our cabin offered great comfort, with large windows which were perfect for our 3 ½ hour trip. The ever changing scenery made the time fly by, and of course as the minutes went by the excitement continued to build. We knew we were getting closer, looking out of the windows we saw a trail of hikers making their way closer to the end of their trek, which for some would have started a week ago!
Machu Picchu Here We Come!
As the train pulled into Aguas Calientes Station we knew we’d made it! Jumping off the train we were ready to go, but first things first, it was time to apply tropical strength insect repellent! After that we joined the queue for the bus which would take us up the mountain. The bus trip takes about 25 minutes and for those sitting on the right hand side you get a sneak peak! As a trade-off, it’s a long way down, so if you are not a fan of heights then the left hand side of the bus may be a better choice for you.
Getting off the bus we were right in front of the gates to one of the world’s most amazing landmarks. Our guide Henry passed out our tickets and as we entered he told us we were not quite there yet. We first needed to continue heading up on foot before it all became a reality. The trail was made up of many steps and can be a test of your fitness, but you have pretty big carrot dangling in front of by way of motivation. Twenty minutes later, there we were standing right in front of the ‘money shot’. These days it can be hard to find destinations that still deliver on the wow factor, but I can honestly say that the first glimpse of this ancient site had the hair on my neck standing on end.
Our guide gave us an excellent introduction to what we were seeing and a great description of this once grand summer getaway for the local Incas. Did you know there were only ever about 14 Inca kings? Not before long it was pretty evident that everyone had itchy trigger fingers on their cameras and our guide released us to go off and explore at our leisure.
Space to enjoy the scenery
You would think that having 3,000 visitors through the gates everyday it would be impossible to avoid the crowds. But it is really quite easy to find your own space. Some like to just sit on one of the terraces and take it all in, whereas others will do their best to get lost in a maze of rooms and staircases. You always need to have your camera ready as the weather changes so quickly and therefore so does the landscape, it really can be four seasons in 15 minutes!
After a few hours exploring, it’s time to pack up the camera and make our way to the exit. Don’t forget your passport, as for a final souvenir from Machu Picchu they will stamp it as you leave. It’s best to do this on the way out as everyone else tends to do it when they arrive, this way you avoid the line-up and fighting over one stamp!
Witness spectacular Machu Picchu and all the natural wonders of this stunning country on one of our small group tours to South America. For more information click here.