The Prize Of The Incas

The Prize Of The Incas

The Prize Of The Incas

Sunday Life

15 September 2016


Visiting Machu Picchu is an experience one never forgets. Tatyana Leonov embarks on an extraordinary – and luxurious – journey to this historic city. 

I first learnt about the Inca civilisation at school. I remember my history teacher drawing the class in with tales of gold, mystic rituals and master craftsmen. We were a boisterous bunch, but when she spoke about sun gods and sacrifices she had our full attention.

The roots of the Inca civilisation date back to the 13th century, with the empire flourishing in the 15th century and declining in the 16th century, following the arrival of the Spanish. The Incas had no written language, so cultural traditions were passed down orally. Much of our knowledge today comes from what they left behind – such as the former city of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is the epitome of the Inca legacy – an innovative design that blends in with its surrounds, and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. And I’m finally going to see it for myself.

The Inca Trail, the most famous way to get here, coils its way along the Andes for around 40 kilometres, and generally takes hikers four days to complete, with a number of challenging climbs along the way.

Those short on time can make a one- day return trip, taking a train from Poroy station (near Cusco) or Ollantaytambo station to Aguas Calientes, the access point to Machu Picchu, from where they can either hike or catch a bus.

Visiting Machu Picchu is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences and, since I’m not hiking the legendary trail, I opt for a luxurious journey aboard the elegant Belmond Hiram Bingham train, named after Hiram Bingham, the American academic and explorer who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911.

Interestingly, there are references to Machu Picchu as early as 1874, and in 1902 a Peruvian explorer, Agustín Lizárraga, inscribed his name in the Temple of the Three Windows, a signature Bingham allegedly tried to hide. But it was Bingham who introduced the magnificent ruins to the rest of the world. 

Intriguingly, Bingham did not think his discovery earth-shattering at the time he made it; he spent just a few hours at Machu Picchu, turned on his heel, then headed back into the forest in search of still more Inca sites (which he found).

I hear this story as the train snakes its way up through mountainous terrain, snippets of captivating history as I’m pampered like royalty. There are guitar performances that have me humming along; I savour local wines; I drink one too many pisco sours; and there’s a lavish three-course meal to top it off. I arrive refreshed and maybe a tad full.

No one knows why Machu Picchu was built or the role it served, but most historians agree that it was probably used as an estate for Inca emperors.

My guide, Luciano from Explora, and I rendezvous with a group at Aguas Calientes and board the bus to Machu Picchu, which sits at an elevation of 2430 metres. During the short, windy journey, Luciano fills us in on the history of the area, but nothing prepares you for that first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

The magnificent once-was city of engineered terraces and elaborate granite is vast, and features an exceptionally sophisticated design; the entire complex was built using no mortar or wheels and the stones are so close-fitting it’s impossible to insert a credit card between them. Even in its current state of disrepair, one can imagine its splendour at its height.

It’s still photogenic, as if the Incan god of Instagram is watching over us. Glistening silver clouds hover around the mountain peaks, as if waiting patiently for everyone to take that magical photo. The sun’s rays dance along the cloud cover, occasionally penetrating through and highlighting small segments of the colossal site, like a spotlight on a stage. It is colossal in the truest sense of the word. Close to 200 structures make up Machu Picchu, although it’s believed that only about 30 per cent of the site is visible, with the rest covered in dense forest.  There could be more to unearth.

When I have a moment, I wander away from the central ruins and find myself following a twisting track that branches off into thick foliage. After a while the path ends – or more than likely it continues, but to where, and for how far, I’ll never know.

Maybe the Incas wanted it to be like this, but the lack of written records means we’ll never understand why the Inacas built this magnificent city and then suddenly abandoned it.

Machu Picchu is one of few places in the world where I feel this spiritual sense of calmness and absolute awe at the same time. And even if it is impossible to understand Machu Picchu, the magnetism remains – perhaps even intensifies – because of the mystery of it all.

For more information about Machu Picchu and how to get there, to to

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