While I was waiting for my UPS delivery – the replacement of the important axle bolt I had lost in the mountains – I took the chance to take a closer look at the city of Cuzco and joined a couple of regional excursions.
Cuzco heads the list of many people’s travel itineraries. Located in the Southern Sierra of Peru, it was once the capital of the Inca Empire. Today, it is a Unesco World Heritage Site and probably Peru’s most visited city.
Each year, Cuzco draws hundreds of thousands of visitors, lured by its colonial splendor built on massive stone foundations of the Incas. Combine that with its close proximity to the ‘lost’ city of the Incas, Machu Picchu, and you understand why Cuzco is Peru’s biggest drawcard and the undisputed archaeological capital of the Americas.
The city itself represents the center of indigenous Quechua culture in the Andes. When you walk the streets, you see the descendants of the mighty Incas hobbling about in colorful traditional clothing while the contemporary locals (the so-called cuzqueños) make a living from the town’s present-day lifeblood: tourism.
Though Cuzco is at the tipping point of being completely overrun with international tourism, its historical charms cannot be denied. That’s why I decided to have a stopover in this town.
To be honest, I was a bit overwhelmed by the massive crowds during my time in Cuzco. I enjoyed walking the alleys and plazas but soon got tired of navigating around the hoards of people, foreign and domestic. This time of the year is high season, and coincidently during that week I was in town, one of the most important local annual festivals took place: Inti Raymi (Quechua for “Sun Festival”), the celebration of the winter solstice which is held on June 24.
Soon enough, I missed nature and decided to go on a day trip to visit Vinicunca (aka “Rainbow Mountain”). Located about 80 km southeast of Cuzco, it is a site formed of colorful sediments, which gives the mountain a unique and surreal look. Getting there, however, involves a four-hour drive as well as a serious two-hour hike from 4,200 m up to 5,200 m (one way).
I guess, there were at least 250 people on the trail and eventually the mountain ridge taking pictures. Nevertheless, it was a nice excursion with a mixed group of travelers.
Back in Cuzco, I crossed paths with Jona and Franzi again, the German cyclists I had run into in the mountains two weeks before. Through them, I got to know other cyclists. It is always great to meet like-minded people who don’t call you crazy traveling on a bike. All of them were just as intimidated by this crowded town as I was and decided to move on quickly. Before doing the same, I still had one thing on my list: a visit to Machu Picchu, one of the most famous and spectacular sets of ruins in the world.
Despite all the discouraging stories about the 2500+ daily visitors, I was curious to see this awe-inspiring ancient city, which was never revealed to the conquering Spaniards and was virtually forgotten until the early 20th century.
Often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu is one of the most familiar symbols of the Incan Empire. It is also the end point of the extremely popular 4-day-hike along the Inca Trail. Due to the fact that traveling on a bike requires more than enough physical effort, that trek was not of any interest to me. 🙂
The actual purpose and function of Machu Picchu is still a matter of speculation. The citadel was never mentioned in any of the chronicles kept by the Spanish colonizers. Apart from the indigenous Quechuas, nobody knew of Machu Picchu’s existence until American historian Hiram Bingham came upon the thickly overgrown ruins in 1911.
Despite more recent studies, knowledge of Machu Picchu remains sketchy. Some believe the citadel was founded in the waning years of the last Incas as an attempt to preserve Inca culture or rekindle Inca predominance. Others think it may have already become a forgotten city at the time of the European conquest. Another theory suggests that the site was a royal retreat abandoned upon the Spanish invasion.
One thing is clear: Machu Picchu was an extremely protected and well-hidden place. Dramatically perched 300 m above the valley floor, visitors had to travel up long valleys littered with Inca check points and watch towers. Remarkably, the Spanish conquistadors missed the site. In 2007, Machu Picchu was designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
There are various modes of travel how to get to Machu Picchu. You can either have it comfortable joining a scenic train ride and a bus shuttle up to the site entrance, or you go for an economic but slightly more adventurous option involving an nerve-wracking hour-long van ride followed by three hours of hiking. I chose the latter and was not disappointed at all. The two days / one night trip from Cusco was absolutely worth it. Especially the hike up to the citadel followed by that amazing view really gives you a lot of satisfaction. Previously, my expectations were relatively low due to all those stories about the visiting crowds, but when I saw the entire site of Machu Picchu for the very first time, I was extremely impressed of its location, the amazing views of the valleys and mountain peaks, and also the advanced skills the Inca were able to master to establish such a stunning city.
I was excited to get back on the bike, left Cuzco on June 25, and continued my journey towards Bolivia.