Machu Picchu: Peru’s hidden marvel


  • Europe
  • Friday, 05 Apr 2013

The Classic Inca Trail starts with you crossing the Urubamba River.

Machu Picchu is more than just one of the Seven Wonders of the new world. If the llamas could speak, they would tell you stories of shamans, gold and perhaps even about human sacrifice.

TRAVELLING to Machu Picchu, Peru, from Malaysia is no easy feat, not to mention the fact that it’s not an endeavour light on the pocket. So you may ask, is it worth all that money and effort to travel half-way around the globe to see some ruins?

After all, the magnificent Angkor Wat is much closer to home.

But the answer is still a resounding yes!

While I would be the first to admit that Angkor Wat is older and more spectacular, I cannot deny that I was overwhelmed by the mere sight of Machu Picchu. The Inca builders had one very special factor going for them, and that is the amazing backdrop that the majestic Andes has bequeathed upon their creation.

The mountain range surrounds Machu Picchu like a natural fortress. This breathtaking landscape has the effect of re-igniting that child-like awe that one thought had long been lost. Seeing the majestic mountains makes you realise the impossibility of Machu Picchu’s construction, and you are made acutely aware of how small and insignificant you are in the bigger scheme of things.

When I had finished gaping, I turned to my travelling buddy and asked him to describe in one word what he felt about Machu Picchu. Without hesitation, he said, “Inspirational.”

And he was absolutely spot-on.

The other thing that contributed to the surreal experience of Machu Picchu is the way the clouds play peek-a-boo with the ruins. We were among of the first to enter the ruins at seven in the morning and could barely make out the buildings from the slopes as the entire mountain was covered in fog.

After several failed attempts at adjusting our cameras to get good shots, we gave up and decided to hike to the highest point. But then, without warning, the clouds lifted to reveal the remains of a civilisation that was defeated by enemies they didn’t even know they had.

Quickly, you try to explore as much of the grounds as you can. With its several temples, astrological constructs, entrance gates, a bridge, a square, residential homes, storehouses, aqueducts and terraces with retaining walls for crops, there is plenty to see here.

Between the Sun Gate (an hour’s hike away on the adjoining mountain), the Inca Bridge (another hour’s hike), and such activities as petting the llamas and alpacas and taking pictures to your heart’s content, you can happily spend an entire day at this amazing site.

The journey there

Part of the appeal of Machu Picchu is its remoteness. To get there, one first has to fly to Lima, Peru’s capital. From there, it’s an hour’s flight to Cusco, located at 2,000m above sea level. With its cobbled streets and mood lighting, Cusco oozes colonial charm and is a great place for altitude acclimatisation.

Once here, you have a choice between hiking to Machu Picchu or taking the tourist train.

The hiking routes range from two-day affairs to seven-day treks (or more, if you’re the hardy type). The most popular is the Classic Inca Trail, a four-day hike which also covers other ruins. Only 500 people are allowed on this trail every day, half of whom are porters, so early bookings are vital.

The alternative is a classic train with sky windows. Imagine having an almost 180° view as your train gently snakes through the Andes alongside the Urubamba River for five hours, chugging through the town and ruins of Ollantaytambo, and finally arriving at the town of Aguas Calientes.

As it takes another 30 minutes by bus to get to the actual ruins, many visitors opt to spend the night in town before going up to Machu Picchu the next morning.

The costs of both modes of journey are comparable, and include the entrance fee of US$65 (RM200).

If you think you’re not going all the way there if there’s only Machu Picchu to see, think again. Not only is Peru blessed with beautiful natural landscapes, it also has a rich historical past. One can easily spend a whole month here without running out of things to do.

A typical route that travellers do is the Gringo Trail, which starts from Lima, and ends in Machu Picchu. Some highlights include the Nazca lines (mysterious patterns drawn on the desert floor spanning hundreds of kilometres), Lake Titicaca (the highest navigable lake in the world), Cajamarca, which houses the famous Ransom Chamber of Inca King Atahualpa and the Inca Baths, the “white city” of Arequipa and Coca Canyon, which is among the world’s deepest.

Peruvian cuisine

The cuisine was an eye-opener to me. I was amazed to learn that potatoes originated from Peru, and even more astounded to learn that there are about 4,000 varieties. My eyes widened when I saw eight different colours of corn in the markets, and my mouth gaped upon seeing roasted guinea pigs hanging from windows, much like how roasted ducks do in Chinese restaurants.

The alpaca steaks on the menu piqued my interest and, having tried the delicious beef heart skewers, I would describe Peru as a playland for the food adventurer. And if you love raw seafood, Peru is perfect because it is known for delicious ceviche that’s made from all sorts of seafood.

The cuisine is diverse, with generous use of spices, herbs and chilli. Fusion cuisine abounds, too. Chinese and Peruvian fusion is termed “Chifa”, while Japanese and Peruvian fusion is called “Nikkei”. If you don’t mind splurging, then you must try the degustation menu at Gaston y Astrid, which is said to be the 35th best restaurant in the world in 2012.

Curious, I asked the locals if they kept guinea pigs as pets.

“Never,” they said.

Guinea pigs originated from the Andes, and for 2,000 years they have only ever been a food source to the locals. It was the Spaniards who found the critters cute and made them pets.

Peruvians also make merry with a grape brandy called pisco. Although Chileans also lay claim to its origins, both nations commonly enjoy a refreshing cocktail called the Pisco Sour (a concoction of pisco, lime and sugar). Teetotallers, however, can enjoy Inca Cola, a fluorescent yellow coca tea made from coca leaves. Apparently, it helps with altitude sickness.

As coca leaves contain minute amounts of cocaine alkaloids, they are banned in many nations. However, it takes 400kg of coca leaves to make less than 100g of cocaine, so you can enjoy your coca tea without worrying too much about being drugged.

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