Machu Picchu is designated one of the seven contemporary wonders of the world. Located high in the Andes, it is surrounded by steep mountains and precipitous valleys. It is a mystical setting reminiscent of Delphi. The scenery alone is worth the trip.
My brother and I went as far as Urubamba by bus (the recent rains and consequent landslides destroyed part of the rail system) then by train to Agua Calientes. The final ascent was again by bus.
The initial photos are from the bus from Cusco to Urubamba. The alto plano, or high plateau is beautiful, peaceful farming country, potatoes, quinoa, maize. The high peaks of the Andes are seen in the far distance.
The train follows the Urubamba River down from the North. This river flows through vertical mountain gorges. The terrain changes from the limestone of the alto plano, then a thin layer of limestone over basal granite and then to the solid granite of the high Andes, twisted, folded and riven by massive tectonic forces. About halfway down the valley the vegetation changes from the sparse alto plano to lush semi-tropical replete with orchids, and birds of paradise.
Machu Picchu itself is breathtaking. No photos serve justice to the scale and drama of the setting. The surrounding peaks rise vertically. The deep valleys plunge thousands of feet. Terraces follow these plunging walls for 200-300 feet. A glance at the nearby mountain top shows it too is terraced to the top. Looking west the eye skips over the mountains that recede into the far distance in a view normally only seen from an airplane.
According to my memory and recent scholarship, Machu Picchu was a palace for a late Inca ruler. According to this report, each of the Great Incas built their own special palace. According to interpretation, the buildings are the residence, temples, and housing for the Great Inca, his courtiers, priests and workers.
Machu Picchu was abandoned sometime after the defeat of the last great Inca. Disease and isolation eliminated the population. It was lost to the jungle and to history for almost 300 years.
A few of the buildings are finely crafted in the best Inca tradition of fitted stone work. These are often integrated into the underlying natural rock formations. However most of the structures are made of smaller blocks of mortared stone.
We were fortunate to have a guide from Machu Picchu itself. He is the great grand nephew of one of the farmers who discovered the site at the turn of the last century while burning portion of the jungle for planting. The fire went out of control and revealed some of the buildings that were covered by jungle. The site was kept secret until it was revealed to Hiram Bingham, then on an expedition. Machu Picchu was excavated for the next twenty years. Thousands of artifacts were shipped to Yale. Many will be returned to Peru soon to be housed in a new museum specially built to receive them (with advice from Yale archeologists) in Cusco. We were told the building is ready and waiting for the return.