Machu Picchu: the Sun Gate and Wayna Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the most dramatically located ancient sites I’ve ever been privileged to visit. While that is obvious from anywhere in the ruined city, a 2km walk up the Inca trail brings you to the Sun Gate where it’s possible to get the view of the city that those who walk the Inca trail get when they first sight the city.

But for a birds-eye-view of the city, the surrounding mountains and valleys there’s nothing for it but to climb up the near vertical Wayna Picchu mountain, at the top of which another  audacious Inca citadel awaits.

The walk to the Sun Gate is a pleasant 40 minutes and every step seems to deliver yet more views of the beautiful surrounding mountains and valleys.

Machu Picchu with Wayna Picchu looming in the background

Fortification on the Inca Trail to the Sun Gate, Machu Picchu, Peru

City planning Inca style, Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail, Peru

The view once you reach the Sun Gate is nothing short of spectacular. I could have spent an hour drinking in the view but I had an appointment with the big hill on the right of the photo below so cut my stay short and set off back down the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu from the Sun Gate, Peru

I know walking up big hills isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I enjoy it. So I figured a walk up Wayna Picchu would be good for body and soul and also provide some respite from the crowds that would inevitably be marauding around Machu Picchu by mid-morning.

I hadn’t factored in that the climb is lung-burstingly vertical for much of the route, that at 10am the heat would be severe, or that there would be little in the way of safety features on the route – with sheer drops off the side of the trail, vertical stairways and very worn and slippery steps you need to be mountain goat-like sure footed. Reaching the top though is another exercise in finding yet more superlatives (and the odd expletive). This time I did spend an hour drinking in the views and getting my breath back.

Inca buildings on Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

There are quite a number of buildings on Wayna Picchu literally built into the near-vertical mountainside, and of course there is more agricultural terracing. It is mind-boggling how the Inca built such an extraordinary site in such an extraordinary place.

Even if the Spanish had found Machu Picchu, it is inconceivable that they would have been able to capture the fortifications on Wayna Picchu. At one point I was crawling on my hands and knees up through a stairway cut into the rock about 20 feet beneath the summit of Wayna Picchu.

Stairway up through the rock on Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

View of Machu Picchu and valley almost from the top of Wayna Picchu, Peru

It is difficult to describe the sensation of reaching the top of the mountain. Apart from a security guard at the top I was alone with my thoughts and the view for the best part of an hour. Chatting to the security guard (who had been doing this job for 15 years) turned out to be a big mistake; people have died on Wayna Picchu, including one person who was hit by lightening right in front of him.

With that sobering thought, I set off down the stairway of doom back to Machu Picchu. The views were spectacular but it’s not wise to to take your eyes of the steps when walking down an incline so steep it seems like you are hovering over the edge of a giant precipice.

Looking straight down Wayna Picchu past Inca buildings, Machu Picchu, Peru

Steps down Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

Steps coming down Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

The way down Wayna Picchu, Machu Picchu, Peru

With trembling knees I made it down to the base of the mountain, encouraging everyone I met on their way up with the words, “It gets much worse further up.” Strangely this didn’t seem to have the invigorating effect I’d expected.

Regardless, if you are visiting Machu Picchu the climb up Wayna Picchu is worth it for the spectacular views, but book early, they only allow 400 people to attempt the climb each day.

Wayna Picchu pokes above buildings on the Sacred Plaza, Machu Picchu, Peru

The magnificent Machu Picchu

I have a horror of tour groups. I understand why they exist but they still bring me out in hives. So after spending a few pleasant days wandering around the Sacred Valley away from the crowds I approached Machu Picchu with a sense of trepidation. Will it live up the (high) expectations? Will it be disappointing? Will the other 2499 tourists allowed in the same day make it unbearable?

It’s probably selfish to want the whole of Machu Picchu to oneself but when I reached the bus queue in Aguas Calientes at 5am there were already a hundred people in the line. I wasn’t alone in wanting to get to the site before the tour-group hoards arrived mid-morning.

Mist clears from the mountains surrounding Machu Picchu, Peru

In the end I worried needlessly, Machu Picchu was magnificent. Yes, by 10am the site looks more like London at rush hour; but at 6am, sitting on centuries old Inca terracing above the site watching the mists clear from the ruins as the sun rose over the surrounding mountains, was a magical and mystical experience. I wouldn’t have missed it for all the looted Inca silver in Cusco’s cathedral.

Actually, when I first arrived there was a tantalising glimpse of the city and then the mist swept back across the mountain and obscured everything. It took about an hour for the mist to clear again and I was beginning to wonder if we’d get to see anything. In the end the Inca gods were just playing with us and the wait was worth it.

A fleeting glimpse of Machu Picchu before the mist descended

The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, probably because it had already been abandoned by the time they arrived, and it is easy to see how it remained hidden from the outside world for several centuries. It is built on top of a mountain, surrounded by mountains and located above an inaccessible narrow and deep gorge…and then there’s the mist.

City in the mist, Machu Picchu, Peru

City in the mist, Machu Picchu, Peru

City emerging from the mist, Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

An Australian friend who works in the travel industry has done an analysis of the cost of Machu Picchu compared to other world famous tourist destinations; Machu Picchu is around five-times more expensive for the average visitor, which puts a lot of pressure on a visit. But as the mist slowly dissolved in front of us and Machu Picchu revealed its true beauty the cost became irrelevant.

The other thing to reveal itself was the very large hill behind Machu Picchu. Called Wayna Picchu, I had booked a place to climb this monstrosity at 10am. Seeing it in the flesh was a bit disconcerting, but it turned out to be a really good decision (of which more later).

Until 10am there was plenty of time to wander through the ruins of Machu Picchu and marvel at the brilliance of the Inca buildings – surprisingly, it is easy to find yourself alone in the ruins with only the wind and tremendous views for company.

The Sacred Plaza and residential quarter, Machu Picchu, Peru

View over the Temple of the Condor, Machu Picchu, Peru

Building in the Three Doorways area, Machu Picchu, Peru

View down the Sacred Plaza, Inca terracing in the background, Machu Picchu, Peru

Inca terracing on the flanks of Machu Picchu, Wayna Picchu in the background, Peru

A few days before we arrived at Machu Picchu I received a compact camera with a video function for my birthday. I should probably have practiced before reaching Machu Picchu, but below is my first video…I apologise if it is a bit wonky.

The Sacred Valley of the Inca: Ollantaytambo

As well as being something of a tongue-twister (try saying it after a couple of Pisco Sours), Ollantaytambo is also a remarkable Inca site that combines a mighty fortress perched on a mountainside, exquisitely constructed terracing and the remains of an Inca town on the valley floor with narrow cobbled streets and fast flowing irrigation channels that still retain their pre-Hispanic feel.

The fortress of Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

Ollantaytambo is one of the handful places where the Spanish suffered a defeat at the hands of the Inca (and there were few enough). It was here in 1536 that Manco Inca retreated with thousands of his followers after his defeat at Sacsayhuaman. In an attempt to capture Manco Inca and put an end to his rebellion, Hernando Pizarro pursued him with a force of 70 Spanish cavalry and hundreds of Spanish and indigenous foot soldiers.

What the Spanish didn’t know was that Manco Inca had forged an alliance with Amazonian tribes who swelled the ranks of the defenders, and then in a cunning tactical move he flooded the valley floor to hamper the Spanish cavalry. Trapped between the viciously steep terraces of the fort and the flooded valley the Spanish suffered one of their few defeats, slinking away in the middle of the night and leaving behind many of their weapons.

Terracing and buildings, Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

As with all things Spanish versus Inca, the triumph didn’t last long and the Spanish soon returned with a much larger force and Manco Inca fled deeper into the Amazon. Having climbed the stairway to the top of the fortress it is easy to see how the Spanish came unstuck at Ollantaytambo, the climb up is unpleasant enough without being bombarded from above.

Inca terracing at the fortress of Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

Ollantaytambo is one of the main railway stations in the Sacred Valley and a major jumping off point for Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. Consequently it gets its fair share of tourists, but get up early enough and it is possible to have the ruins more-or-less to yourself, and once you’re at the top the views up and down the valley and over the town are spectacular.

The Temple of the Sun with snowcapped mountain behind, Ollentaytambo, Peru

Sculpted detail on the Temple of the Sun, Ollentaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

View across the fort complex, Ollentaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

View across the fort complex and terraces, Ollentaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

Inca storehouses built into the mountainside, Ollentaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

Sacred Inca fountain at Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

Modern-day Inca warrior at Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

Across the valley on the other side of the village are more Inca fortifications, stretching into the distance around the side of the mountain. A stiff 20 minute walk up brings you to this set of buildings with views back over the village and the main fortress of Ollantaytambo. After which a stroll around the village, a cup of coffee and some delicious pastries seemed in order.

Village and fortress of Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

The Inca streets of Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

The Inca streets of Ollantaytambo, Sacred Valley, Peru

The Sacred Valley of the Inca: Chinchero and the citadel of Pisac

The small village of Chinchero hides a secret. You wouldn’t guess it driving past on the road from Cusco to the Sacred Valley, you wouldn’t guess it as you walk the village’s ancient cobbled streets, not even walking into the plaza outside its ordinary looking adobe church is it hinted at.

Chinchero’s secret is only revealed when you walk through the thick wooden doors of the church itself. Inside, the church is emblazoned with beautiful naive paintings that literally cover every inch of the walls, ceiling and wooden beams. The paintings and frescoes cover all manner of religious subjects, some with angels dressed as conquistadors wielding swords, but it is the simple floral designs that are most attractive.

The adobe church at Chinchero, Peru

Many of the paintings are in poor repair, but somehow that makes them all the more evocative. It isn’t permitted to take photos inside the church, so if you want to see a beautiful example of colonial-era religious art you’ll just have to visit Chinchero.

As with most things in the Sacred Valley, the church sits on top of an important Inca temple and is surrounded by imposing Inca terracing. Pre-conquest, Chinchero was an important Inca religious site and was believed to be the birthplace of the Rainbow.

Inca terracing stretches off into the distance, Chinchero, Peru

Inca stonework next to the colonial church, Chinchero, Peru

It is a lovely village situated on a small hill with tremendous views of the surrounding mountains. Although the once weekly market that fills the plaza outside the church wasn’t on when we visited, the village has lots of beautiful crafts and weavings for sale in the narrow streets that lead to the church.

Typical cobbled street, Chinchero, Peru

Landscape outside of Chinchero, Peru

After the sublime Iglesia at Chinchero, the dramatic location and grandeur of the Inca ruins at Pisac come as a sharp jolt – particularly as when we arrived several tour groups were marauding around decked out in hardcore walking gear as if they were about to set off on a multi-day trek over mountain ranges rather than tackling the somewhat less demanding trails around Pisac.

A former Inca citadel, Pisac sits at a strategic point above the gorge at the entrance to the Sacred Valley guarding Inca trade routes from the highlands down into the Amazon basin. Clambering up to its former battlements gives you a panoramic view over the Sacred Valley that is breathtaking. The site itself is large, much larger than Machu Picchu but also much more spread out along a mountain ridge that extends for a mile or more.

Inca terraces at the citadel of Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

The citadel of Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

The views over the Sacred Valley from the heights of the citadel are magnificent, but leaving the crowds at the citadel behind the walk along the ridge reveals much more of the landscape of the valley below. The walk passes numerous other Inca ruins and ends at another dramatically located group of ruins set above yet more terracing.

Gateway at the start of the ridge trail at Pisac, Sacred valley, Peru

Views of the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru

The trail winds itself around the mountain and you can’t help but marvel at the ingenuity of the Inca architects who designed and built this enormous complex of agricultural terracing and military fortifications.

Ruined fortifications at Pisac, Sacred Valley, Peru

Impressive ruins overlooking the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru

Inca buildings above terracing, Pisac, Peru

Inca fortifications guarding the Sacred Valley, Pisac, Peru

After a couple of hours of wandering the ruins we went down into the valley to visit modern town of Pisac, which is home to one of the largest markets in the region. Although interesting, the whole of the central plaza and surrounding streets were crammed full of tour buses and tour groups, turning modern-day Pisac into a lucrative hell-hole. We had a drink in the lovely Blue Llama cafe and left.

The fun wasn’t over yet though. En route back to Cusco our taxi driver started acting erratically, until he finally pulled over and stopped entirely. It took a few minutes of questioning to get the whole truth, which was that he wasn’t licensed to take tourists outside of Cusco and that there was a police roadblock ahead where he’d be fined 1500 soles (£360) if we stayed in the car.

So, in the heat of the afternoon we were unceremoniously turfed out of the car to walk for 2kms while he drove through the roadblock and waited for us out of sight on the other side. Whether the police were fooled or what they thought when four Gingos walked past them in the middle of nowhere we’ll never know, but it was clearly a common problem as we met several car loads of people walking the other way.

The Sacred Valley of the Inca: Moray and Salinas

Lying north-west of Cusco is the beautiful Rio Urubamba valley, better known today as the Sacred Valley of the Inca. Plunging a thousand metres down to the the valley floor from the hills surrounding Cusco, this was the heartland of the Inca empire and is the dramatic location for a number of spectacular Inca sites.

The wealth of archaeological sites that litter the Sacred Valley is testimony to the fertility of the land which was able to support a significant population prior to the arrival of the Spanish; it also hints at the military and religious importance of the region pre-conquest. To journey through the Sacred Valley towards Machu Picchu is to begin to understand the true scale of the Inca world and just how advanced a civilisation it was.

The concentric circles of Moray, Sacred Valley, Peru

One of the most visually stunning Inca sites is at Moray, where concentric circles of Inca terracing form an amphitheatre-like bowl deep below the top of the surrounding hills. It is both beautiful and mysterious. Believed to have been an agricultural experimental site, with each ring of the bowl providing a distinct micro-climate to experiment with different crops, it is also thought to have been an important ceremonial site.

So unusual looking is Moray that were it not for all the historical evidence it could easily prompt new age conspiracy theories about aliens and spaceships – think crop circle spoofs, just on a much grander scale.

Inca stairs leading into the bowl of Moray, Sacred Valley, Peru

Walking down into the bowl is an eiry experience, particularly as you descend the steep steps that generations of Inca once used. Reaching the centre of the bowl and looking back up gives you a unique view of the amphitheatre, which, with its graceful curving walls could easily be mistaken for an art installation – I think I know where Andy Goldsworthy got the idea for his installations of walls and sheepfolds in Cumbria.

Graceful walls at Moray, Sacred Valley, Peru

View back up from the centre of Moray, Sacred Valley, Peru

From Moray it is a short journey via the village of Maras to reach the equally spectacular site of Salinas. The journey itself is pretty beautiful, driving down gravel roads with a backdrop of snowcapped mountains and scenes of rural life seemingly unchanged for centuries.

The village of Maras with mountains behind, Sacred Valley, Peru

A woman herds sheep on a dirt road near Maras, Sacred Valley, Peru

Turning yet another corner with a 1000 meter drop off the side, the sudden sight of salt pans at Salinas is breathtaking. Perched on a brown hillside and blazing bright white under the intense sun, the salt pans are created by an unusually salty stream that drains down the valley and have been harvested since Inca times.

Salt pans at Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

Salt pans at Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

The water is trapped in the pans and evaporates under the Andean sun, leaving behind salt crystals that can then be extracted by hand using the hi-tech method of wooden planks and a colander.

Salt crystals forming in a salt pan, Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

The salt isn’t used for human consumption, instead it is used for salt licks for cattle and sheep – creating the bizarre situation where the salt that’s for sale in nearby gift shops comes from Cusco. The salt pans continue to be harvested commercially, although today tourism probably does more to support the local community.

A family harvesting salt, Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

Salt is carried out to a waiting truck, Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

A woman walks amongst the salt pans, Salinas, Sacred Valley, Peru

The views back down to the Sacred Valley from Salinas are also pretty special…

The Sacred Valley seen from Salinas, Peru