Machu Picchu, which was recently listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is a highlight on every visitor to Peru’s ‘must see’ list. Constructed on a mountain ridge 2,430 metres above sea level that sits between the valleys of the Apurimac and Uramba Rivers, it commands spectacular views of both valleys. Buildings on the site are believed to have been constructed around 1450, at the height of the Inca empire. However, the site was abandoned within a century when the empire collapsed during the Spanish conquest.


Machu Picchu, which was recently listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is a highlight on every visitor to Peru’s ‘must see’ list. Constructed on a mountain ridge 2,430 metres above sea level that sits between the valleys of the Apurimac and Uramba Rivers, it commands spectacular views of both valleys. Buildings on the site are believed to have been constructed around 1450, at the height of the Inca empire. However, the site was abandoned within a century when the empire collapsed during the Spanish conquest.


A classic view of Machu Picchu from the agricultural sector terraces. The conical peak of Huanya Picchu is seen behidn the site, shrouded with low cloud. The terraces closer to Huanya Picchu are part of the urban sector of the city.

Although only 70 km northwest of Cusco as the crow flies, the isolation and challenging terrain of the area meant the city was never found and destroyed by the Conquistadores. Instead, it lay empty and become overgrown by the surrounding jungle until ‘discovered’ in 1911 by American explorer and historian, Hiram Bingham (who was actually taken there by local guides).

Bingham brought Machu Picchu to the world’s attention in a book titled The Lost City of the Incas, which was widely read. The city, he claimed, was the traditional birthplace of the Inca people and a spiritual centre for worship of the sun. Interestingly, he never credited the guides who took him to the site, although he wrote several other books and articles about the discovery.

Modern archaeologists have several theories about the purpose of the settlement. Some say it was an estate belonging to the Inca emperor Pachacuti, while other experts believe it was a royal retreat to which members of the Incan aristocracy could flee in the event of attacks on their settlements. The site is also believed to have been used for astronomical observations associated with the agricultural and religious year.

Bingham returned to Machu Picchu several times in subsequent years and played an important role in the early stages of its restoration. The site as it appears today owes much to his early work. It is clearly divided into two sectors, comprising the agricultural terraces and the urban squares and buildings (which include temples, residential buildings, storehouses and workshops). Stairways and water channels run through both sectors.

A track running NNE of the agricultural area takes you up to Intipunku (The Gate of the Sun), where visitors who arrive via the Inca Trail enter Machu Picchu. It takes roughly an hour to climb to Intipunku from the entrance gate, allowing for stops along the way to take in the spectacular views the track accords. But most visitors arrive by train.

The rail journey in the Vistadome train that most tourists use takes roughly four hours. Travelling a distance of 112 km the train shunts its way backwards and forwards up the mountainside from the San Pedro station in Cusco over a high point known as ‘El Arco’ (the arch) before descending through the villages of Poroy, Cachimayo and lzcuchaca until it reaches the Anta plains, where it tracks alongside the Uramba River through the Sacred Valley of the Incas.



The train from Cusco travels through prosperous farmlands before running parallel with the Uramba River that runs below Machu Picchu. This shot was taken from the moving train using a fast shutter speed and ISO 400 sensitivity.


The turbulent Urumba River as it approaches the valley near Machu Picchu. Another shot taken from the moving train.


A local resident offers hot corn for sale at one of the stops along the line. Other vendors had textiles and woven bags on offer to passengers on the train.

Some passengers leave the train at Ollantaytambo for the four-day walk to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail. But the majority stay on to the final destination, the town of Aguas Calientes. Here they transfer to shuttle-buses for the eight kilometre climb up the mountainside to the entry gate.

Our schedule called for us to be collected at 5.30 am for transfer to the San Pedro station in time to board the 6.00 am train. By now we had become used to early starts and were able to organise a pre-departure breakfast at the hotel before pick-up. The Vistadome train was very comfortable and the trip to Aguas Calientes provided plenty of interesting sights.

We arrived to light rain and immediately had to purchase plastic ponchos to protect our clothing and camera bags. Fortunately, by the time we had trekked through the inevitable souvenir vendors and boarded the bus the rain had begun to ease and, by the time we’d spiralled up the hill and disembarked at the Machu Picchu entry gate, conditions looked set to improve.



Buildings in the urban sector, photographed in mid-afternoon when most of the tourists were departing to catch the last train back to Cusco. After about 3.00 pm the site is relatively clear of tourists.



A begonia plant, which is native to the region, brightens up one of the piles of stones that have not been used in the site reconstruction.


A wide-angle view across one of the courtyards with one of the springs in the foreground and the peak of Huanya Picchu in the distance.



Machu Picchu affects different people in different ways. These visitors appeared to be communing with some deep spiritual presence on the site.



Looking through a classic double-stepped Inca doorway towards Huanya Picchu. One of the workmen charged with site maintenance can be seen in the middle distance.

Our guide, Camilla, who escorted us from Cusco, arranged an ideal photographers’ trip, taking us gradually through all the more visually interesting sectors of the site and, at the same time, providing a wealth of interesting information about the history and structure of the buildings. She also identified manu of the plants and animals that coudl be seen in the area. Unfortunately, she had to return to Cusco on the afternoon train so she left us to our own explorations in mid-afternoon, with a reminder that the last bus back to Aguas Calientes, where we would stay the night, departed at 5.30 pm.



A view of Huanya Picchu with some native vegetation in the foreground. Plants that can be clearly identified include begonias, bamboo and lianas.



A chinchilla shelters on a ledge in one of the buildings. This shot was taken with the 75-300mm lens at full tele extension to avoid startling the animal.



Swallow chicks, photographed with the Ixus 750 in one of the crevices in the walls. The compact camera was the only one I had that would focus close enough to take this shot.


A view of Machu Picchu from the agricultural terraces, taken in the late afternoon when most tourists have departed.
Over dinner that evening, the other members of the party confessed to preferring a sleep-in the next morning over the return to the Machu Picchu site that my partner and I preferred (which proved quite expensive – but very rewarding). So the next morning the pair of us joined a bus queue at 6.00 am to re-visit the site on our own.
Our plan was to climb up to Intipunku so we could take the ‘classic’ photographs that show the site in its entirety. Unfortunately, weather conditions made the prospect of photography unlikely as the entire mountain was shrouded in thick mist. “This will lift in an hour or so,” my partner averred as, one behind the other we plodded through the gloom, heading for the hilltop. But the higher we climbed, the denser the mist appeared to become until, by the time we reached the summit, it was like being inside a thick cloud.


On our arrival at Machu Picchu in the early morning it appeared that the mist could lift within an hour or two.


But the higher we climbed, the thicker the cloud became.

We weren’t the only optimists to make the climb; we reached Intipunku to find at least 15 other people waiting there. So, as waiting appeared to be the only option, that’s what we did. In all, we spent roughly three hours waiting for the cloud to lift and during that time people came and went, some staying longer than others. Conversations developed between the different groups, people took photographs of each other; some ate the snacks they’d brought. A small group of young people conducted some kind of ceremony with chants and songs. But still the mist persisted.


Approaching Intipunku (The Gate of the Sun) from the Machu Picchu side. This picture shows how thick the cloud was for most of the morning.


Waiting for the cloud to lift. This shot was taken with the Ixus 750 with exposure compensation set to -0.7 EV to produce accurate tonal reproduction.


A view from just above Intipunku during one of the brief periods in which the cloud appeared to be lifting.


A group of trekkers capturing memories of their visit.
At times, the hem of the cloud lifted slightly, revealing part of the valley far below. But then the wind would change and another gust of mist would cover up the view.


A brief lift in the cloud base discloses the winding road up the hill to the entry gate and the railway line running alongside the river in the valley far below.


This Andean sparrow kept us company for about half an hour while we waited for the cloud to lift. Taken with the 75-300mm lens on the EOS 400D.


The mist provided the ideal conditions for shooting close-ups of flowers like these crucifix orchids, which are endemic to the region. Taken with the Ixus 750.

By midday we had become concerned that the mist would persist for the entire day and worried that we may not be able to get back to the railway station in time to catch our train back to Cusco. So we decided to make our way slowly back down the track. This turned out to be a good move because within 15 minutes we noticed that the cloud had begun to lift and, by the time we were half-way down the track, the buildings of Machu Picchu were clearly visible. A quarter of an hour later the sun was struggling to shine through.


A view of Machu Picchu from the Intipunku track, showing the ridge on which the buildings are located against the surrounding mountain peaks.


A view from a closer vantage point, showing the steep slope of the eastern side of the ridge, which descends to the Apurimac River valley. Taken with the EOS 400D and 10-22mm lens.

The rest of the story is straightforward: we got the shots we were looking for, exited the site, joined the queue for the bus and were back in Aguas Calientes in time to grab a bite to eat before heading for the station where we met up with the other members of the group, who had enjoyed a relaxing morning exploring the town.

On the train trip back to Cusco we were entertained by the railway staff, who performed traditional dances and put on a fashion show displaying alpaca knitwear from a local factory. The clothing displayed was offered for sale to passengers at prices slightly higher than comparative goods would fetch in Cusco. However, this did not deter purchases and we suspect the staff who modelled the jumpers, jackets and shawls did rather well out of the commissions they must have been paid. It was dark by the time we arrived at our hotel, relaxed in the knowledge that we could sleep in the next morning and have a day free to explore the city and decide what we would take on our week-long trip into the Manu jungle on the following day.