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Machu Picchu: Lost City of the Incas



Mystery still surrounds ancient city high in the Andes

We had been climbing steadily for almost six hours when we finally reached the Intipunku – the "Sun Gate" where the climb ends and Machu Picchu – Lost City of the Incas – is suddenly spread out below us. The awe-inspiring view transcends reality – a dream world suspended in time and space. The ancient city, draped across the top of a mountain, seems incongruous, almost bizarre, and yet Machu Picchu fits into its mountain surroundings with the same precision and grace as the thousands of carefully crafted stones from which it is built.

We began our journey to Machu Picchu in Cusco, where we boarded the early morning local train along with a motley crowd of Quechua-speaking natives, back-packers of various European origin, and a gaggle of shiny-booted American tourists.

The railway grade out of Cusco, too steep for conventional turns, is a minor engineering marvel. With exhausts belching three foot flames, the two diesel locomotives shunted the train forward and back, climbing the steep slope in a series of switchbacks. Once over the divide we dropped into the incredibly narrow Sacred Valley of Rio Urubamba and lurched along a rough roadbed carved into its banks. At kilometre 88 the backpackers piled off to begin their four-day camping trek along the old Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. At kilometre 104 the train stopped to let our small group off. Everyone else stayed on board – destined to reach Machu Picchu without ever taking a step.

The route from kilometre 104 is a compromise – a chance to hike a portion of the old Inca Trail without the burden of camping gear. Billed as a two-day hike in most guidebooks, the trip can easily be done in a day by anyone who is reasonably fit. We crossed the Rio Urubamba on a footbridge near the tracks and began our climb at about 11 o'clock. Three hours and 2,000 vertical feet later we arrived at the spectacular Inca ruins of Huinay Huayna and settled down on one of the old terraces for a late lunch – still another three hour hike to Machu Picchu.

The view from our perch is spectacular. Surrounded by steep, forest-covered slopes we watch a train returning from Aguas Calientes – a tiny centipede creeping along the Urubamba valley far below.

Huinay Huayna was one of the last major Inca sites to be discovered. Its well preserved ruins include dozens of steep terraces that cling to the mountainside and taper out into precipitous ledges overhanging the valley. A small stream, once used for irrigation, cascades over the remains of a dam above the ruins and trickles through the remains of 10 ritual bath-houses. Huinay Huayna must have been an important centre of agricultural production, but why it was built in such an unlikely place is known only to the spirits of its long departed builders.