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By Ute Junker
The vanished Incan empire left behind a remarkable legacy, writes Ute Junker – its stunning cities, with the magical Machu Picchu as its most awe-inspiring.
Hiram Bingham had to do it the hard way. When in 1911 the American scholar and adventurer rediscovered Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel in the clouds, he did so largely on foot, occasionally sitting astride a mule.
Heading out from the Peruvian city of Cusco in search of forgotten Incan cities, Bingham and his team scrabbled up steep slopes and edged their way through plunging valleys, often hacking paths through dense jungle. It was clearly exhausting: when he was later asked the city’s precise location, he testily described it as being in “the most inaccessible corner of a hard-to-reach section of the central Andes”.
Still, Bingham found what he was looking for. Sprawling over 13 square kilometres, the abandoned city of Machu Picchu, a remote outpost of a vanished empire, captured the imagination of people around the world.
A century on, it is one of South America’s best-known tourist attractions, and is so popular that the Peruvian government has had to limit tourist numbers to 2,000 people a day.
Fortunately, reaching Machu Picchu today is a relatively stress-free experience. All you have to do is climb aboard the opulent train Belmond Hiram Bingham, named after the site’s discoverer. The train evokes the golden age of rail with its elegant interiors and immaculately turned-out staff, and covers the 80 kilometres between Cusco and Machu Picchu in around three-and-a-half hours.
Champagne and scenery
That gives you plenty of time to enjoy a three-course gourmet brunch, complete with champagne served in fine crystal glasses. Thanks to the expert guides on board, you can also learn about the Inca and their remarkable empire, even as you drink in the magnificent views of terraced farmlands, raging rivers, and untamed jungle unfurling through the picture windows.
The Inca ruled over one of the greatest empires the Americas has ever seen, one that they built up over little more than a century. By the 1500s, their territory was so vast that they had to set up a second capital at what is now Quito, in Ecuador. At its peak, it is estimated that the Inca ruled over a population of around 10 million people.
A dynasty of gold and jewels
Like any great empire, the Inca controlled immense wealth. The emperor showed off his power through magnificent costumes, including a coat covered with jewels and pieces of turquoise, gold shoulder pads to match his gold bracelets and earrings, and a royal badge of hummingbird feathers framed with gold.
The true treasures of the Inca, however, were their cities. Enormous resources went into constructing outposts such as Machu Picchu, which is perched spectacularly on a plateau with sheer drops on several sides, protected by a surrounding ring of mountain peaks.
Huge amounts of stone were needed to construct the city, using the distinctive Incan dry-stone technique to seamlessly fit the massive blocks together. How the materials were transported to the site remains unclear, as does so much else about the city.
Expect to spend several hours exploring this vast site – more, if you succumb to the temptation to keep snapping selfies in this jaw-dropping setting. Your guide will lead you through the remains of palaces and temples, warehouses and homes, showing how this complex society was ordered.
The day ends with a return to the train. There you can savour the South American classic cocktail, a pisco sour, while waiting for dinner to be served.
Machu Picchu may be the most famous of the Incan cities, but there are others to experience in the area. Add the ruins of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Inca, to your itinerary, along with Ollantaytambo, where the massive terraces of Temple Hill give you a sense of the scale of Inca construction.
However, it is the former Incan capital, Cusco, that sits alongside Machu Picchu as the essential Incan experience. Unlike Machu Picchu, which was never discovered by the Spanish, the grand city of Cusco fell to the conquistadors, led by Francisco Pizarro. The Spanish were dazzled by the wealth of the imperial capital, most notably the Qorikancha complex, home to Cusco’s most important temples.
The perimeter wall was said to be studded with emeralds, and the Temple of the Sun was lined with 700 sheets of gold, each weighing 2 kilograms.
The Spanish stripped the gold from the buildings and razed many of them to build their own churches and palaces. However, they used the strong Incan foundations as a base for their own buildings; the church and convent of Santo Domingo, for instance, are built on top of the ruins of Qorikancha.
It may have been intended as a show of power over the defeated locals, but it can also be seen as a tribute to the achievements of the vanquished: after all, the conquerors’ most glorious buildings rest on the enduring achievements of the Inca.