Six hundred years after they were built by the Incas, the tranquil ruins here continue to mesmerise

When Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu on a 1911 expedition, it took him days of travel by foot and on mule to get there from Cuzco. Now, you can hop on a luxurious Hiram Bingham train from Cuzco, and be there in three-and-a-half hours, sipping pisco sours while you dine. It almost feels like cheating.

Our train journeyed through Peruvian high plains that produce potatoes and quinoa, passed agricultural terraces from Inca times and small villages where people stopped working to offer a friendly wave. It went along the tumbling Urubamba river, and finally pulled into the small town of Aguas Calientes. We spent the afternoon shopping in the extensive maze of handicraft stalls near the station, and slept for about four hours in our very uncomfortable hotel room.

Bleary-eyed, we left our hotel at the unearthly hour of 4 a.m. We walked across the bridge adjacent to our hotel to waiting buses for the ride up the serpentine road to Machu Picchu. The hair-raising bus ride was one hairpin turn after another. It was part of the adventure, with precipitous views — for those who dared to look — of the green valley below.

My husband and I hiked to a high vantage point before the sun could climb above the sharp, jungle-green peaks of the Vilcanota Range. Below, I saw the walls and foundations of a long-abandoned community, laid out with precision and care. Grey rocks formed the skeleton of the village, its masonry beautifully offset by verdant plazas where llamas grazed.

At the north end, the mountain Huayna Picchu rises lush and symmetrical, girdled by terraces similar to those carved out by farmers all across the Andes. Huayna Picchu, ‘young peak', is the most familiar backdrop for this magnificent setting. Machu Picchu, ‘old peak', looms above the entrance gate. For most visitors, the old peak serves as a handy perch for gazing at the place no one really knows about.

Royal retreat

Some 600 years ago, people built this city in the jungle at the behest of Pachacutec, the ninth Inca emperor. It seems that, as with other royal estates at Pisac and Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu was originally a commemorative site of Pachacutec's military victories that was transformed into a royal retreat and country palace as the frontier moved on. Used for high-status relaxation and entertainment, Machu Picchu was unable to survive once the Spanish had destroyed Inca economic and administrative organisation.

The arrangement of structures, plazas, terraced fields, symbolic carvings and impeccable Incan stonework at the site looks as if it had been intended for some kind of message. Over the valley and mountains is a sea of Amazon jungle. I doubt if Machu Picchu would be anywhere as striking if it stood beside the highway in the valley of the Rio Urubamba.

A walk around Machu Picchu is an adventure in itself. For those of us who live at sea level, the rarefied air took some getting used to. I tried to pace myself with a calming mantra, but the pulse in my ears beat an altogether more frantic rhythm. Thankfully, we finished our trip without further hitches.

A day at Machu Picchu feels like an audience with an A-list film star. As I reminisced about the tranquil ruins during dinner, it became crystal clear why the ‘lost city' fully deserves its title as a ‘wonder' of the modern world.