CALLAO, PERU: GATEWAY TO MACHU PICCHU

Located along the central west coast of Peru, Callao is the primary seaport for the nation’s capital, Lima. And for many visitors arriving by cruise ship, this is where a journey to the fabled cloud city of Machu Picchu begins.

When Spanish conquistadors came to Peru feverish with thoughts of gold, they never dreamed that such a mysterious place as Machu Picchu could even exist. Fortunately, they never found this “lost city of the Incas,” and it remained a local secret for hundreds of years — until it was rediscovered by Yale professor Hiram Bingham in 1911.

Where is Machu Picchu and why was it built?

Machu Picchu lies in the Andes Mountains approximately 80 kilometers northwest of the Peruvian city of Cusco. The combination of its isolated mountaintop location and the fact that the route to it was such a well-kept secret, ensured Machu Picchu was never found by marauding conquistadors.

Archaeologists believe the site is an Incan royal retreat or a religious complex — researchers are still unraveling the secrets of this enigmatic place. The Incas left behind no written language so no records exist to give clues as to its real purpose. What is known is that fewer than 1,000 people lived at Machu Picchu at any given time and it was abandoned early in the 16th century — some theorize this was due to a smallpox outbreak.

The city is built on a series of terraces 11,000-feet above sea level, covering some 5 miles of territory. A network of 3,000 carved stone steps links together each piece of this ancient puzzle. The remains of its numerous buildings, courtyards, ramps, and walls is a breathtaking site to behold — what makes it even more impressive is that the Incas lacked iron or steel and had not invented the wheel. Yet the stones used in its construction were fitted together with such precision no mortar was needed.

How do I get there?

The Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu, its official title, is one of the world’s most important archaeological sites, and as such, it’s been named to the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Once secret and isolated, Machu Picchu has become a renowned destination on many an adventurer’s bucket list. So, you won’t have to cut your way through the rainforest with a machete like Indiana Jones to get there. Two options exist for getting to the site; both require a short flight from Callao to Cusco.

For those who want something close to the tomb raider/explorer experience, then a hike along the Inca Trail is the route to go. Distance and time varies as there are several routes to choose — all start from outside Cusco. The most popular are the four- and two-day treks. Due to the popularity of Machu Picchu and the subsequent heavy use of the trail network, the Peruvian government has put a limit on the number of people who can traverse the trails each day. Only official guide operators may escort visitors and booking trail time with one of these groups well ahead of time is recommended.

For a more leisurely journey, a train ride from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu, will get you there in about 3.5 hours. Again multiple options are available and early booking is a must.

The journey can all begin with a cruise to Callao aboard a Holland America Line cruise ship. Callao is but one stop on Holland America’s South America cruises, check out the itineraries and other ports of call here.

Note: Machu Picchu is a year-round tourist destination, but peak season is July and August. The rainiest months are from October to April, though rain can break out at any time — so pack accordingly.