Machu Picchu – Citadel in the Sky

20110905-Jnathan Irish-Peru-1556-Edit-Edit

Machu Picchu is the site of an ancient Inca city, high in the Andes of Peru. Located at 2,430 meters (8,000 ft), this UNESCO World Heritage site is often referred to as ‘The Lost City of the Incas’. I’ve always heard a lot about Machu Picchu, and have seen it in a million images. And when something is so well known I am naturally a little bit skeptical about it. I always feel like those really well known tourist destinations are kinda like New Years…lots of anticipation but never fully lives up to expectations. However, Machu Picchu is the real deal…it’s every bit as amazing and fascinating as you hear about. From the minute details, like how they fit the stones so perfectly together over 500 years ago, to the grand scale of the city, Machu Picchu is something to put on your life list.

The iconic towering mountain just behind the city is Huayna Picchu (Wayna Picchu). If you are daring enough, you can scale the mountain and peer down on Machu Picchu from an incredible perch in the clouds. The path winds up along the very edge of the mountain, sometimes with sheer drop-offs thousands of feet down. Once at the top, you are likely going to be in the clouds, which can be a totally freaky feeling. It’s not for the faint of heart, but you’ll remember it forever.

I really like the nice morning light coming into the frame from the left, as well as the lack of hordes of tourists. By taking this image in this spot, at this time of day, I was trying to erase any sign of time or age…just a pure view of an ancient city. Being in a place like this with just the wind for noise and the sun starting to break over the mountains is really magical and pure. It’s almost as if you can see and feel the mountain citadel like it used to be…after the Inca left, but before the western world found it again….a suspended moment in time. I can look at this photo and put myself right back there…to that very spot and still feel the wind on my face and the exhilaration of the incredible view. I love travel for those sensory experiences, but I love photography for its ability to bring those sensory experiences back to me so easily.

Photo Tip: The only way to catch an image like this is to be first in the entrance to the park as early in the morning as you can, and go right to the spot you know you can get the photo you want. This accomplishes two things: 1) capturing beautiful early morning light and 2) a total lack of mass crowds that fill the park shortly thereafter (do you see a lot of people in this shot?). And how do you know where you want to go to when you first get in the entrance? Well, because you took the time to scope it out the day before, you figured out which direction the sun would come up, and knew the shot you wanted. When you came the next morning, even in your dreary early morning haze, it was easy to go get the shot. Exploration, preparation, intention, and execution (with some luck thrown in for good measure) is the formula for great photos.

Can you imagine what this place must have looked like when it was occupied by the Inca? Have you ever been to Machu Picchu? What were your impressions? And were you brave enough to climb Huayna Picchu?


bio photo jonathan irishJonathan Irish is a seasoned travel photographer who has traveled to over 65 countries and specializes in photographs of people, landscapes, abstracts, and, above all, cultures abroad. His work has appeared in various National Geographic publications, and he is represented by National Geographic's Image Collection When he is not traveling the world in search of amazing photos, he gathers inspiration from the other great photographers at National Geographic, where he is the Program Director for National Geographic Adventures  Jonathan lives in Washington, D.C.
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