Machu Picchu

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
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Trip End Jun 08, 2006


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Friday, April 28, 2006

Ever since hearing about Machu Picchu from my friend David, I have been excited about reaching the mysterious and enchanting ruined city. In the 1990s David (and Heather) walked along the Inca Trail carrying their own tent and food for 4 days. They were rewarded with spectacular views of mountain ridges before finally climbing up to reach the sun gate where they caught their first sighting of Machu Picchu with the sun rising gloriously over it.

There are only two options to reach Machu Picchu. First, walk the famous Inca trail. These days however, hikers are obliged to join a tour which includes cooks and porters. Second, take the train to the small town of Agua Calientes and from there either walk or take the bus up. John and I decide to take the latter option because we dont fancy forking out several hundred dollars to join a walking tour (which are, besides fully booked up for the next 2 months), and we havent experienced any train journeys in South America.

The backpacker train leaves Ollataytambo at 8pm. Inside our carriage, I am reminded of the UK and a late night back from London. There are carpeted seats squeezed in to face one another in rows of two, and the passengers look uncomfortable and tired. I am not too suprised to learn that the train company is actually British-owned. This also explains the extortionately high price of $44 per person (return) for a 1.5 hour journey and perhaps why we leave late (two passengers arrive at 8 on the dot and spend the next 10 minutes arguing with the staff to let them on the train; finally they let them on).

It is dark and raining when we arrive. Agua Calientes is a new town which has resulted solely because of the popularity of Machu Picchu. It is only around 20 years old and as we step off the train feeling tired and cold, the whole town seems to be there to welcome us and to try to sell us hostels or something to eat. Tired of cheap and dirty hostels (and John´s complaints of bed bug bites), we head to La Pequeña Casita where a double ensuite room costs 36 USD, a real blow out compared to our usual budget. Unfortunately our hotel is a little bland and corporate but at least we have comfortable beds. It doesn´t take very long to fall into a deep sleep.

On our first day we aim to climb Putucusi, a mountain nearby Machu Picchu. Here we should be able to catch our first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Its not quite the view that you would receive at the end of the Inca Trail but we hope that it will be just as rewarding. Besides, we have heard that the sun gate has been closed due to a landslide. This has meant that all the trekkers have to end their hike at Agua Calientes and take the bus up. I think that this would be very disappointing after a 4 day trek.

We have a simple breakfast at the hotel and chat to some rich Canadians. They look in disbelief when we tell them that we are thinking about climbing up one of the hills. They warn us that the hills are steep and even walking around Machu Picchu was tiring for them. We next chat to the bubbly hotel manageress about our plans. She smiles and reassures us that we are young and we will have a lovely time. She hastens to add that our walk today will involve some ladders and crawling.

The rain stops and the clouds are rapidly rising, revealing the steep granite faces of the mountains around Agua Calientes. Our hike begins by walking down the railway track for a few hundred meters. The train provides an essential link as the only form of transport and no one seems to be bothered by people crossing the tracks. A short distance past the town we are suprised to see young men hammering chunks of stones into small pieces. They are going to build an Inca style wall against the train embankment where there has been a small landslide. The landslip is extremely close to the railway tracks and I hope that they get it fixed before we leave.

Soon we are in the forest climbing up chunky Inca steps. Its quite hard work as it is wet and muddy after the rain. We reach a landslide which has totally destroyed the steps and continue clambouring upwards. Soon we reach an enormous ladder which has been made from tree trunks. The ladder is attached to a vertical cliff face. It is crooked and some of the rungs are missing. Not particularly liking heights, I hold onto the rungs stiffly and continue. It turns out that there are more ladders than I expected to climb. The longest ascends over 300 meters and near the top there is a fallen tree which I climb over tentatively. I hope that the view is all going to be worth it.

The second half of our walk is on exposed rocks. The steps continue never-ending upwards and reflect the intense heat from the sun. It is hot and humid after the rain. After 1.5 hours we finally reach the top. I trail behind John and see him sitting on a rock. It is not until I join him that I can finally see Machu Picchu.

The beauty of Machu Picchu not only lies with its stunning location within the mountains of Peru, and the stone craftsmanship which must have taken years to complete, but the perfect preservation of the city of the Incas. At 2300m, all the buildings and terraces were strategically placed so that they could not be seen from below. It was hidden in the clouds and remained undiscovered by the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham stumbled upon the thickly overgrown ruins in 1911. The city was never discovered by the Spanish and therefore remained unscathed.

Pablo Neruda, Chile´s celebrated poet wrote "The Heights of Machu Picchu", which was inspired by the city of Machu Picchu:

"Machu Picchu es un viaje a la serenidad del alma, a la eterna fusión con el cosmos, allí sentimos nuestra fragilidad. Es una de las maravillas más grandes de Sudamérica. Un reposar de mariposas en el epicentro del gran círculo de la vida. Otro milagro más."

("Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to eternal fusion with the cosmos, there we feel our own fragility. It is one of the greatest marvels of South America. A resting place of butterflies at the epicenter of the great circle of life. Another miracle.")

At Putucusi summit there are no tourists and from our viewpoint, the city has the shape of a flying hummingbird. We meet two friendly Peruvian guys that describe the different parts of Machu Picchu. They seem to know the area very well and we discover that this is because they own a hostel in town and frequently visit the site as guides. They also climb up Pitucusi every week for a physical fitness workout (which explains why they look so fit and healthy). We learn that the path that we just ascended is actually prohibited because of the landslides near the bottom of the trek. This explains why the ladders have missing rungs and why the path is in such bad condition. I dread the descent but am spurred on by the boys who invite us to their hostel for dinner to celebrate Francisco´s 31st birthday.

We make our way slowly back down Pitucusi. I try not to look down too much and hope that I don´t slip. This is easier said than done as my legs shake uncontrollably and John shouts at me to turn and smile towards the camera for a photo.

Needless to say that we both make it down safely. We are rewarded in the evening with a fantastic meal at Rapu Wasi Hostel. We arrive around 7pm and meet our new friends. The hostel has a nice big family room which has a wood burning fire, bar complete with kitchen, library and a large wooden family table down the centre. There is also a baby bulldog which rushes around playing with anything and anyone. On the bar we see tonights dinner, a 12kg pig(let) and a big metal bowl containing 12 skinned "cuy" complete with teeth (guinea pig), a speciality dish in Peru. Lots of very friendly friends begin to arrive and it looks as though it is going to be a very long night of partying!

Having had pet guinea pigs when I was younger, I feel a little apprehensive about eating them so we decide to order the menu using an early start the next day as an excuse. Francisco recommends one of our best meals of South America to date. John starts with a hand shaken pisco sour which he likes for its sweet and sour taste not to mention the refreshing warm glow that it provides. I have a homemade infusion of orange peel, ginger and coca. We share "ceviche", another Peruvian speciality which consists of marinated raw fish in lemon juice served with tomatoes and coriander. It is served in a large wide rimmed cocktail glass and also gets top marks for its presentation. For our main course, we both have a red chicken curry. A team of staff work before us to synchronise all the different components together and our dish is served with chopped vegetables, rice and deep fried julienne carrots. The tastes remind us of our time in Asia and it is really nice to have something spicy again. Finally we finish by sharing a chocolate muffin which is topped with a caramalised honey and surrounded by a pool of bitter chocolate. The cost is a hefty 100 Sols (18GBP) but worth it for something special.

It is a little bit sad to leave the party. We are the only guests within the restaurant which is suprising as we read in one of the travel guide books that Rapu Wasi is in the top 10 places to stay in the whole of South America, and infact the only place listed in Peru. We ask Francisco whether this is his hostel, it seems like it is the best birthday present for him. He becomes wildly excited and shows the book to all his friends. We hope that more people find out about this lovely hostel as its top recommendation only comes in the Rough Guide, ´Everything you need to know about South America before you go´ book which is probably not a book that many travellers carry with them ´after you go´. Travellers watch out for this place top spot which receives an unduly small note in the Lonely Planet and Footprints guidebooks. Click here to jump to more info on Rupawasi Ecolodge

Next morning it is a very early start. We wake at 5.30am, eat breakfast with other bleary-eyed tourists and then hop onto a bus which takes us up to the ruins. There are lots of new-looking Mercedes buses and lots of tourists too. Despite being very early, we get onto the third bus of the morning which is packed full of chatty and excited Americans, Japanese and British tourists.

A one way trip from Agua Calientes to Machu Picchu takes about 20 minutes and costs 20 Sols (3.30 GBP) which is quite expensive by Peruvian standards. Still, I think that this is better than walking up the mountain in the dark.

The bus winds its way through a cloud forest and up the steep mountainside. Its a little alarming to reach the top as although it is only 6.45am there seem to be tourists everywhere. April is supposed to be the low season and its not supposesd to get "busy" until 10am when the day trippers arrive.

We jump ahead of the crowds as we have our entrance tickets (25USD), bought the night before from the council office in town. Once inside, we follow signs to the left for the "long" circuit and begin climbing up some steep Inca steps in a wood. The path soon opens to various levels of Inca terracing. Each level built up using stone walls which perfectly hug the contour of the hill. I see hundreds of tourists huddling together and holding their cameras. There is total silence.

I turn around to see what everyone is looking at. Below is a swirl of clouds, unbroken by the sun. Moments later, the clouds part and expose the treasures of Machu Picchu. I see a plateau containing stone walls, and the remains of stone houses which apart from having no roof look in remarkably good shape. Seconds later everything disappears as they hidden by the enshrouding mist again.

We stand mesmerised by the passing clouds for some time before climbing further uphill and following the signs to the Inca Bridge. We pass along a narrow cliff path which has vertical drops to the right. Occasionally the clouds lift showing green valleys, rivers and a rather unsightly hydroelectric factory. It is completely deserted on the path and after 15 minutes we still have not reached the Inca bridge. Worried that we are on the wrong path we decide to turn back. Later we discover that the Inca bridge was a 15 minute walk and regret not continuing our walk.

We return to the grass terraces and enter the city through a huge stone doorway. It takes us around 3 hours to walk slowly around the site. I see different types of stonework. The temples have the finest stonework which have perfect 90 degree corners and fit together so well that no mortar was needed. The most superior temple is the sun temple which has curved walls, each dressed stone also fitting perfectly together. We also see religious caves which have been carefully excavated to leave different levels of internal steps which probably once housed gold icons. Many of the artifacts from Machu Picchu were taken by Bingham and much to the protest of many Peruvians, remain in Yale University.

We wander through large expanses of green luscious grass interspersed with the odd tree. The residential area is a labyrinth of rough stone houses, some incorporating large boulders of rock which distinguishes them from the other houses. Modern-day gardeners tend to the houses standing on rickety ladders, plucking out moss from the rocks, like a dentist removing plaque from teeth. Near the centre remains a quarry of rocks. I recall hearing the constant "chink chink" sound from the rock grinders in Agua Calientes and admire the Incas for their craftsmanship.

It is thought that the city of Machu Picchu was constructed around 1440. A maximum number of 750 people lived here although it is thought that the site was perhaps used as a country retreat for the Inca nobility. The site was occupied until 1532 and the Spanish conquest. Because the city remained undiscovered by the Spanish, it is one of the few temples which still retained a large stone astronomical clock. Sun worship was regarded as a heresy by the Spanish and other such edifices were destroyed during the conquest.

By 10am we return to the high terracing for another view of the city. The clouds have cleared and the sun beats down. Now we can see the steep precipitous banks upon which Machu Picchu stands. I also look to our right where I see Pitucusi with its near vertical cliff faces. Its easy to understand why my legs are sore after our climb yesterday.

Behind Machu Picchu (which in Quechua means Old Mountain) stands the hill of Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain) which we decide to climb for different view of the city. We register at a booth and climbing up the Inca steps. After over an hour of serious step climbing, we scramble through a small dug out rock tunnel, climb up a short ladder and pop out into the dazzling sunlight on the summit. Its quite crowded so we descend a couple of meters down to a quiet terrace. Here we have lunch enjoying a different view of Machu Picchu.

Descending Huayna Picchu we meet a family of four that we met in La Cupula (Copacabana, Bolivia). Travelling as a couple is hard enough so we are amazed to hear that they (37 and 40 years) are travelling for ONE full year with their two children aged 6 and 8. We talk about their children, finding out that they are being taught English and Mathematics. Their progress has been faster than average and it is funny to hear that their school friends are dumbfound when they hear stories of meeting warriors and visiting ancient kingdoms. The kids look great and I think that their story gives all parents a good example of travelling with children.

We leave Machu Picchu passing once again through the city. There are also more tourists than earlier in the day making appreciating the site a little less easier. In 2003 there were 400,00O people visiting the site and there are concerns that one hillside is slipping at over 1cm per year.

We descend back to the town of Agua Calientes taking a steep path which occasionally crosses the road. It feels good to be in the silence of the cloud forest and to appreciate the natural beauty of the area.

Back in town we have another refreshing fresh orange juice in the local market. The afternoon rain starts and we head for dinner in Indio Feliz, a French restaurant. By the fireside John tucks into some beef grilled kebabs whilst I have fresh river fish cooked in a spicy sauce. Again our meal is not cheap (70 sols (GBP11.50) which is about 3x more expensive than the menu de dias options in town), but tasty all the same.

The next day we take the 5.45am train back to Ollaytaytambo. The train is packed and we see many bright eyed trekkers walking alongside the railroad at the end of their Inca trail. We watch the sun rise, casting pink clouds across the sky. The scenery in the morning is breathtaking as we pass through gorges and snowy capped mountains. Soon the cloud forests end and we emerge into the open countryside.

At Ollaytaytambo we jump onto one of the local buses. The journey is a quite eventful as the driver jolts the bus into the kerb several times in the town and clips off the wing mirror of another mini bus as he dangerously overtakes it. The mirror shatters into thousands of pieces and for once I am relieved that another passenger had closed my window moments before the event.

We reach the familiar surroundings of Cusco around 10am. As we check back into the Hotel Ninos it feels as though I have been dreaming for the past few days and we have never been away. So what were my impressions? I must agree that I was amazed by the beauty of the whole area around Machu Picchu but I hope not sounding a little arrogant, I have to say that I was slightly disappointed. Maybe this is because Machu Picchu is South Americas most talked about tourist attraction and my enjoyment was spoilt because I expected so much. I thought that the whole place thrived off the tourist industry. Perhaps this can be expected, but even our 25USD entrance fee didn´t include a map, information or history about the site or even a free toilet. The whole infrastructure of hotels, buses and tour guides were too much for my liking and unlike the Inca ruins around Cusco it was difficult to experience any peace and solitude. However, having said all these things, I´d still recommend going. I just wish that I had been 20 years earlier.
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