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The Wonders of Machu Picchu
Today was the day. After years of dreaming, looking at photos, reading books, and talking to other people about their own experiences (far too much research, by the way), I was finally going to Machu Picchu.
Some places just have a magical appeal to them. They call to you. And you must go. The reasons cannot be captured by logic or alphabet letters.
We were up at 4:45 a.m. After a quick breakfast of coffee and bread, we hopped into a taxi for the 20-minute ride to the train station in the neighboring town of Poroy.
Some Cusco homes in the morning light:
A common sight all over Peru was laundry hanging on the open/unfinished upper floor of a building.
There are different classes of trains that take tourists to Machu Picchu. This morning we were taking the Vista Dome train (the middle option), which has windows along the rooftop for better views.
The train ride would take approximately 3 ½ hours. We would be arriving in the small town of Aguas Calientes, located at the base of the mountain on which Machu Pichhu sits. Then we would be taking a 25 minute bus ride to the entrance of the site.
While we waited for the train to start, we watched a few small pigs roam around outside. A few had leashes on them and were being walked (like dogs) by their owners. Here is a single piggy:
(The bright morning rays were bouncing off of the train window, causing reflections.)
The train rolled steadily through a series of wide valleys, with small houses and agricultural fields.
Some large adobe bricks were drying in the sun:
Was this tract housing in rural Peru?
In a small village, parents were walking children to school:
Other village scenes:
As always, I was fascinated with the houses:
Waiting for the school bus:
Or should I say the school “car” (this one looked close to maximum occupancy):
Our train ran along beside of a river for most of the journey. This small town used to have a bridge leading to it:
We entered a narrow gorge, with high rock walls.
The roof windows gave us a great view upwards.
Some small ruins and stone terraces were located beside the river.
The train station in Aguas Calientes was next to a large market that we had to navigate in order to get to the line of Machu Picchu buses. We made a wrong turn among all the vendor booths, but soon found the right path with the help of some merchants.
We had read in several guide books that we could not purchase entrance tickets at the Machu Picchu site and that we had to buy them at an office in either Cusco or the town of Aguas Calientes. I asked the clerk at the bus ticket booth where we could buy Machu Picchu tickets. The clerk told me to take the bus up to Machu Picchu and buy our entrance tickets there. We hesitated briefly . . . could all of our guidebooks be wrong? We decided to trust the clerk’s information and hurried off to the first bus in line.
The bus climbed up the mountain, effortlessly twisting around switchback after switchback.
At the entrance to Machu Picchu, we bought our tickets. (Perhaps some guidebooks need updating?) I must add that we were the only ones buying our tickets here. Most of the people around us seemed to have a tour guide with them.
We entered the Machu Picchu site and began our “pinch me, am I really here?” trek.
We climbed up a series of stairs that led off to the left, as we wanted to get the fabulous view that is most often seen in Machu Picchu photographs.
We heard a tremendous crashing in the bushes, and out popped two llamas. They sauntered past us, then dove into the bushes again.
Yes, we were really there!
I had decided a few days ago that I really wanted to climb to the top of Huayna Picchu (also spelled Waynapicchu), which is the tall pointy peak directly above Ben and I in the last photo. I had read that the trail was “steep” and “challenging”—two words that always stimulate my interest. I had also read that the number of hikers is limited to 400 each day. The entrance was at the Sacred Rock, located in the far corner of the Machu Picchu ruins. From our high vantage point, Ben and I plotted the shortest route there.
A view around us:
The terracing at Machu Picchu was extensive, and one can only imagine the amount of effort involved in creating the layers.
Archeologists have determined that the Inca people began building Machu Picchu in the mid-1400’s, and that the site was abandoned approximately 100 years later. However, part of the mystique associated with Machu Picchu is that no one really knows “why” it was constructed.
Here I am at the Temple of the Three Windows:
Many portions of Machu Picchu have been restored or rebuilt. We could see where some of the stonework had been restacked in the walls:
And looking down, to the river far below.
(The worker appeared to be gently sponging the dirt off of some rocks.)
Climbing a set of stairs led us to a small area containing a ritual stone, the Intihuatana.
The Intihuatana stone points directly at the sun during the winter solstice, and many researchers believe that it was built as an astronomic clock or calendar. On the equinoxes, March 21 and September 21, the sun at midday is aligned with the stone’s pillar so that no shadow is cast.
The Spanish conquistadors never found Machu Picchu, and therefore never had the opportunity to destroy the Intihuatana, as they did numerous other ritual stones in South America.
Looking down into the central plaza area of Machu Picchu:
Ben, going down the stairs into the central plaza:
We finally arrived at the large Sacred Stone:
We found a line at the entrance to the Huayna Picchu hike.
The time was about 11:15 a.m., and the trail gate would be closed at 1:00 p.m. The man at the registration desk was waiting to see if any more of the people who had received one of the coveted 400 passes at the main entrance earlier today were going to show up.
We remained optimistic that we would see the top of Huayna Picchu (probably because we hadn’t yet read any of the countless blog stories about people who dragged themselves out of bed in the wee hours of the morning, and waited in line for hours, only to be denied access because there were at least 400 people ahead of them.) After 15 minutes, the line started slowly moving forward. Each person was required to sign a book, providing their name, passport info, country of origin, and time that they started the hike. This registration would allow the staff to see who hadn’t come back, in case a search party needed to be called. The registration clerk joked that the first place they look is in the bushes at the base of the mountain. (Young children are not allowed on this climb, and we have heard of climbers who have fallen to their deaths.)
We were next in line, and were ecstatic when we received the signal to come and sign the book. Hurray!
Ben and I started the hike with big smiles on our faces.
The first portion of the trail went down, and then started climbing. Here is Ben:
As we started up the next rise, we looked back:
Not too far into our hike, we passed some people carrying a woman out, strapped to a gurney. She was conscious, and there were no obvious signs (e.g., blood) of why she wasn’t walking on her own.
We started the big ascent—the trail was indeed steep, and continued upward in continuous switchbacks. Here are some of the stone stairs:
Ben and I had a nice rhythm going—up and up we went.
Looking across, we could see the zig-zag road that our bus had covered this morning.
The path got steeper and steeper, and there were some chains embedded into the rock wall here and there so that you could hold onto something while climbing upwards.
Near the top, the path split to make a big counterclockwise loop--the upward way continued to the right, meandering to the top, before it swung down and around, reconnecting with the main trail on the left.
At one point, we had to crawl through a dark tunnel area.
On the next set of stairs going up, we passed a woman who had tear streaks on her face. She was afraid of heights, and was sitting down, sliding from one step to another, with the gentle encouragement of a friend.
We negotiated a ladder, a few more turns, and . . . we were at the top! Well, technically, we had to climb out onto these tilted large rock slabs (one false move, and . . .). Here we are!
The view from the top:
With the official sign:
We soon began our hike downward.
A woman in front of me was clutching onto the side wall and tentatively stepping down very slowly; she looked terrified.
The stairs led to a small building before continuing downhill.
Some people had developed a “crawl” technique, using both hands and feet down the stairs:
We arrived back at the trail entrance in ½ an hour (much faster than our climb upwards), and registered our exit time into the book.
Making our way across the lower portion of Machu Picchu, we looked back at the peak that we had climbed.
We wove our way through the stone dwellings.
These buildings had protruding rocks along the upper walls, most likely used to secure the roofs:
We were surrounded by beauty:
Flashes of movement caught our eye. There were perfectly camouflaged lizards roaming around the stones. This one slipped into the crevice when I tried to take its picture.
The builders of Machu Picchu incorporated the gigantic natural stone of the mountain into the architecture.
Another view of the abundant terracing:
We marveled at the perfect fit of the stones.
A sign directed us to the Temple of the Condor.
Some rocks on the ground were roped off.
Ben and I eavesdropped on a tour guide telling his group that the stones on the ground formed the head and neck feathers of a large condor, which was one of the three sacred animals of the Incas. (The other two were the snake and the cougar/mountain lion.) The wings of the condor are on the back wall, formed by two giant rocks in slanted triangular shapes.
With a bit of imagination . . . yes, I can see . . . it is a condor!
Some llamas walked along with us as we headed for the exit.
Near the bus stop was this Peace stick, reading, “May Peace Prevail on Earth.”
Back in Aguas Calientes, we crossed a bridge over the river that flows through the town.
Ben, on the way to the train station:
This bronze sculpture was part of a fountain that was being constructed in the middle of a new cement plaza.
Instead of taking the train all of the way back to Cusco, we would be going only half way—to the town of Ollantaytambo. Then we would take a taxi the rest of the way back, through an area called the Sacred Valley.
We were riding the Backpacker’s train (less expensive than the VistaDome, and no rooftop windows). Here we are crossing the river as we left Aguas Calientes (you can see the front of the blue train through the left side of the window).
Through the tall rocky gorge:
The clouds were embracing the distant mountaintops:
The Urubamba River contained huge boulders that had been carried downstream from miles away.
The plant life was diverse, and included cactus:
Some homes along the way:
This shaded home was nestled on a cliff ledge, with a small suspension bridge crossing the water:
A trackside store:
Many of the roofs we saw were secured by rocks:
This little guy was watching from the far riverbank:
I wonder if he is as fascinated with trains as my two children were at his age.
Another suspension bridge, with a winding path up the hill:
We passed some lush agricultural fields, with nearby homes:
Our taxi driver, Freddy, was waiting for us outside of the small train station in Ollantaybambo. The parking lot was packed full of cars, taxi vans, and large buses, all arranged like one of those 3D children’s puzzles (e.g., “Rush Hour”)—we couldn’t move until the big bus in front of us pulled forward, and it needed the van blocking it to move sideways, and the van needed the small taxi blocking it to move forward, and so on. It truly was comical. We sat patiently and waited.
Sacred Valley runs along the Urubamba River. It has fertile agricultural fields, small villages, and a handful of historic sites. All the guidebooks we had read had raved about how wonderful the valley was—“not to be missed.” I am truly glad that we didn’t “miss” it—it was lovely. However, we were so full from the overwhelming beauty of Machu Picchu that we really couldn’t appreciate what the valley had to offer.
We drove through the valley without stopping.
Here is a peek of a snow-covered mountaintop between two homes:
We climbed out of the valley and soon left it behind.
We reached a plateau that had some farms.
We passed what appeared to be some pretty impressive ruins stacked up against a hillside.
For two seconds, we actually contemplated a short visit, and then the moment passed. I didn't think that I could absorb any more historical information.
We did pause, however, to get a better view of this mountaintop:
Here I am with Freddy:
The most special part of the entire drive through Sacred Valley was our long conversation with Freddy. During the 2-hour trip, we learned that Freddy grew up in the jungle area (la selva) of Peru. He had moved to Cusco five years ago after his young son was diagnosed with autism. He wants to study English. Freddy asked us how to say “papas” (potatoes) in English. I slowly said, “Po-ta-tos,” and he repeated, “Por-zhas.” No, po-ta-tos. Por-ta-zhos. The more I said it, the more ridiculous the word “potato” sounded. We laughed and laughed, and, in the end, concluded that “papas” was a much better word.
Back at the Plaza de Armas, we saw that the birds had settled in for the night—they are the dark grey spots covering the center portion of this church:
Tonight for dinner, Ben was craving pizza. We wandered through the back streets around the plaza and found a small pizzeria. We ate upstairs on a tiny balcony overlooking the street. The pizza was “different” than we normally find in the U.S., but it was very good.
While eating, we watched a man sitting on a chair across the street, and listened to the wonderful flute melodies of two street musicians.
Walking back to the hotel, we passed this beautiful statue:
Nearby were 3 men and 3 women practicing a dance. From a distance, Ben thought that they were doing “Singing in the Rain” because the men were holding poles the size of umbrellas. One man was whistling the song and calling out changes. We enjoyed watching the dancers weave in and out around each other.
We returned to the hotel happy. Today’s experience had been a dream fulfilled. I could still see Machu Picchu when I closed my eyes.
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