Machu Picchu

July 21, 2009 - Machu Picchu, Peru

Well, as you can see from the map opposite, our trip is finally over! After eight months, six continents, sixteen countries, thirty-two flights, and one hundred and eleven locations, we are finally safe and sound back in Vermont and sleeping in our own beds for the first time this year!

As you will no doubt have noticed, mental exhaustion eventually got the better of us, and we have been completely delinquent in our blog duties for the past couple of months, leaving you all stranded just outside Machu Picchu, abandoned right on the doorstep of one of the wonders of the world, and one of the highlights of our entire trip! :( But don't worry, we're now feeling refreshed and revitalized, and ready to fill you in on the details of our final few adventures – even though most of you will read them after you have already seen us in person!

So, back to the Inca Trail, where we left you at the Winay Huayna campground. Our final day on the trail started even earlier than usual. We stumbled groggily from our tents around 4am and grabbed a quick breakfast before donning our packs and headlamps, and joining the queue of excited trekkers waiting in the dark for the campground gates to open.

It had been another another crisp, clear night, and we had a beautiful star-filled sky above us as we hit the trail, with the Milky Way clearly visible. After an easy hour of hiking along a path that contoured the mountainside, we reached a flight of fifty very steep steps that brought us to the Sun Gate, an Inca archway at the final pass into the Machu Picchu valley, where we had our first glimpse of the fabled city. Thankfully, Rachael's ankle was feeling surprisingly comfortable, and she had no problem keeping up. We paused to take some pictures, then continued down the gently sloping path, stopping again half and hour later to watch the first rays of sun creep down the mountain side opposite and light up the stonework of the Inca buildings with a beautiful orange glow.

Around 7:30, we reached the city itself, entering from above through terraced fields with grazing llamas, from where we had picture postcard views of the city below us and the striking Huayna Picchu mountain beyond. Ironically, the fact that there was no cloud hugging the mountains meant the scene lacked some of the traditional mystical feel seen in many pictures, but we weren't complaining. Instead, we had fabulous panoramic views in all directions, and the stunning contrasts of the deep blue sky, the lush green grass, and the golden hue of the stonework that somehow seemed to grow magically and organically out of the surrounding nature.

Machu Picchu is a place that has to be experienced in person to be truly appreciated. The city was as beautiful and impressive as we had imagined, and yet photographs fail to convey the scale and grandeur of its natural surroundings, and the amazing skill and vision of the Incas in choosing such a dramatic and inspirational location to create their masterpiece. And although we didn't beat the droves of less energetic tourists (who start arriving on buses at first light every morning), the city is big enough that it was easy to find a quiet spot away from the crowds to just sit and enjoy the the view. And in fact this is what we spent a large part of our morning doing, after a short tour with Juan. Like most other hikers that had just come off the trail, we were all absolutely exhausted, and quickly collapsed in a heap on the grass!

Surprisingly, very little is known about why Machu Picchu was built or who lived there. For some reason it was abandoned before it was completed, and as a result the Spanish Conquistadors never found it. It's possible the Incas intentionally avoided revealing its location due to its religious importance. But whatever the reasons, it remained hidden and preserved for almost 500 years until it was eventually rediscovered in the early 20th century, and remains one of the most stunning examples of pre-Columbian Inca architecture.

After a full morning at the ruins, we boarded a bus that wound its way down seemingly endless hairpin bends to the small town known as Aguas Calientes in the very bottom of the valley below. Despite being described as a total dive in our guide book, we actually found the place quite fascinating and appealing. The railway provides the only connection with the outside world, and forms an unusual main thoroughfare right through the center of town, the tracks always bustling with activity and lined with restaurants. Also winding through the town is a tributary of the Urubamba river, spanned by a series of rickety suspension bridges, which provide a connection with the artisan market and the railway station on the south bank.

Of course, the town's only reason for existence is serving the tourists visiting Machu Picchu, so the streets are lined with endless hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops, and there are signs of rapid expansion with little oversight or planning. But in spite of this, it is not without charm and character. The buildings are brightly painted, and seem to fit together organically, forming many narrow and intriguing alleyways that connect the main pedestrian thoroughfares.  And aside from the short paved road where the buses turn around, the streets are all pedestrian only, so goods are transported to and from the trains entirely by traditional handcarts, which can always be seen hurrying around loaded with everything from fruit to construction materials. And providing a spectacular backdrop to it all are the steep mountains that line both sides of the narrow valley.

We enjoyed a final group lunch together at a restaurant beside the train tracks, then spent a couple of hours relaxing in the pools at the hot springs from which the town gets its name. Then it was off to the  station to bid farewell to our fellow hikers and our guide Juan, as they headed back to Cuzco. We had decided to stay an extra night to give us a chance to climb the iconic Huayna Picchu mountain that rises dramatically above Macchu Picchu. Recently limited to 400 visitors a day, this hike is now the domain of only the most dedicated climbers, requiring waking before dawn to get in line for the first bus, or make the arduous ascent to Machu Picchu on foot. Rachael sensibly opted out on account of her ankle, and the rest of us were having second thoughts when an unusually fierce lightening storm accompanied by wind and torrential rain hit the town in the early evening, and we retreated to our hotel to find a beautiful clean room with comfortable beds and hot showers. After four nights of roughing it, this seemed like the lap of luxury!

But the following morning was dry and clear, so we reluctantly dragged ourselves out of bed at 4am for one more chilly pre-dawn start. By the time we'd bought the various tickets we needed, it was too late to climb to Machu Picchu on foot, so we hurried to the bus stop, only to discover to our consternation that several hundred other people had beaten us to it! But after interrupting a wonderful night's sleep and spending far too much on tickets, we weren't about to give up now, and got in line behind them all. On the bright side, there were soon several hundred more people behind us, so we figured if they all thought they stood a chance, then we certainly did!

In the end we made it onto the sixth bus that wound its way up the mountainside. When the main gate opened at 6 o'clock we found ourselves in a mob of crazy people running full tilt towards Huayna Picchu at the far corner of the site. Despite a bad decision to follow a local guide on a “short cut” (he turned out to be more athletic than anticipated, and disappeared around a corner, leaving us lost among the ruins for a couple of minutes!), we were relieved to finally find ourselves behind about a hundred people at the entrance to the mountain, easily making the initial group allowed in at 7 am.

Once through the last gate, we could finally relax and decide how we wanted to spend our time. We decided to go for a full day of adventure and see all there was to see. We began by climbing a smaller mountain known as Huchuypichhu, which sits in front of Huayna Picchu. Although dwarfed by the larger pinnacle behind, this short climb turned out to be a surprisingly fun and challenging detour, including ropes to pull ourselves up a vertical rock face, and some dramatic narrow rock ledges. And due to the sparse vegetation, we had fantastic views across the city all the way to the top.

By the time we were back on the main path to Huayna Picchu, the other climbers had spread out along the trail ahead of us, and we encountered few other people for the rest of the day, apart from small groups near the top of the mountain. Given our tired muscles, we were thankful to find that the climb was relatively easy, no worse than what we'd experienced on the Inca Trail – but far less challenging without heavy packs! Rather than following the terrifying knife-edge ridge-line visible from below, the path wound up a series of zigzagging steps cut into the rock. And dense vegetation hid any worrying precipices from view! As we had heard, there were chains bolted into the rock to provide assistance in places, but these weren't really necessary. The kids scrambled quickly up, with Jeremy following not too far behind. Near the top, we emerged from the trees and climbed through a series of Inca structures before finally reaching the rocky summit, where we sat for a long time admiring the spectacular scenery. From here we had a fantastic birds-eye view of Machu Picchu far below, and Beckie and Luke enjoyed the fascinating symmetry of the city's design, finding in its outlines images of the great sacred creatures of ancient Inca civilization: the puma, the condor and the snake.

Eventually we began our descent, following a different path towards the “Gran Caverna” on the far side of the mountain. We stopped briefly to eat our packed lunch (out of sight of the officious rangers!) before continuing a very exciting climb that included some narrow ledges (with chains that we did make us of!) and a couple of enormous wooden ladders scaling vertical cliff faces. In the end, the Gran Caverna was somewhat less grand than expected, though we did enjoy exploring the nearby “Temple of the Moon”. As with many other Inca sites, this was a fascinating blending of natural and man-made designs. Beckie and Luke stopped at one of the niches in the walls to offer an impromptu offering to Pachamama.

We now found ourselves on the back side of Huayna Picchu, significantly below Machu Picchu, so it was another hour of uphill trekking through the forest to return to the main gate. We finally arrived back in Aguas Calientes exhausted and later than expected, but all agreed that the day had been well worth it. We met Rachael at the hotel, where she had also enjoyed herself, resting her ankle and browsing through the extensive library of mystery novels! Having missed the early train, we spent a couple of hours exploring the market outside the station, where the kids found gifts for their friends back home, and some souvenirs for themselves, haggling with the vendors like pros. This perhaps wasn't the cheapest place to shop in Peru, but it did have one of the best selections of local crafts, so we were glad to have taken advantage of the opportunity. We were also very glad to finally pile onto the train, where we all flopped into our seats, and took a well-deserved nap.

There was one final bit of excitement that evening, reminiscent of some of our adventures in Southeast Asia. As expected, the train dropped us in Ollantaytambo, from where we would travel by road for the final leg of the journey back to Cuzco. We found ourselves in the middle of a dark parking lot full of coaches, buses, minibuses and taxis, with drivers swarming everywhere and yelling constantly. Other travelers hurried nervously after their tour guides and quickly disappeared aboard various vehicles, leaving us to fend for ourselves, having separated from our tour the day before. We wandered around searching hopefully for the public bus for 10 soles mentioned in our guide book, as we fended off the taxi drivers clamoring for our business, offering us rides for 40 or 50 soles per person and assuring us repeatedly that the buses were all full.

We considered heading up the unlit road towards town, but quickly thought better it, and had almost resigned ourselves to taking a taxi, when an interesting thing started to happen. As the crowds thinned, the clamor around us became increasingly frantic, and the atmosphere noticeably more tense. Fighting to snag the remaining few passengers, the drivers started to drop their prices rapidly, first to 30 soles, then 20. Some even climbed into each others' buses, seemingly arguing over passengers already aboard, with disputes occasionally escalating to the point where a driver would pull his bus forward, blocking another one from leaving!

Of course we couldn't understand much of what was being said, so it was all rather unsettling, but on the positive side the prices were sounding much more reasonable. Suddenly a boy yelled “10 soles!” and we hurried over to find him directing us to a big, new and very luxurious bus full of tour groups, with just a handful of empty seats left at the front. Hardly able to believe our luck, we jumped aboard before they could change their minds! There was a considerable delay as various arguments were gradually resolved and we then followed a slow convoy of buses through the town's cobbled streets, but we weren't complaining: the price was right and the seats were very comfortable. Soon we were on the open road and found we had a very capable driver who guided the bus quickly and smoothly back into Cuzco, entertaining us all the way with catchy Peruvian pop music.

Soon we were back at Plaza de Armas, hoisting our packs onto our backs one more time, and dragging our tired legs up the hill to our familiar Hostal Sweet Daybreak, where the saggy beds had never looked so good!


Waiting to leave the campground
First glimpse of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate!
We made it!
Classic view of the city with Huayna Picchu mountain behind


Cipperly Good:
September 23, 2009
Glad you made it back to Vermont. I thought maybe you had decided to stay at Machu Piccu!
The Shearers:
September 23, 2009
Your log was recommended to us by the Bentons. We've thoroughly enjoyed following you around the world! Welcome back to Vt.
Fuzzy Travel · Next »
Create blog · Login