The lost city of the Incas

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The lost city of the Incas
Machu Picchu, Peru

Machu Picchu, Peru

08/08/12 – 10/08/12 – Aguas Calientes / Machu PIcchu – Peru

Recently recognised as a New Wonder of World, Machu Picchu draws an incredible number of visitors every year despite concerns of the impact of tourism. It has always presented to me as a sort of pilgrimage, certainly not along the lines of a Mecca/Medina or Camino kind of pilgrimage; but it does have the famous associated trek ‘The Inca Trail’. In recent years the trek has become so popular it’s numbers are now tightly regulated by the Peruvian government so as to minimise environmental impact to the number of sacred and important Inca sites along the way. This means that generally if you want to do the Inca trek, you had better be organised and get yourself sorted some 6 months prior to expecting to start the trail. The trek famously enters the Machu Picchu site high in the mountains through the ‘Sun Gate’, which offers delicious views of the site nestled high on it’s perch amongst the formidable surrounding mountains; it’s a sight for sore eyes after the 5 day, 4 night trek.

That’s just one way you can get to Machu Picchu, albeit it’s the oldest and most sacred. It follows the trail the Incas themselves built. Due to the restriction on numbers doing the trek, a wealth of other treks have opened up and you can explore this enterprising market by perusing the seemingly endless arrays of tour operators throughout Cusco. Combine your trek with a stop at some hot-springs.. mountain-bike your way to Machu Picchu, hell you could probably arrange to ride an alpaca up if you wanted to. Or a llama, they’re slightly bigger I’ve learned.

We took the golden train straight to the town of Aquas Calientes, at the feet of Machu Picchu. Perurail offers a luxury train service where you can get on-board service including beverages and a light snack; and it’s on the return train from Aquas Calientes I’m typing this up you see.. I have a nice Incan designed table cloth, a sensational scrolling landscape out the window, and I’m just here.. workin on my Mac. No walking sticks, tinea, stinky underwear or tropical bug scars to be seen. Lazy. I know. Add to that there’s some Peruvian guy dressed up as a mythological demon and dancing down the aisle to claps from tourists. Oh.. and now we have an alpaca-wool fashion parade.

But it did mean we had to get up at 5:30am in order to catch a train. Poroy station is some 30 minutes drive up from Cusco sitting at about 3500m. We had a great cab driver who had a plush toy of Simba on his dashboard. I was really charmed. We pick up some supplies for the trip. Water, some granola bars, some Snickers bars and some lozenges from a screaming woman just outside the station gates, desperate for our business.

Onboard, the train takes a good 3 and a half hours to travel some 100 or so kilometers to Aquas Calientes and passes through ‘The Sacred Valley’ on the Ferrocarril Santa Ana route. The Sacred Valley is formed by the Urubamba River which provided the Incas with agricultural means to sustain maize crops and as a result, there’s a huge number of Incan ruins and relics left behind here. Furthermore we pass through Ollantaytambo, the starting point of ‘The Inca Trail’; and through the glass ceiling of our train we can look up to nearby Mount Salcanay at some 6200m behind the very enclosing mountains of the sacred valley. At times it’s impossible to see the peaks of the rocky mountains as we pass. Particularly for the poor boy sitting across from us, as each time he had any opportunity to look, his dad would quickly jam the window open, and stick his camera out, pressing the lad tightly into the side of the train cabin. Poor sod.

Aquas Calientes is a tourist town no doubt about it. It’s most prominently sustained by the visitors to Machu Picchu so as a tourist you’re at the whim of restaurant and souvenir touts. It’s incredibly competitive, there’s a main drag which ascends sharply up the hill, along which are almost side-by-side restaurants, each of them with a tout brandishing a worn old menu who’s prices are immediately undercut just to get you in the door. You can get plenty of free nachos too.. and perhaps an extra round of drinks at happy hour if you bargain hard enough. It’s tiring and sad to constantly refuse their offers, but it is what it is, and that’s unfortunate because it could be an otherwise beautiful town. Enclosed by the sharp peaks of the surrounding mountains, tropical greenery and a rapidly flowing river right through the middle of town. There’s a hot springs at the top of the hill too, not surprising given the towns name but upon further research, the water is full of dead bugs, hair and locals bathing nay washing. So it was avoided during our visit. But that’s not the reason we were in town. Well you’d bloody hope not, I wonder if anyone has ever visited simply to visit the grotty hot springs. Probably. Probably the french.

The LP guidebook suggests that in order to defeat the day-trippers from Cusco, you should get the first bus at 5:30am up the switch-back mountain path and see the sunrise over the ruins. It means you probably have to get up at 4am. Which sucks. But at least the hostel puts on a 4:30am breakfast for those enthusiastic pilgrims. Pilgrims is probably too generous a word.. but I’d say just about everyone in the hostel was up and raring to go. First BUS I thought? How many people are expecting to get on this single bus. There’s plenty of accommodation in town. We managed to get down to the bus stop about half an hour early and there would have been 2 bus loads of people there already. Tight on our heels were a German family so eager to get on the bus they were jittery and literally breathing down our necks. I made several attempts to swing my bag into them, cough in their direction and generally make their incredible closeness unbearable to them, none of which worked. Perhaps I should have just asked? By the time we were switching our way up the dirt road to the site, the sun was casting it’s morning blue glow behind the mountains, illuminating their silhouette. We’re too late I thought. Great advise LP. Thanks again.

I always treasure the first glimpse of somewhere like Machu Picchu. It’s good to reserve those moments so you can completely absorb the sight in all it’s encompassing glory. It’s provided breath-taking moments over sights like the Taj Mahal and Ankor Wat in the past. Once past the entrance you see a few of the storage huts but they block the iconic vista and instead you’re directed to follow a read arrow labelled ‘Long’. It’s a little bit follow-the-leaderish as you ascend a stony staircase through the forest, but you can pick the moment where the vista emerges and it’s then you can bow your head, walk a few more steps and then look up.

Nestled into a small ridge between Mount Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu is the rocky village of Machu Picchu, it’s terraces spilling over the side of the ridge, and it’s buildings and temples rises over the undulations. Huayna Picchu looms at the back of the town like a prehistoric giant green egg and the enclosing mountains like a multi-layered stadium. It’s a kind of lonely, sparse setting. The organic nature of the village, the stone, the green grass plaza’s blends it seamlessly into the surrounding setting. It’s breath-taking.

The jurys still out as to why the citadel was built but the mostly widely accepted theory is that it served as an estate for Inca emperor Pachacuti, constructed around AD1400 and abandoned some 100 years later, as rumor of Spanish conquest spread from Cusco. It wasn’t until 1911 that American historian Hiram Bingham, lead by an 11 year old local boy brought the site to Western attention. Significant restoration continues to this day.

From where we stand the terraces of
the agricultural section cascade down the slope to the ridge. The Inca’s treasured the exotic, and once exposed to the produce of the Amazon and coast, it’s theorised they attempted sophisticated agriculture incorporating hydraulic systems and drainage to provide the best possible growing environment. The entire site is designed around maximisation of sunlight. Houses in the villages on the eastern side face east to west to make the most of the days sunlight, and cast no obscuring shadows over neighboring properties. It’s clear from the sheer vertical drops on almost every side of the citadel, and the limited other means of entry that the city was well guarded from attack.

Structures on the western side, or The Sacred District are composed mostly of ceremonial or religious structures, many structures with artificial platforms from under which have been discovered many ritualistic icons and relics. Most of the site is polished dry-stone wall, some of the residential buildings crudely constructed with mortar but some of the religious buildings are so accurately constructed, that, like parts of the Egyptian pyramids, a blade of grass could not penetrate many of the junctions. ‘Aliens’, I said to Rebecca, ‘..they built the lot’.

The sun peaks over the enclosing mountains and warms the eastern side of the complex, casting rays through the morning mist rising from the Urubamba river below and illuminating the eastern side in a dull orange glow. We soak it in, perched on our own little terrace, and given the magnitude of the site, barely another soul around. Perhaps the LP was onto something.

We wander down the cobbled staircases down to the Urban area and main plazas on the western side. Perhaps most significantly on this side, is what researchers believe to be an astrological clock. The Intihuatana or ‘sun-tier’ is believed by the Incas to hold the sun in it’s place as it traverses it’s astrological path. At midday on both January 30th and November 11th, the sun casts no shadow at all. Most of this we know because, not wanting to pay for a guide, Rebecca tacks on the end of existing larger sized tour groups and eavesdrops. My guilty conscious prevents me from getting too close, but it turns out Rebecca is an excellent relay of information.

The Incas quarried local resources for their stone and used harder types of rock as conditioning tools to sculpt and mould the blocks the used for construction. Metallurgy was also a known art-form and tools and icons for the wealthy were constructed by the skilled as part of their service to the Incan administration.

Over the eastern side, at the edge of the varying residential areas and even prisons and tombs, terraces drop down the side of the slope; on-top of which fat llamas graze. Impervious to human taunting they eat, unabated by the heavy-handedness of American children enthusiastically instructed by their parents to ‘grab the llama for the photo honey!’. I know. Retarded. Hence the reason when a mummy and baby llama jumped up to the terrace where Rebecca and I were ‘soaking it in’; I wasn’t overly concerned about being spat at, kicked or boofed off the terrace. Rebecca on the other hand, screaming wildly, and scrambling for any means of getting out, had different ideas. Leveraging a system of Incan ingenuity, she climbed the protruding 3 stone blocks up to the next terrace. Playing it cool I walked behind the llama, saying a bashful ‘hey mate’ as I did and then quickly increasing my pace until I was clearly safe. Problem was, I was unable to get back up to the terrace where Rebecca was, I tried to jump up on the rock I came down on but slid in the loose dirt. I clearly needed another way and soon found one half way around the site to get back up. I panicked a bit as most of the tour groups were arriving now and I’d probably lost Rebecca, 2 and half k’s up on the site of an ancient civilisations relics. It took about 15 minutes to find her.. ‘Oh Thank God’ I said.. she was just smiling, then laughing and looking at a llama, chasing a young girl around, who inevitably removed a banana skin from her bag, and screaming, threw it on the ground for the hungry llama.

Having navigated most of the site and spent a bit of time ‘soaking-it-in’ we invariably thought it was time to do justice to all those Inca Trail trekkers and at least walk the Inca road up to the sun gate, from which their trek ends. It’s a pretty steep climb, taking you from a comfortable 2400m up to about 2900m. But the effort is rewarded by a sensational view across the mountains to the Machu Picchu site, even more lonely and solitary, a stony spot in the mountainous landscape. Rebecca’s knee flared up a bit on the way down so our descent was slow and though we’d planned to walk the switch-back road back to Aquas Calientes we got a bus instead. Feeling sun-kissed, tired and hungry we bussed it back into town and entertained the ambitions of the local touts by ordering 4 x Pisco Sours and some free nachos (chips with grated cheese on them, not melted).

Due to the spontaneity of the local ATM we were without money to purchase any significant dinner so we splashed out at a restaurant that accepted credit cards. If you ever get to Aquas Calienetes via a golden ticket like we did, drop on in at I.. Indio Feliz. Great stuff.

By the next day we’d managed to sort out the money situation and dropped in at a local French bakery, ex-pat owned and operated for breakfast. Considering the hostel runs a 4:30am to 8:00am breakfast we missed it by sleeping it, awoken at 4:30am by other ‘pilgrims’. We then spent the day at the local museum from which many of the above facts were derived. Worthwhile don’t you think? Otherwise the entry might be something like ‘yeah the Incans made this stone thing up in the mountains,.. dunno how old it is, pretty cool but’.

And it’s now that we’re on our way back to Cusco on the golden ticket train (I s’pose thats a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory reference).. soon to finally descend from the altoplano that has been home for the past few weeks, into the deserts of Peru to look at the Nazsca lines (more aliens..).


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