Machu Picchu

I’m back in Cuzco now, having just returned from two days and one night visiting Machu Picchu, the spectacular, extensive and well-preserved ruins of an Inca citadel perched on a saddle between two mountains at about 2,400 metres above sea level, and one of the premiere tourist destinations in the whole of South America. It was pretty spectacular — definitely a highlight of my whole trip.

The 2-day trip started early (of course!) on Sunday 12th September, when Nicos the travel agent came to collect me from the Carlos V hostal at 5:45am to take me to the train station in time for the 6:15am “Backpacker” train. He gave me a ticket in the name of Pedro Picardo, a guy who had cancelled his reservation at the last minute, and told me that I had to pretend to be him… I agreed rather than making a fuss (despite having paid full price for my own ticket), because I found the idea of adopting an alternative identity entertaining.

I boarded the train at the station around 6am, and was greeted by a young couple, Dmitri (Dutch) and Miluska (Peruvian), who I’d met the previous day on the Cuzco city tour.

The train eventually started moving, and proceeded to zig-zag up switchbacks along a steep incline out of Cuzco, stopping and changing direction on each segment. Gradually the ghetto housing on the outskirts of Cuzco gave way to trees, mountains and rivers; from what I saw the journey was very scenic, although I was drifting in and out of sleep for much of the way there. After about 4 hours we finally arrived in Machu Picchu Pueblo, amidst the chaos of hawkers selling tourist crap, bus tickets and hotel rooms.

Upon disembarking the train, I was met by a guy from the Quillas Hostel, who took my bags and directed me immediately to the little buses that ferry people between Machu Picchu Pueblo and Machu Picchu itself. I got on the first one, met up with Dimitri and Miluska again, and soon afterwards we were zig-zagging up the steep hill to the citadel of Machu Picchu.

I spent several fun hours going around the extensive site with Dimitri and Miluska, taking lots of pictures as we went — the place is ridiculously photogenic, with the dizzyingly vertical ruins set amongst dramatic verdant mountains. The weather was pretty good, considering the site is in a cloud forest; warm and sunny, with a little haze on the mountains in the distance.

Peru’s National Institute of Culture have done a very good job with the site, leaving it effectively untouched; there are no safety barriers (and plenty of long drops!), almost no signage, no shops and no litter bins. Some of the more fragile parts have been roped off, and there are obvious ongoing conservation efforts taking place, but otherwise the site is almost completely uncluttered by 20/21st Century additions.

After lunch just outside the site entrance, I walked down the hill with Dimitri and Miluska and said goodbye as they left to catch the train back to Cuzco. I went back to my hostal and got my swimming gear, then walked up to the hot springs (or aguas calientes). The hot springs weren’t really very hot, and there were several school parties using them at the time, so it was pretty much bedlam, with kids running around screaming and splashing each other. It wasn’t very restul, although it was quite funny.

A little later I had dinner in the town’s main square (a terrible pizza that was more like cheese on toast, and it wasn’t mozzarella cheese either!), a beer in a bar at the top of Calle Pachacutec, and then went to an Internet cafe to check e-mail and update this blog; unfortunately the connection was really slow, and I was so exhausted I started falling asleep at the keyboard, so I went back to the hostal for an early night at 10pm.

I was planning to get up early the following day in order to get to Machu Picchu when it opened at 6am or 6:30am so that I could see the dawn, but when I awoke at 6:15am it was cloudy, so I had a much-needed lie-in and a leisurely breakfast before arriving at the site around 9am — still well before the train-load of day-trippers that arrived at 10:30am. The weather was very different from the previous day, with the site shrouded in thick white clouds — it looked very ethereal.

I had a quick walk around the site taking more pictures before heading out of the far side for the hike up to Waynapicchu, the nearby mountain that looms over the citadel. The hike up was pretty tough, but very enjoyable — about 30 minutes hard climbing up uneven stone steps. At some points it was more like proper climbing than walking, and there was even a narrow cave/tunnel to pass through at one point near the summit. At the summit were a few folks and, mysteriously, a humming bird, but unfortunately there was no view of the citadel below, which was completely shrouded in cloud.

After catching my breath and cooling off for about 20 minutes on the summit I started down again, but before I got too far down, the clouds cleared and I had a spectacular view of the citadel from way above.

After taking yet more photographs (I have a whole roll of 35mm film plus a load of digital images of Machu Picchu now), I descended back to the main site for a last spin around, before having lunch in the posh restaurant (a US$12 cheeseburger!) attached to the most expensive hotel in Peru (US$400 a night for a single room).

Then I took the bus back down to the Pueblo, had a quick wander around the tourist markets and back streets of the town, retrieved my bags from the hostal and went to catch the train back to Cuzco. The train journey was very scenic and quite sociable, as I was chatting with various folks I’d met over the last few days, although it was a little too long at 4 plus hours.

Now I’m back in Cuzco, and have to go to find some dinner before hitting the sack. I have a very civilized 8:45am start tomorrow for a tour of the Sacred Valley of the Incas, which should be interesting.

Tomorrow is also my last full day of vacation before returning to New York — and real life! — early on Wednesday…

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