Machu PicchuDecember 9th, 2013 | Posted by in Inspiration | Lodging | Parks | Peru | Slideshow Pictures | The Places We've Been
Long before Ian and I met, we both, separately, dreamed of one day visiting Machu Picchu. For two people with inexhaustible collections of places we’d like to go, things we’d like to see, and activities we’d like to do, this magical spot in the Peruvian Andes for some reason stuck out. I’m not even sure there’s a why. When we started mapping out this segment of our journey though, Machu Picchu was one of relatively few sticking points. And so, on Thanksgiving weekend 2013, we finally made the trek to the famous ruins, and it was every bit as incredible as we’d ever hoped it would be. If you’re just here for the pictures, check out the slideshow at the bottom.
The Incan ruins at Machu Picchu aren’t all that old as far as ancient ruins are concerned, and in terms of major civilizations, the Incan Empire didn’t last that long either. If one considers that the Egyptian pyramids were built thousands of years before present era, that Mayan sites we’ve visited like Tikal, Monte Alban, and Palenque were founded in the earliest centuries of present era, and that even Mesa Verde’s cave dwellings in Colorado were constructed in the 1200s, this 15th century site in Peru seems like recent history. As a citizen of a country that declared its independence less that 250 years ago though, the ancientness of the structures is captivating. Some friends we met along the way who grew up in China pointed out the differing perspective on longevity. Dynastic records and human remains from ancient Chinese civilizations date the ongoing presence in the region to tens of thousands of years before present era. The Incan Empire, conversely, ruled for only about 100 years. Despite their relatively short reign, the Inca expanded their control into what would become the largest empire in the pre-Colombian Americas, with its capital at Cusco, the city that we are currently calling home, and with a culture so strong that it still plays a major role in current day communities.
Machu Picchu itself was built around 1450AD. After some wrong guesses and further archaeological speculation, the site is now believed to have been a private estate for Pachacuti, the ninth Inca ruler and the one who began the expansion to an empire. Machu Picchu’s current fame comes not from written records or remaining art work, but rather because it was never destroyed by the Spanish like nearly all other cities of the civilization. In fact, it was left relatively untouched until it was “rediscovered” by outsider Hiram Bingham in 1911 (of course, he was led there by locals who had always known it was there) and is often referred to as the Lost City of the Inca. In addition to the somewhat necessary attribute of still existing, the setting in which Machu Picchu was built is its second most popular claim to fame. Perched on a ridge in the heights of the great Andes, it is impressive feats of ancient engineering that keep the settlement from sliding down into the valley, and visitors are rewarded with absolutely breathtaking views that immediately confuse one’s sense of scale.
As the crow flies, the distance between Cusco and Machu Picchu is less than 50 miles. The remote location of the ruins though are such that there is no 50 mile road from one to the other. Instead, visitors have two main options: to hike or to take the train. Hikes along the famous Inca Trail begin near Ollantaytambo, take about 4 days, and cover approximately 26 miles through the mountains. The number of hikers permitted per day is regulated by the government and arrangements must be made well in advance to get a spot. The train can be caught at either Cusco or Ollantaytambo, takes about an hour and a half, and drops off at Machu Picchu Village (formerly Aguas Calientes), the town at the base of the ruins. Two lines run multiple trips daily, Peru Rail and Inca Rail, with ticket schedules and prices varying throughout the day but similar between the companies. From Machu Picchu Village to the Machu Picchu ruins, travelers have another choice of either taking a 20 minute, $9 each way bus ride or making the free, hour-long hike up the steep mountainside trail of stairs. It is only then that one reaches the official park gate.
We did a fair amount of brainstorming prior to our journey as the dogs were an additional factor for consideration. Though we didn’t technically check, we were pretty sure they were not going to be allowed on the train, nor were we prepared for that nightmare. Ian read about a third access point that required a seven hour drive from Cusco around the back side of Machu Picchu, parking our car in a small town for the night, and hiking 3 hours into Machu Picchu Village. We were fairly set on this option for a while as it meant we could take the dogs, but after our monster of a drive from Cuenca to Cusco and the astonishing amount we spent on gas during that time, we decided to reconsider. In the end, we opted for a late afternoon train out and an early afternoon train back the following day and bought our tickets easily and conveniently online. It might be a long 20-odd hours in the bathroom for the dogs, but it wouldn’t be much worse than 14 hours in a car and then waiting around in a hotel room for us. In the end, they did magnificently, and we appreciate their ability to take one for the team when needed.
Schedules dictated that we would be leaving from Ollantaytambo rather than Cusco, so we happily made the 90 minute drive through the Sacred Valley, parked our car in a gated lot for S/.10 ($3.60 USD), and walked the few blocks to the station. It was simple, but lovely, with a few small coffee shops and impressively clean bathrooms. I guess for $111 USD per ticket (and those were the cheap ones!), it’s fair to expect a nice, clean toilet. Everything went smoothly and the service was fantastic. Smiling faces and kind welcomes, drinks, sandwiches, and fruit on the journey, and of course, incredible views on all sides, which were made extra visible by rooftop windows that allowed for a look at the peaks above. Midway through the ride, I casually asked the couple sitting across from me where they were from. America, he answered. Where abouts? I asked. North Carolina, he answered. No way! What part? I continued. Raleigh, he answered. Oh the excitement of stumbling into people from home while so far away! As it turns out, we had lived not 15 minutes from each other, and we ended up grabbing drinks and dinner and enjoying lovely conversation with them a few days later in Cusco before they returned to the states.
Macchu Picchu Village
We hadn’t read much in praise of Machu Picchu Village prior to our arrival. Most of the information we found said that it was touristy and overpriced and that there was no draw to the small town aside from it being the required stop for any visitor to the ruins. Some of that is true. Lodging and especially meals were pricier than elsewhere, and the village itself exists as a result of the need for a spot for tourists to stay near the ruins. It is the epitome of touristy. We also found it to be delightful and fun for a night away and truly enjoyed walking the vehicle-free streets and gawking at the mountains towering above. The last few months we’ve rented apartments in cities that sat in giant bowls surrounded by distant mountains, but here, at Machu Picchu village, there was no bowl. Simply one enormous, steep peak after the next, with a small town wedged in between. In what had to have been the largest flat space in the entire village, a giant turf soccer field had been constructed and locals young and old were playing pickup games all over it while we watched on from the stands along the side. Certainly there was a sense of being in one of the most touristy places we’ve been so far and being seen as simply a wallet with vacation money to spend, but it was also fun and there were very real families building their lives there and we opted to notice the quirky charm instead of the lack of economic diversity.
After exiting the train station and wandering through the maze of souvenir stands between the platform and the rest of town, we headed uphill towards a hostel we had read about online and booked two beds in a 12-bed dorm room for $9 each. Typically having the luxury of a private apartment, we think we got pretty lucky here. The Supertramp Hostel in Machu Picchu Village was staffed by a really friendly and helpful crew, featured oversized twin beds with down filled comforters, offered free bag storage while travelers are trekking to the ruins, served hot breakfast beginning at 4:30AM, and kindly invited us to enjoy coffee or tea and take a shower after our visit to the ruins regardless of whether or not we were staying the following evening. The bathrooms are coed and the rooftop bar can be a bit noisy at night, but if you’re a laid back traveler, we would definitely recommend the spot. The funky restaurant that the staff runs on the first floor serving burgers, pizzas, and other items is also quite tasty and filling for competitive prices as far as the village is concerned. We enjoyed a nice dinner, fell asleep to the noises of the drinkers above, and then awoke at 3:45AM the following morning along with more than half of the other people in our room. The hallway and bathroom was a quiet shuffling space with groggy people changing clothes, packing bags, and washing up before heading down to the restaurant for coffee, fruit, bread, and eggs. We stepped out of the door in the dark and started our walk towards the trail.
Beyond the bus station on the near bank of a bridge that crosses the Urubamba River, a guard checks tickets before permitting travelers to pass. We had read that this first gate of sorts opened at 5AM, but plenty of people had gone up ahead of us so we’re not sure how accurate that information was. With the actual park opening at 6AM, many visitors hike up the steep mountain early to be as close to the front of the line as possible. We made it up before 6 and took our place behind the earlier hikers but in front of the first busload. The hike itself was a decent workout, though not wildly challenging, mostly climbing a lot stairs at high altitude. Machu Picchu sits at 8,000 feet, and we felt fortunate to have been acclimated during the previous three weeks during which we stayed and exercised in Cusco, which sits more than 3,000 feet higher at 11,200 feet. This was clearly helpful to us as we ascended the trail, which bisects the road that crisscrosses up the mountain a number of times to make for a more direct, and ultimately more steep, pathway to the ruins. While waiting in line, some of the really awesome people (way more awesome than us or you, for sure) in adventure gear and with big groups of backpacker friends boasted loudly about how fast they hiked up the mountain. We quietly mourned our place three people behind them in line and wished that we were cool enough to yell in large groups of people at 6AM too.
I think “light stampede” is a fair way to describe the onslaught of visitors trying to get a glimpse of the ruins before the mysterious fog of dawn was replaced by hundreds and hundreds of tourists. In retrospect, I’m glad that we were there early and would definitely recommend it, but I also wouldn’t stress over the difference between first in line and 20th in line. The pathway split with one fork leading up and the other in; we went up. After a few more flights of uneven stone stairs, we rounded a bend and the site that we had imagined for so many years lay immaculately before us, just as beautiful and perfect and awe-inspiring as it was in every picture I’d ever seen. To be honest, I had begun to entertain the idea that it might be somewhat disappointing, unable to meet my expectations after seeing photos for so long and overrun with Disney World type tourists. All of that washed away though as we stood looking out over the ruins below and at Huaynapichu mountain soaring above them. Being one of the first few there, we snapped photographs of ourselves in “the spot” and then moved out of the way for others. I found a place on a ledge and sat down on the rocks, letting my feet dangle over while I watched. That’s all I wanted to do – just look, just breathe. The site itself isn’t expansive, even compared to other sites in the Sacred Valley, but it is pristine and its setting is mind boggling. The beauty, the Earthly and natural sanctity, were stunning. After an hour or so, we finally got up and walked through the structures, which were also quite interesting. With every step was a new vista and a slightly different angle at which to take in the mountains around the site. We ran into our friends from Raleigh a couple of times. We watched the alpaca play. Before we left, down the steep pathway, through town, and onto the return train, we climbed back up to the top of the ruins and sat for a while more. Over and over I closed my eyes, taking a few deep breathes and focusing on the way the wind felt as it rushed around me. Then, I would open my eyes and squeal happily that the magic was still there each and every time I saw the view before us. It was a magnificent morning and a rewarding weekend, and I am so grateful to have been able to make the journey.