Published: September 8th 2008August 9th 2008
Aguas Calientes, aka Machu Picchu Pueblo, is a cert to make the 7 Tourist Trap Wonders of the World whenever that competition is held. Stepping off the train from Ollantaytambo, we found ourselves in a small town in the grip of rampant construction, adding to the existing hodge-podge of unattractive, uncoordinated buildings. With every other establishment a restaurant or tat shop, there was a wearying assault from all sides by touts eager to persuade you to browse their identical menus, or purchase a Machu Picchu-tattooed llama. Prices for accommodation and food were high, with an inverse relationship to the actual quality of the product. It was easy to assume that the town would be in cahoots with my current least favourite corporation PeruRail, but apparently the two are not the closest of friends, with the inhabitants of Aguas Calientes complaining that the rail company makes it too easy for tourists to visit Machu Picchu and then escape the clutches of the town without being parted from a chunk of cash.
One anomaly in this bastion of grimness was the presence of the largest cat population I've yet seen in South America. I was already fed up with dealing with uncontrolled
dogs when I left Southeast Asia, and South America has been more of the same, so it was frustrating to encounter hordes of cats in somewhere as dismal as Aguas Calientes.
Of course we weren't in the town for its own delights (or to meet cats) but for the small matter of the most famous Inca ruins of all that lurk on the neighbouring hill. 5AM saw us strolling down to the main street from where buses up to Machu Picchu would start leaving at 5:30AM. There were already at least 100 people waiting and I had visions of us missing sunrise at the site, however from 5:30AM a steady stream of buses made inroads into the queue and before long we were sitting in our $14 seats for the 25 minute journey (i.e. the same price as for the 6 hour journey from Cusco to Puno on a bus with reclining seats, air-conditioning, and lunch). In the pre-dawn gloom, the surrounding mountains hulked above us ominously as mist curled around them and it crossed my mind that this was some of the best alpine landscape I'd seen since China. The irritations of getting here forgotten, my excitement started
to grow as I absorbed the fact that I was mere minutes away from arguably South America's premier tourist attraction.
The queue to actually enter the site was not only formed from bus passengers but also energetic souls who'd decided to give the finger to the bus company and walk up the hill under their own steam. However the largest contingent was comprised of hikers who were completing the Inca Trail or any of the other similar treks that finish at Machu Picchu, a group recognisable by insect-ravaged calves and a recent lack of familiarity with showers. The entry ticket for Machu Picchu is a steep $40, whether you're a local (the average Peruvian's annual income is roughly $3,500) or foreigner, meaning the site is roamed by a distinctly non-Peruvian set of faces. The queue moved forward quickly, the volume of people making it totally impractical for the admissions staff to enforce the various rules (e.g. no food or drink) that you were supposedly agreeing to adhere to when purchasing the ticket. Interestingly, there are no facilities whatsoever inside the complex - no toilets, no food stands or cafes, and also no hawkers.
Though we entered the site
theoretically in time for sunrise, the weather ensured that we would not see it. A grey mist blanketed the ruins, silently drifting among the ancient stonework. We made our way to Intihuatana, the "hitching post of the sun", a rock apparently aligned with various mountains and the position of the sun at the equinoxes - this was meant to be one of the best places from which to see the dawn gradually illuminate the site, however with no sun to speak of we could only peer through the gloom at the glimpses of terracing, buildings, and the surrounding landscape that the weather conditions granted us in teasing, fleeting moments. Soon a fine rain began to fall and, after donning kaghouls, we huddled miserably in a cold stone alcove, wondering when the sun would put in an appearance and just what we could do to occupy the interim.
Machu Picchu was one of the very few Inca sites to escape sacking by the conquistadores, simply because they were unaware of its existence. Originally an imperial estate, it comprised agricultural and religious elements and was occupied by only a small number of people. Strangely, it was abandoned less than 100 years
On the rails
View from the Vistadome Valley train
after its completion, perhaps due to being too expensive to maintain and with a labour pool massively reduced by the effects of civil war and European-introduced diseases. The usual story of its "rediscovery" is that the American explorer Hiram Bingham was led to the site in 1911 and, as per standard Western policy, proceeded to make off with some of its artifacts. The reports of his expedition (including an entire copy of National Geographic two years later) helped to popularise Machu Picchu and set it on the way to its current status as a tourist Mecca. In actual fact, it appears that a German chap with even fewer scruples than Bingham had come across the site about 40 years earlier and did his own looting without publicising the place.
As early morning progressed to mid morning, the mists began to burn off in the face of an increasingly powerful sun, and more of the site became visible. The extent of the terracing became apparent, with ruined buildings also vying for attention. Earlier in the day, the complex had been able to absorb the influx of tourists while still appearing to be semi-deserted, but once the tour groups from Cusco
began to arrive it became impossible to avoid droves of people appearing in your photos. In a similar fashion, the sun also brought with it an armada of annoying insects, whose mosquito-like bites only became apparent the following day.
Much of the stonework at Machu Picchu is of a lower quality than, say, at Sacsayhuaman, which was something of a disappointment to me as I was hoping for similarly precise construction but on a larger scale. There is little in the way of carvings. From a human achievement point of view, the agricultural terraces would have to rank as the most impressive aspect of the site, sweeping down from the heights to the valley below. However the natural setting of Machu Picchu is its ace, and is as spectacular a location as you are likely to see - the vertiginous mountains on all sides, the morning mists atmospheric and eerie, and the green turret of Huayna Picchu a stunning backdrop. I was certainly most astounded by the landscape rather than the ruins - though any monument should be considered on its own merits rather than in comparison with others, there is no question that, for example, the Angkor Wat
complex (built earlier) is a far superior example of artistic endeavour (whatever the New7Wonders organisation might say).
There are 2 main viewpoints from which to view the entirety of the site. A steep climb up Huayna Picchu, restricted to 400 people per day, brings you to the non-standard one. Given the rain that had fallen, this promised to be a slippery affair and, in conjunction with the visibility-destroying mist that stubbornly clung to its peak through most of the morning, I managed to use these facts to persuade LA Woman that there were good reasons not to attempt the climb (other than my own general distaste for physical exertion). The second viewpoint is at Intipunku, the Sun Gate, at the top of the pass leading out to the Inca Trail. It is from places along the route to Intipunku that most of the classic photos of Machu Picchu have been taken, with roughly halfway along giving possibly the most aesthetically pleasing views of the ruins with Huayna Picchu lurking protectively in the background.
Machu Picchu is an impressive construction in an awesome setting, but my own feelings about it were certainly tempered by the circumstances in which I
had reached it. The train ride from Ollantaytambo, accommodation and food in Aguas Calientes, bus ticket to the ruins, and entry ticket itself had all been priced at a level that smacked of profiteering. I've been lucky enough to see some amazing things in my life, especially over the last 3 years, but I don't think any of them came at such a cost - worse, even the expensive ones were still cheap for local people, however that is not the case at Machu Picchu. Given the venal nature of the place, it was bizarre that what is almost universally considered as the best guidebook to the site was unavailable in Cusco, Ollantaytambo, and Aguas Calientes.
It was while I was pondering whether the experience had been "worth" it on the train back to Ollantaytambo that a balaclava-wearing gentleman invited me to stroke his soft and fluffy stuffed llama. This reminded me that there is frequently little positive correlation between the cost of an activity and the satisfaction to be gained from it.
There are more photos below