Lost and found, the Lost City of the Inca - Machu Picchu

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June 8th 2019
Published: July 21st 2019
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k8th June – Machu Picchu

If yesterday was an early start, today we awoke at ‘stupid o’clock’!! Our original pick up time was stupid enough at 05:45 but yesterday evening everyone had a note left in their room advising us that the pic up time had changed…to the even stupider time of 5am!! The breakfast salon didn’t open until 05:00 so we were provided with somewhat stale buns and slices of cheese together with a flask of muña. As we all waited in the foyer for our driver and guide, I learned that some tourists had booked an overnight stay in Machu Picchu that should have started on Thursday, the day of the strike. This had to be cancelled and as the authorities only allow a finite number of tourists on to the site each day (2,500) and as Machu Picchu is booked up weeks in advance, they were unable to rearrange at such short notice. The bottom line was that, Machu Picchu, most likely the highlight of their holiday, had to be scrapped. That must have been a bitter pill to swallow as Machu Picchu is the main attraction that most people visit Peru for.

5am came and went. Still no sign of the mini bus. 05:10. 05.20. No sign. We spoke to the reception who contacted the tourist office. At 05:25, Joel our guide, entered the hotel with a smile and a greeting. He was the only one in a cheerful mood!! We explained the note we had received. Joel knew nothing about this. Up until now, the organisation and logistics had been outstanding from Condor Travel. Joel showed us his schedule. He was told 05:25am. Considering our original time was 05:45 something had changed and someone had cocked up but I was thinking about my stomach to be too angry. We could have had breakfast after all. Condor travel owe me one bowl of granola and a yogurt!

Despite changing tack and sitting at the front of the mini bus, the first leg of the journey was still a very bumpy 1 ½ hour transfer to Ollantaytanbo. As the sun began to rise over the Andes, a mist lingered in the valleys below giving the landscape an eerie appearance. The train station at Ollantaytambo was organised chaos. It was very busy but after forty-five minutes we were rounded up, formed an orderly queue and boarded our allocated carriage. Light refreshment of a brownie and coffee was served. This journey also took 1 ½ hours. The route ran along the floor of the Sacred Valley following the flow of the Urubamba River, part of the Amazon basin. We finally alighted at Aguas Calientes, the town that lies at the foot of Machu Picchu. After half an hour of free time to wander the main square of this historic town, we took a 25-minute bus ride up a winding mountain road. This journey, despite being relatively short, was not for the faint hearted as some of the switch backs dropped away steeply. Luckily Rosin had her head buried deeply in to Candy Crush to have noticed, Thank God!!

It was lunch time already! Like yesterday, a buffet lunch was included in the excursion. It was a relief to spend some time in the air-conditioned sanctuary of the restaurant as the temperature had risen to the mid to high 70s (26C).

We finally walked through the turnstiles to the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu at about 1pm. I was exhausted just walking to the ticket barrier. I had to get my second wind or this was going to be a very long afternoon!!

Machu Picchu was discovered in 1912 by America historian Hiram Bingham. The site is actually at a lower altitude than Cusco, 2,430m to be exact. That’s almost 1,000m lower. I would have expected a respite in the panting and wheezing stakes but as our first activity was to climb for fifteen minutes up flight after flight of uneven steps, there was no noticeable difference in our physical state. There were places en route to rest, and in shade too. I made sure we took full advantage of these stops. As they say: ‘Slow and Steady wins the race.’ Although this was far from a race, more like an endurance trial!! Having conquered the steps, a short trail led to our first reward. THE panorama. This was the view associated with Machu Picchu. Below us lay the terraces and ruins of the lost city of the Inca in the proud and prominent shadow of Huayna Picchu, the camel humped mountain featured on practically every photo of Machu Picchu in existence. This feature is so characteristic and recognisable, Huayna Picchu has become the symbol of Machu Picchu.

Contrary to popular belief, Machu Picchu was not actually a city in the true sense of the word, despite being referred to as the Lost City of the Inca but is referred to as a city due to its vast size. It was built by the 9th Inca King, Pachacutec. Machu Picchu was a sacred place where the Inca worshipped their Gods. The site also contained a royal estate; a kind of retreat for the Inca King and his family. Joel told us that if you tilt the profile of Huayna Picchu to the left, it shows the side profile of a chin, mouth and somewhat disproportionate nose of a human face. Legend has it that this was formed by the Gods in the image of King Pachacutec as a sign to build his city at this sacred of sacred locations. Whilst this is a romantic notion, my money is on the fact that it is just an exuberant whim of nature!! There is no doubt that the city was created with admirable skill by talented Inca engineers and that this must have been a challenge of immense proportions due to its incredible location; However, absurd as it may seem, the fact that the Incas built Machu Picchu with the help of aliens continues to be the subject of debate and study along with the Pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, the Nazca Lines and other incredible constructions around the world. I intend to keep my eye out for statues of little green men!!

More climbing, more panting and wheezing, we ascended to the next level, passing terraces where the Inca used to grow potatoes and other types of vegetables. We stopped at a ceremonial altar. This sacred rock, otherwise known as Wank’a in the Quechua language, (I kid you not!!) is where the Incas carried out rituals and offerings to the earth. The rock is a powerful symbol of Machu Picchu as being a special area for meditation and absorbing positive energies. There were three steps carved on the right side of the stone. Three steps are very significant in the Incan religion and signs of the steps can be seen all over the city. They form part of the Chacana. This is a stepped cross with four corners, ridged with three steps each. The steps refer to the energetic tiers of the world; The lower world, represented by the snake, the middle world, represented by the puma and the upper world represented by a condor. Joel continued to tell us story after story surrounding the stone. He was very knowledgeable and one could see he was very passionate about this subject but on looking around, I could see he was gradually losing the interest of the group. We were only an hour in to the tour and most of us were already starting to suffer from information overload. Later I found out that all Condor Travel tour guides must have a degree in tourism and have studied extensively, the history of the Inca. It felt at this stage that Joel was pouring out his entire knowledge in one session!! There was no shade in this part of the site and the sun was beating down relentlessly.

More climbing (up and down), more walking. The paths and steps became more uneven and during many of the descents, there was nothing to hold on to, not even a wall for balance in most cases. Health and safely would have a field day in UK. This route was not wheel chair friendly at all. It’s just as well I didn’t see any wheelchair users roaming the site or else the guardians of the city may have had a few complaints on their hands!!

More climbing, more walking! This was becoming hard on many of our group. This is the hottest day so far partly due to the lack of shade available and also the absence of a breeze. Machu Picchu is said to have its own micro climate. Being on the periphery of the Amazon Basin, the surrounding vegetation is green and lush as we are technically part of the Amazon Rain Forest. Unfortunately, we were in the middle of the dry season!!

More ruins and more blah blah blah. Joel is now talking about the soil in the area. It is very absorbent to cope with the rainy season. Some tourists took out their iPhones and digital camera and snapped a photo of the soil!!

We brought bug spay with us but were persuaded that as mosquitoes cannot survive at that altitude, bug spray would not be required. However, nobody mentioned anything about the sandflies. These beasties are only 1/8 inch and the bites are painless. Later that evening, it looked like my legs had broken out in smallpox!!! The itching became unbearable but I managed to find a soothing ointment. At least this new ailment took my mind off the depleted oxygen level!!

We were led down an alleyway that was cast in shadow. Finally, we were out of direct sunlight. After another ten minutes explaining the structure of a cave like building, Joel beckoned us to take a look at a 200-tonne rock. No Thanks I thought. It’s a rock, a big rock but a rock nevertheless!!

We now stood on a small plaza beside three walls that used to be a guard house. ‘The interesting thing about Inca buildings’, started Joel, ‘is that the walls are trapezoid and the stones are geometrically interlocked. The walls slightly lean inwards. They were constructed like this to counter earthquakes.’

‘So, what happened to the other wall?’ asked one of the group.

‘We’re not sure’, answered Joel. ‘It must have collapsed during an earthquake!!’

Walking across from the trapezoid walls, Joel stopped and gestured with his hand, ‘Now this is a very interesting rock,’ he began. What is it with Joel and rocks?!! This wasn’t any old rock. Standing about two feet high, this was known as the compass rock. He took out his mobile phone and switched on the compass app. He then balanced the phone on the top of the rock. The lines of the rock aligned with the four points of the compass. Six of us were observing from about ten yards away. He called us over to take a closer look. ‘Nah, you’re OK. ‘I’ll google it’, I shouted across sarcastically. Sarcasm mustn’t translate from English to Spanish as he continued to call us over. Reluctantly we approached the stone as he then continued his stories. He then insisted we all take a photo of the phone and the rock. Why? I thought. Any photo will just a phone balancing on a rock!!

Our tour of Machu Picchu lasted just over 3 ½ hours. My calculations were that the site could have been covered in 1 ½ hours. Too much talkie, not enough walkie!! We were advised before the tour that there were no toilets on site. We still had forty-five minutes left of the tour but with all the water we had imbibed, bladders were starting to take their toll. We had seen all we wanted to see so politely asked Joel the way out. ‘Once you leave the site there is no readmittance?’ Now wasn’t the time for sarcasm so we agreed that this wasn’t an issue. He pointed in the general direction and at each turn stood an usher who directed us to the exit via the back paths. There was a stall adjacent to the exit where, free of charge, one could stamp their passport with a very decorative stamp of Machu Picchu.

We met up with the rest of the group about thirty minutes later. I had one last question for Joel. ‘What happened? Where did everyone disappear to?’ (OK, that’s two questions!!) I left my question to the end of the tour as I knew we had a bus to catch so he’d have to limit his answer to a few sentences and not the half hour seminars we had been subject to!!

‘A mix of plagues afflicting the Inca along with military campaigns waged by the conquistadors signified the beginning of the end. In 1572, with the fall of the last Incan capital, their line of rulers came to end. Machu Picchu just fell into ruin.’

The bus took us back to the town of Aguas Calientes. Some of our group had opted to stay in this town over night then head back in to Machu Picchu tomorrow morning. We had seen all we wanted to see today. The only thing we never got to see was the Sun Gate or the Inca Bridge. The Sun Gate marks the end of the Inca Trail and it is how travellers first enter Machu Picchu. The Inca Bridge is only a narrow ledge in places that looks down several hundred metres to a sheer drop. This was for the most extreme of adrenalin junkies or just the incredibly stupid so was a no brainer. To Roisin and I, the Sun Gate, slightly less dangerous, just meant more climbing, more pain and more tears!! No, we definitely made the right choice. However, a few of those staying over, really struggled today so whether they made the right choice remained to be seen.

The return train took 3 ½ hours and was pretty much direct. Poroy, the terminus was only a fifteen-minute drive from Cusco. During the journey back, we were subject to a fashion show which used the carriage stewards as the models. This was not just for our entertainment and amusement because shortly after the show ended, a trolley with recently modelled garments such as alpaca sweaters, dresses and shirts were paraded up and down the aisle. $285 for a jumper? Why, when I can buy one in Primark for £4.99!!

On reflection, I should have bought the $285 jumper. Nights can be very cold in the Andes and tonight was no exception 8°C (48F) and I didn’t bring a jacket!!

Machu Pichu was all that we had imagined, and more. We like to visit places around the world that have a ‘Wow’ factor. This was ‘Wow’ to the factor of ten!! Today had been a very informative but exhausting day. If I don’t sleep tonight, I’m going to the doctors when I get home!!

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