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Published: February 23rd 2006
On a ledge above Machu Picchu
At just after 7am the blinding rays of the sun forked above the towering mountain overlooking the ancient lost city of the Incas, Machu Picchu. A few of us gathered at the site of the original sundial, which captured the falling rays, its only blemish being a corner missing, carelessly knocked off by a visiting film crew some years ago. We wandered around the maze of largely empty buildings and terraces and breathed in the quiet spirituality exuding from every nook and cranny. The location is simply out of this world, majestic beyond belief. It has to be our top site/highlight of our trip around the world! The Taj Mahal was special, the temples of Angkor in Cambodia were even more spectacular and extensive, but Machu Picchu comes out top, in more ways than one!
Machu Picchu ('old or manly peak') is one of the Inca's best kept secrets, since they did not leave written records (the Incas couldn't write!) and Spanish chronicles make no mention of the place, it remains a mystery. It was discovered by 'Westerners' only in 1911 by the American Yale professor Hiram Bingham. The building style is "late imperial Inca" (around 1460 AD) and is
thought to have been a sanctuary or temple inhabited by high priests and the "Virgins of the Sun" (chosen women). Those lucky high priests, beautiful virgins all around, chewing the coca leaves and living at 8000ft, no wonder they were high! The natural setting on the eastern slope of the Andes encompasses the upper Amazon basin and was, when it was found, completely overgrown by the semi-tropical jungle.
The journey started the day before, from Cusco, just before sunrise in a freezing cold train. A combination of laziness and lack of money forced us into taking this mode of transport as opposed to walking (the only other alternative). The hiking version takes 4 days! After a painfully slow chug up the mountains surrounding Cusco we then followed the fast flowing River Urubamaba through canyons and towering mountains for over 3 hours before arriving at the small town of Aguas Calientes ('hot waters'), a staging post for the short trip up to Machu Picchu. We checked in to a small hotel up a steep hill heaving with cafes and restaurants, a bit further on were the thermal baths where you could soak those tired muscles al fresco. (We didn't try
the thermal baths as we didn't have tired muscles, as we hadn't hiked!). We went for a meal in one of the many restaurants sporting guinea pigs as the speciality, however after our queasy introduction to devouring the furry cuties in Bolivia (where I felt a bit like the fox which had eaten our little pets we used to keep in the back garden at Cranfield Road) we plumped instead for the less emotive alternative of river trout.
In the morning, just before sunrise we caught the first of a fleet of gleaming new Mercedes buses up to the citadel, which is Machu Picchu. The few tourists at this time of day were soon lost in the vastness of this mountain location. For the next 4 hours we wandered round and then we had to go and meet our tour guide we had pre-booked. We had no idea who the guide was and when we reached the meeting point at the entrance to the site we found hundreds of tourists with dozens of tour guides all milling around! After about 45 minutes of waiting and asking umpteen people unsuccessfully for help, we were about to give up when we
heard our names being shouted out by some wee bloke in an orange anorak. Thinking it was unlikely that there would be another Gerry and Denise Aitken at Machu Picchu that morning we joined his ever-burgeoning group. We foolishly thought we would have been in a little group of 4 or 5 people, but this was looking more like a protestant Orange Order march through the streets of Glasgow on a drizzly Saturday afternoon!
Anyway, give the guide his due, he was knowledgeable and gave us a good 2 hour tour. Far from being cold or drizzly it was extremely hot and there was little shade from the high-altitude sun, so-much-so that one young woman fainted and Denise and I got pretty burnt. The day ended with us grabbing a quick pizza back at Aguas Calientes and catching the train back to Cusco. Within minutes everyone on the train was fast asleep, except me, I was too excited after my experiences at Machu Picchu, and Denise, who doesn't sleep very well.
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