The ancient ruins of Machu Picchu are what South American dreams are made of. A formidable fortress shrouded in mist, perched atop a stunning jungle-clad mountain, with the mysteries of one of the oldest civilisations hanging in the air. The 'lost' Inca city has put Peru firmly on the travelling map and, since its inclusion into the New Seven Wonders of the World, a wave of tourists have found the 'city in the clouds' high on their South American wishlist.
Situated 2,430 metres above sea level and 80 kilometres northwest of Cusco, the Incas intended for their city to be hard to reach. Five hundred or so years later and it is not the getting there that is difficult it's choosing how. A plethora of travel agencies in Cusco will happily encourage you to walk, cycle and even zip wire your way to the sacred city with prices ranging from $200 to $500. The classic Inca trail following the original pathways lasts four days and must be booked months in advance due to permit restrictions. The train to the town of Aguas Calientes, the launching point for day trips to Machu Picchu, costs upward of $80 one way. This, coupled
with mixed reviews on the standard of mulitple-day treks to the Inca city, persuaded us to carve our own path to this most famous of destinations.
Up early in the morning we began leg one of what would be a long, winding, hair raisingly exciting journey. First a five hour bus ride to Santa Maria up, over and through mountains that plunge down into the sacred valley. Then a 'collectivo' (shared taxi) a further hour along a heart stoppingly high and narrow road to Santa Teresa from where we could begin the three hour walk to Aguas Calientes. It was once we were out of the vehicles and walking in the lush and peaceful surrounds that this route came into its own. The path remains simple, you just follow the train tracks, but the views are breathtaking as the trail swoops along the river and beneath the mighty Wayna Picchu mountain, the lost city peering down on your every turn. As the dusky light dimmed around us and the town was still not in sight we became aware that neither of us had brought a torchlight. However, with the train tracks to guide us we found ourselves at the
heels of an unsuspecting couple who helped light the rocky path ahead. Walking through dark tunnels with the sound of our clattering feet echoing around us, was a wonderful experience. We happily waved to the high paying tourists aboard the train that passed and were content in the knowledge that we were doing it our own way. Some of the guided tours take you along this train track section but for only 25 Peruvian Soles ($8) we had got from Cusco to Aguas Calientes ourselves.
Aguas Calientes just six years ago was a quiet Peruvian town at the base of a increasingly famous Inca city. Today it is full of hotels, backpacker hostals and restaurants to suit every need. Although the town is close to some hot springs and buzzes with anticipation of what is above it, everybody is here for one reason only. So at 5am the next morning we walked down to the bus station and joined an already long queue for the winding bus route to the top.
We entered Machu Picchu, a morning haze softening the stone terraces that clung to the steep gradient. Llama's stood proud in the foreground, our camera boosting their
ego's, as the sun began to peer above the jutting peaks that defined our vista. Wispy puffs of cloud distorted through the changing light as Machu Picchu slowly came to life. We sat, appropriately, atop the Intihuatana (Hitching Post of the Sun), comforted by the awesome peacefulnes of this sacred place.
Feeling calm with our thoughts, we took the bold decision to climb the iconic, but rather demonicly steep, Wayna Picchu mountain that looks down over the Inca city. With only four hundred people allowed up each day we made sure we were in line at the right time (first come first serve) and soon began sweating our way to the top. The views were absoultely stunning and offered an all encompassing encapsulating of Machu Picchu. There was also a collection of buildings perched delicately on the top, thought to have been either a watch tower or astronomical observatory. The Inca people obviously enjoyed heights and had small feet evidenced by the tiny steps that scaled the steep-sided moutain. The more I stayed up there the less I wanted to come back down but, when the time finally came, I resorted to descending on my bottom for a section
of the narrow, slippery stairs. Despite this it was a stunning place from which to appreciate Machu Picchu and well worth the effort.
As the late morning sun warmed our backs it was time to explore the remarkably well preserved ruins of Machu Picchu. By now the tour groups had flocked in, scattering the grey buildings of the Unesco World Heritage site with colour, but also the interesting words of those guides who we stumbled upon. Most archaeologists believe Machu Picchu was built in AD 1400 as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. The people who lived here were completely self-sufficient using the terraces to grow maize and potatoes. It was easy to imagine this place bustling with life both agricultual and societal, equally easy to picture the thatched rooves gracing the stone walls, but hard to believe that Machu Picchu was built, lived in and abandoned within one hundred years. Carbon dating has proven this to be Machu Picchu's history but no one has been able to decipher the cause. There are three likely explanations; disease, fire and the arrival of the conquistadors.
Having climbed, explored and listened to this remarkable place we now sat overlooking
the city at the 'classic' view point. Machu Picchu deserves the time to just be felt and admired. We had done the hard work getting here and now we could sit back and relax, taking in the awe-inspiring sight whilst literally feeling the history. The Inca people were so incredibly resourceful, displaying construction techniques well ahead of their time.
As the evening shade began to fill the valley, we slowly ambled out of the sacred site. On the way a women asked her guide if she was an Inca. The guide proudly stated "my great, great, great, great grandparents were Incas". It was a fitting way to leave Machu Picchu, knowing that the cycle of life was continuing. Six hundred years ago this city provided homes and a precious existence for those that lived there and now, generations on, Inca people are still benefiting from the mighty Machu Picchu. Whilst pictures provide memories and words tell the story, Machu Picchu must be experienced to truly understand.
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