Machu Picchu

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April 23rd 2015
Published: April 26th 2015
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Nick: "If you want to save a few quid, go to Machu Picchu" said no-one, it ain't. Still, it would be pretty daft to come all the way to Peru and not go and see the world famous Inca city, and we had picked up our tickets during our first day in Cusco, prior to our jaunt into the rainforest. A good thing too, since visitors to the site are reportedly restricted to 2500 a day (which is still clearly quite a few) and with an enormous demand the chances of simply turning up and getting in would be slim to none.

Simply getting to Machu Picchu takes a fair bit of arranging; the ruins are primarily accessed via an adjoining town, Aguas Calientes, located a good way from Cusco. Given the popularity of the site, it is generally advised to get up at the crack of dawn and get going as soon as it opens, to avoid (as much as possible, anyway) the mob of tourists. With that in mind, we had elected to spend the night in Aquas Calientes before visiting so we could do just that, without losing significant time just getting there. Having checked out of our hostel in Cusco, we walked across the historic centre, taking a few snaps en-route, to the part of town where we were told the 'colectivos' would be found. These shared taxis generally represent the first leg in getting to Machu Picchu, ferrying would-be visitors to the towns of Ollantaytambo or Urubamba, from where they can catch the train to Aguas Calientes; as Sarah alluded in the previous post, the train in question is eye-wateringly expensive, but with little alternative choice, people (including us) simply have to stump up or miss out. Aside from an even more exorbitantly expensive and very limited service, the trains do not generally depart from Cusco directly.

Arriving with our overnight bags (the big rucksacks having been left in the care of our hostel) in the general area of the colectivos, we weren't really sure what we were looking for; there were no obvious signs or queues for buses or suchlike. Very rapidly, we were approached by a local guy who was touting for two more passengers and before we knew it we were in a shared car with two other people, beginning the 1.5 hour drive to Ollantaytambo - for the agreed price of 10 Soles per person, or a total of about four quid for the two of us, ridiculously cheap considering the distance involved. The journey itself was fine and we made it to Ollaytaytambo in good time, in part due to our drivers proclivity for overtaking whenever a half of an opportunity presents itself (although it seems that this represents the current fashion in Peruvian driving...). With a couple of hours to kill before our train departed, we grabbed a coffee and had a wander round. Just outside of the central square was a grand looking series of terraces cut into the mountainside, as well as some historic looking buildings; an adjacent sign proclaimed this to be an archaeological site. Intrigued and impressed even with what we could see of the site from afar, we went to see if we could spend some time nosing around. Unfortunately, in what was to be an emerging theme in the pilgrimage to Machu Picchu, the cost of entry was whopping and given that it was a poor relation to the main event, which we would be seeing in due course, we decided to save our pennies instead. The rest of the town was a sea of stalls selling, well, tourist tat basically - your standard line in woven bags, hats, t-shirts and all the rest of it. When the time came to go to the train station, we weren't desperately sorry to be leaving.

The train itself was admittedly very good, nicely looked after, shiny and clean. Both sides and the roof itself predominantly constituted large windows so the view was excellent. The route ran from Ollantaytambo through a valley between the steep-sided mountains to Aguas Calientes, remaining adjacent to a vociferously churning river for the entirety of the journey. The trip itself lasted about ninety minutes, and although a bit on the wobbly side, was fine; the scenery was beginning to take a turn for the spectacular as we made our way deeper into the mountains; around here, they were of the jagged, sheer and green-coated variety, looming in on both sides of the train, with fluffy white cloud beginning to accrete near the peaks. Soon enough we had arrived in Aguas Calientes, met at the station by a lady from our hostel who guided us through the street market to our accommodation, just in time as those fluffy white clouds turned nasty and a miserable downpour began.

What can I say about Aguas Calientes? Perhaps suffice to say that it made Ollantaytambo look like a model of asceticism - unsurprisingly perhaps, given that the sole purpose of this town is to provide food, shelter and any other consumer requirements to the thousands of tourists who fleetingly pass through to see Machu Picchu. But then, like everyone else, we weren't here to see Aguas Calienetes, it was simply a means to an end and we had the rest of the afternoon to potter about. Not having really eaten since our early breakfast, our stomachs promptly reminded us that, rain or no rain, lunchtime had been and gone and so we braved the elements to find ourselves something to eat. Almost immediately after leaving the hostel, we were hounded down the street by the assorted restaurant hawkers trying to convince us to choose their establishment. Since all of the restaurants appeared to be much of a muchness, as is our wont we pretty quickly plumped for the first one that didn't harangue us, and despatched a decent-enough lunch of burritos (Mexican food being on almost all of the menus here for some reason, less so in Cusco). With the rain still coming down, we spent the remainder of the afternoon back at our hostel carrying out a bit more travel planning, sorting our accommodation in Costa Rica and Sydney. Back out for dinner in the evening, we went for more Peruvian specialities: trout ceviche - which is basically raw fish cured in heaps of lime juice, and is utterly refreshing and delicious - and trout chicharron, which is simply battered and fried. Soon afterwards we were off to bed for an early night, with the alarm set for 05:00 the next day to beat the crowd.

As it turned out, everyone else had had the same idea! Up early and with a quick, basic breakfast of bread and jam down the hatch, we were off down the street to find the buses that ferry the crowds up to Machu Picchu itself. In fact, it is possible to walk up to the ruins, via a series of stone steps and we had given this some thought previously, but amidst all of the assorted travel arrangements involved we'd forgotten this and automatically opted for the bus like so many others - as we would subsequently find out, this was indeed a happy accident! Arriving at the bus collection point, we were marginally dismayed to see so many other people had already arrived, and the queue snaked back for far longer than I had hoped. Added to this was the news that the brief bus journey up the mountain was priced commensurately with everything else: horrendously. I must confess that at this point I was feeling a bit disappointed in the whole venture. Visiting Machu Picchu had been something I'd wanted to do for many years, ever since I had seen pictures of it, but over the last twenty four hours it had felt like we were simply being squeezed through the touristic sausage machine with money being milked from us at every turn (an interesting combination agricultural metaphor, there). But don't worry, intrepid Blog-Followers! This story has a happy ending!

Clearly used to dealing with so many tourists, a daisychain of buses soon sprung into life, our queue moved forward rapidly and sooner rather than later we were sat on our bus - the final leg in our protracted journey. The ride up the mountain was short, perhaps fifteen minutes, but with the road hair-pinning back and forth our ascent up the sheer mountainside was also rapid, and the view out of the side windows was truly impressive. The bus deposited us, alongside our very many fellow visitors, at the front entrance to the site - at last, we were here! Happily, the foul weather of the previous day had disappeared and we had a fresh clear morning in which to explore the ruins. Making our way through the front gate, we saw properly for the first time the ruins in front of us. Machu Picchu is the ruins of a lost Inca city located on Machu Picchu mountain; now restored, it is largely composed of the stone walls of former houses, recreation areas, work areas, and all of the other bits and bobs that make an Inca city tick! Located as it is on the crest of a mountain ridge, the city is built on many levels all connected by stone steps, and surrounded by numerous terraces that have been carved into the mountainside, presumably for agricultural purposes. It is fair to say that it truly is amazing to behold, and all of the touristic crap that we had had to negotiate in order to finally get here was instantly forgotten!

Immediately after the entrance, the path into the ruins forks left and right, the left fork ascending up to the highest point of the ruins (and from which the best view could be taken); the right point appeared to descend to a quieter area. With literally almost all of the tourists heading left, we opted to go right momentarily to get a bit of space and take a couple of photos before we were crowded out. This turned out to be another happy accident. Rounding the corner we realised there were more paths to be explored and we ended up moving further and further away from the original fork, investigating all of the little rooms and staircases leading to who-knows-where...the whole place was quite a maze. It was only after some time that we realised that the set-up of the place was such that people were intended to complete a one-way circuit, and we had trotted off the wrong way. The upside of this was that the first thirty minutes or so we had the place pretty much to ourselves, as the first arrivals had not yet worked their way around! It was incredible, not to mention entirely unexpected. During our wanderings, we encountered a number of llamas which are dotted around the place, contentedly munching away on the plentiful grass that gross on the flat areas of land. Once again, it is difficult to articulate how imposing the surrounding scenery was, the sheer drops from the walls of the city down the mountain, the mist percolating through the valley below and the winding, frothing river far down at the bottom. It was incredible.

In due course, we decided that we would be coming up against the first scrum of people heading around in the 'correct' direction and it would be something of a battle going against the flow in the narrow passageways, so we elected to retrace our steps to the start and walk around the other half in line with everyone else. Once we got near to the starting point, we spotted the sign for the entrance to the Machu Picchu mountain trail. Well, a bit of background is needed here: when buying the entrance ticket for the site from the official ticket sales point in Cusco, you are offered a number of different packages. As well as buying a ticket to the site itself, for just a few dollars more you can buy another ticket which includes access to the walking trails up either Machu Picchu mountain, or neighbouring Waynapicchu mountain, both of which are accessible from the historic ruins. Given that it was a negligible extra cost, we opted to get the ticket with the Machu Picchu mountain trail on it. We wandered up to the entrance point, signed ourselves in and began walking up a set of stone steps, leading away from the ruins...

After the first few minutes of continuous uphill walking, we were starting to get a bit short of breath and the legs were beginning to burn a wee bit - don't forget that we were still in high-altitude country to some degree, and despite having adjusted some time ago, available oxygen in the air was not what we were normally used to at closer to sea level! The stone steps continued up and up, and we began to flag more and more, taking breathers every few minutes. The sun was shining hard and we were both getting decidedly sweaty, although fortunately had thought to bring a good supply of water. Of more concern was that, whilst registering at the start of the trail, it was clear that a number of people had headed off well before us, perhaps an hour or two, and we'd seen no-one coming back down yet...we were beginning to wonder exactly how long/high this trail went, and what we had got ourselves in for! The views from the path were beautiful, however, and as we pressed on further and further up the mountain, we were treated to some incredible vistas around the region, including the ruins themselves shrinking into the distance below us. The entire path was composed of stone steps, made from huge rocks in the mountainside; at time the steps themselves were very narrow and trickier to get a good purchase, whilst the path could get unnervingly narrow at times, with nothing but a sheer drop to one side. Just over an hour or so in the climb, both of us were seriously flagging - imagine climbing steep (and often very big!) stairs for over an hour in hot weather and you'll start to see what I mean...

From our path we could see over the ruins to the other side, to Waynapicchu, which, it turns out, was the smaller of the two peaks by some margin - we had found ourselves on the big brother of the two, and by this time were looking down on the summit of the other peak! Encouragement came in the form of our first encounter with an earlier walker coming back down from the top, who kindly let us know we were nearing the summit. He was true to his word: an hour and a half after setting out, seriously sweaty and short of breath, we reached the peak! A good twenty or so others, those walkers who had set out earlier, were all there, eating picnics, resting their legs and generally enjoying the view; and it was definitely a view worth savouring, with a 360 degree panorama around the summit, the lost city now a very small feature below us. We took the obligatory snaps and plonked ourselves down on the edge, our legs hanging over a fairly steep drop, before rewarding ourselves with some rations of chocolate crackers. By this time it was perhaps half-past nine in the morning, although after our early start it felt much later. We relaxed briefly but soon headed off to work our way back down. It's fair to say the descent was an altogether easier experience, although it still took us a little over an hour to get back down, hindered a little by the steepness and narrowness of the steps in places. On the way we took it upon ourselves to egg on those puffing and panting individuals who were making their own way up, giving encouragement and estimates of how close they were to the top - there was a lot of camaraderie! It was also good to see that everyone else looked just as bushed as we did on the way up, so we felt a bit better about our own performance.

By the time we'd reached the bottom, we both had a serious case of 'jelly legs', after a good two and a half hours of toil. But we'd made it, we were proud of ourselves, and now I was ready for a gentle amble around the rest of the ruins that we had not yet seen...or so I thought; Sarah had other plans. Another feature of the Machu Picchu site is a trail leading to the 'Sun Gate', which I had seen winding off away and up into another part of the mountain from near our trail entrance. I did my best to protest that we had done enough climbing today but Sarah was keen and said she was quite happy for me to rest down at the bottom if that's what I wanted to do...Man-Pride being what it is, we were soon both tramping back uphill to see the Sun-Gate! Although it wasn't in the same order of magnitude as our earlier trek, it was still a bit of an effort, with yet more hundreds of steps to climb. Fortunately it was a much more forgiving half-hour or so, although it is fair to say that by the time I'd made it to the summit of this walk, I was beginning to wonder exactly how they would account for heart attacks at this remote location! The Sun-Gate was essentially a viewpoint across the city and gave us another angle on the city from those we'd had further up the mountain and ultimately was worth the effort.

Having made our way back down to the ruins, we ambled about the other half of the site that we'd not yet seen. By this time, we were getting on for midday and the tourism rush was in full swing. It was impossible to move about too freely without getting in someone else's camera shot, or being pressed from behind by the chain of people moving along. It didn't take long for us to get a bit fed up with everyone around us (the usual Selfie Stick Brigade, basically) and when the clouds came in and the rain starting coming down, we knew we'd had our fill. We had seen pretty much all of the city and were very tired but happy with our walking efforts; furthermore it was a very long time since brekkie so now it was definitely time to get back down and find ourselves some food.

Back at ground level, we went back to the restaurant from the previous evening (we we quite fond of the gregarious chap who ran the place and the food was good too) and chowed down on a bumper lunch of soup and main course: lomo saltado (bit like a beef stir fry, very tasty) for Sarah, garlic spaghetti for me, all of which was washed down by a well-earned cold beer, naturally. Feeling stuffed to the gunnels, the rest of the day would largely consist of getting back to Cusco. We were back on our shiny-but-expensive tourist train by three in the afternoon, and on arrival in Ollantaytambo, flagging somewhat from the days exertions, we treated ourselves to a private taxi rather than a colectivo (which came it at the princely sum of about twelve quid). By the time we'd made it back to Cusco it was nearly seven o' clock and dark. We collected our main rucksacks and checked in to our latest hostel, another cheap-as-chips number in the historic centre, a whole five yards or so from our last one. A quick hot shower to wash away the day's travails, and we were out for dinner at the local vegan restaurant we'd been to previously. Committed as you know I am to keeping you all up to speed with our dietary intake, I can reliably inform you that I had a lentil burger and Sarah had a repeat of her grilled-veggie sandwich. I have to admit that I wasn't in love with mine, thankfully Sarah (being the excellent person that she is) thought it was fine and was happy to swap. We were back in the hostel straight after, and, both of us utterly cream-crackered, crashed into bed at half nine.

The following day we were up at the much-more-respectable time of seven to get to the airport, where we are currently sat waiting for our much delayed flight to Lima - hurrah! As I type this, they've just announced we are ready to board! Lima, here we come!

Sarah: I just wanted to add how magical I thought Machu Picchu was. Once you're in the city there are no toilets, no stalls and no hawkers with plastic replica Machu Picchus and so you can simply enjoy it for what it is. The surrounding scenery is some of the most spectacular I've ever seen and it was an amazing (probably) once in a lifetime day out. Also, I'm sure getting to the top of that bloody mountain and the rush of happy chemicals that it gave me made me love it more than I otherwise would have, but not complaining! P.S. I still think this even though I can feel the climb in my calves three days later!

Additional photos below
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26th April 2015

Experience by proxy
Once again thank you for the wonderful descriptions you give. I really feel I have had s taste of the city and the climb. My legs ached in sympathy!! Wonderful as always. Nick - are you more streamlined or is it a camera trick?? Sarah - gorgeous as always. We have had a clan day with the Coaches, boys chief dog walkers and very good they are too. All pretty tired this evening. Looking forward very much to your next adventure. Bon voyage (or should that be flight ??? XXXX
27th April 2015

So, an opportunity!
So, no plastic models of Machu Picchu eh? This looks like a retirement opportunity for an enterprising man like me! Anything for the bees up there? I could probably make a fortune on MP Honey - call it a sting operation! Seriously, your world sounds wonderful! Lots of love to both of you. Dad
28th April 2015

Boom boom
Haha, very good! No bees I'm afraid, so you might need to rethink your plan...currently in Costa Rica where there are a plethora of wonderful animals, we've seen a sloth, a shark and some pretty massive lizards too. Not sure how you'd exploit them commercially, mind. Sloth milk anyone?? Trust you are both well and thanks for the comments, lots of love from both of us!

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