When we first started planning this trip, one of the few places we knew we wanted to go was Machu Picchu. I don't know whether both Laura and I had long implanted memories of childhood tv shows about the "mysterious disappearance of the Incas", or had just seen too many incredible photos of this magical place, but we were clear that we wanted to go.
We had many folks who wanted to join us for this part of our journey, and for a while, I was worried about a scenario where we would have a large group of friends from different parts of our lives, which would be both unwieldy, and, less intimate than the "travelling with" experience that we would prefer. Luckily, for various reasons, most of these folks couldn't swing the January timing, so we ended up with only our dear friends the Arboricos.
Their family of four had decided to do a four day trek on the way to Aguas Calientes (the jumping off town for MP), which we weren't up for, so we met up in Aguas Calientes for a celebratory dinner with their whole trekking group.
The train ride to AC from Ollantaytambo was spectacular, all the more so because we were in the Vistadome, so had almost unoccluded views in this amazing glass bubble. We caught many glimpses of glaciated peaks in the distance, and Incan / Wari ruins nearby. Of course, actually getting a decent picture from a low lying, moving train was often challenging.
We enjoyed Aguas Calientes a lot more than we anticipated. Our hostal was very new, and our room window opened directly above the thundering river. Luckily the windows were nicely soundproofed. We were surprised to find the market filled with great Peruvian wares, at reasonable prices, in spite of the clear tourist focus of the place.
We had a great dinner, meeting the trekking crew and guides, and then headed back to our hostal to sleep before our impending 5:30 am meeting in the morning to get the bus up to Machu Picchu. Of course, Brian and I managed to find a brewpub and stay up for a bit to catch up on our last 4 months apart.
The ride up the switchbacks to MP was less harrowing than I had feared. We really had no line to wait for the bus. For the first, but not the last, time that day we were thankful for travelling during the low season.
When we arrived at the entrance, it was still quite overcast, but our guides assured us that this would burn off after a while. The cloud covering added a sense of primordial mystery, which actually added to our anticipation. We took lots of photos, though we had to deal with an extended session of "selfishiness" of a Russian woman and her boyfriend photographer (Brian and I came up with "gigolographer") taking endless shots of her posing while several large groups waited to take their one shot. She even resumed after we took our 45 seconds.
Our guide suggested that we head to look at the Inca bridge trail, prior to ascending to MP proper. This was a great, and terriifying stone path next to a sheer cliff. The guide explained that this trail was the one that led to the Amazon rainforest, and possibly how the Incans fled from Machu Picchu and disappeared. The wood section covering the cutout in the stone path could be removed to stop enemies from ascending to MP.
By the time we got back to the main site, the clouds had lifted and we were treated to an uncharacteristically beautiful January day. We heard the story of the "discovery" of Machu Picchu by Hiram Bingham in 1911, with the clarification that it was an 11-year old boy who brought him to the site - which was well known by the locals.
Machu Picchu was constructed in the 15th century, and abandoned only a hundred years later. There are many signs that it was still actively under construction when abandoned. No one really knows why it was never inhabited again, though there are many theories. I realize that I am in danger of reproducing a bad version of the Wikipedia entry, so I'll focus more on our impressions of the place.
MP is in a spectacular location - with soaring mountain views everywhere you look. It was situated to be close to God, be hard to attack, and provide the necessities for life in a far-removed place (water, farmland...). I found myself looking at the mountains and clouds as much as at the archaeological sites. Even though we were standing in a place constructed 500 years ago, which is overrun by thousands of tourists every day, I still got the sense of newness, of mystery, of solitude that mountains always seem to create. I thought about how incredible this place would have been to those who had never seen a picture of it, and who would only get their first glimpse after some kind of arduous multi-week journey. As always, the mountains gave no answers, just questions.
Throughout the Peruvian Andes, we saw incredible tiers of small plots built on the side of steep mountains. Many of these pre-date the Incan times, some back 2000 years. The sheer effort involved to construct these terraces, and then to climb to and farm them boggles the mind. MP is surrounded by terraces, and others can be seen around the valley.
The Incan stonework is differentiated according to the importance of the structure. A temple has the largest blocks, the largest doors, and the most precise fit. A high priest or royal dwelling would have larger doors and better stonework than a storage building or lower class housing.
It was hard to imagine what this place would have been like when the structures were covered and it was filled with life. In spite of the increasing number of tourists arriving during our day there, Machu Picchu seems placid and serene. I don't know whether it would have felt that way when newly constructed and inhabited.
There was an option to climb a nearby mountain (Waynapicchu) to get the "from the top" view back onto MP. Valerie and I bowed out of this pleasure, but Laura, Brian, Brynn, Marley and Keegan all headed off to tackle this steep, dry, hot challenge. From the top it is easy to see the condor shape of MP behind them.
After hanging out for a bit and just resting in the shade, Valerie and I made our way to the buses to go back to Aquas Calientes. Though Machu Picchu had been an expected high point in an epic journey, and had lived up to its reputation, I did not need more time there. I was already full of experience, wonder, and thirst.
If you haven't already, plan on seeing Machu Picchu, and spending time elsewhere in the Peruvian Andes. It is more than worth the trip.