Thursday, January 10, 2013

Machu Picchu

Exploring the holy grail of Inca empire.

Click any photo for larger view, then anywhere on the page to get back to the blog.

Ever since we got together, Flo and I have tried to put our own spin on celebrating holidays. Thanksgiving means nothing to our European families, and everyone's too far away to get together for Christmas, not to mention that some of us don't even celebrate it on the same day. Holidays are generally received as a gift from our corporate overlords - a few days of freedom to indulge our wanderlust. But - we still have our own personal ways of acknowledging and celebrating them, and keep our own family traditions. On Christmas day, we like to do something special. So, on Christmas day of 2012, we went to Machu Picchu. We thought that was pretty $@*%# special.

The day began with a 4 am wake up call, because getting to Machu Picchu  - from anywhere - involves a bit of a commute. From our monastery in the clouds we took a half hour bus ride to a train station where we boarded a train. A scenic hour and a half ride followed, through valleys and mountains, running along the serpentine Urubamba river. The Urubamba Valley has become a tourist destination mostly because it offers the easiest access to Peru's most famous landmark. Trains also run from Cusco, but that ride takes about 5 hours so going through Urubamba is by far the best option (unless you're into hiking, in which case you can trek along the Inca trail and reach Machu Picchu by foot - in 4 days)

The train ride itself is a gawker's paradise. The whole time you're gently descending, from 9,400 to 7,900 feet, and the vegetation grows more lush and jungle like along the journey. Not only are you treated to jaw-dropping panoramas around every bend, but remnants of Incan architecture can be seen everywhere - stone parapets, hanging bridges, a wall of a house here and there - it's amazing how much remains, just sitting quietly in the jungle.

Our train arrived at its final destination just as the sun had risen fully, and the morning mist was being burned off the mountains.

The "destination" we arrived at is a small town at the foot of the mountain, called Machu Picchu Pueblo, aka - Aguas Calientes, which basically only exists to funnel the hordes of tourists up the mountain. It's a cute town, but it looks like something out of Epcot, with its ubiquitous signs for coffee shops, bars and souvenirs.

There are hot springs in the area, where weary feet can soak after a grueling hike. Massage parlors also abound. We didn't take advantage of either, but what a great way to end a day at Machu Picchu.

From the Pueblo, it's a half hour (crowded) bus ride up a narrow winding road - and then - finally - you've made it! (FYI - tickets have to be bought WAY in advance, so don't make it this far just to be turned around. And bring your passport.)

So, by now we're glossy-eyed and slobbering with anticipation, biting at the bit, ready to bolt. Our group was handed off to a tour guide, who assembled us just inside the entrance for a pep talk, after which came the inevitable bathroom breaks and "what do I do with my bag?" and "my jacket is itchy". So, we asked the guide how much time we have until pencils-down, and made a dash for it. She was a little surprised that we didn't want a tour, but we figured we can get all the history lessons we want once we get home, but this being our one chance to actually BE THERE, we wanted to see as much as possible, and we didn't want to crawl along with a group that included several 50-somethings. So, off we ran to explore.

The first thing we did at Machu Picchu was run away from it. The city sits between two mountains - Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. Huayna (meaning young) is the peak that rises right above the city - the one you see in all the photographs - and Machu (meaning old) is to the Southeast, offering panoramic views of the whole complex and the surrounding valley. Huayna can only be climbed by the day's first 450 visitors, and we didn't qualify, so we went the other way.

Trekking up Machu Picchu towards Intipunku Temple. It was a hot and humid hike!
A huge rock marking the site of the cemetery. About 1/3rd of the way to Intipunku. 1000 feet above city entrance.
View of the valley with Urubamba river
It took us about 40 minutes of steep uphill climbing to reach Intipunku, where we arrived sweaty and gasping. Unlike the rest of Machu Picchu, this portion of the site is nearly deserted, we barely ran into 10 people during the whole expedition. The views from Intipunku were really something. It was nice to catch our breath in silence, alone on top of the world.

Machu Picchu spread out below us
My Lion King moment proved to be a not-very-prudent idea, as, being out of breath and woozy from the altitude, I got a nice case of vertigo on that rock and almost went over head first. That branch above my head came in handy.

Colorful tropical plant life around Intipunku.
After Intipunku, we hiked to the Inca Bridge - another amazingly beautiful walk along another side of the ridge, showing off new angles of the valley.

Lion King moment #2. It's interesting to note that there are no guardrails anywhere on the trails, so you walk along these narrow rocky paths at your own risk, with thousands of feet of free-fall accompanying you at every step. Not for the faint of heart, but quite exhilarating.
The Inca Bridge
After we were satisfied that we had given the surrounding area a decent comb-through, we headed down to the city itself, where we spent 2 hours crawling along every nook and cranny. I don't have a lot of commentary on this; anything you want to know about Machu Picchu you can find out on your own easily enough, but here are some "best-of" from the 400+ photos we took that day.

Distinct trapezoidal architecture. By building their walls and windows in that shape, their structures were more stable and resistant to earthquakes. The city is built on the intersection of two faultlines, after all.
The residential part of Machu Picchu

Terraced agricultural area

Showing the locals where the best grub is.

At the end of the day, we spent nearly 5 hours hiking, climbing and running, and we still didn't see everything.  But by then, our knees were on the verge of exploding, and we smelled like Roquefort after performing all these activities on a very humid 80 degree day. We boarded the return bus shuttle stinky, parched and hungry, but also thoroughly satisfied and awestruck by all the amazing things we'd seen that day. It may be touristy to the point of cliche, but seeing it for yourself gives you an instant appreciation for why people flock here. There's an indisputable draw to something so huge and wonderful, so old and new at the same time. A whole city nestled in this remote corner of mountain and jungle thicket, where, if you find a quiet corner, you can listen to the wind whistling along the stone walls and almost see the people that lived here 500 years ago, almost feel the gods they worshipped. Incas were great builders, and - lucky for us - so much of their legacy endures to this day. Machu Picchu is of course the Big Kahuna of Inca ruins - the one name that's synonymous with this part of the world, but there are many other sites, including the far less known Choquequirau, called Machu Picchu's Sacred Sister. Very few tourists ever go there, but it's no less spectacular than its more famous counterpart. Maybe next time...

Here are a few cool facts about Machu Picchu, somethings you may not find on the Wikipedia page, to conclude this virtual tour.

No comments:

Post a Comment