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Machu Picchu, Peru (Day 5, 6)

Map of our hike to Intipunku, the Inca Bridge and down to Aguas Calientes (the GPS track recorded by the logger is a little out of sync with Google Map, but you get the idea).

Had Machu Picchu been built in Cusco, it would have been just as spectacular. But being perched on a remote mountaintop, invisible from below, covered by swirling mists, and (when “discovered” by Hiram Bingham) overrun by the jungle gives it an unmatched mystique. It is the classic definition of a long-forgotten ruins. Yet in its heydays, Machu Picchu must have been a lively place. Particularly during festivals and celebrations, it must have been occupied by many priests, warriors, members of the royalty, and common people, all bedecked in the colorful attire that their descendants still wear today. The story of the fall of the Incas is a tragic one, from the betrayal of the last sovereign emperor Atahualpa to the decimation of the native population by the foreign disease of smallpox to the last stand of the Incas in the jungles at Vilcabamba. Of all of the legacy of their civilization, Machu Picchu is perhaps the crown jewel. But on a happier note, while their architectural and engineering knowledge may have been forgotten, their language Quechua is very much alive and well, being spoken by many modern Peruvians. Some of their cultural traditions also survive, such as the Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun, celebrated annually in Cusco and more importantly in indigenous areas throughout the old empire.

At Machu Picchu, the Incas must have been just as much in awe of this wondrous landscape as are we. Yet being worshippers of nature and seemingly possessing an innate connection to it, they were able to create something that is not only in complete harmony with its natural setting but more than matches its beauty. Whether it’s a royal retreat, religious center or military outpost is immaterial. If there’s anything whose beauty redefines its purpose, this is it. Whereas in modern America we may be tempted to build a parking lot and perhaps a viewing platform, the Incas have given humanity something that will remain unexceeded by our creativity and imagination.

Before coming to Peru, I’ve seen many photos of the classic view of Machu Picchu and formed a fairly detailed mental map. But nothing could have prepared me for the beauty of the real thing. Words or pictures fail to do it justice. You may be there at sunrise, mid-day and sunset, when it’s sunny, foggy and rainy. You may spend hours being immersed in its surroundings. You may climb all of its peaks and explore all of its corners. Yet in the end, it would still seem somehow unreal, as if it’s a mythical place that would fade away into the mist as soon as you look away.

Machu Picchu is built on top of a mountain, which is itself surrounded by much taller peaks. It is like the center of a flower, surrounded by petals. At sunrise, the complex would remain swathed in shadows, until the sun rises high enough to surmount the surrounding peaks and bathe it in a golden light. At certain times during the year, notably the summer solstice, sun light first falls on the complex at its highest point, Intihuatana or “Hitching Post of the Sun”. The sun-worshipping Incas held their most important ceremonies on such occasions.

Machu Picchu is only reachable by train or on foot. The closest train station is at Ollantaytambo, a worthy destination in its own right. The alternative, the famed Inca trail, follows the footsteps of the Incas and traverses mountains to reach Machu Picchu. It is quite crowded these days, but the trek would still be an experience of a lifetime. The train stops at the town of Aguas Calientes (officially, Machu Picchu Pueblo) which lies at the foot of the mountain and exists almost solely as a hub for exploring Machu Picchu. From here, a road zigzags up the mountain through several switchbacks to reach the ancient city.

From Cusco we were picked up at our hotel by a Lima Tours van at 5am, which arrived after a couple of hours in Ollantaytambo. Here we embarked on a Peru Rail train. We paid extra for a seat on the so-called Vista Dome car, with skylight which provided a view of the majestic Andes mountains.

The railroad runs alongside the rushing Urubamba river, the artery of the Sacred Valley, sometimes coming perilously close to it.

Along the way we were treated to views of snow-covered peaks. The highland is sparse in vegetation but rich in Inca heritage. We saw many Inca ruins from the train, sometimes interspersed with modern additions. We can only marvel at how many must be out there, hidden from sight.

The Inca trail also runs parallel to the river and occasionally comes into view. The train stopped along the way to drop off a handful of passengers who were going on a day hike to Machu Picchu. Later that day as we checked into our hotel, they stumbled into the lobby, exhausted. The rain forest appeared and became thicker the closer we got to Aguas Calientes. Then we caught sight of Wiñay Wayna.

This photo from inside a moving train completely failed to do it justice. This amazing temple to water is constructed, appropriately, next to a waterfalls rushing down the mountainside.

Aguas Calientes is a tiny town that tries to squeeze between the river and the mountain. As expected, it’s longer than it’s wide. Buildings climb on top of each other or crowd over narrow alleys. But it wouldn’t be a Latin American city without a town square. Occupying the center of the square is Pachacútec, the “builder” Inca for whom Machu Picchu is believed to be constructed. Appropriately, there’s a much larger monument to this great Inca in Cusco.

Our package provided for bus and entrance tickets for 2 days as well as a guided tour. We wasted no time to meet with our guide and hop on the next shuttle to Machu Picchu. After making it past the throngs at the entrance (around 10am) and getting the requisite Machu Picchu stamp for our passport, we’re officially in Machu Picchu.

At long last, the sight we had been waiting for.

Walking toward the famed Temple of the Sun.

The temple seems to grow out of the rock rather than being built on top of it. This is just one example of Inca construct blending in perfect harmony with nature.

Looking back at the so-called Caretaker’s Hut, which overlooks the entire complex.

View of Intihuatana, the focal point of the complex.

View from Intihuatana, with the Principal Temple and House of the Priest in the foreground.

As advertised, Machu Picchu is surrounded by mountains, with dome-like Putukusi in the foreground.

The ceremonial Intihuatana.

View through the Temple of the Three Windows.

There’s a herd of llamas roaming freely around the complex. This baby llama got separated.

Huayna Picchu, the mountain seen in the classic view of Machu Picchu. Behind the huts is the entrance. For climbing it.

Amazingly, Huayna Picchu is terraced all the way to the top, as these hikers discovered. This incredible feat of engineering also creates a jaw-dropping vantage point. Unfortunately a reservation is required to enter, so we have to wait until next time.

The “classic” view of Machu Picchu (I think).

The privileged Royal District which surrounds the Temple of the Sun.

The lesser residential and warehouse district, dubbed the “Mortar District” by our guidebook due to it being more “crudely” constructed using mortar.

The official and only gate to Machu Picchu.

Just how steep are the terraces?

View inside the Temple of the Sun.

Underneath the Temple of the Sun are intricate alcoves and niches, which a fertile imagination may want to believe to be a sacrificial chamber (it is not).

The Temple of Condor with spreading V-shaped wings and a triangular head in the foreground. I think the curved stone in front of the head was used to hold offerings. Underneath the wings is low cave reachable from a narrow slit in the rock. The cave exits via another entrance in the back of the temple. A sacrificial chamber? Maybe.

Incredibly, an aqueduct system is built into the terraces. The one shown here begins somewhere above the Temple of the Sun and winds its way through channels carved into the rocks.

The fountain flows into the stone basin below. As you can plainly see, it still works!

Nowadays, one of the few native denizens here is this viscacha, an Andean rodent related to chinchillas. I wonder how it tastes…

As the sun went down, our last view from Machu Picchu on the first day was this. The wedge-shaped Putukusi is sacred to the Incas. There is a trail up the steeply sloped mountain, and a rainbow Inca flag proudly flies on top.

The next day, we wanted to catch the sunrise. Luckily, El Mapi Hotel (MaPi is plainly a portmanteau for you-know-what) starts serving breakfast at 4:30, so obviously we’re not the only ones to have this idea. Despite the early rise, the sumptuous buffet full of fruit and fresh ingredients was perhaps my best hotel breakfast ever. We made it to the bus stop a little before 5:30, which is when the bus starts running, but there was already a long line!

Our route today was the Inca trail. Well, the part of it that goes down to Machu Picchu. After its long and spectacular journey, the Inca trail arrives at Intipunku or “Sun Gate”. It is from this commanding position that visitors get the first glimpse of the city in all its glory.

To reach the Inca trail, we took the first left after entering the main gate and immediately climbed uphill. Soon we reached the terraces that continue just below the Caretaker’s Hut. Naturally we stopped for a photo of the city still in slumber.

The trail starts going uphill and doesn’t let up. At the half-way mark there is a “rest station”. The view is spectacular the whole way. We ran into hikers going the other way who were on the last leg of their journey. Finally arriving at Intipunku, we found a crowd.

But I think we rather enjoyed the view.

Needless to say, the view will knock your socks off.

We’re just as impressed with the Inca trail itself, even after everything we had seen till that point. It’s a wall 6 feet high, perfectly straight and even, with so few cracks that vegetation could not grow on it. This road looks as if it would last for millenniums.

Here’s what appears to be a stone quarry right next to the trail.

There is also entrance to climb Machu Picchu—the mountain—which is the other end of the “saddle” on which the city sits. It is much higher than Huayna Picchu. Unfortunately, to enter also requires a reservation.

Just when we thought we had seen everything, we decided to check out the little-mentioned Inca Bridge. We had no idea what it was. Little did we realize that we were in for a trip. The trail, very similar in construction to the Inca trail, goes around the other side of Machu Picchu mountain. In short order we saw the hydroelectric project just out of view from the city.

Soon it got very interesting.

There’s nothing but a wall, albeit not just any but a sturdy Inca wall, between you and a very long fall.

Here the trail bridges two rocky outposts. For support, the builders had to construct a 100-foot high stone wall on a sheer cliff. This is stupendous feat. I can’t even begin to describe it.

We finally arrived at the Inca Bridge, which is another engineering marvel. From below, it must seem that we’re half-way up the cliff face, walking in mid-air.

Here’s the trail, with the wall strategically placed to prevent us from certain death.

Being so high literally takes your breath away.

The lush river gorge far below.

The view is to die for, but perhaps I shouldn’t put it that way.

A final glimpse of Machu Picchu. It truly is a wonder of the world.

We decided to return to Aguas Calientes via the trail, which begins next to the entrance. Seeing this, one of the young fellows selling postcards asked if we’re taking the trail. He then held up a package of postcards he was selling. I didn’t understand what he wanted at first, but it then dawned on me that he was asking for our tickets, which we wouldn’t need, and offering a quid pro quo. Bus tickets are quite expensive by local standards, with a round trip costing S/.45 ($15). No doubt these poor fellows had to go on foot in order to keep what meager money they were making. So we doubled back and gave him both of our tickets.

The trail consists of evenly hewn stone steps all the way down, although it is modern and not Inca. The view was mostly obscured, but quite nice when we did get it.

An unexpected and much welcome encounter with a blue-crowned motmot.

It was lovely when we got down to the river.

Even Aguas Calientes looked pretty from a distance.

We stopped for lunch at a restaurant, Toto’s House, which sits with its haunch hanging over the river. It was a meal with a view.

That’s our train.

To get to the train station we had to pass through a market, similar to the one in Písac.

The train staff channeled their thespian side and put on a fashion and stage show for us.

We were picked up in Ollantaytambo by a taxi driver, who delivered us to almost to our hotel in Cusco and even taught us a few words of Quechua. We would see him again.

Machu Picchu is an indescribable experience. We only hope this won’t be the last time.