I began by leaving Cusco for a former Inca village called Ollantaytambo which is at the beginning of the Inca trail. I´m told that it is the only remaining Inca settlement that is still inhabited and all of the buildings are built on top of the ancient foundations. The Incas loved a room with a view and so they also built the ruins on top of a hill that overlooks another (or maybe the same) spectacular valley. The whole settlement is towered over by an enormous mountain, giving it a very impressive look. I spent a night there having looked around the ruins and then hopped on the train to Aguas Calientes at the foot of Machu Picchu.
The scenery suddenly turned from alpine hills into cloud forest and enormous jungle-clad mountains and became very humid. The downside to this is that with the jungle come the mosquitoes and, due to the huge influx of tourists, they seem to have acquired an exotic taste and savage any westerners within sight. The town itself is a complete eyesore, existing for the sole purpose of housing and feeding visitors to the ruins at extortionate rates. I had met a couple of people in Ollantaytambo and we managed to get a triple room saving some money. Despite the mess of Aguas Calientes, it is surrounding by amazing scenery. The rio Urubamba rages past it in a series of rapids and it is towered over on all sides by the mountains. I took a stroll down the train tracks in the afternoon to have a look around and indulged in a spot of train-dodging (I think legally you aren´t allowed on the tracks but a foot away from them is fine, unlike back home where you have to pay 1000 pounds for the privilege!).
Absolutely nothing to do in the town so I went to bed early and then took the daring move to wake up at 3.30am in order to walk up to the site. Buses do run from 5.30am but it´s $7 for a 5 minute trip and I fancied an adventure. I set off with the two others at about 4 and began ascending a really steep path through the thick of the forest to get to the top of the mountain where the ruins are located. It took 1 1/2 hours and was completely dark and very humid so it was a bit of a struggle but, having not done the Inca trail, I felt I needed to put some effort in to get up there. The victory of reaching the top covered in sweat and blood (nose-bleed half way up which did not help!) was short lived when the first bus of the day rocked up chock full of the lazier variety of tourist freshly rested and showered. It did allow me to be one of the first into the site which was worth it given how busy it got later on.
Sunrise at Machu Picchu is supposed to be one of the most inspiring and ´spiritual´ things that one can do. It´s not. There were clouds everywhere and you could barely see the ruins, let alone the surrounding scenery. So much for making the effort to get there early.
Nonetheless I was able to have a walk through all of the ruins without anyone else in sight for a while (mostly because the fog blocked them out). It got to 7am and it was still foggy so I was at a loose end and decided it would be a good idea to climb Huayna Picchu (the very large bit of rock sticking up in the background on the classic shots of the site) as I seem to be having some sort of mountain-climbing fad at the moment. It took half an hour of incredibly steep climbing and crawling on hands and knees through the odd cave here and there before I got to the top and the views were utterly...obscured, by the outrageously thick fog. Brilliant. But I refused to have climbed in vain and perched on a boulder at the top (no viewing platforms here, and even better no lazy tourists who are siphoned off during the climb) for another half hour waiting for the fog to clear.
When it eventually did the view was great. You had amazing panoramas of all of the surrounding hills and valleys and I felt satisfied with my work. Having climbed back down and enjoyed the view of everyone else near collapse trying to get up the mountain, I wandered around the ruins some more. They weren´t quite as big as I had expected but were still fairly impressive. The trouble with ruins is that they are inherently ruined. As well preserved and expansive as Machu Picchu is, they aren´t especially different to many of the others I had visited. Except for their location. They would not receive half as many accolades as they do were it not for their stunning setting. They are perched almost precariously on the top of the mountain and have deep gorges down to the river on either side. This was far more impressive than the actual ruins.
I decided not to have a tour around as anyone´s guess as to what the site was actually used for is only speculation as its actual use remains unknown. Equally, an explanation as to what a tiny niche in one of the slabs may have meant was not going to alter its appearance and so I happily forewent that.
I was quite fortunate that I was able to leave having seen everything at 11am as the APEC delegation (George Bush et al) who had their conference in Lima last week were taking their trip to Machu Picchu that afternoon and no doubt much of the site would have been cordoned off.
Due to unavailability of other tickets, I had to take the more expensive train back to Cusco and it was nothing short of terrible. When I pay $70 for a train (against my will) I expect to at least be left to myself and have some peace and quiet. Not on this service. Not only were the pan pipes in full flow, we were treated to the utterly underwhelming spectacle of our attendants performing traditional dances and alpaca fashion shows up and down the aisles to the great enjoyment of the socks and sandals crowd. I would have rather listened to white noise than that farce. We were also supposed to get a meal included but what we actually got was a miserly chicken sandwich and 5 stale crisps. I would have done better to walk. In any case, I arrived back to Cusco and have been here for a couple of nights and am moving on to a brand new country tonight, Bolivia.
Top of the list on anyone´s visit to Peru and the country´s highest earner are the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. Unfortunately it´s not called a lost city for no reason and it has allowed the train company that has a direct line to it to monopolise transport there and charge outrageous amounts. I could have been adventurous and take the back route through various villages and walking along the train tracks but it´s just so much easier to hop on the train!