In the Lost City of the Incas

Trip Start Sep 15, 2006
Trip End ??? ??, 2007

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Saturday, March 10, 2007

We had to set our alarm for an obscenely early hour to stagger down the hill and catch the Backpacker train, for us poor schlubs not sent here on an expense account by MI-5, but who still would like to see Machu Picchu.  Although we're still smarting from the expense of our ticket, there's a truly stratospheric level where they serve you a meal on the way.  Gasp!  A meal on a train, will wonders never cease.  Or, you can buy some food at the local market and self-cater, like we did.

The first segment of the trip is a slow crawl upwards through the suburbs of Cusco, and a series of 4 switchbacks until you finally reach the altitude of the high mountain pass towards Machu Picchu, then start the downward journey toward the Sacred Valley.  Many passengers skip this part because it takes so long to cover a short distance, and we were able to stretch our legs until a nice family from just south of Atlanta came in and joined us at the station just after the pass.  We struck up a good conversation with the mother and father which made the rest of the 4 hour trip fly by. 

We'd run into our friend Rebecca in the lounge before the train's departure, but forgot to look for her after disembarking in the rush to get away from the hawkers and hoteliers at the station, and didn't see her again until a chance encounter the next day.  It was raining a bit, a slow, steady drizzle that confirmed that the climate in this valley is indeed rainforest. 

Aguas Calientes is the town at the bottom of the canyon that hosts the tourists who come to invade the lost city, and it seems to be in a boom period, throwing up new hotels and restaurants in a fervor.  How that can be sustained is a valid question, given that the train service to this area is deliberately limited and there is no road link.  I guess they're hoping people will stay longer.  We got a room in the ground floor of a place with the thinnest walls in existence and construction going on right next door.  I spent the first few hours afraid to rest my head on the wall, for fear a screw would come through and do some impromptu brain surgery.

As the name of the town suggests, there were hot springs, but in the cold drizzle, that didn't seem too appealing.  We settled for a little tour of the town, and a walk by the river, which due to it being rainy season, was raging with all the energy of Niagara packed into a little chasm.  I expected to see boulders thrown around by the brute force of all that water.  After some reading on the square, a local youth came by and played with Cierra's hopelessly broken umbrella.  That entertained us for a while, but then we became worried that he'd poke his eye out on the exposed spokes and had to retreat to the hotel to end the game.  Around dusk, we headed to a nice place we'd spotted earlier and had our daily feast before turning in.

Up in the morning before the sun, we planned to beat the crowds up to see the city.  Walking up was less expensive than the bus, and it seemed to be more in the spirit of the Incas anyway, so we needed to start cracking early.  The clouds weren't throwing much rain on us this morning, but they were thick and low, obscuring most of the mountains around and turning the landscape into a fuzzy dream.  After an hour's hike, we reached the site, got our tickets ripped and hiked up to join the crowds of exhausted trekkers finishing up a 4-day shuffle with the rest of the folks on the Spring Break Inca Trail.  I've seen less crowded trails in Disney World- think I'll do my hiking elsewhere, thank you.  As for the magnificent view, the clouds were keeping us from seeing the whole city, but what we could see was amazing.

Historians don't seem to be too sure about when Machu Picchu was constructed or for what purpose.  It may have already been abandoned by the time of the Spanish conquest, or it may have been constructed as a last ditch enclave of the Incas, in a place too remote for the Spanish to control and dominate.  I prefer the latter theory for its romance, and because these ruins seem less destroyed, and therefore perhaps more recent, than the ruins of other Incan cities we've explored. 

As we made our way through the city and along the narrow mountain ridge that it occupies, the clouds lifted a bit and we snapped more and more pictures.  Intricately fit together stones form maze-like walls and a city-sized labyrinth.  It's easy to lose both your self and your imagination within.  We were standing on the temple section when we noticed scientific measuring devices and remembered that Japanese scientists were concerned about a catastrophic landslide in the near future, due to some part of the mountain sliding downhill at a rate of 1 centimeter a month.  We decided it must be this part, and quickly left to explore another section.

We can't see a mountain peak without feeling an urge to climb, climb, and the steep peak of Wayna Picchu behind the city is no exception.  The trail up it, steep muddy stairs pinned to the cliffs, was surprisingly difficult, and took longer than expected.  At one point, we were forced to squeeze through a damp and dirty hole in the rock, ensuring that our coats would get another laundering soon.  Once we'd reached the peak, there was the entire city, tiny now that we had some altitude on it, and framed in clouds, the way it should be seen.  Later in the day when the clouds were completely burned off, it was less magical, as if stripped of its mystery.  With bright sunshine on it, we started to wonder why it took so long to discover, and had to remind ourselves that it had been covered over by the jungle before Hiram Bingham made his way here in 1911. 

We decided to go down the other side of the mountain on a circuit hike to make it back to Machu Picchu, and then return to Aguas Calientes from there.  Bad move, as we end up walking nearly back down to the river, then having to climb back above Machu Picchu to join back up with the trail out of the wilderness.  Though taxing on our leg muscles, we got away from the crowds and got to explore some more remote ruins on our own.  On the trail back, we ran into Rebecca and warned her not to try the long way.

Back in the lost city, we explored some more of the residential section, snapped some pictures of a llama, then decided to beat it down the mountain for some food.  We've seen some amazing Incan sites, but we sure saved the best for last.  What a masterpiece, a terraced city in the sky.  Though they've made it expensive to visit, it's still worth it and very worthwhile.  We were exhausted but happy, and caught our train back still smiling.

The train car we were in was a weird mix, a rowdy group of backpackers partying it up at one end, and a giant Japanese tour group and us at the other.  We sat across from a cute couple with giant cameras, who kept falling asleep, then waking up and taking pictures out the window.  I tried to encourage Cierra to speak some Japanese, but she was afraid of mixing in Swahili and Spanish, so we had to settle for sign language. 

An uneventful night back in Cusco, then in the morning we flew to Lima for a final day in Peru.
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