We were picked up early to catch the first train to Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo. The atmosphere outside of the train station was busy with vendors lining the streets selling t-shirts, hats, blankets, toys, and food.
This was a preview of what we would see in Aguas Calientes:
The blue PeruRail trains are the only ones that go to Aguas Calientes.
There are a few classes of trains: the Explorer, Vistadome, and lastly, the Hiram Bingham which is reminiscent of luxury train travel of the past with upholstered fabric seating and small intimate tables with white table cloths. We opted for the Vistadome train with big side and over head windows to enjoy the ever-changing landscape.
As we rolled from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the surroundings gradually changed from high desert plateau and river valley to lusher large-leafed plants.
We arrived almost two hours later into Aguas Calientes. There is a market place that is strategically placed just outside the train station in Aguas Calientes. You have no choice but to snake your way through narrow alleys of booths filled with merchandise.
The town is very small – about a city block in size, but very friendly and festive with restaurants, bars, and small hotels welcoming weary hikers and their backpacks fresh off the Inca Trail as well as those of us off the train.
The train continues on through the town, with restaurants and souvenir shops on either side of the tracks:
We stayed at an “eco-lodge” called Rupa Wusi that had good reviews and because of its restaurant…which was probably better than the room. The actual room suffered from thin walls – neighbors up early (5AM) to hike up, damp-feeling sheets, and the bathroom had some creative carpentry work. The hotel was up a narrow alley of steps.
After dropping our bags and buying some of the restaurant’s box lunches, we hopped a bus up the zigzag switchbacks to Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was built 500 years ago on top of a mountain that rises almost 2000 feet above Aguas Calientes and the deep river valley below. Here are a couple views from Google Earth to orient you. One is from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes, and the other is from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. Note that you cannot see one from the other because of the bend around the river. You can also see the series of switchbacks that the buses drive up and down at break-neck speed:
This view is similar to the second Google Earth view from Machu Picchu to Aguas Calientes. The large mountain between them is called Phutuq K’us and is one of the three sacred mountains along with Machu Picchu (the peak above Machu Picchu between it and Sun Gate, and Huayna Picchu, the peak directly behind Machu Picchu that is typically shown in all the photos).
The brave and bold wake up very early and hike up the hill to watch the sunrise – or just to hike – instead of taking the bus. Here is a panorama with Huayna Picchu at the left and Phutuq K’us in the center:
A little over 100 years ago, Hiram Bingham, an academic and explorer from Yale, is credited with “rediscovering” the 500 year old city. A local told him about Machu Picchu and led him to the top. You can read Hiram’s transcript here as well as see a photo of Machu Picchu when he first arrived. Back then, the trees and underbrush were over 15-20 feet tall, completely covering almost all structures, and here is a photo from Hiram Bingam (courtesy of the National Geographic) after they started to cut back the vegetation:
There is still a clump of trees in the center of Machu Picchu today to show how tall they were:
The only thing that was visible above the foliage was the roof of a small building that still stands out today (small building, right of center):
While Bingham “rediscovered” Machu Picchu in the early 1900s, it did not become a popular tourist destination until around 2000 (!) after Peru cracked down on organized crime in the country. Prior to that, Peru’s tourism industry was almost non-existent.
We were fortunate to arrive at the end of the day when most of the other 3000 tourists had already left for the day.
It was us and a few llamas and alpacas wandering the grounds (ok, there were some tourists too, but most had left):
Machu Picchu is an amazing marvel of modern engineering with its stone structures and terraces! Now rewind 500 years and build a massive city of stone on top of a 2000 foot mountain with no automated equipment!
The structures of Machu Picchu were all built with carefully shaped stones, wooden beams for roof supports and thatch roofs.
As you can see, all the stone stood the test of time. Any of the wood or thatch has since disintegrated such as the the roofs, however, note that the door lintels were made using a large stone.
There were several “key” buildings at Machu Picchu:
Temple of the Sun: During the summer solstice (December 21st in the southern hemisphere, the sun would pass through the sun gate and into the window of the Temple of the Sun beaming onto a large boulder on the floor. During the winter solstice, the sun would shine through another window, almost perpendicular to the summer window, onto the boulder.
Sacrificial Tables: Note the Temple of the Condor which was created by the Incas from an existing rock formation and turned into the shape of a condor with a sculpted condor head on the ground. It’s believed that there was a jail behind and under this structure and the condor rock on the ground is where prisoners were sacrificed.
Scientific rooms: It was forbidden to look up at the sky and considered disrespectful to the gods. So, the clerics of the time used these reflecting pools to observe the night sky. We used an iPhone :-).
Ceremonial (Main Temple – highest of the sacred structures, the Royal Tomb containing , and Temple of the Condor – used as a sacrificial altar):
There are actually a few residents still in Machu Picchu, namely llamas. The girls had fun stalking the llamas and taking photo ops:
We actually spent two days in Machu Picchu – one day exploring Machu Picchu and one hiking to Sun Gate (Inktipunku) – the first time that hikers on the Inca Trail see Machu Picchu. The hike to Sun Gate from Machu Picchu was a nice morning hike. Sometimes narrow, the trail is well travelled. You might even see an occasional wild orchid:
The view from Sun Gate really gives you great perspective from up high down to Machu Picchu and into the river valley below:
While you can see Machu Picchu in one day, it was great to see it over two days as the weather and daylight changes. We were really impressed (AGAIN!) with the masterful work of the Incas. It certainly deserves to be a wonder of the “modern” world. We waited in line for our bus down the hill:
We bid farewell to our awesome guide, Valentin:
Then we headed for the afternoon train back to Cusco with a little bit of cultural fanfare:
Tomorrow, a morning of exploring Cusco before heading home…
Happy RTW Travels!