Disclaimer: There are not enough inventive words to effectively describe the experience of visiting Machu Picchu. Breathtaking, Impressive, Overwhelming….none of these can properly pay homage to the trip. With that, I will give you my best articulation of the adventure we had yesterday.
Early Saturday morning we rose in preparation for a 14-hour adventure to Machu Picchu. Due to the rainy season, we couldn’t take the train the entire distance to Aguas Calientes so we took buses two hours to Olayantambo where we boarded the Hiram Bingham train. The bus ride through the winding countryside was slightly perilous at times (think of looking over the side of the mountain with no guard rail while racing at breakneck speed along the road.) Slightly harrowing. But the scenery was absolutely phenomenal. Green pastures and fields of corn and potatoes, farmers cultivating the crops by hand, and cows, pigs, llamas and alpaca roaming seemingly free (they were staked to long ropes since fences appeared scare) about the land.
Hiram Bingham, an American Senator, archeologist and explorer brought Machu Picchu into the limelight in 1911 when he introduced the Quechua citadel, a site largely forgotten by most save for those living in the immediate valley, to the rest of the world. Thanks to the effort initiated by Hiram and supported by National Geographic, among others, Machu Picchu is now recognized globally as one of the most notable attractions in South America.
Now there are a variety of ways to reach Machu Picchu – trekking on the Inca Trail (a 7 day trek), driving to Aguas Calientes, or taking one of the three levels of trains. The Hiram Bingham is run by Orient-Express and is the pinnacle of luxury and stately experience (thank you parents). As opposed to the commoner train where you bring your own food and the trip is merely a means to an end, the Hiram Bingham provides a three-course lunch en route and four-course dinner on the return along with wine and, of course, pisco sours. We enjoyed fantastic service, beautifully maintained train cars, two bar cars and an observatory car where you could stand outside and feel the wind on your face and hear the roar of the river rapids alongside the train. The trip to Aguas Calientes is relatively brief (about an hour) but picturesque as we winded through the lush mountains and along the chocolate colored river.
Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes (a pit stop not really worth mentioning in my opinion), we boarded another bus and were whisked up the mountain along a vexing switchback route for a 25-minute escapade to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Happy to have arrived (and not fallen off the mountain side – again, no guard rails and simple stone and dirt roads with countless gaps along the margin), we set off in our group to visit the famous Incan ruins. Now for the faint of heart (or those who don’t work out), this is not a walk in the park. There is two hours of climbing up and down and several opportunities where vertigo might get the best of you. But if you can get beyond those limitations, this is a singular spot in the world. Despite 300 photos of the site, I don’t have one picture that can adequately describe the beauty that surrounds you.
Machu Picchu was built by the Incans on top of a mountain at 9,000 feet above sea level with huge stones they traipsed in from surrounding mountainsides and carved with rudimentary tools into an intricate and expansive city on top of the world. From the guardhouse to the sun temple and the open terraces to the sundial, there are so many elements to see and appreciate in this village. 800 years later, the integrity of the stone city is still in tact when we live in a society where we’re happy if a house stays standing for 40 years without warranting major renovation.
Our companions on our tour were lounging alpacas and chinchillas! The conejo peruano, a.k.a. the chinchilla, looks like a huge rabbit with a long bushy tail. They perched themselves up in the crevices of the rocks and simply hung out while we explored around the monuments. The alpacas silently grazed about not bothered at all by the visitors snapping their photos.
The ingenuity of the Incans is obvious in the way they set up their terraced fields for growing food and flowers and the irrigation system they set up to sustain those fields as well as supply water to the city. Additionally, they created a moat around the city with a two-fold purpose – to separate the fields from encroaching upon the city walls and also to keep out unwanted visitors. Within the city there were areas for the upper class & royalty with large, multi-room homes and distinct areas for the lower class with single room family homes. There was also an area where select upper class women were bred to be good mothers and wives learning how to cook, sew, raise children, etc. These women were the concubines in waiting for the King, and their education was thought to ensure strong offspring and capable heirs to the throne.
My writing confidence eludes me – there is no way to really transport you to Machu Picchu through words or pictures. It is an experience everyone should put on his or her bucket list. Period. While it was a long and tiring day filled with taxis, buses and trains bumping and winding along, seeing Machu Picchu was one of the greatest experiences ever.
Many more photos to come when it doesn't take an hour to upload six at a time.