Peru: Bucket List Bonanza! Machu Picchu
If it's Tuesday, it must be Machu Picchu!
Here was the day for which we have waited for so long - not just another check mark on our bucket list, but an opportunity to witness one of the wonders of an ancient, intelligent civilization.
The day started in a blur - up at 4:00 a.m. in order to catch the Peru Rail that would take us from Ollantaytambo along the Urabamba River to Aguas Calientes - the town standing in the shadow of Machu Picchu.
We felt like were were part of some nefarious gang of marauders - hitting the hay in the dark of night and awakening in the dark so that no one could witness our comings and goings!
But finally we emerged from the darkness to a wonderful day that would offer us glorious opportunities to experience our journey.
The train ride was very pleasant - the seats were comfortable, the train was spotless and you were offered a lovely snack to hold you over from breakfast which seemed like it was in another decade.
TIP: Try to buy your train ticket ahead of time so you will be more prepared and not have to wait, or even miss getting a seat.
It was amazing to meander along, twisting and turning as we followed the path along side the tumbling waters of the Urabamba and to watch as the Andes transformed from majestic rocks to monstrosities carpeted in rain forest.
Finally we reached Aguas Calientes after about an hour ride. The town was all a bustle with tourists in all shapes, sizes, ages, nationalities, and walks of life. The one thing that we all had in common - our lust to see the grandeur that is Machu Picchu!
Like cattle, we all made our way to the buses which hauled their human cargo up the side of the mountain to the jewel at the top - a ride which includes 12 hair-pin turns on a dirt road that was cut from the surrounding "Cloud Forest". What was really terrifying was when one bus was greeted by another bus coming in the opposite direction, and they had to pass one another - all without the security of guard rails! I couldn't look on numerous occasions and my stomach did more than one flip as the bus raced us higher and higher into the Andean Mountains and the territory of the gods.
Here is a view looking down on the trail the buses take. See those scratches in the greenery - that's the trail!
TIP: If you have a fear of heights, be prepared to have your eyes closed on the journey both up and down the mountain side!
Finally you get to the parking lot and regain your composure!
TIP: It is my understanding that they only allow so many people in the site each day so it is good to get your ticket ahead of time so you aren't disappointed when you reach the top only to find the quota of tourists for the day has been met.
TIP: Here you will find the only washrooms in Machu Picchu - once you are in the site there are no other washrooms - so it's a good idea to take advantage of them! They require a small fee of 2 soles so have some loose change available.
Now that your bladder is empty, the excitement hits you again, you climb the stairs to the entrance with ticket and passport in hand, you round the corner and pow here is the vista that awaits you:
I mean, come on, how incredible is that!
There are two routes from which you can chose how you experience Machu Picchu: an easier, flatter tour, and a harder, more challenging route with more climbing and stairs involved - gee, I wonder which one we took!
TIP: They prefer that you do not take walking sticks in, but if you do, make sure they have the rubber tips on them.
So off we went with our group (you have to get special permission to tour the site on your own) climbing the ancient stone stairs, stopping numerous times to catch our breath - Machu Picchu is at 8,000 feet so the air is a tad thin and makes racing to the top of the climb a challenging undertaking - even if you are young and fit...which we are neither!
But the slow and arduous climb is more than worth it when you get that first full view of a place that time forgot - in all its green and stone glory. We were here on a beautiful sunny morning which afforded us a spectacular view in every direction.
Many people believe this mountain in the background of the town to be Machu Picchu, but this is Huayna Picchu. Here is the actual Machu Picchu which sits to the south overlooking the site. It is usually shrouded in clouds, but on our visit, the mighty mount was showing off in all its glory.
The first encounter of this monument is one of awe and incredulity - are we really here? Are we really seeing this crazy collection of structures built 8,000 feet above sea level in around 1450 with a precision unmatched by even today's technology? But you can't pin down the emotions to just a few, you also feel elation, amazement, wonder, joy, peace, tranquility, and for someone like me with a fear of heights...a healthy sense of terror! Note the lack of any guard rails or barriers to keep you from tumbling over the edge!
But that fear is pushed down into the recesses of your mind so that you can experience the sense of accomplishment - one, for yourself for making it there and two, for the people who made this trip necessary - the Incas with all their intelligence, art, astronomy, farming and architectural abilities. It is thought that Machu Picchu was build by Inca emperor, Pachacuti as a summer palace, an observatory and a temple to the Sun. It was abandoned when the Spanish invaded the country, but remained undiscovered by outsiders due to its location. It wasn't until 1911 that people would hear of the name Machu Picchu again when American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham rediscovered it hiding from the world under a blanket of jungle growth.
The walk around the site and a view of its walls, doorways, quarry, farming structures, Sun Temple, Hitching Post of the Sun - all give you a lasting appreciation that these people were well ahead of their time. Many people ask, "What is Machu Picchu, why is it here, and how did the Inca accomplish what they did?"
To me, Machu Picchu is a testament to a great people who worshiped the world and sky around them. So much so that it allowed them to overcome any obstacles that got in their way in their efforts to pay homage to nature and all it offered them.
TIP: Don't forget to get your passport stamped with a special Machu Picchu entry.
To say our stay and observation of Machu Picchu was spectacular is an understatement, but it does not take words to explain this awesome structure, it takes experiencing it - and experience that will last a lifetime.