Sunday, June 12, 2005

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu (pre-sunrise)

I´ll be honest, I had been feeling kind of cynical about my visit to Machu Picchu. When I left for South America, I was sure it would be one of the highlights; in fact I´d probably have put it at #1 on the list of things I was looking forward to. But as I got closer, I started to grow wary. I learned how expensive it is (entry is about $24, cheapest available train ticket $20 one-way from Ollantaytambo, bus to the ruins $ Peru that´s extortionately expensive) and heard stories of the hoards of tourists in Cuzco and at the ruins. I started to think that I was overexcited for something that was surely going to be underwhelming when I actually got there. But I am glad to say I was wrong.

I took the cheap train (the "backpacker service", the last train of the day) from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, and my arrival there did not instil me with much confidence: descending from the train I was instantly surrounded: "hostel miss? hotel lady? you need hotel amiga?" I pretended like I knew where I was going and walked past them up the main street, only to be approached every ten seconds: "restaurant miss? we have good menu lady! ok, maybe later amiga". But I had an early-morning itinerary, so I found myself a room and went to bed.

At 4:45 AM, in the dark, I left my hotel for the 1 1/2 hour walk to the ruins. Lots of backpackers do this, so soon enough I met up with another group, so I didn´t have to walk by myself in the dark. Somehow I was uninformed about this walk on two very important points. First, I just did not realize that it was uphill almost the entire way! The difference in altitude between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu is 400 meters, or 1300 feet. And it´s not just uphill, but up stone stairs built into the side of the hill. My legs and lungs were absolutely burning by the time I got to the top, and I was cursing the whole way. Second, I was under the assumption that one walked up to the ruins because the first bus did not get there in time for the sunrise. Wrong. The first bus arrived 5 minutes after I did. One walks up to save $6. But also, as I discovered, the walk up lets the endorphins carry you into the ruins on a natural high which makes your first view of them even more spectacular.

Arriving at Machu Picchu is exciting because you don´t see them bit by bit as you approach, but all at once when you turn a corner. It is the traditional view, that you see on all the posters and postcards, and it´s literally breathtaking (or maybe I was still out of breath from the hike up). At that hour (6:15 AM) it was also incredibly peaceful and still. The most beautiful part of it is not the ruins themselves. Yes, they are large and for the most part well-preserved, and they have some interesting features. However, it is the setting for the site which is the most incredible. The most recent theory about Machu Picchu is that it was built as a vacation or country retreat for an Inca leader, the Versailles of Peru, if you will, and if I was building myself a palace, this is certainly where I would put it--although outside of Paris is also a good choice. Machu Picchu (which means "old peak") is surrounded by mountains covered in lush green forests, with deep valleys in between. I could have stared at the scenery for days.

Soon after I arrived, I looked around and realized that there were already at least 100 people there, mostly up on a hill waiting for the sunrise by a building called the Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Rock. Many had walked, some had come on the first bus, and some had shelled out upwards of $450 a night to sleep next to the ruins at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. I realized that the sunrise would be gradual and would hit the ruins sort of from behind, so I didn´t wait for it but instead took advantage of the relative emptiness of the ruins to wander around in the various temples and rooms, and up and down the many staircases. I saw the "Hitching Post of the Sun" where on the June (winter) solstice the sun´s rays hit right on the eye of the puma carved on the stone floor, and the corner of the same stone which was broken off by a crane that accidentally fell while filming a beer commercial a few years back. Then I undertook the hike (even steeper, if you can believe it, and fitted with ropes and cables to hold onto as you climb up the tall rocky stairs) up to the top of Huayna Picchu, the rounded mountain you see in the photo. I did it in 45 minutes, which made me happy as the signpost said it would take an hour. I lounged on the rocks in the sun at the top, nurturing a sense of accomplishment, admiring the panorama and watching through my binoculars as the ruins below slowly filled up with tourists. By the time I got down at around 10, the first train from Cuzco had arrived and it was beginning to swarm. When I had signed in for the hike to Huayna Picchu I was the 19th person of the day to do it, and by the time I got down they were signing in number 125.

I found an isolated terrace with a view of the ruins, and lay in the grass in the sun for a couple of hours admiring the view. But the hum of the voices of the families and tour groups threatened to disturb my reflection, and I wanted to hang on to the stillness I had felt that morning, so I left. (I took the bus back.) Anyway, I am glad that my original expectations were met. It was really expensive and touristy--although thanks to one week of Spanish lessons in Buenos Aires I´m officially a student, and got in half-price--but worth it nonetheless. If you are considering a spot for your next vacation, I´d highly recommend coming here.

See all my pictures here.