Check out our photos of Machu Picchu here.
Next stop Lake Titicaca...
We finally made it to Machu Picchu! Discovered in 1911 by American Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu is the mysterious ancient Inca city perched ever so dramatically above the Urubamba Valley in Peru. Little is known about why the Inca’s built the city. It is estimated that construction began on it over 1000 years ago, and when the Spanish invaded the region in the 15th Century the Inca abandoned their most significant built work forever, letting the jungle over grow and consume the city hiding it for the next 500 years. The Spanish never found out about the city, luckily, as it would have been pillaged and destroyed like so many other ancient sites. It wasn’t until the 19th Century, when Hiram Bingham was looking for a different ancient city named Vilcabamba that he stumbled upon Machu Picchu with the help of a local farmer. Much of the ruins have been restored and rebuilt, with the jungle so carefully peeled away, revealing beautiful Inca stonework, temples and terraces.
The ruins of are just a short stroll down an old stone paved Inca Trail from the Sun Gate. We were so excited to be here, we were practically running down the mountain. All the trekkers basically come in from the back entry, at the top of the mountain, while all the lazy people who catch the bus arrive through the main entry at the bottom of the ruins. As we were making our way down we noticed swarms of people arriving by the bus load from Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the valley. We were slightly disappointed, having walked for four days and not getting a moment of peace and quiet to enjoy the ruins on our own, we deserved it after all. So when we finally got to the ruins, to the location of the typical postcard photos, we had to compete with the lazy people to get the killer shots. Nonetheless it was still a spectacular view, and we weren't going to let anyone, or anything spoil our moment. Every view in this place is just incredible. The jagged Andean peaks surrounding it and the near vertical drop to the valley floor below, make this a superb location.
Ruben took us on a tour around the ruins, explaining details of the stone work, the temples and their gods. They were really sophisticated builders, and being Architects we were in our element observing their archaic construction techniques, in particular the way in which they constructed two storey dwellings, with floors made out of timber logs as joists and a straw and plaster-like compound overlaid to make the floor surface. They were also very clever in designing for the sun, and being their most important god this was a critical design element, most typically with windows aligned for capturing the sun and particular times of the year. We really loved the way in which they built into and around natural rock formations. They carved out new stonework to sit perfectly in line with the natural rock to such perfect detail.
Our final Puma tour lasted until mid-morning, at which time the number of tourists entering the ruins was multiplying by the hundreds. Unfortunately they just let far too many people into the ruins each day, and the middle of the day between 10am and 2pm is most certainly the peak visiting hours – these times should be avoided at all costs. It really spoiled the magic for us, and began to feel slightly like a theme park. Jojo, your dad was right you really can buy a burger at Machu Picchu, albeit the most expensive burger in Peru.
We were really fortunate to have done our research before coming and opted to spend an extra day at the ruins in order to climb Huayna Picchu – the tall craggy peak behind the ruins the following day. Doing the Inca Trail and then Huayna Picchu means you are paying twice for entry to Machu Picchu, so by adding an extra day you are getting your money’s worth.
Although we weren’t feeling as exhausted as we thought we were going to after trekking for four days, having the opportunity to come back to the ruins in the early hours of the morning, with barely any tourists around, made the extra day seem completely worthwhile. So we left the ruins, just as a couple hundred Japanese Tourists disembarked from the bus. With our bus ticket (included in the trail) valid for three days we chose to save it for the following day, and instead walked down the mountain. It was a beautiful walk, very steep, nearly a kilometer drop vertically, and many, many steps. Once we were at the bottom it was a really pleasant walk along the Urubamba River to Aguas Calientes.
All of the Pumas had separated at the ruins so we met for one final shindig at a lovely restaurant in Aguas Calientes. We gorged on delicious burgers, and consumed far too many beers for a group of our size, while the locals cheered on their fellow Peruvians in a soccer match against Paraguay. It was a loud and crazy afternoon, reminiscing of the trek we had just conquered and our travels to come. By now we were the “Sexy Pumas”, new friends were made and it was the last time we would all be together.
We said farewell our fellow “Sexy Pumas” at the train station, from 16 Pumas down to two, it was back to the Iain and Treeny ambling about Peru.
The town of Aguas Calientes is pretty much a hole. There was virtually nothing here until they realized they could cash in on the Machu Picchu experience. It is Gringo land to the extreme, with countless overpriced restaurants, bars and handicraft stores for cashed up Gringos to spend big. Fortunately for us we were staying in the part of town where the locals live, by the train station far away from gringo land. It was great as it allowed us to eat with the locals and pay local prices. We recommend exploring this area if you ever get the chance to visit, much more authentic than the centre of town.
The next day we awoke bright and early, well not as early as we were aiming for. The gates at Machu Picchu open at 6am, with the first bus leaving Aguas Calientes at 5.30am. We were aiming for this time, but we were a little too comfortable in our first proper bed for the last 4 nights. We headed out at 6.30am, the queue for the bus up the mountain by this time was ridiculously long, so being the well trained Puma’s that we are we decided to save our bus tickets for the ride back down, and walked all the way back up the mountain. Going up is pretty strenuous, just step after step, it felt really good getting to the top, covered in sweat and eying out all the lazy tourists getting off the bus, thinking “hell yeah we are tough’’.
We found a quiet spot overlooking the ruins and perched ourselves there for some time, as we gazed in awe at the ruins that lay below us. This is what we wanted peace and quiet. There were still plenty of people around, but not the peak hour hoards. It was lucky we had two days, as the weather was starting to turn, so we had two opportunities for good weather, at least one day paid out!
Our ticket to climb Huayna Picchu was for 10am. They only allow 400 people up per day. We suggest booking the earlier timeslot, 7am as you will not have to compete with other people for the path, which can only be done in single file. We were the first people through the checkpoint and we powered up the mountain. This is no ordinary mountain walk; it is about 10 percent hiking and 90 percent climbing. The path was almost vertical, with steep steps and ropes to help pull you up. It is not entirely safe either, with a drop of over a kilometer to the valley below and no railings, only rope to hold onto. We were starting to wonder why we walked up the mountain from Aguas Calientes, by the time we got to the top of Huayna Picchu we were smashed. Our legs so very sore from the thousand stairs we just walked up. The view was incredible. At the very top are some boulders which you climb onto, still not very safe, with 360 degree views of Machu Picchu below and the Urubamba Valley all around. It got super busy at the top; everyone was competing for boulder space to take their picture, not liking the crowds we headed down to find a quiet spot. Below the boulders the Inca built a series of terraces and precariously placed dwellings. This mountain is so steep it is curious as to how they managed to build up here.
On our way back down it started to rain making the path slippery and dangerous. Thankfully there was that rope to hold onto. Going down was certainly easier, but with so many people still coming up it made it very slow. We got to the bottom and headed straight for the bus literally dodging the peak hour crowds. We got to the bus just as a couple of hundred grey haired oldies disembarked the bus. We felt super lazy catching the bus back down, but the air conditioning was irresistible.
We had just enough time to enjoy an Inca Kola and some lunch before we jumped onboard the train for the journey back to Cusco. As the train slowly chugged its way out of Aguas Calientes we waved good bye to Machu Picchu. What an unforgettable experience!
Check out our photos of Machu Picchu here.
Next stop Lake Titicaca...