09.05.2012 - 10.05.2012 16 °C
After spending some time in Cusco it was finally time to go see the famous ruins of Machu Picchu. There are many ways of getting to the ruins, the most popular one being the Inca Trail. This a multiple day trip where you walk in the foot steps of the Incas and visit different ruins on the way. Unfortunately for us this trip needs to be booked about 3 months in advance. Obviously, we hadn't thought that far ahead. There are several alternatives to the Inca Trail, the most common being the Jungle Trail and the Salkantay Trek. The Jungle trail takes you rafting and mountain biking while the Salkantay Trek is a more challenging trip hiking-wise and lasts for 5 days. As we'd already been mountain biking and Jas didn't see the point in going rafting outside of Canada the Jungle Trail was quickly eliminated. We also decided we weren't into trekking enough for the Salkantay option. Furthermore we didn't have hiking boots and figured that if we'd made it this far without them, we certainly weren't gonna need them now.
Therefore, we settled for option no.4, do-it-yourself. At our hostel in Cusco we had met a German girl who claimed this would be fairly easy. When Jason figured out that this would also be the most economically feasible option he was sold. The plan was pretty much to get a night bus from Cusco that arrived in Santa Maria sometime in the early morning/late night. From here we would get two different taxis, or camionetas, eventually being dropped off at a hydroelectric dam and continuing on foot along the railroad tracks. We didn't even need a map, which are, as Jason pointed out, for wussies anyway.
Waiting for a camioneta
The bus dropped us off at Santa Maria an hour and a half early due to incredibly reckless driving even by Latin American standards. Relieved to get off the bus we started looking for camionetas. A camioneta is sort of like a taxi in the sense that it will take you where you want to go, but different in the way that you don't get the car to yourself. You pretty much pay for your seat, or as it happens more often than not, part of a seat. We set off with two ladies in the front passenger seat, three gringos and a local lady in the back seat and a couple of guys in the back storage. It was a station wagon after all.
After dropping off the guys in the trunk our driver got a little more careless and about halfway there we had a flat tire. I don't know why I expected there would be some quick fix for this, as say changing the tire, I should have known better after seven months in Latin America. Although our driver had both a spare tire and a jack, he was lacking a tire iron.
This was at around 5 a.m in the middle nowhere and we still needed to catch another camioneta to get to the dam where we needed to be at sunrise the latest. Our driver sets off to find a screw driver while we remain in the vehicle along with the front seat ladies. Multiple cars pass us, but nobody seems to want to help. We decide they're just down right unfriendly or they're scared we're going to rob them.
Our driver seems in no hurry to return and we contemplate walking the rest of the way, the front seat ladies say it will only take half an hour to the next town. From experience I can tell you that the majority of latinos have a different way of measuring time than we do. 30 minutes can mean anything from 15 minutes til 2 hours. This combined with the fact that 3 gringos walking along a deserted road in the middle of nowhere Peru at 5 in the morning might not be a good idea made us wait for the return of the driver.
Another camioneta came buy and the lady sharing the backseat with us decided to go with them. A couple of minutes later our driver arrived triumphantly holding a tire iron above his head. The tires were changed rather quickly and we all piled back in the car. At this point the driver noticed that one of his passengers were missing. Since none of us had payed yet he was not impressed. The front seat ladies explained that she had driven off with another camioneta, and the hunt began. This was a particularly narrow and winding dirt road even for Peruvian standards and I have to admit that I feared for my life. Jason tried talking sense into the guy in broken Spanish, but he assured us we'd be fine, he'd driven this route for the last 15 years without incident. He eventually slowed down when we threatened to get out of the car, but it still felt like being stuck in a game of Grand Theft Auto.
As we finally caught up with the other camioneta upon reaching town and screaming match began we took this as our cue to leave.
Our next camioneta ride was less eventful and we found ourselves at the beginning of the rail road tracks at the dam as the sun started rising.
Turned out the whole "follow the train tracks scenario" wasn't as straight forward as we initially thought. Sure you could follow the tracks, but following a local guide hired by some other gringos we found several short-cuts
Walking along the tracks we were pretty much all by ourselves and the scenery was pretty amazing
As we were getting close to Aguas Calientes, the town connected to the ruins,we turned a bend and up on the mountain side we could see Machu Picchu. It all our troubles worth it
When we finally walked up the last hill to Aguas Calientes we were all pretty tired and ended up snoozing for a while. Eventually Jason and I dragged ourselves up another hill to visit the hot spring for which the city is named. In the end we decided it wasn't really worth it as the pools were over crowded and the water had an icky brown colour that just made it seem dirty even though we were assured that was not the case.
Finally reached Aguas Calientes
The hot pools
Bed time came early as we were catching the bus to Machu Picchu at 5 a.m the next morning, hoping to watch the sunrise at the ruins.
We arrived at Machu Picchu at around 5.30 with about a hundred other tourists. But hey, it's Machu Picchu what do you expect? As the sun was rising we finally made it into the grounds.
Our first glimpse of Machu Picchu and confused llama
Machu Picchu was built around 1450 in the hey day of the Inca Empire. The "estate" is believed to have been built for Emperor Pachacuti. Only 100 years after the construction was started the estate was abandoned as an official site for Inca rulers as a belated result of the Spanish Conquest.
Although known locally there are no signs of the Spanish Conquistadors ever setting foot in the remote city. Machu Picchu was first "discovered" in 1911 by the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham. The city wasn't really "lost" in 1911 as many people tend to think. When Bingham rocked up it was an 11 year old Quechua boy who took him up to Machu Picchu. At the time there were actually some Quechua families living in the original structures.
One of the reasons we stayed in Cusco longer than planned was to get tickets to climb Wayna Picchu. Only 400 people are allowed up on the mountain each day in two groups. We were in the early group and had to show up at the entrance at 7 a.m
Wayna Picchu is the bigger of the two mountains behind Machu Picchu. It's steep.
Jas is ready to go
The Incas built a trail up the side of Wayna Picchu and temples and terraces on its top.
Exploring Wayna Picchu's buildings
According to the local guides the top of the mountain held the residences of the high priests and local virgins. Each morning before sunrise the high priest followed by a small group would walk down to Machu Picchu to signal a new day. He must have been in great shape.
Machu Picchu from Wayna Picchu
Squeezing through old Inca passages
At the peak!
Climbing Wayna Picchu took about an hour. We hung out at the peak for the same amount of time before heading back down to Machu Picchu to get a better look at the city.
The obligatory Machu Picchu photos
Cheeky llama baby
Archaeologists and historians argue of the purpose of Machu Picchu; royal estate, religious site, economic center, prison or agricultural testing station. Most agree that it was indeed an estate of the emperor and probably had religious significance. Many of the buildings in this miniature city are believed to be of religious importance, especially related to astronomy. The most famous religious buildings are the Intihuatana stone, the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of Three Windows
Temple of the Three Windows
The Intihuatana stone. One of many ritual stones in South-America, the Intihuatanas are arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. The Incas believed the stone held the sun in its place along its annual path in the sky
The Temple of the Sun, or Torreon.
The central buildings in Machu Picchu are built using the classical Inca architectural style called ashlar. In this style blocks of rock are cut to fit together tightly without mortar. The Incas became so good at this that it is said many junctions in the central city are so tight you couldn't fit a blade of grass in between them.
There used to be numerous water fountains in Machu Picchu. These were interconnected by channels and water drains in the rock. Evidence suggests that the irrigation system was used to carry water from a holy spring to each of the houses.
We spent most of the day walking around the city taking about a million pictures. Keeping with the trend we were incredibly lucky with the weather and had sunshine from an almost cloudless sky all day. I admit that it would have sucked reaching the peak of Wayna Picchu covered in fog.
Machu Picchu is such a quiet and relaxing place, despite the 2500 tourists they let in a day. It truly is an amazing place. I for one was impressed not only by their building techniques but also their complex knowledge of astronomy. It makes you feel a little small.
As lunch time approached it was time for us to keep moving. We had tickets to Ollantaytambo on the Machu Picchu train which is supposed to be a very scenic ride. At this point I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one worried about falling a sleep and missing the whole thing, but somehow we all managed to take in the scenery even after a huge lunch. Sight seeing breeds hunger.
We've already blogged about Ollantaytambo, so our next post will be about Huacachina. Finally it was time to descend into warmer climates