Peru '22: Magnificent Machu Picchu
Boarding our early morning train in Ollantaytambo, there was an air of great excitement amongst our group, with fingers crossed the early morning drizzle would lift and wonder whether Machu Picchu would live up to expectation.
The train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (the town of Machu Picchu) takes around 90 minutes and is a breathtaking journey. Running alongside the bubbling Urubamba River, the train slowly climbs deep into a spectacular mountainous world, passing snowy peaks, small communities and the occasional glimpse of Incan ruins. Whilst it is easy to relax and enjoy the wonderful scenery from the comfort of your seat, with large windows curving into the roof, I highly recommend venturing out onto the open sided viewing platform, fabulous for feeling the wind in your hair and freshness from the roaring river nearby. As the scenery begun to change from bare slopes to lush cloud forest, our excitement grew and soon we had arrived to Aguas Calientes.
Situated in a steep sided valley cut sharply down the middle by the Urubamba River, Aguas Calientas is a bustling little town full of hotels, restaurants, shops and reminiscent of a European Alpine ski resort. It is also transfer point from train to bus for tourists on their way to Machu Picchu and following a quick breakfast empanada, we were soon on the bus winding around hairpin bends through lush cloud forest, still with a little mist swirling around to add to the mystical atmosphere…
Walking through the entry gate, the path clings to the mountain side and is enclosed in trees until BANG… it opens to reveal the first sight of Machu Picchu, laid out exactly as you see in the iconic pictures, with the green peak of Huayna Picchu in the background and the site of Machu Picchu below. After taking time to soak up the initial scene, take our obligatory selfies and watch the resident llamas prance around, we begun our tour around the site, brought to life by our guide, Ale, with historic tales, images of the site when Hiram Bingham shared it with the world in 1911 (he did not discover it, as we kept being reminded, as locals always knew it was there!), plus modern day theories and how the Peruvians are preserving the site for future generations.
Whilst I will not go on too much about the history of Machu Picchu for fear of sounding like a Wikipedia entry, it is fascinating. Thought to be built as a royal retreat during the 1400’s for the Inca Emperor, Pachacuti, the spot was chosen for its agreeable tropical climate, high location to be close to the worshiped Incan Gods and hidden away safe from invasion. However, how the Incans transported the stones from the river way down below and manged to cut them for such an intricate fit to not need mortar and still be standing today, remains a mystery. Also a mystery is why Machu Picchu was abandoned, with popular theory that although the Spanish did not discover the site when they invaded Peru in the 1500’s, they did bring disease such as smallpox and syphilis, which may have spread to the Incans hidden away high up in the mountains.
Wandering the terraces and buildings transports you to another world, imagining how the site must have been in its heyday. There are over 150 buildings and 100 flights of stairs linking the houses, baths, sanctuaries and temples. Water was apparently a key element to the Incas, not only for survival but also to their belief that their civilisation arose from the water of Lake Titicaca. Machu Picchu has an intricate series of channels and fountains to direct mountain water for inhabitants use and, it is thought, to create a calming environment and improve wellness – how modern!
Whilst my time at Machu Picchu was unforgettable and exceeded expectation, I must admit that I do feel a slight fraud, not having hiked the 4 day Inca Trail or even the 1 day ‘KM104’ route and was a little jealous of the weary looking hikers wandering around the site, who really had earnt their visit! I would love to have entered via the infamous Sun Gate, knowing full grown men who have apparently been overwhelmed with tears at sighting Machu Picchu for the first time from the Sun Gate. However, for us time was sadly not on our side and so letting the bus and train take the strain was a great option and who knows, perhaps one day I will have the chance to return to hike.
Sadly Machu Picchu was our final stop in Peru. We had such an amazing time, it has been hard putting our trip into words and whittling down the thousands of photos I took! In case you haven’t gathered, I would highly recommend everyone to visit Peru. Such a wonderful country, with amazingly friendly locals, a rich history, dramatic scenery and magnificent architecture. We only scratched the surface on our visit and there is so much more of the country I would like to see and even revisit.
If you are considering visiting to Peru, be sure to get in touch as there is so much I can tell you about the country and hints and tips you will not find in any guidebook. As I write this I am actually currently in discussion with Ale (our superguide!) to guide some clients on the 1 day KM104 hike as part of their Grand Tour of South America… again, not a highlight you would get booking elsewhere!