Machu Picchu

I was collected from the hotel at 6.15am and deposited at the train station, for the 4 hour journey to Aguas Calientes, from where I would catch the bus to the top of the mountain, where Machu Picchu stands.  Unfortunately, I didn't get a window seat, so I didn't take many photos of the very scenic terrain through which we passed.

It's an interesting trip.  A few minutes out of Cusco, the train stops, then reverses uphill on a different set of tracks for a few minutes.  Then it stops and changes to another set of tracks in a forward direction, again uphill. Then again it stops, and reverses uphill on yet another set of tracks, until it stops for a final time and changes to yet another forward uphill direction.  We had some fabulous views of the city of Cusco as we constantly changed direction.  All of this to-ing and fro-ing, zigzagging our way up out of the valley in which Cusco lays, takes a good 40 minutes, until we are finally underway and chugging merrily along, stopping at a couple of smaller country stations to pick up more passengers.  It is beautiful countryside through which we travel, once outside the city and suburbs of Cusco.  River valleys surrounded by extremely high mountains, sheer sided, covered in dense vegetation.

I was seated next to a chap from Chile, who was travelling to Machu Picchu with his family - wife and two daughters - and a Finnish lass, an exchange student who had been with them for 8 months. The family are from Vallenar, the town which was the finish point of my recent Iron Butt ride, so we chattered away in a mix of Spanglish with the Finn interpreting where necessary. It certainly helped to pass the time away.

I couldn't believe the variety of plant and tree species along the way.  Hundred and hundreds of them!  A spectacular display of nature's finest offerings, with flowers in all colours of the rainbow, in great profusion.  Ferns, dropping from sheer cliff faces, standing tightly around small waterfalls, clustered underneath the tree cover, and hanging from tree branches. There were some great waterfalls hurtling down the sides of mountains, but couldn't get photos. What surprised me most were the banana trees.  I didn't think they'd grow up here at this altitude, under snow in winter.

On arrival at Aguas Calientes, we of the "Yellow Flag Group" gathered around the bearer of the yellow flag, our presence was duly noted and checked off the list, and we proceeded like a herd of lost sheep, through the squillions of tourism oriented market stalls surrounding the station, across the narrow foot-bridge over the river flowing through the centre of town, and to the bus station. On we piled, and I managed to get a window seat this time.  By this stage of proceedings, it was raining, lightly but persistently.  The 27 seater buses wind their way up and down the mountain, switchback after switchback, slowly but surely, the downhill buses giving way to the uphill ones on the tight corners, often necessitating lots of reversing motions to clear the corners.  It is a dirt/gravel track, of course, and with the rain, combined with the passage of many buses, it was becoming very mucky, particularly in the corners, and I felt the backend of the bus slide out a few times on the way uphill.  Not a particularly good track for bikes, I'd imagine!

We were offloaded, given instructions, some of us (me included) who hadn't already done so in Aguas Calientes bought colourful plastic ponchos in an effort to keep some of the rain off as it was getting heavier at times, and away we went - into Machu Picchu.

In the softly falling rain, it was a more or less mystical first view of the remains of the ancient city.  Mario, our English speaking guide, was quite knowledgeable about the area, being of the Quequa tribe, descendants of the Incas, and gave a good running commentary as we walked and climbed along through the various sections. Heaps of great photo opportunities abounded, from varying angles of the site.  The life of the city was divided into three - the royalty and high priests/priestesses; the middle class; and the agricultural workers.  These three levels correspond with the ancient symbols - the condor at the top, the puma for the middle and the serpent for the lower class.

We saw the Temple of the Sun, created using the finest stonework as were all other temples, one oblong window facing the sunrise during the summer solstice, and the other facing the winter solstice sunrise.  This temple stood above the Royal Tomb.  We saw other temples, some of which had sacrificial altars, again on three levels, although the Incas of Machu Picchu did not sacrifice humans, just alpacas and llamas, generally. We wandered through the plaza of the middle classes, and looked at their residencial quarters, with gable roof ends of stone still standing strong against the might of nature.

We were high above the Rio Urubamba, crashing along over the rocks far below, where it finally merges with, and becomes part of, the headwaters of the mighty Amazon.  With the rain, the river was flowing red with mud.

But after a few hours standing around in the rain, it was getting a bit much for a lot of people, so with the guided tour finished, we walked back up to queue for the downhill bus, and in my case, a prepaid lunch, part of the tour package I'd bought.

Once lunch was finished, I ambled back into the milling throngs in the market area around the station, to wait for the train.  Couldn't resist - I bought a few more small things!  But almost every stall has the same items, with very little variety, although with sometimes greatly differing prices, as much as 50% in some cases that I saw.

At 4.30pm I headed for the station entrance, got to the gate - no ticket!!  Major panic!  Ahh yes, I'd had it sitting out on the table during my lunch. Back to the restaurant I ran, puffing and panting, spluttering (in Russian, not Spanish, I was so distressed!!) something about my ticket, and the lass walked over to the rubbish bin and fished it out.   Phew, big relief, as all the trains are booked out every trip!  Then I had to run all the way back uphill to the station, but I made it in plenty of time.

Sneakily managed to take a window seat (Innocently:  "Oh, so that means "Window" and that means "Aisle", does it?????") from a very nice Albanian architect, with whom I had a great chat on the way back to Cusco, and he gave me lots of pointers for when I visit the Balkans later in the RTW trip. But darkness fell quickly, so I couldn't get many photos.

It was 9.45pm by the time I got back to the hotel, and after checking my email, I was ready for bed.