Tag Archive: Machu Picchu Peru


The air is cool and a weak dawn filters through the clouds as I rub sleep from my eyes and hope that there’s someplace to buy coffee at this early hour. The heavy clouds seem to bode ill for a Machu Picchu sunrise, but visitors are undeterred as they queue up on a street corner waiting to board one of the busses that ferry everyone but Inca Trail hikers up the mountain and back.

The dirt road on which it ascends is full of switchback curves and narrow enough that the bus often has to back up a few yards to allow returning vehicles to pass.

Machu Picchu’s altitude is nearly a quarter of a mile higher than Aguascalientes’, and for the better part of a half hour the bus passes through the changing vegetation of several microclimates.

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The entrance gate sits above most of the archeological site, but the famous panoramic view can only be seen from the hillside above.

 

The lookout seems like a good place to gain bearings before diving into the ruins below.

 

Machu Picchu 02

 

Wisps of clouds hang over the site and hover around the backdrop mountains, lending an otherworldly quality to the scene.

It would take an Ansel Adams to do justice to this stunning landscape.

Even at this hour, the overlook is crowded with earlier arrivals, including backpackers who’ve just hiked in on the Inca Trail.  Everyone seems to want a selfie with the ruins in the background.

The complex below doesn’t at first seem so big until I begin to measure heights and distances against the antlike streams of people passing through it.Machu Picchu 04

 

Machu Picchu 01I’m surprised to see the Urubamba River passing within hundreds of yards more than a thousand feet below, for it rarely appears in  photos.

In hindsight, though, it comes as no surprise that this inaccessible place was nevertheless built close to the Sacred Valley’s heartbeat.

 

 

 

 

At Machu Picchu, everything seen earlier in bits and pieces at Pisac and Ollantaytambo – the rounded temple walls with immaculately fitted stones, the terraces and homes, and the granaries and cemetery – are all pulled together in one incredible design.Machu Picchu 05

Machu Picchu 06

Machu Picchu 07

 

Machu Picchu 08Less than half of the ruins have been restored, but even in its unfinished state it is just as unquestionably original as it is a masterpiece.

The sun at last stabs through the clouds in a single beam that cuts all the way to the valley floor.

In less than twenty minutes the veil of clouds completely lifts and the ruins are bathed in sunlight.

Machu Picchu 09On the mountainside above, the Inca Trail winds its way down nearly 6,000 feet from its peak to pass through what was once the city’s main gate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Machu Picchu 10A family of alpaca grazes on a meadow amidst the ruins, eyeing the photographers that surround them, but otherwise as indifferent as sacred cows.

Machu Picchu 11The Inca are so often presented as shapers of land that it’s interesting to see how they also integrated natural formations into their architecture.  Only the Roman ruins at Ephesus compare with the scope and sophistication of Machu Picchu, but there’s a different feel to this place.

Machu Picchu 12Clustered around temples set within a natural cathedral, it’s a place that impresses the visitor even more with its spirituality than with its construction.  It’s a feeling that recurs often in the Sacred Valley.

This site was abandoned less than 100 years after its completion as a consequence of the Conquest, which lends a particular sadness to its majesty.

Like Pompeii, it cannot help but evoke the sorrow of leaving home unwillingly and in haste, and it leaves forever open the question of what might have been.

The train departs  tomorrow afternoon, retracing the tracks to Ollantaytambo and then turning into the mountains before arriving at Cusco.  Come  along for a walk about the Inca capital.

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PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

PeruRail station at Ollantaytambo

River, road, and rails often run together through this part of the Valle Sagrada – the Sacred Valley – but the river road turns east into the mountains beyond Ollantaytambo , and anyone not trekking the Inca Trail into Machu Picchu must arrive by train.

The good news is that Peru Rail cars are clean and up to date, the seats are spacious and comfortable, and the ride takes little more than an hour.

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Inca platform on a cliff

The Urubamba River descends steadily from its headwaters on the far side of Cusco.  By the time it reaches Ollantaytambo, it has already dropped by nearly 2,000 feet on its way to the Amazon.  It drops by nearly 3,000 feet more as the train follows it to Aguascalientes through twenty miles of changing microclimates.

 

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

Inca terraces overlooking a footbridge

After three days in the Valley, the visitor’s eyes become attuned to  flyspecks of Inca terraces and buildings anchored in the vast landscape, or half-hidden by foliage.

 

 

They appear with amazing frequency along this route, which drives home the point that there was far acreage under cultivation in Inca times than there is today.

 

 

The views are spectacular, and peaks of nearby mountains are sometimes only visible through the train’s vista dome.

 

 

From time to time there’s a wait on a siding for a returning train to pass through a one-lane mountain tunnel.

 

 

 

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

Riverside homes connected only by footbridge

 

 

The road has long ago veered away from river and rails, and the scattered hamlets along the river are now connected to the opposite bank only by footbridges.

 

 

 

 

 

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

Boulders worn smooth by rainy season current.

 

 

 

The river grows increasingly turbulent as it plunges ever downward.

The rainy season is still months away and boulders above the low water mark have been worn smooth its raging currents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aguascalientes has the look of a Colorado ski village crossed with a Colorado mining town.  It’s nestled in a gorge at the foot of Machu Picchu and anyone can walk along every street of its twenty-five square blocks in little more than an hour.

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente's riverfront street

The railroad runs down Aguascaliente’s riverfront street

 

 

The riverfront street is split down the middle by the Peru Rail tracks, and although there’s little rail traffic beyond the village, it’s possible to dine at an outdoor table within its reach.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

Pedestrian bridges knit the two halves of Aguascalientes together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The village is divided by a tributary of the Urubamba, and the halves are connected by several bridges from which much of the town is readily visible.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Walking in Aguascalientes almost always involves climbing.

Aguascalientes is a pedestrian delight.

Connected to the rest of the world only by rail, the streets of Aguascalientes are free of any automobiles.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

Trash collection without the garbage truck.

 

Construction materials, restaurant deliveries, and even trash collection rely on porters and hand trucks.

There is no lack of good restaurants here, but there are far more pizzerias, wi-fi coffee houses, and Peruvian restaurants with menus barely distinguishable from each other.

The "Inca Cross"

The “Inca Cross”

A walk through the village turns up dozens of images of the Chacana, popularly known as the “Inca cross”.

It’s a square superimposed upon a cross with arms marking the four compass points.  It symbolizes the Incas’ view of a three-level world:

Hana Pacha, the upper world in which the gods reside.

Kay Pacha, the world of living people.

Urin Pacha, the underworld inhabited by spirits of the dead.

Aguascalientes takes its name from the therapeutic hot spring at its upper end which can be a welcome stop for anyone who’s overdone a day of hiking.

There are also massage therapists on almost every street corner, and in combination bath and massage makes for a great wind-down after a day on the mountain

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A dark-skinned Christ wears an Inca robe.

A peek into a church on the main plaza turns up the recurrent image of a crucified Christ robed in an Inca tunic.

Unlike most of the Christ images in Peruvian churches, this one is dark-skinned.

Young women in traditional garb are gathered in anticipation of the Mother’s Day celebration which is just beginning to crank up.

 

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother's Day celebration.

Girls in traditional garb in advance of the Mother’s Day celebration.

Tonight’s a night to turn in early, though, because the plan for tomorrow is to beat the crowds and catch the sunrise over Machu Picchu.  Come along.

 

Some  tips:

  • Only a limited number of Machu Picchu tickets are issued for each day, which will require you to also have round trip reservations for the train and bus shuttle tickets to and from the site.
  • You may encounter baggage restrictions if boarding the train at Ollantaytambo, so consider taking with you only enough baggage for a couple of days and leaving excess baggage at the station checkroom.
  • You’ll also want to have room reservations in Aguascalientes for at least the night before or after your Machu Picchu visit… or maybe both. 

While some Machu Picchu aficionados spend every minute of a full day on the site, even a casual tourist accompanied by a knowledgeable guide should plan on spending no less that 2-3 hours there. 

The crowds are at their lightest at opening, and on Sundays.

  • I used the services of GoToPeru for all of my in-country travel, for reservations and ticketing to cultural sites.  Their guides are excellent and I highly recommend their service.