Marvellous Machu Picchu

Ah… what can one say about Machu Picchu?  No serious visit to Peru is complete without a trip to see this latter-day Wonder of the World, as it was voted in 2007.

It was another early start for us this morning, but everyone at breakfast was wide-awake and in a suppressed state of anticipation.  We were out and on our coach by 7.00am where we had a new local guide called Arturo, who would be accompanying us today and for the remainder of our stay in Cuzco.

The bus took us to Cuzco railway station, where we had a wait of about 30 minutes before our PeruRail Expedition train arrived.  It’s a narrow-gauge railway and I was expecting some rickety old train, but in fact the trains are very nice indeed, and we found out they are owned by the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express (VSOE) group.  Although the track was narrow-gauge, the train locomotive and carriages are full-width, and we were told that the 57-mile journey down the mountains to Machu Picchu would take approximately three and a half hours!  🙂

We boarded the train and made our way to our reserved seats.  Our group were all in the same carriage, and people swapped seats and moved around until they were sitting next to whoever they wanted; we were opposite Stephen and Alison.  The train carriage was spacious and there was plenty of leg room.  The walls of the carriage had wallpaper on and large windows, and there were even glass windows in the roof of the train (a first for us!) which allowed you to look skywards.

When we were all settled the train whistle sounded, then with a lurch we were off!   🙂

It really was very pleasant travelling through the countryside at only 18-20 miles per hour.  We passed small farms, houses, schools and sometimes the rail track even went through streets, adjacent to the cars, buses, bicycles and pedestrians.  It also wended its way along the mountainsides allowing breathtaking views of the valleys below.

As we were going to descend about 3,000 feet, the train had a clever way of doing it.  It would go down the track until it came to another length of track below, then it would reverse along the lower length of track, then rejoin another track and go forwards again.  Thus it slowly zig-zagged its way down through the mountains.

Although the journey lasted 3.5 hours, it wasn’t tedious – far from it.  When we weren’t gazing at the scenery and looking with interest at the small stations we stopped at on the way, we were eating and drinking the coffee, water and snacks that were offered to us from the trolley moving through the carriages.  We also saw lots of hikers and backpackers who were doing the Inca Trail, a more energetic way of reaching Machu Picchu.

When we reached our destination station, we all alighted from the train and joined some buses which were parked nearby waiting; these would take us for the final part of the journey to Machu Picchu citadel itself.   🙂

On the bus it was the usual heart-stopping hairpin bends round the unfenced roads.  We did get some fantastic views however, and when we looked down we could see the train station and the trains far below, they looked like part of a Hornby model railway from this height.

Finally we arrived at the gates to the citadel and waited for the other buses, as well as guides Arturo and our own Rosario to join us.  Then we passed through the gates and along a path (the paths were quite uneven and I was glad I’d been prudent enough to put on my trainers) where we got our first glimpse of the famous green terraces, ruined buildings and temples, and cloud-topped mountains that make up Machu Picchu.  Wow!   🙂

Machu Picchu is the world’s best known example of the ancient Inca citadel and agricultural terrace and a photo of it is instantly recognisable.  Its name translates as “old peak”.  It was built about 1450 and most archaeologists believe it was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438-1472).   However, it was abandoned in the middle of the sixteenth century, at or around the time of the Spanish Conquest, and was known only to the locals and not to the outside world, so the Conquistadors never got their hands on it.   🙂

It was brought to international attention by the American historian Hiram Bingham, who ‘discovered’ the ruins in 1911.  Since the site had not been known to the Spanish during their conquest, it means that it was a significant find in terms of intact Inca culture, and it was made a Peruvian Historic Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.

However, there is strong evidence, which we saw with our own eyes, to suggest that Hiram Bingham was not the first to visit Machu Picchu since Inca times.  One of the buildings we saw contains a large stone on which you can just make out some faint writing carved into the rock; the names of “Jesus Velarde” and “Juan Santillana”, along with the date 14/07/1902 – a full nine years before Hiram Bingham’s arrival.

The Incas were great Sun worshippers as they believed that the sun was the creator and sustainer of all life; from lighting and warming the earth, to making the crops grow to breathing life and energy into every living thing.  Human sacrifice to the gods of the sun was commonplace and one of the notable temples at the site is the Temple of the Sun.  Another notable temple was the Temple of the Three Windows, where the windows represent each part of the world –  the underground (Uku-Pacha), the heaven (Hanan Pachu) and the present time (Kay-Pacha).  In addition, the windows also represent the rise of the sun which, as explained, was an important event in the everyday life of the Incas.

As we walked around the citadel looking at the wonderfully-restored ruins, we were amazed that all this had been built from scratch 8,000 feet up in the Andes.  The builders would have had to chop down all the trees and other vegetation, then create all the terraces for planting crops, as well as move enormous blocks of stone, marble and bricks with which to build temples, houses and other buildings.  One of the reasons Machu Picchu is such a wonder.

Since the discovery of this marvellous relic of ancient Inca culture however, the biggest threat to Machu Picchu is the sheer number of tourists that flock to the area from all over the world.  In recent years the number of visitors has had to be restrict to a ‘mere’ 5,000 a day.

Arturo’s guided tour lasted for a couple of hours, and after that we could either go back out through the gates and go to the restaurant where a meal had been laid on for us, or we could climb a bit further up to the guardhouse from where the most famous photos of Machu Picchu are taken.  Trevor decided to climb up, but I said I’d go back to the restaurant and wait for him there.

On the way out, there was a stand where you could get your passport stamped with “Machu Picchu”, which we did.   Something else we can tick off the bucket list.   🙂

I went into the restaurant and enjoyed a buffet dinner, washed down with Diet Coke.  Presently Trevor came back and joined me, and gradually the rest of our party all reassembled outside the restaurant, where we would once again be herded onto the buses for our return journey.

The buses took us back to the train station and we had a short wait before boarding.  This time, however, we were not going all the way back to Cuzco by train, but instead we would disembark at the station at Ollantaytambo, and would then get the bus the rest of the way back, which was (allegedly) quicker.

We enjoyed some snacks and coffee and beer on the return train journey, and everyone was on a high, in more ways than one.  We would have preferred to complete the return journey on the train, where it was light and more spacious, but the bus it had to be.  😦

The bus ride back to Cuzco took about one and a half hours, and it was quite precarious negotiating the winding mountain roads in the dark.  We thought we would be really tired and sleep on the bus, but we were wide awake and it seemed to take ages until we finally pulled into the main road in Cuzco and back to the José Antonio Hotel, around 9.00pm.

What a truly great day it had been.   🙂

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