Day 7: our first day at Machu Picchu

The day got off to another early start, as we had to be taken to the train station at dawn, so that we could catch the first train to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of the mountain that Machu Picchu resides on). We had left most of our luggage at the hotel in Cusco, only taking one small bag each for the overnight stay at Machu Picchu.

The train ride took about four hours, running through the valley of the Incas, with towering mountains and cliffs on one or both sides. At many points along the way the tracks ran alongside the rapids of the Urubamba River, making it a very scenic and beautiful trip. The train stopped at a couple of points along the way to let on more passengers, or to let off a few hikers who wanted to start doing the Inca trail at one point or another. Every once in awhile we could catch a glipse of portions of the Inca trail on the mountains around us, sometimes even with the occasional group of hikers. Depending on your fortitude (or the amount of days you can spare) you can start hiking the Inca trail at any distance from Machu Picchu, and even hire local men to carry your tents, gear, or whatever for you. For us, however, the train trip was the quickest (and least painful) method.

As we got closer to Machu Picchu the mountains and hills became covered with trees, as opposed to the bare rocky walls that had previously surrounded us. It seemed like we had transitioned in a jungle zone, and would have seemed like a "lost world", except for the occasional sign of civilization. When the train finally arrived in Aguas Calientes, we immediately set off on the brief hike to the area where the buses awaited the tourists. We had to run the usual gauntlet of locals offering us various services or souvenirs, but we were soon on board a waiting bus, and within minutes were winding our way through the narrow streets, on our way to the road to the ruins at the top.

The bus trip took about twenty minutes to go the two or three miles up the side of the mountain, using a narrow dirt road that zig-zagged back and forth all the way up. Sometimes you could see nothing but dust-covered trees alongside the road, but at other times you got spectacular views of the valley and the surrounding mountains, which got increasingly more impressive the higher we climbed.

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A photo from a book on Machu Picchu that I bought, showing the zig-zag dirt road as it
makes its way up the mountain from the train station that lies along the river at the bottom left.

There were two reasons why I wanted to take this trip to see Machu Picchu this year. The first was that I had heard that they were planning on "modernizing" the site by putting in a cable car up to the top (to replace the polluting/noisy/vibration-causing buses), and that they were going to be expanding the little hotel at the top to have more rooms. This would potentially increase the amount of tourists at the site to the point where its serenity and beauty would be spoiled. There were also strong concerns that the cable car and its cables would spoil the scenic view of the area around Machu Picchu. By the time we actually took the trip, though, the project had been shelved indefinitely. While the retirement of the buses would have been a good thing, the other negative aspects of the plan caused enough international outcry that it caused the government to re-think things. While it wouldn't have solved the noise or vibration problems, perhaps they could replace the buses with cleaner-burning propane versions like the ones seen at some places here in San Diego.

The second reason that I wanted to get to Machu Picchu sooner rather than later was that there was a report by a group of Japanese scientists who had been monitoring Machu Picchu, who said that there was a danger of large landslides that could cause sections of the mountaintop to give way. Even if the site didn't "fall off the mountain", there was the possibility that some or all of the site might have been closed to tourists if it became unstable enough. This would probably be unlikely, though, since Machu Picchu is such an important piece of Peru's tourism that it would be kept open at all costs.

(For more info on the above topics visit the "Machu Picchu at risk" website.)

Anyway, we finally reached the top, and were unloaded right in front of our hotel, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (also known as the Hotel Machu Picchu Ruinas). Our guide had initially reacted with surprise when we told her that we had reservations there, because it had evidently been closed for remodeling, and must have just re-opened prior to our arrival in Peru. Well, that was lucky.

We checked into our room, which was on the second floor just over the hotel entrance. The guide books say that you cannot see the ruins from the hotel (and only some of the 32 rooms have any view at all), but we found that we could see at least part of the ruins from our window (once you look past the ticket booth and entranceway). We wanted to stay in that hotel because as the only hotel at the top of the mountain, it would allow us to stay closer to the ruins (so we could be the first to get in in the morning and the last to leave in the evening). It would also allow us to be able to return to our hotel room in the middle of the day (if we so desired), and to avoid an unneccessary double bus trip if we had stayed in a hotel in Aguas Calientes. Of course, you pay more (a lot more) for the priviledge, but we always say you might as well go first class, because you rarely regret having the best.

We re-joined with our guide, who took us into the site. As always, our admissions were pre-paid (part of the overall tour package price). After walking the short path from the ticket booth around a bulging hillside, we suddenly saw our first real view of the site.

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First view of the majority of the site.

You see a lot of photos of Machu Picchu, but they just can't do it justice. You have to be there to really experience and understand it. When you see the ruins, with their surrounding majestic mountains, it is hard not to say "Wow!" (or "Holy Shit!", or some other incredulous expression, depending on your personality). You realize that you are on top of a mountain, and that somehow an ancient people actually built a city by hand up here. You look around and see even higher mountains, with incredibly steep sides and cloud-covered tops, and it only tends to make the ambience even more special. If you stop long enough to soak it all in (and not run around like a typical tourist), you can sense something magical here. It's nothing that can be quantified, just a feeling that this place deserves being called "sacred".

Well, plenty of time to "soak it in" later, so we took off for the typical tourist highlights of the site, with our guide explaining everything along the way. One advantage to having your own private guide is that you can take as long as you want to photograph something, get questions answered, or do whatever, and not have to worry about holding up the rest of the group. Our guide took us to all of the important parts of the site that were on the main level, including all of the important temples and religious structures. Machu Picchu was the most crowded ruins site that we went to on our trip, but there were never so many people as to make it seem crowded or to overly detract from the experience.

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This is the Temple of the Sun, as seen from below. The temple rises two stories above the ground, with a cave-like tomb area directly below the bottom of the photo. The curved front wall makes it an instantly recognizable landmark of the site, and it contains some of the best examples of closely-fit stonework at Machu Picchu. Unfortunately its interior is now closed to public access, and the interior cannot be easily viewed anymore.

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A nice shot of Machu Picchu. The structures in the bottom right corner (with the slightly orange wall tops) are relatively new (they were only restored a few years ago). New restorations are continually underway, but some areas also become off-limits to the public as the years go by too.

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This photo is just to the left of the above photo. Just to the right of the center of this picture is what looks like a small terraced hill in front of a little mountain just behind it. This terraced hill has at its top the most sacred rock at Machu Picchu, the Intihuatana.

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The "Intihuatana" stone pillar. Loosely translated, this Quechua word means "hitching post of the sun". There were a number of Intihuatanas around the Inca world (one at most of the major sites), but the Spanish destroyed everyone that they found, because they knew how sacred these stones were to the Incas. The Intihuatana at Machu Picchu is the only one that has been found intact, because the Spanish never found this city on top of the mountain. It serves a number of purposes, including as a sundial and as an astronomical calendar for solstice/equinox calculations. It is roped off so that stupid tourists won't damage it, but unfortunately that wasn't enough to protect it from modern man. A month or two before our trip, a tip of the pillar was damaged by a local beer company (Cusquena - I think), who smuggled equipment into the site after hours to film a non-approved beer commercial at the Intihuatana. A lighting crane fell over during the filming, knocking the corner off of the top of the pillar. I hope that they get their asses sued off. Our guide said that the sacred stone cannot be repaired, but I know that there are experts here in the U.S. who could duplicate/fix the missing corner. They should charge the beer company for the bill. One local guide we had said that he was still really angry about it, and would never drink that company's beer again.

After receiving the grand tour, we said goodbye to our guide, who left us to go back to the town of Aguas Calientes. We returned to the hotel for a nice (but expensive) buffet lunch, and then went back into the ruins, where we remained until they closed at 5:30pm. The first thing we did when we entered the ruins a second time was to head up and to the left, up the long set of stairs that went up to the Hut of the Funerary Caretaker. Sue wasn't sure we should make the effort (which seemed to be greater than average due to the altitude, making lots of stairs a strain on the lungs). However, I knew that it would be a great vantage point for photos, and it seemed like we could do it if we didn't rush it. Halfway up, however, we started to feel drops of rain.

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Looking up at the Hut of the Funerary Caretaker. This is one of the few buildings on the site that has had its thatched roof restored. It was a good thing that it was, since by the time we got up to it, it was raining. We joined a number of people who sought shelter under its roof until the rain began to let up.

It didn't rain very hard, but I decided to break out my emergency plastic rain poncho. I wasn't too worried about getting wet, but I was worried about the camcorder getting wet. Once that was taken care of, we continued checking out the area around the hut. The view was great from up here, and we got some good photos. We saw a few people coming down towards us from the mountain, and realized that they were coming down the Inca trail. We hiked up towards the trail, leaving the handful of people behind at the site. We were soon winding our way uphill on the narrow footpath through dense foliage. We kept going up the trail until we broke out into an area where we could look back upon Machu Picchu. After listening to the birds in the area and taking another photo, we decided to head back. While we didn't hike for days on the Inca Trail (like some people), we experienced enough of it to get some of the flavor of what the trail has to offer. 

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View of Machu Picchu from a higher vantage point.

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A similar view, this time with me cluttering up the shot. I'm wearing
my clear plastic rain poncho, and holding my hat over the camcorder.

By the time we had hiked back to the site and then down the stairs from the upper hut, there was less than an hour before the site closed. It was still lightly raining off and on, and we went to the bench that was under the thatched overhang at the main entrance to the site. We joined a couple of people there and sat down to relax. The little bit of rain was driving the last of the tourists from the site, so we had a pretty uncluttered view of the site from there.

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One of the panoramic camera shots, showing the site from the bench at the first group of ruins. You can see the rain coming down, and part of the terrace area in front of where we were sitting.

After listening to the constant babble of the tourists seated next to us, I left Sue to continue the conversation and went in search of some peace and quiet where I could try to soak in the ambience of the site undisturbed. I went down onto the terraced area below, and found a couple of semi-wild llamas at the bottom. It had stopped raining at that point, and I approached one large llama that was lying down and watching me with a wary eye. I talked to him in a calming voice while I slowly walked up to him, and finally sat down a few feet from him. Every once in a while he would make a sound that was kinda of like a low moaning cry. I knew it wasn't a sound of pain, it was just his way of "talking". I have to admit it was one of the more unusual "conversations" that I've had in a while....

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Sue took this distance shot of me with the two llamas at the bottom of the terraces. The llama that I was talking to has a brown back, a white front, and a black head. One level farther down (between the first llama and myself in the photo) is an all white llama with his head down at the rock next to him. I included the smaller enlargement so you can see them better.

It became one of the most memorable moments of the entire trip: actually relaxing at the site, with a good view of most of the ruins, listening to a variety of birds, with the occasional llama sound thrown in for good measure. It was made even better by the lack of people, of whom there were only a handful left. After filling my soul with the experience for awhile, I returned to rejoin Sue on the bench, where we watched the sun go down just before the closing time of 5:30pm. After the last tourist had left, we took one last look at the slowly darkening site, and left to go back to the hotel. Other than the guards (who we never saw), I think we were the last people to leave for the day.

After getting cleaned up in our room, we went down to the hotel restaurant, where we were the only guests at first. This was typical for us, as we usually had dinner around 6pm, so that we could go to bed early and get up early. Most people in the Latin American countries that we went to had dinner much later (8 or 9pm), which meant that the dining rooms were usually empty when we arrived. Dinner was good, though a bit too gourmet for my taste (more emphasis on the presentation, meaning smaller portions).

Back in the room, we realized that the room had no air conditioning or central vent system, and the windows had no screens. This meant that if you wanted fresh air you had to open the glass window, which was an invitation to the mosquitoes. We decided to keep the window closed, and resprayed ourselves with mosquito repellant before bed just to be on the safe side. While we had used repellant liberally that day, I had never really felt threatened by the mosquitoes at Machu Picchu. We later talked to a few people who had been bitten more than once, though.