About eight months ago, we were sat on a beach in Thailand talking about all the things we were looking forward to doing in South America. Machu Picchu was there on the list, and it’s actually been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time now.
What we have learnt since we’ve been away is that guide books (mainly Lonely Planet guidebooks) are pretty rubbish. They may give you some useful information along the way, but too many times have they led us astray by missing or out of date information; and this trip was one of those occasions.
We knew from speaking to various people who had already been to Machu Picchu that if you wanted to do the Inka Trail that you had to book at least two months in advance. As the Inka Trail is expensive and we had no set plans that far in advance, that pretty much ruled us out of the trip. Instead what we found out was that you could get a train up to Machu Picchu instead. This gave us much more flexibility as we could book the trip much closer to the time when we knew roughly when we would be in Cusco. What the various guidebooks didn’t detail is that there are many other treks you can do to Machu Picchu that are much cheaper and readily available. Many of the people we have met in Cusco literally booked their trek two days before the trip.
Not being deterred though, we began our train journey from Poroy just outside of Cusco. It’s been a while since we have travelled by train as not many countries in South America have rail systems. It was quite an old fashioned train that moved slowly through the countryside, but it gave us a chance to take in the spectacular views along the way.
What we didn’t realise was that Cusco is actually at a higher altitude. The rail system allows the trains to descend very steep hills by using zigzag train lines where trains have to reverse in order to continue. The line has seven full zigzags before continuing normally. Hopefully that makes some kind of sense, as it seems very difficult to describe.
The journey lasted about three hours, and along the way we were treated to some stunning views of snow-capped mountains and the rugged countryside of the Sacred Valley. It was actually a really nice way to travel, and we were quite excited by the time we reached our destination, Aguas Calientes.
Aguas Calientes is a small town just twenty minutes away from Machu Picchu, and a place that almost everyone who visits the site passes through at some point. It’s very laid back with lots of restaurants, and the rail system passes directly through the centre of town.
After checking into our hostel (which had great views over the river) we headed out to buy our bus tickets for the following morning. That evening we went out for a few drinks with two other couples that we met in Cusco who were also visiting Machu Picchu the following day. It was a fairly quiet night as we had an early start in the morning.
04:15am is not a natural time to get out of bed, yet since we have been away I have been up at this time more times than ever. Somehow we managed to drag ourselves out of bed and down to the bus stop by 04:45am. It wasn’t as cold as we expected, but that was probably due to the amount of cloud around that morning. We had been unlucky with the weather when we visited the Great Wall of China earlier in our trip, and it looked like the same was going to happen here.
We were very privileged to be one of the first people into the site, and it was great to see it without the swarming tourists that were expected later in the day. We had to arrive early as we had tickets to climb Huayna Picchu at 07:00am. Huayna Picchu is a mountain that overlooks the site, and only 400 people are allowed to climb it per day. I don’t think Katy knew what she had let herself in for until she saw the mountain towering over the site when we arrived. We quickly made our way through the Machu Picchu site to get to the entrance to Huayna Picchu, and then started the ascent. Some parts of the climb were very steep, and there were various moments that Katy looked at me angrily as though it were my fault. It only took us about one hour to make the ascent though, and the views from the top were well worth the effort.
As we got to the top the clouds started to clear, and we sat down to eat our breakfast and enjoy the view. After a suitable rest and plenty of photos, we started the walk back down to the site. The walk down was still fairly tricky due to the steep incline, and most people ended up on their bum at some point. It was much easier than the climb up though, and we soon made it back to Machu Picchu in one piece.
We decided to chill out in the sun for a bit and let the tour groups make their way around the site. It was really nice place to just sit and take it all in, and it actually didn’t get as busy as I expected. Once it had quietened down a bit, we slowly made our way to the exit before starting the entire loop again.
The site is basically a huge one way system, and as we rushed through to get to Huayna Picchu first thing in the morning, we wanted to do it all again properly. We didn’t have a guide to tell us about the site, so every now and then we would tag onto the back of an American tour group for some information.
Here’s a bit of information for those not in the know:
The site was built by the Inkas in around 1400AD, but abandoned a century later at the time of the Spanish invasion. Although known locally, it wasn’t known to the outside world until 1911 when it was discovered by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Most of the site has been reconstructed and the restoration work continues to this day. Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. The site was never known to the Spanish during their occupancy, so it is highly significant as a relatively intact cultural site.
By the time we had made it around the site again, we were getting very weary. The sun was out in full force, and quickly draining any energy that we had left. Although the site was still open for a few more hours, we decided that we would make our way back to Aguas Calientes for a much deserved beer…we had been up since 04:15am after all. The remainder of the evening was just a countdown to when we could both go to sleep as the day had caught up with us.
The next morning we had an early train to Ollantaytambo, an hour and a half away. Ollantaytambo is a nice looking town, with what looked like some nice places to eat and drink. There is also an inka site there that is supposed to be worth a visit. We however were flying through, and we quickly then jumped into a local share taxi to Urubamba.
From here we then got onto a very crowded, very smelly and very old bus to Pisac. At one point Katy actually had a man sat on her lap, and most people in the bus seemed to be fairly inebriated, which seems to be a local tradition on Sundays.
Pisac is a small town near Cusco that fills up every Sunday due to its market. Similar to Otavalo in Ecuador (although nowhere near as big), this is alpaca heaven. Anyone who hasn’t already gotten their llama fix can be found here looking for bargains. Katy’s latest treat, some alpaca leg warmers…very 1980s.
So now we have left Cusco on another night bus. It was an amazing weekend, and one that we’ll remember for a long time to come. We had high expectations for Machu Picchu, and we weren’t disappointed in any way.
Until the next time…