The ancient wonder of Machu Picchu

Written by Emmy on 8 February 2013

Just as we were growing accustomed to the Sacred Valley, we woke up early on Wednesday morning, packed our things together and (with very little time to spare) boarded a Peru Rail train. The colorful railroad company has a 90% hold on the market of trains bound for Machu Picchu; we were very much among tourists as we climbed aboard in a small town along Rio Urubamba.

The train chugged along with nice thematic music in the background and we were each served a morning snack in an equally thematic basket.

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When people say they are climbing Machu Picchu, what that means is that they are walking the Inca Trail — an approximately 100 km path that winds through the Andes and follows a route that the Incas are are said to have taken themselves. There are a couple entry points to the path — doing the full hundred isn’t mandatory — but regardless of where you start, you are required to take a guide and two porters with you. For even the most experienced of hikers, there is a worry about the 10,000+-foot altitude. Also, requiring you to hire guides and porters is a great source of revenue for Peru.

For those who opt to take the train (us), you take a winding path from the town of Ollantayltambo along the river and up the hills until you get to the town of Machu Picchu, which is still several hundred feet below the site.

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We pulled into the station at Machu Picchu, dropped our stuff and boarded a bus, taking a narrow and winding path up the mountains for about another 30 minutes. I can confidently say my eyes were closed the entire time.

We got up to the top and filed through the line alongside many, many other tourists. Over 3,500 people visit Machu Picchu every day — the government caps it at 4,000 for safety reasons — and they have their system down to a science. Passports are required to enter because so many people try to reuse tickets or manufacture their own. There was something lost in translation in the issuing of my ticket, which said I was 13 years old, but that somehow didn’t seem to bother border patrol.

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Once through the gates, we walked along a narrow path surrounded by rocks. And then suddenly, Machu Picchu appeared.

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It looked like a page out of my high school Spanish textbook. The shockingly tall peaks against the blue sky, alternating between clear and cloudy, with the perfectly constructed villages below was truly a sight.

Machu Picchu was accidentally discovered by Hiram Bingham in the early 1900s and has remained somewhat of a mystery ever since. There are a handful of competing theories as to its purpose — last hideaway from the Spanish, religious retreat, summer vacation home of the king — but none have been validated thanks to the lack of written record. We have many clues and there’s a pretty clear understanding of what purpose each individual structure served, but we’re left to imagine the broader purpose.

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We spent several hours touring around, climbing in and out of little houses. The wealthiest families had multi-room abodes, complete with what look like toilets. The lowest of the three classes had about five people sharing a space the size of my bedroom. (And my bedroom is not very big.)

Around the site, there are countless examples of the Incas’ scientific prowess — running aqueducts, sundials that could tell the time of day and time of year, original structures that have withstood many earthquakes, and complex systems for growing and storing resources.

The ingenuity of the place just seemed endless.

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When we completed our tour and came back through the gates, we noted a long line of people near the exit. Intrigued, we got up close and to my grand surprise, found a passport stamping pad. I felt immediate pangs of regret for not packing my NPS passport. But, I did have my real passport and so we followed the example of other tourists and all put Machu Picchu’s ink on our pages. There is a chance we may have all invalidated our passports as a result.

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We took the bus back down the mountain after having a touristy buffet lunch, and took a quick look at the town of Machu Picchu. There wasn’t much to see, so we retired to the hotel for a bit of rest and relaxation. We took in afternoon tea — the common coca tea, which is said to relieve altitude sickness, but may just have been getting us all slightly high. Either way, it seemed to have some soothing principles and kept any of our headaches from getting too bad.

At dinnertime, we migrated into the hotel’s dining room, where we were greeted with a number of delightful Peruvian specialties. To start, I enjoyed a creative take on a classic local dish. Called causa, the dish is traditionally a potato stuffed with anything from crab to vegetables to meat to fish. The hotel decided to put the potato on the side and stuff avocado instead. Yum. This rendition had veggies inside, though it tasted almost like cole slaw thanks to the mayo-like dressing.

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Other members of my family enjoyed quinoa soup and quinoa with local cheese and peppers.

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My main course was probably one of the better things I ate while we were in Peru: simply grilled tilapa over a fava bean puree with pomegranates. It was simple in preparation, but the combination of flavors was very well thought out and the result was excellent.

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IMG_2931Normally, I have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to dessert — I generally would rather just eat more food — but cheesecake happens to be a personal weakness and here it was offered with muña, the same local mint we had encountered in other dishes. It was not overly sweet, and quite enjoyable.

Many people do just a day trip to Machu Picchu, but given the distance and the sheer awesomeness of the site, we had opted to do a day-and-a-half. Our visit coincided with the start of rainy season and in Machu Picchu it rains 80+ inches a year, so we knew we were taking chances. Generally the weather rolls in and out though, so a messy morning is not necessarily a sign of a calamitous day.

But Thursday morning was indeed messy and so we slept a bit later than planned to try and wait out some of the dense fog. We didn’t want to waste our time at the site though, so we did board the bus in the drizzle and made our way back to the top, where we found ourselves essentially in the clouds.

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The day before, our guide had joked about it being Machu Poncho this time of year; we joined the ranks when we bought plastic ponchos in five different colors and put them on over our raincoats to better guard ourselves (and of course, the cameras).

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We had been deliberating over one of the area’s more intense hikes, but decided to skip it because of warnings of slippery, steep steps. Instead, we took a calmer route to an old Inca bridge, which supposedly boasted good views of the full area.

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Because of the altitude, it was actually amazing to watch the weather. The clouds were rapidly rolling in and out — but all below the point where we were standing. This only enhanced our usual intensity around photography as we all waited for the clouds to move to the perfect spot to enable the perfect picture.

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It wasn’t happening from our spot on the bridge, so we headed in the opposite direction on a different hike, toward the Sun Gate. This is the spot that marks the end of the Inca Trail, or the Intipunku, and it provides the first glimpse of Machu Picchu to those who do endure the three- or four-day adventure.

It also enables those doing just a day trip to envision what it would be like to have that moment; there were many posed photos to reenact that victorious ascent from the other tour groups around us. Okay, and us.

After taking one last foggy, wet look at Machu Picchu, we boarded the bus yet again and made our way to the bottom. We had time for a luxurious lunch before boarding our Peru Rail train, and so returned to the hotel for more fresh fish. This time I enjoyed a piece of trout cooked with local vegetables.

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IMG_2998We boarded the train and each plugged into our headphones and other devices, but quickly put them away once we realized there would be on-board entertainment.

First, we were introduced to an elaborately dressed (and somewhat disturbing) clown, who began dancing down the aisles to the tune of the festive music now blaring over the train’s announcement system.  He pulled people out of their seats to dance with him (including the Lissisters) and gave a sort of lap dance to those unwilling to get up and join him. The whole thing was a bit hard to comprehend, and no one in the car could keep a straight face.

After the clown went away, one of the train attendants announced that the crew would be coming around with the company’s line of alpaca goods. On the way to Machu Picchu, the crew had pushed a cart down the aisles with sweaters and scarves, much like duty-free sales on an airline. But today, the crew would be taking advantage of our rapt attention and began parading down the aisles in a fashion show.

This was also a bit odd and unexpected, but made even more extreme by the contrast of our surroundings. The train had stopped between two towns and so we sat on the rails near rundown homes and farmland. A group of young kids, who clearly knew the train would be there, had scampered down the rocks and were politely rapping at our windows, making mimes for money. And meanwhile, the train crew was strutting to the tune of very loud music inside our fairly luxurious train and trying to entice us into buying expensive woolen goods. The contrast of the two scenes — inside and outside the car — was a perfect encapsulation of the split between haves and have-nots in Peru.

Machu Picchu is the area’s pride and joy, and economic engine — entry to the site costs $45 per person (and multiply that by nearly 4,000 every day, 365 days of the year). But less than 12% of the money goes to the maintenance of the site and to the surrounding towns. The rest flows to Lima, creating somewhat of a bitter relationship. And so every day, countless train cars of tourists with money run through the riverfront towns, but none of that money ever really touches those towns. The windows on our train car were sealed, but there was a little crack at the top. Many of us with window seats pushed our Peru Rail snacks out the opening, where they were caught by the kids below. They waved goodbye to us when the train finally started moving again, but no doubt they returned to the same place when the next train came rolling through a few hours later.

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