On our arrival in Cusco, our taxi driver attempted a conversation in English and asked if we wanted to see Machu Picchu. “Of course!” we replied. He asked “Do you need an English speaking guide?”. “That would be nice” I responded from the back seat. The next thing I knew, he had pulled the taxi to the curb and a young lady was standing beside the car with brochure in hand. She agreed to meet us at our hotel. 15 minutes later, we were not yet in our room, and she was patiently waiting in the lobby. Tourism is the main industry in this area and highly competitive. Even though I felt like we’d been ambushed, within a half hour she had signed us up for a two-day Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu tour.
Two days later we were more or less acclimated to the altitude, and our tour started with an early morning pick up at our hotel. As the sun rose over the Andes the bus wound its way to our first stop of Pisaq ruins and market. We did a little shopping at the artisans’ market where Les and I purchased alpaca sweaters, and Alex became the proud owner of a rainbow colored poncho. These came in very handy, as the nights in Cusco were quite cold. Patrick is too cool to get cold – and definitely too cool to wear an alpaca sweater.
The Incas built on the top of some amazing mountains – vertigo must be unknown around there. Our bus unloaded us at a good-sized set of ruins with impressive stone wall terraces, partially completed religious sites with huge stones that were painstakingly cut from a mountain several miles away. These huge stones were slid down a mountain, floated over a fast running river, and elevated up another mountain, and shaped to fit into the structure without the use of wheels, block-and-tackle, and steel. Just lots of communal hard work and time. Across from this site is a very large Inca graveyard, which looks very much like a steep rocky mountain side facing the East. The people’s remains were buried in small caverns cut into the hillside. A year after they were buried a small hole was opened into the tomb to allow the person’s spirit to be released. The Inca’s were also big into mummifying the really important people, then saving the mummy in special shelves, and then bringing the deceased dignitary out on special occasions.
Alex thought it was pretty cool and tried out one of the mummy cubbys.
Lunch was a hearty Peruvian buffet lunch and pisco sour in Urubamba. We shared our table with a young American couple from Ohio. He was just graduating with a veterinarian degree on chickens – specializing on the chicken industry in South America. Since chicken was on the buffet menu, Les waited to take a bite of his chicken leg until he was sure the young vet was comfortable enough to eat it himself. He was and we all dug in for one of the better meals we had in Peru.
In the afternoon, we stopped for a tour of Ollantaytambo, a large Inca archaeological site. In the mid-15th century, the Inca emperor, Patchouli, conquered Ollantaytambo and incorporated it into his personal estate. This is a really amazing site, but it seems all of the tours arrive here at the same time, very crowded. This is also the town where we caught our train to Aguas Calientes, the small town nearest to Machu Picchu. The train ride is beautiful, as it winds through a picturesque canyon along a mountain river. That night we arrived in Aguas Calientes and walked to our hostel. There are no cars in Aguas Calientes, a small little village, apparently built expressly for the purpose of an overnight stay for tourists visiting Machu Picchu. We had dinner on the balcony of a restaurant overlooking the main plaza. It was the day after Mother’s Day and the local school children were putting on a show for their families. The costumes are so colorful. We put ourselves to bed early as we knew we would have an early morning ahead of us.
I was very excited, even though Les’s alarm went off at 4:30 AM. Machu Picchu was on my must-see list for this year. We wanted to be at the bus stop at 5:30 AM to catch an early shuttle up the mountain so we could see the famed sunrise on the ruins. When we arrived at the bus stop there was at least a couple of hundred people in line in front of us. I guess we weren’t the only ones that wanted to see the sunrise. We arrived at the park about 30 minutes before the sun rose over the impressive mountains across the river valley.
The crowd headed up the stairs to the Sungate, which is what all the tour books recommend. So, we chose to go the other direction, toward the “urban section”. We missed the spectacular photo opportunity, but we had this part of the park to ourselves!
It was so peaceful and beautiful and we got many amazing photos anyway, and spent the first hour of the day wandering the ancient village. Our guided tour began at 7:30 and I was so glad that we had a guide to explain the history to us. The guide explained that Incas built Machu Picchu as a center of learning and research for the elite of the empire. The construction probably took many years, but they know it was largely completed by 1450.
The place was abandoned and “lost” after the Spanish arrived in Peru, because the last Inca emperor (Manco Inca) had the paved trail from Cusco to Machu Picchu destroyed as part of the 30+ year guerrilla war he waged against the Spanish. It was discovered by the outside world in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham, who stumbled on the site and found 4 farming families using the ancient terraces as their fields. Since the site was unknown to the Spanish during the conquest, it is relatively intact. In 1981 the Peruvian government declared it a “Historical Sanctuary” and it is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Machu Picchu is an amazingly beautiful place. I think the photos in the slide show below speak for themselves. After our tour, we spent a few more hours exploring – forcing ourselves up and down the steep stone stairs until our legs started to wobble. We finally decided that we were ready to head back to Aguas Calientes and as we got in line to catch the shuttle bus, we felt the first drops of rain, good timing!
We had a long wait for our train back to Ollantaytambo and then a long bus ride from there to Cusco. We arrived back in Cusco very late, very tired and once again very out of breath! But we all agreed that it was worth it.