backlog: machu picchu (not inca trail)

The train from Ollantaytambo is packed with tourists of every shape, size and color.  By default, if you are aboard this train, you are passing on the 4 day 3 night Inca Trail that descends from the dry plains of the Andes into the vibrantly green and humming cloud forest of the Amazon.

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We elected to take “Vistadome” seats in the train meaning windows revealing the soaring valley and churning river stretched nearly completely around the train, including the ceiling.

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Aguas Calientes, however, is humming in a different way.  The shouts of restaurant hawkers and souvenir vendors filled the street as we walked through the downpour to our hostel, Turistas Chaska.  While housing and food can get rather expensive in this town built at the base of Machu Picchu (it also bears the same name is simply called Aguas Calientes to avoid confusion), we found affordable and sufficient shelter here, a breakfast that can be prepared early in the morning included!  The staff at the desk were especially helpful when putting the finishing arrangements on the details for your trip up to the ruins. Tip: Purchase your bus tickets for the next morning as soon as you get in.

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Our meal was an average and overpriced pizza at one of the many restaurants boasting all the international classics and a few Peruvian staples. Definitely nothing special in this town. Get in, get out.

The next morning we passed on the sunrise departure to the top of Machu Picchu and arrived by bus just before 9.  Hiring a tour guide at the gate was easy enough as many simply mill around asking in English and other known languages if you want a two hour tour that hits up the main sights.  Word of advice: ask around for prices, negotiate if you have more than 3 people for a group discount, test your guide’s English and ask a few questions about the tour to get the feel of what your guide will focus on.  Our guide, Moises, gave us and our adopted Australian friend, a rather general tour touching on mythology, architecture, history etc.

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Then brace yourself because as you pass through the entrance gate, you will see one of the most amazing views you have ever witnessed.

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On all sides of you tower looming green mountains dropping down to the valley.  Clouds still hang low, enshrouding the ruins and surrounding cliffs in an air of mystery, even as thousands of tourists team around you.

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The ruins themselves are incredibly vast and maintained for their age and the surrounding climate.  Unlike the dry desert of the American Southwest where First People’s pueblos and buildings have been preserved by the arid climate, these stones seem to have persevered in the face of moisture, especially since jungle growth is kept at bay by authorities.

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The complex itself includes many trails and paths but the standard tour whips through both the royal housing, urban sector, agricultural terraces, and supposed temples to the sun as well as other sacred sites.  It is believed that Machu Picchu was once the summer residence of the Inca, or King of the Quechua people, where he would come as part of a pilgrimage of sorts and utilize the dazzling surroundings for astronomical observations.

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Because not much is known for sure about the site, it’s true purpose and the uses of every building, I will not get much into speculation here and simply let the pictures tell their own story, whatever you choose to believe.

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Specs: You must bring your passport to enter, along with your ticket.  You can also get a special Machu Picchu stamp in it before exiting!

There is no food available inside the gates.  There is a cafe near where the buses drop you off at the entrance but we simply waited to eat due to the high prices.  It is recommended to take snacks to eat at designated sites or outside the gates near the only bathroom.  You can enter and exit as many times as desired.

There are two mountains that you can climb st the site but entrance must be purchased at the same time as your ticket: Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu Mountain.

We chose Machu Picchu Mountain for its more well-maintained and safe trail.  Huayna Picchu, while shorter and boasting ruins along the trail up including some terraces and a temple, is steeper and is more worn down with age.  Many hikers climb this first thing in the morning to wait for the sun to burn off the clouds before descending to the site itself.

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Machu Picchu Mountain, however, is open for entrance from 7-11 am.  After 11 you cannot enter and after 12:30 the summit of the peak (1.5 hours of stairs zigzagging up the face of the mountain), is cleared to insure that all make it down in sufficient time.  We entered just before 11 and I arrived at the top just at 12:30, my heart pounding out of my chest even though I stopped nearly every 5 steps.  To say that the hike is challenging is an understatement and it is not for the out-of-shape or fainthearted.  In fact, many people, my parents included, turned around before making it all the way up, knowing that they would not arrive before the summit’s closure and that the view was just as spectacular from a bit farther down.

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While it is something to say “you have done”, the view from the top is similar to anything you see on the way up; the ruins are simply smaller the higher you go.

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We milled around a bit longer as the tourists trickled out of the sight but decided to leave before it really emptied out as we had to make a train later that afternoon.  But not before I snapped this picture, a llama perfectly framing the entire ruin complex.  Definitely a once in a lifetime view!

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