The lost city of the Incas [Machu Picchu]

July 2-4

Last Wednesday (July 1), we left Cusco and headed to the Sacred Valley. The drive to Ollantaytambo took less than 2 hours, and the views on the way was amazing. The road goes through layers of towering mountains, with some of the peaks glistening with snow.

After about an hour, we started descending to the valley and we finally reached the small, dusty Inca town of Ollantaytambo. This was said to be a typical small Inca town, and we could still see the waterways within the town, which is reminiscent of Inca architecture.

The town is situated right on the foot of mountains, the closest of which had a fortress where the Incas won a battle over the conquistadores, making this fortress of historical significance (also where Manco Inca finally fled after he was defeated by the Spaniards in Sachsaywaman). The ruins can clearly be seen from town, high atop on the mountain. It looks huge and intimidating… we looked up and thought, uh oh, are we going to climb all the way up there ? Well, we did .. but we did it in the morning, to avoid the harsh noon time sun and the crowd. Tourist buses mostly arrive by noon, coming from Cusco on a day tour of the Sacred Valley.

We went up the fortress, scrambling up on steep stone steps at times, and gazed in awe to the beauty in front of us … that of the valley below us, and the rocky, craggy mountains all around, and the glaciers on top of peaks not far behind. We couldn´t get over how beautiful the view is, and how it just gets better the higher we go. We finished exploring the entire ruins in about 3 hours.

By then, it was high noon and it was starting to feel like we are being dry roasted in the oven. So we decided it was time to have lunch, then a siesta back in our room . It was so hot and we felt so exhausted we all dozed off to sleep. By the time we woke up, it was late in the afternoon and was safe again to get out. The town is so small there is practically one major street in and out of town. So we sat in one of the cafes by the street, had some coffee and snacks and watched tour buses and people go by. One thing about this town though, if you dine al fresco, everything is served con-alikabok-y-exhaust (dust) 😀 .. everytime a bus revs up it’s engine to go up the stoned streets, it leaves behind a cloud of dust and fume  … we got used to it after a while 🙂 …

At 5:15am the following day, we were already walking to the train station (which is about 5 min away from the hotel … well, everything is 5 minutes walking distance in this town). We were on our way to Aguas Calientes (aka Machu Picchu Pueblo). Our train left at 6:10am and we reached AC in about 1.5 hours.

While on the train, I noticed that the terrain was starting to change … the train tracks followed a river with plenty enough water for white water rafting, huge rocks, and plenty of trees and plants around. The mountains are now covered with lush green leaves, and it almost feels like we´re now entering a jungle. It´s so different from the mountains I´ve seen so far. It´s simply beautiful. I loved it!

By the time we reached Aguas Calientes, it already felt like we entered a whole new different world. I was looking up all the time with the lush green mountains towering all around me. We found our friend, Kurt already waiting for us outside the train station as we exited the train. He got to AC a day before so he already knew all the walkways in town.

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Aguas Calientes is a small town, and is basically just a town filled with hostals and a staging place for backpackers and hikers who just finished the 4-day Inca trail, and needed a night to sleep in. I haven´t seen any good reviews of the town, all comments I´ve read basically says the same thing … that there´s nothing to this ugly town. In fairness, it´s not that bad. True, it´s just a row of hostals, restaurants, and market stalls, one of top of the other, lined along a street by the river.

But everything around it is nature´s masterpiece, and it makes up for whatever the town lacks.
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We dropped of our bags in our hotel and picked one of the ubiquitous restaurants to have our breakfast. We can´t start our day without having one :). At about 8:30 (or 9 ? can´t keep track of time ) we headed to the bus stop. We had to take a 20-minute bus ride to go up several switchback roads which leads to Machu Picchu. I was impressed with the buses … I wasn´t expecting some low-emission, Mercedes Benz, looking-new and well -maintained tourist bus which leaves the station every 5 minute or so to go up to the ruins … but I guess this is why we paied $7 each for a one way trip on this bus. (This wasn’t exactly our bus, but they all look like this)

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And finally … the moment we´ve been waiting for. We were there. This time around, we hired a guide to tell us what each section of the ruins were for. Our first stop was what is called the ¨balcony¨.. simply because this is where you stand to get the classic postcard view of Machu Picchu. Jilly couldn´t contain herself. She kept repeating to me, mommy, we are in Machu Picchu ! It is pretty amazing .. but wait, it will get better. I think I found the mountains as equally jaw dropping .. the ruins is surrounded by commanding presence of huge mountains which seems to go on for as far as my eye can see .

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We went through each section of the ruins with our guide, explaining to us what studies had come up with, on what each section was used for, how the Incas predict the summer and winter solstice, and how they study the stars and how it affects their farming, how and where they worship the mountains, and the significance of each temple or platform.

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Our own little tour concluded at around noon, and by then, a lot of tourists had already arrived. Most tourists go to Machu Picchu via a tour package where they would leave Cusco early in the morning, be in MP from around 10-2pm, then head back to Cusco, making 10-2 the most crowded time in the ruins. So as the crowd increased, we went back to the entrance to the site where they have an overpriced cafeteria with tables and chairs. We had some sandwiches and drinks, and paid one month´s worth of salary for them. We sat and killed time, and waited until the sun wasn´t too harsh anymore and most of the crowd had left for the day. We went back to the ruins at around 3pm and walked alongside the edges of the area … the entire site felt so quiet and so serene it was unbelievable. We felt like we had the ruins all to ourselves. With the sun´s softer rays, we took more pictures like we haven´t taken hundreds of them earlier in the day. We walked to sections we didn´t pass by earlier, and kept repeating to ourselves how beautiful the place is, even more than how we saw it in the morning. Without cacophony from the foot traffic of tourists, it almost felt like we were in some sacred temple …. well, actually, we were. As the sun´s rays started to fade, we headed higher up in the ruins so we can be up by the balcony by sunset. We sat by a ledge, in one of the terraces, and gazed in awe … the serenity, the peacefulness, the beauty all around us … my words just cannot describe them.. and unfortunately, nor does my pictures. You have to be there and experience it.

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It was starting to get dark, and so we had to go. To add to our adventure, we decided to walk the trail down to the town, instead of taking the bus. There is a steep trail (mostly stoned steps) which crosses the zigzagging roads where the bus goes. It was like going through a trail in a jungle.

It took us about 1.5 hrs to hike down the mountain to the town. Towards the end of our hike, we still had to walk on a dirt road for about half an hour. There were no more buses going to or coming from Machu Picchu, and there were no street lamps. Our path was mainly lit by the almost-full moon and a lot of fireflies. Jilly hasn´t seen fireflies before (one thing I have in my childhood that she doesn´t) so she was really excited to see them. I caught one in my hand and showed her as it periodically lits up. Exhausted, we finally reached town, and settled for a restaurant right on the plaza for our dinner. We all recounted our day as we sat by the plaza and watched some band play Andean music. Dinner was followed by coffee at another cafe in the plaza, as we all try to complete the alphabet using the countries we´ve been to. We all concluded that for Maridol to complete her alphabet, she now needs to go to Kazakhstan, Qatar and Warizistan (ok it´s not a country, but we can´t find one for W ! ).

The next day, we looked up at the mountain where the ruin lies, and we couldn´t believe we hiked all the way down from there. 🙂

Now we´re back in Cusco and today is basically just a day for relaxing, last minute shopping, and just enjoying our last day in the Andes. While Maridol and Jilly stayed in the room to scream and sigh and shriek at the Wimbledon finals, I opted to go to an internet cafe and write yet another long travelogue :).

Tomorrow we fly to Lima, and spend the day in Miraflores, possibly going to the cevicheria where Anthony Bourdain went… for one last Peruvian ceviche before we head back to SF on Tuesday.

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