When we stepped off The Expedition Train at Aguas Calientes we wasted no time, proceeding directly to the busses for the ride up to Machu Picchu. We did not stop to eat, did not check into our hotel, did not pass go, and did not collect two hundred dollars. We just climbed aboard our carriage for the harrowing trip up the side of a crazy-sheer cliff.
A switchback on the jungle-y bus road up to Machu Picchu
The road takes thirteen switchbacks to make it up the mountain, all while passing busses coming down hill on this somewhat-less-than-two-lane dirt road. Several times we were clinging right on the edge... with no guard rails... not that they would stop a bus from going over the side. But hey, they would've made us feel better.
However, as soon as we rounded the last switchback and saw the ruins spread out before us, all of that was forgotten.
Our super-guide Eddy would take us through the entire site, but first lunch and some delicious Goldfish Cerviche... we had no idea, hopefully a translation snafu and not actually the bowl-inhabiting pet. Crazy name aside, it was tasty.
Machu Picchu (old mountain)
Over our Goldfish, Eddy explained that Machu Picchu is not really the name for the city - that name is lost forever. When Hiram Bingham came here in 1911 the locals told him of a place between Machu Picchu (old mountain) and Huayna Picchu (young mountain). When Bingham told the world of his "discovery," (how does one discover something that lots of people already knew about?) the name stuck.
Click here to learn how we dealt with altitude issues while in Peru
Huayna Picchu (young mountain)
Our tour began with Eddy showing us the very different styles of stone work, which implies that the building of Machu Picchu took place over several different times. This goes against many of the guidebooks that claim the entire city was built, occupied, and abandoned within the span of about one hundred years. Eddy most certainly doesn't buy that theory, but as with so much about the Empire of the Incas, the facts remain unknown.
Another place where Eddy diverged from the books was when he said how he feels it is not the ruins themselves that are so mind blowing, but the location. At first that sounded strange, but as we looked throughout the sight we had to agree. Not to discount the remarkable structures and work involved, just to acknowledge that this spot is truly amazing above and beyond the ruins.
The Temple of the Condor
Theories abound as to the purpose of Machu Picchu... summer home for the Inca, agricultural testing site, hideout, fortress, or sacred city, but no single explanation seems to fit.
Perhaps the truth is some combination of these that will forever remain a mystery.
We moved on through the ruins and came upon a diamond shaped rock that was cut and placed to depict and align with The Southern Cross, then another incredibly carved boulder that is orientated with the sun called Intihuatana. In the Quechua language inti means sun and watana (huatana in Spanish) means place to tie up, so this is often called the hitching post for the sun.
Next we entered a small building containing two carved stone pools that perfectly reflect the sky through a window, but only when the viewer is standing on the small rocks that mark the proper spot. It is believed that these were used for star gazing... perhaps an Inca version of late night TV.
In one tiny entrance we noticed a strange doorway. A wall blocks direct access, forming a kind of S turn to get inside, so we asked Eddy about it. He said this was a storage room and the extra wall was to keep the llamas out of the food supply. It seems that they can't manage the tight turns, ingenious.
Llamas and tourists hike Machu Picchu together!
Speaking of llamas, these cousins of the camel pretty much have the run of the place.
The nimble buggers are everywhere, hiking side-by-side with visitors, stubbornly blocking paths and standing around looking pensive.
David attempts to sweet talk this guy out of our way
When the site closed at five, we headed back down the crazy road to find our hotel and some food. We checked into the very European feeling Hotel El Mapi, and toasted the day with a Pisco Sour. Pisco is a distilled grape type of brandy and is considered the national drink of Peru.
Since we sampled the quintessential Peruvian drink, we figured we should set out in search of some cuy for dinner. Cuy is guinea pig - yes just like the pets - and is traditionally eaten in the Andes highlands on special occasions. We decided an occasion couldn't get much more special than celebrating our visit to Machu Picchu, so when we saw a place with cuy al horno (oven roasted guinea pig) on the menu, we sat right down.
The cuy came baked and quartered on a plate, head and all, with some potatoes on the side. Most disturbing were the tiny little feet and the two buck teeth. But we'd come this far, so we had to eat it. Like the old cliché... it tasted like chicken. Only this time it was true. Like a chicken thigh, or closer to rabbit. It's good, and yes, we ate the whole thing, which was really only a few forkfuls. Between the cuy dinner and the goldfish at lunch, we took to calling this the day we ate pets.
In keeping with the celebratory spirit of the occasion, we made plans for the next day's return to Machu Picchu to visit the Temple of the Sun. Two windows in the temple are aligned so that on each of the solstices the sun rises directly through them. Since we were less than a week away from the June solstice (winter here, summer in the northern hemisphere), we figured that alignment should be pretty darn close.
Just before daylight we once again made our way to the busses. Several sources mentioned long lines for the first bus to go up each morning, but once again Eddy steered us in the right direction and advised us to get to the bus just before 6am. At 5:55 we walked right on to the second bus.
With daylight breaking we scurried toward the temple, which stands in the center of the ruins, and found a spot where we could watch the sun come through the window. Sunrise! The cosmic alignment was pretty darn close and the window lit up as advertised. We, and everyone around us, were feeling very in tune with the cosmos.
From the temple we climbed upward to the top of the ridge between the two peaks, Machu and Huayna Picchu, to get our first view of the back side of the ruins. We were surprised by how much was back there. About half as big as the front side, but concentrated more on the terraces that were used for farming and, perhaps more important in this case, preventing erosion and landslides.
The backside of Machu Picchu
This was also where we could catch the famous Inca Trail. The trail runs for some fifty miles all the way to Cusco, and is a remnant from the expansive system of roads or trails that spanned Tawantinsuyu, the Quechua name for the Inca Empire. But we would only be going a couple of those miles, up to the Sun Gate, or Inti Punku in the Quechua language.
The Sun Gate
In about an hour we climbed up another few hundred feet above sea level from the main part of Machu Picchu, taking us over 2,000 feet above the valley below. Inti Punku is the spot where the sunrise can be seen through the Sun Temple window on the solstice in December. It is also where hikers that have walked four days along the Inca Trail from The Sacred Valley get their first view of Machu Picchu.
For the rest of the day we simply soaked it all in, until we needed to make our way back so we wouldn't miss our train. Missing the train would be a problem since it was our only way out of Aguas Calientes... unless we wanted to hoof it back to Ollanaytambo.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com