There are a handful of things that comes to mind when thinking about South America, such as the sights of Rio, and the Jungles of the Amazon. Plenty of places can be used to talk about the continent and one of the most emotive is surely the ruins of Machu Picchu. Many people choose to visit the ruins as a day trip, but something like this is surely best kept as a culmination of experiences that grant context and meaning to the time you actually set foot in the most famous archaeological site in South America. A quick confession: Pre-colombian ruins bore the crap out of me. Every example I have seen of them thus far have left me very underwhelmed – I guess I am spoilt from the multitude of impressive ruins in Europe. Don’t get me wrong – I find Incan history fascinating, and the various items that have survived are often very beautiful. The Pre-Colombian art museum in Cusco is a wonderful place and I am looking forward to the Gold Museum in Bogota (pretty much the only thing I am looking forward to in that city). Machu Picchu might be the most important, or at least the most well known, ruins in South America, but they are for me, just a part of what made the five days around the area so special.
Most people are familiar with the Inca trail – it is a four day hike up and down valleys, and is the most well preserved of the original “Inca Trails”, paths which the Incans (and those who came before) used to travel between settlements. Many of these were paved, but since then these have mostly been destroyed by the many horses and donkeys that bear their owners’ trade over these trails. This was never an issue prior to 1492, as these animals never existed here, and llamas are far more soft footed. In addition to the four legged destroyers, many trails were purposefully wiped from existence by the Incans themselves, running from the Spaniards who were rather keen on enslaving the locals. The “Inca Trail” therefore, is a rare example of a well preserved trail that is paved for most of its duration. Such is its popularity that tickets for access to the trail sell out six months beforehand. This meant that it was not something I was able to do, but fear not! There are other trails around Machu Picchu, the most well known of which is the Salkantay trail. So named for the mountain pass on the second day, this is another four night trek through incredible scenery, culminating in the object of the trails, Machu Picchu itself. For these treks, you are granted a guide (or more than one if you are unfortunate enough to be part of a large group), a couple of guys to take care of the mules/donkeys/horses and a chef or two. The chefs are quite remarkable at being able to whip up three course meals on a trek in the middle of nowhere, and each day included a sit down lunch inside a tent hastily erected for the purpose, and an evening meal in the same vein. On the second day, they baked a cake. It was pretty good too! Popcorn, nachos, other snacks as well as hot drinks were ready for when we finished walking for the day. We might have been camping, but it was far from roughing it. Each morning we were awoken (normally at a godforsaken time of the morning, such as 4.30) and given optional coca tea. I think it helped. Our guide was a young guy called “Jimmy John” who prefaced everything with “My Friend”. He has a passion for Incan history but sadly isn’t much of a teacher. His lessons left a little to be desired.
The trek is a wonder. It moves through verdant farmland, ascends to nearly 5,000 metres at the aforementioned pass, and then crosses high level pampas before descending through cloud forest and proceeding along a steamy jungle like atmosphere and finally to the town of Aguas Calientes, the nearest place to Machu Picchu. A selection: The morning you visit the ruins, you have two options: first is to get the bus. It’s not cheap, and you have to queue up to get on one also, but it takes you to the entrance, and you do so without sweating. The second option is to walk up. Given that we have just spent four days walking, you’d think we’d take the opportunity to give it a rest, but no! The opposite was true – we spent four days walking, so why give up now? Let’s do it properly… An hour later and possibly a kilo lighter from the sweat loss, I got to the top. While it was hot going up, when at the top the air was chilly and so the wet t-shirt I found myself wearing suddenly became a very cold wet t-shirt. Was it worth it? Honestly, no it wasn’t. The walk was mostly in the dark and it wasn’t so much fun, indeed the only entertainment was listening to the complaints from fellow walkers in the dark. I would recommend you splash on the bus.
The entrance to the ruins themselves open at 7am, so for us this mean before the sun had risen above the mountain line to the east. Subsequently, we were in the park for sunrise. At other times of the year, the sun rises before seven, so only the Inca Trail people (who arrive from a different direction) get to see it fully.
Being in the ruins before sunrise is really something special, and even for someone like me who has no appreciation for these places, there was definitely a touch of magic around. To say it was atmospheric would be an understatement. Jimmy John thought this would be a perfect time for another history lesson, which some of us disagreed with. A few people walked off by themselves, and the rest of us had to bear it. Fortunately he was aware of the sunrise and took us to the Temple Of The Sun, a beautifully constructed small temple with a window that allows the sun to fall perfectly on the altar for the summer solstice (with a different window for the winter solstice) – it forms a perfect rectangle and is straight out of Indiana Jones. Watching the sun rise over the mountain line was another perfect moment in the morning. It was no wonder why this place is so famous and popular – it deserves it utterly. Which is why I found the coach loads of day trippers so confusing. Firstly they arrive much later, well after sun rise, and only stay for a couple of hours. It detracts so much from what makes it such the experience, like taking a helicopter to a mountain summit (I realise that not everyone can make a four day trek, but getting up early is the least you can manage.)
Speaking of which, there are two peaks on each end of the rock formation that holds Machu Picchu that one can climb. The smaller one, Huayna Picchu, has steps all the way to the top and is crowned by ruins. Very nice, and very popular, so tickets sell out quick (Quick note to those who are planning to go: some guide books mistakenly state that you can buy tickets to this on the day, as part of a first come, first serve basis. THIS IS NOT TRUE! You will be disappointed. Buy your entry in advance). Fortunately there is the second option (isn’t there always?), that of Montana Machu Picchu. This is far, far higher and far, far harder. After climbing from Aguas Calientes, the prospect of another climb wasn’t looking good especially as it was a beautiful day and the sun was hot. Fortunately I was with a Swiss masochist… erm, I mean mountaineer type who provided the energy needed, until she got bored waiting and shot off to the top. Unlike the previous climb, this was certainly worth it and all in all I was rather proud of myself for having climbed a total of 1000m in a little over two hours in total. Good for the thighs I suppose.
I had to begrudgingly admit to myself that the ruins are in places, quite damned impressive. In their own Stonehenge style mystery, there are blocks – massive massive blocks – that have been determined to have come from the town of Ollantaytambo almost thirty miles away. Getting them that far would have been something special, but getting them up the mountain? It defies belief. Machu Picchu was a sacred city, so I can only assume it was this spiritual fervour that gave them the strength to do it. I could drone on and on about the ruins themselves, but it would be regurgitating what can find on any website or in any book about the city. All I would say is that it lives up to the hype and is worth the visit.