This last week was so full of adventure I am not sure where to start. I could talk about my visit to an organic farm, long walks in the Sacred Valley, visiting churches and temples, or hiking 11 miles above Cusco to see ruins.
I think, for the sake of brevity and my sanity, the place I will start is the one place everyone seems most excited to hear about. Machu Picchu is the more-or-less lost city of the Incas that splays out on a sloping hillside above the Urubamba River.
There are three ways to reach this wonder of the world. You can, if you are lucky enough to get one of the few coveted permits, hike to Machu Picchu on the Inca Trail. However, the majority of people take the train, which costs somewhere between $70 and $450 depending on how much luxury you want to travel in. The third option is to travel a precarious road around the backside of Machu Picchu to a hydroelectric plant and then walk or ride a local train the rest of the way.
My wife and I, along with my brother, my sister, and my friend Ben, chose the last option. That is how we found ourselves in the back of a Toyota hatchback bouncing down a road to the small town of Santa Maria located about 100 miles outside of Cusco.
When we pulled into Santa Maria the driver turned off the main road and onto a dirt road towards Santa Teresa, another small village on the way to Machu Picchu. The road followed the Urubamba River and rose steadily for a few miles. Soon the canyon began to narrow and the road climbed higher on the cliffside.
At some points the canyon wall was almost completely sheer. It was so steep that the road looked like a three-sided tunnel. There was canyon wall above, below, and on one side. On the other side loose gravel tumbled a thousand feet or so to the river below. (To see a video of this trip click here)
After about a half hour of tense driving, the canyon widened and the road switchbacked down to Santa Teresa. As we continued to the hydroelectric plant we saw the scars of past floods of the valley floor. Huge boulders were piled on top of each other and the remains of concrete suspension bridges stood twisted in the middle of the river.
Peru is famous for its variety of ecosystems. During the few hours we spent in the car, we passed from a steamy valley to a dusty canyon and back to a lush river valley. As we approached the first hydroelectric work the landscape was overwhelmed by thick vegetation and lush jungle crept toward us.
We unloaded our car and began the 10 kilometer walk along train tracks to Aguas Calientes — base camp for most visitors to Machu Picchu. Our hike included about 1,000 feet of climbing from 5,800 to 6,800 feet above sea level, but after living in Cusco (11,000 feet above sea level) I hardly noticed it.
The train tracks took us right along the river. The air was humid but not stifling and it was filled with birdsong. We passed many small settlements where women sold drinks and snacks to refresh hikers. The sun had fallen behind the mountains by the time Aguas Calientes was in sight but its light was still reddening the clouds above us. We found our hotel, took showers, grabbed some food and turned in early.
The next morning we woke up before 4 a.m., ate a quick breakfast at the hotel, and walked down to the bus stop. By 5:30 the bus was slowly climbing the Hiram Bingham Highway to Machu Picchu. A few minutes later and I was sprinting up stone steps to an overlook where I hoped to capture sunrise.
As I ran, I had two things on my mind; reaching the top before sunrise and before other photographers snagged all the good spots. When I scrambled over the last stair and onto a terrace with a panoramic view of the ruins I realized my race was pointless.
The high mountains around Machu Picchu pushed sunrise back about half an hour further than I had expected and unlike so many other famous places I have visited, there wasn’t another photographer in sight. In fact by the time the sun came up, there weren’t even that many people at the ruins.
Compared to a place like Angkor Wat, the contrast was shocking. There hundreds of photographers with insane amounts of expensive gear had turned up before dawn to shoot sunrise over the famous temple. Here I was one of two people who even bothered to bring a tripod.
After lots of group photos overlooking the ruins we started exploring with the help of our guide. I think the thing I found most interesting about Machu Picchu and the Inca Empire is how little people actually know about it. For instance, depending on who you ask, Machu Picchu could be a fortress, a temple, a convent, a palace, a vacation home, or even a portal for communicating with beings from other worlds.
Our guide preferred simple answers and said he thought it was just another city, albeit a city with an amazing view and likely some importance within the empire. Try as I might, I couldn’t convince him that it was actually a military base where royal warrior nuns trained to fight extraterrestrials.
The other thing that caught my attention was how recent the Incan civilization actually was. Some of the most famous ruins around Cusco were only 30 years old when the Spanish put the Incas’ empire building to an end by doing some of their own.
After we finished exploring the ruins, we opted for the thousand or so feet of stairs that lead down from Machu Picchu to the valley floor instead of taking the bus to Aguas Calientes. Once we reached the river we crossed to the other side and followed the train tracks in the opposite direction we had the day before.
At one of the small outposts along the tracks we paid a few soles to enter a large garden that included two beautiful waterfalls and an abundance of greenery. The woman who owns the gardens also runs a small restaurant where we stopped for lunch. It had a great view of the Urubamba River and cozy picnic tables.
We hiked back to Aguas Calientes along the rails. By this time most of the group was footsore and tired so we found some park benches to nap on before we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo that night. Even though it was dark, the train ride is worth describing because of how bizarre it was.
The ride home was set to a soundtrack of thumping Peruvian techno. This was punctuated occasionally by native dancing in the aisles. About halfway through the ride, the staff donned expensive clothes woven with alpaca wool and proceeded to have a fashion show in the middle of the train. Keep in mind that I was half asleep for most of this which made it one of the more surreal travel experiences I’ve ever had.
We pulled into the Ollantaytambo station around 8 p.m., and were able to find a cleanish hostel for about $10 a person. We went out to dinner close to 9 p.m., and I think just about everyone was falling asleep in their plates. I don’t remember much after that except collapsing into bed. It had been a very full day.
(If you would like to see a map of our journey click here)