Well needless to say, visiting Machu Picchu was the impetus for our guests booking this trip in the first place. In one of my earlier blogs, Pointing to Peru, I mentioned that visits to the country had virtually sky-rocketed since it was vouchsafed a spot on the “Seven Wonder’s of the World” list! So everyone met this day with a ton of excitement as we headed north to the Urubamba train station.
One of the best aspects about this day was the train ride to Machu Picchu. I’ve found that in general people just enjoy trains to begin with. There’s something about the multiple cars, connected by huge interlocking steel pieces- all being pulled by the prodigious locomotive. They seem to bring out the spirit of fun in everyone in a way that no other form of long-distance travel does. And those air horns stir my sense of nostalgia every time! PeruRail’s narrow-gauge train to Machu Picchu takes a serpentine route, following the Urubama all the way to the town of Aguas Calientes- so named for the natural hot springs there. Along the way we saw more Inca ruins outside the left windows and glaciers outside the right. The vegetation also changed as we transitioned from the highlands into the cloud forest! Everyone loved the idea of going into a cloud forest- also referred to as the eybrow of the jungle. “What’s a cloud forest?” several people asked. Just the sound of it conjured something mystical in our imaginations! In many respects, prior to this day much of the flora resembled that of the American Southwest with its aridity, cacti and agave’s. So when we started seeing rich, deep greens, bromeliads, wild orchids, begonias and ferns covering the steep cloud-laced mountainsides, it felt like King Kong was coming any minute to hurl our toy train into the oblivion of Skull Island! In fact there would be nothing to spoil our visit to this ancient city, down in the eyebrow of the jungle!
Once we arrived in Aguas Calientes, we spilled out of the train and headed through the town’s tented maze of vendors, toward the two private shuttles that waited to drive us up to Muchu Picchu or “old mountain.” The 20-minute shuttle offers 13 switchbacks and as both the Urubamba river and Aguas Calientes shrank below us, we all became a bit giddy- laughing with excitement! Just a little further now!
Once the zigzagging road finally reached the top, we all got out and as directed, we lathered up with sunscreen and bug spray. Both are an absolute necessity here. It only takes a few minutes to get sunburned, which could really put a damper on a few days of your adventure! Also the “noseeums” (an extraordinarily voracious insect) are normally out in full force at Machu Picchu. These seemingly invisible (hence the name) insects feed on the shorts-wearing tourist like a buffet in Vegas! I literally saw a young backpacker with hundreds of bites on her legs and had to offer my Benadryl out of sheer compassion. Normally I don’t believe in using DEET as it is dangerous to both humans and the environment. But while at this location, I’d wear a DEET suit if it existed! But alas, the perfect invention was still in the wish stage and I simply wore long pants and long sleeves and DEETed everything else.
Within minutes we were at the entrance, wide-eyed and smiling. For authenticity, we hired a local expert to take us around and explain the ruins. We started with a short hike that took us on part of the famed Inca Trail. This is quite special since most people never get the chance to hike it on their own. After huffing and puffing up the trail for a few minutes we came out on a ridge that looked down on the Machu Picchu citadel- giving us that incredible imagery that most had only seen in photos and film. WOW! The awe-inspiring ruins sprawled out just below us and the beautiful Wayna Picchu or “young mountain” in the background with the Urubamba River snaking around much further down. Like all the beautiful places of the world, mere words and pictures could never fully capture the grand magic of this place. The experience of being where the Inca walked and prayed and toiled and contemplated for hundreds and hundreds of years is somewhat overwhelming- at least it was for me. Though it didn’t happen to me on this trip, it was this same view that brought me to tears as I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion the first time I saw it. I felt some strange and deep connection to my fellow human beings in a way I never had before. The sheer beauty and unique power of the site “wowed” everyone and a frenzy of pictures ensued before we adventured further into the ruin.
With our imaginations and curiosity wide open, we explored all over Machu Picchu. We saw the Guardhouse, the sacred time-keeper Intiwatana and the Temple of the Sun where the Winter Solstice is still precisely calculated when at dawn (June 21st) sun rays shine through its window to announce the planting season! Oh yeah…it had more of that cool Indiana Jones, archeoastrology stuff! We shook our heads in disbelief as the beautiful method the Inca used to bring water in to the Royal Residence section via Fountains was explained to us. And again, realizing that these Inca people, at barely five feet tall, engineered and carried out the laborious construction with no written language or “wheel” …absolutely mind boggling!
After filling up on the wonder of the Inca and Machu Picchu, our bodies also needed some food. We marched back to the exit, each of us carrying a load of hunger pangs directly to the Tinkuy Buffet at Sanctuary Lodge! Mmmm! We had spit roasted pig, pasta salad, rice, exotic fruit salads, fish dishes, desserts and anything else we could get down our gullets!
Once we had a little digestion time, I offered to take a few guests on a hike to Intipunku or the “Sun gate”. Although this hike is only a little over a mile (one-way)- at just under 8ooo ft, most people get their lungs working on the way up the 1000 ft elevation gain. It took us about an hour to get to the “gate” which was used as traffic control in and out of Machu Picchu. It also is the point where hikers coming from the famous Inca Trail get their first view of the estate in all its splendor! And what views! The entire area was visible from here and we all sat and took in the sights and made conversation with the hikers seeing it all for the first time. After all, we were all of us, so happy to be alive today.
Tired from a day full of wonder, we headed back down to Aguas Calientes train station but not before stopping at the exit to get our passports stamped with a cool Machu Picchu stamp! Just when I thought the day could get no more interesting, we were all treated to one of the most surreal experiences of our lives – the train ride back to Ollantaytambo.
About 30 minutes in to our ride home and right about the time we were drifting off into la-la land, “Dancing Queen” began to play loudly over the train’s speakers. And if that wasn’t odd and shocking enough, the rail attendants came out of the rear restroom, dressed in beautiful alpaca clothing, modeling down the “cat-walk” between the aisles! So the guy who punched my ticket and the girl who showed me to my seat were now modeling, on the train from Machu Picchu to Abba’s, “Dancing Queen!” It was too much to take and several of us erupted in uncontrollable laughter! After a few more costume changes from our super models, I finally composed myself and realized what a genius idea it was. They had a ready-made, captive audience of tourists and of course they sold a ton of the beautiful garments. And like so many experiences on this trip, this was yet another thing to marvel at and find beautiful. We reached Ollantaytambo completely full from an unforgettable day. “What are we doing tomorrow Chris?” one of my younger travelers asked. “Going on another awesome adventure of course.” I replied.
Enjoy the pics from this day and stay tuned for Day 6!