Machu Picchu! Everyone knows of it and millions of people flock to walk through it every year. Now, I am one of those who have achieved its lofty summits and am I ever glad that I persisted in finding out how to get myself there! I can now leave Cusco, Peru, happy and satisfied…even though there are still many Incan ruins unexplored by me.
Most people arrive here on an arranged tour, so they don´t have to fuss and fluster about how they are going to arrange to see this sight. They simply have to rise at early hours to make so many morning tour buses. Actually, they are surely getting their money´s worth by traveling this way, because I have seen, at ground zero, that it´s neither cheap nor efficient to go by yourself from Cusco. Machu Picchu is, necessarily, a highly-organized and controlled destination, which is not only around seventy-five miles from Cusco, but is both deep and high into a mountain-fastness; a place that receives up to 5000 visitors PER DAY, during the high season. Luckily, I visited in the off-season when the tourist load is only 1000 visitors per day.
When I returned from the Amazon region around Puerto Maldonado, I was so tired that the long walk to the train station to buy my Machu Picchu transportation tickets was out of the question. Finally, I took a taxi there, but the station was closed because it was Sunday. Never heard of that before, but I bounced off of my good intentions and went home to study my guidebook, which is not very helpful in outlining the steps that a lone traveler must take: Round-trip Backpacker´s train from the city would cost $96 and Vistadome roundtrip tickets would be $142. Then, I must locate some office somewhere in town for a $44 park entrance ticket, and I must hire a guide there for $20 for a two-hour tour of the ruins. With the cost of food and incidentals, I figured I would spend well over $200 to tackle the visit alone. I decided to stop in at one of the many tour operator´s little shoplets near the Plaza de Armas and book into their offered “Two days, one night” trips that leave daily. $140 later, and I was booked on a tour to start at 7:30 the next morning with my hostel pickup.
In spite of nine, switchbacking, hours of travel in each direction, it was money well spent. Our group of about twenty was made up of people from Israel, Switzerland, France, Germany, Brazil, Peru, and me, the lone American. We were a jolly bunch who bonded easily. Travel through the Sacred Valley was in a medium-sized van over dizzying roads, many times overflowing with running waterfalls, and sometimes mudslides, though all recent ones had been cleared by the time we arrived. A nice lunch stop at St. Theresa came just before the junction where we hopped onto a train for the last half-hour. ´
Agua Caliente (Hot Water) is the tiny resort town, cum Aspen, which is the staging ground for the ascent to Machu Picchu. It´s so cute! At first impression, you think it´s just a train track flanked by hostels, hotels, cafes, and shops; but then turn the corner and you are on the roaring river boulevard. Go deeper “inland” about a block and you find yourself on a swanky uphill sidewalk leading to the beautiful hot springs. This is where I made the Aspen, Colorado, connection…and I ought to know, having lived there for nine years.
Lovely, pricey shops sell silver jewelry and fine alpaca sweaters; delicious-smelling sidewalk restaurants vie for your business, and four and five-star hotels promise a pampered night´s sleep. The world is beating a path to this door, and the door is wide open and welcoming, with new hotels rising in the tiny area between vertical mountainsides and a wildly tumbling river. This is one clean little town, too, and it is quiet because of the planning and care which goes into fulfilling the tourism demands upon this actual Seventh Wonder of the World.
We were parceled out to some very acceptable hostel lodgings and many of us decided to take a dip in the hot springs, though we hadn´t brought bathing suits. Towel and suit rental from little stands beside the steep path took care of that for only a few dollars. The springs themselves were laid out, very fancily, in smallish swimming pools filled with varying water temperatures. I chose the hottest and stayed there, loving the feel of clean sand between my toes at the bottom instead of the expected pool tile. Darkness came on and the chilly night air caused steam to rise from the water. Good conversation with some others from our group reminded me of my many soaks in the Glenwood Springs (Colorado) hot springs, reportedly the world´s largest.
Before dawn the next day, 4:30 a.m. in fact, we had to be dressed and out on the sidewalk to buy our bus ticket, $14 for a two-way, half-hour trip, to the top of the mountain where Machu Picchu awaits. Some hardy members walked up, leaving town at 4:00 a.m., for their own version of the Inca Trail. They had the choice of some straight-up stairs or the same clay road that all of our fancy motorcoaches took. Most hikers chose the roadway in spite of the fact that they swallowed our dust, because the stairs were killers. This, of course, is not the famous trail, or even it´s alternative, but it was physically-demanding and I´m sure glad I didn´t tackle it because Machu Picchu, itself, has lots of rough rock stairs and a great deal of elevation and huffing and puffing in the merest exploration of even parts of its vastness. However, even if you don´t actually get to poke about in every nook and cranny of the city, you can see so much of it from so many vantagepoints, that you really feel as if you have scrambled over the whole of it.
All the effort, expense and exhaustion is worth it! Machu Picchu is the most amazing, awe-inspiring place I can think of. Better than the Grand Canyon; better than the Taj Mahal…in its unique personal, spiritual quality and the mystery which still surrounds it. Maybe my next blog can describe what I saw there, but this one is too long already. Suffice it to say that Peru is doing a fantastic job of managing this site and preserving its wonder for the millions of us who are flocking here for this experience.
Someday, there is hope that Yale University will return the artifacts which were taken out, studied and preserved, at the time of discoverey by Hiram Bingham, and that would be a good thing. But, our guide speculated that the day might also come when the crush of tourists might have to be curtailed just to prevent destruction of the site. The mountain may have moved just a tiny fraction of an inch since this place was discovered in 1911. Footfalls and motor transportation on a slender stalk of a mountain can add up over time. So, the future may not have it so easy as we do to penetrate this particular mystery of our planet.
But, here´s the best thing! Those damned Spanish Conquistadors never got their hands on this place! They never tore down these fabulous stone constructions to build their own idea of Paradise, which we now see all around us in Cusco Town…and which haunt the Quechua-speaking people of today. A hostel-mate working in health care deep in a mountain village said that these people act like the Spanish Conquest occurred “yesterday,” instead of five hundred years ago and they are mighty wary of all our Western projects to change their way of life.
Peru is working hard to make sure that a well-meaning invasion of backpackers and asundry tourists doesn´t do the same thing to the one place that the Incans managed to keep hidden from those earlier conquering hordes. And Peru does this in a fine and gracious way. Machu Picchu still retains its quiet, somewhat aloof, dignity and we visitors come away speechless with the wonder of it all..