Richard and I, before we ever met each other, have always wanted to visit Machu Picchu. The name conjures up images of lost cities and civilizations, people who were amazing engineers and architects despite not having a written language, and the idea of a city in the clouds is the height of romantic adventurism.
So one of our travel goals has always been Machu Picchu. Part of the reason we decided to switch from Asia to South America was to make this the year that we reach this goal.
The nearest airport to Machu Picchu is in Cuzco. Some people fly in, catch a train, and make it a short trip. We like to travel more slowly and deliberately, enjoying the journey as well as the destination.
So after eight days in Cuzco, we caught a train to Machu Picchu. The train itself goes to the small mountain town of Aguas Calientes, after winding its way through the gorgeous Andes and to the area known as "the eyebrow of the jungle." Aguas Calientes is at about 8,000 feet (roughly 2,600 meters) - lower than Cuzco, but still in the Andes. This area is the cloud forest, where the heat of the Amazon jungle meets the cool of the mountains, and creates a micro-environment.
In Aguas Calientes, we caught to bus up to Machu Picchu and checked into our hotel, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge at Machu Picchu. http://www.belmond.com/sanctuary-lodge-machu-picchu/luxury-hotel
We NEVER stay at hotels this posh, nor in this price range. But being right outside the gate to Machu Picchu, and having the luxury to come and go, was totally worth it. Especially for people in our age range, it just makes the trip easier. Sometimes paying more is worth making things easier.
Plus it really is a VERY nice hotel, with all kinds of amenities and extras - bathrobes (I love hotel bathrobes!), a free mini bar, gorgeous grounds, and the price includes breakfast and your choice of lunch or dinner. The meals are sumptuous and delicious. The staff are wonderful, helpful, and kind - but without being smothering. If you get a chance to stay here, definitely do so - and when I explain about our time at Machu Picchu, you'll understand why I highly recommend being so close.
Anyway, we watched the hordes of visitors arrive and enter Machu Picchu. Hordes of people leaving. Lines of people queueing up to enter the park, to leave the park, to get on the next bus. Major crowds! Though by about 3 PM, things were getting quiet.
So we arranged our visit for the next day. We had booked tickets for the citadel for December 17, with the assistance of the hotel staff (because the website didn't like my credit card). And relaxed at our posh hotel.
I walked around a bit. From the path above the garden level, I could see just a little bit of Machu Picchu! And the top of Huana Picchu, the tall pointy pinnacle mountain at one end of the entire complex! Most people don't realize it, but Machu Picchu refers not only to the entire ancient complex of buildings, but also to the old mountain in back of the city. Huana Picchu is a younger mountain, sometimes likened to a rhino horn, rising at the opposite end of the saddle on which the Machu Picchu complex is built. Huana Picchu has a spiraling trail to the top, where the Inca built additional temples and viewing platforms. (The citadel of Machu Picchu is said to look like a condor in flight from the Huana Picchu vantage point.)
We arose at 5 AM, dressed in layers including rain jackets, and headed out. Tickets in hand, we lined up with the young people hiking in from Aguas Calientes, or the Inca Trail. Promptly at 6 AM, the gates opened, we had to show passports (or a photo copy), our tickets were stamped, and we began to wander around.
Many people were in groups with a guide, but we decided we'd just go off on our own. I'm sure we missed some essential information this way, but we have our own travel style.
So we walked around in the early morning mist, with the buildings rising lonely and forlorn in front of us, hinting at the mysteries that surround Machu Picchu. Was it a fortress? A citadel in reality? A palace for Inca royalty? A summer retreat, sort of the Inca Camp David? A sacred site reached at the end of a long pilgrimage? A place of human sacrifice, or immense treasure?
No one really knows, though various scientists have been able to prove various points of view. But not disprove others.
So the mysteries continue.
We walked in at the area of the farming terraces; there were people who lives at Machu Picchu year round and grew crops on the terraces, an engineering wonder. Each terrace has three levels inside: gravel for drainage, loose sail to retain moisture, and topsoil for growing the crops. Stone gutters and drains direct the water from springs to the growing area for the farming. The entire structure looks like rows of seats for enormous bleachers at a stadium for giants, all uniform in size. I found the terraces to be absolutely fascinating.
We sat on a bench to check our maps and figure out which direction we wanted to head. Suddenly, four llama went running by, in the mist looking like the ghosts of ancient Inca llamas, enigmatic llamas who have lived in these mountains for centuries, and most likely know the secrets of Machu Picchu. But they aren't talking. No, they ran off in search of some tasty grasses for breakfast.
We walked onward, winding through corridors, around buildings, looking at a few with samples of how the thatch roofs most likely were constructed. Looking at the views from the trapezoid doors and windows, though the mountains were all hidden in mist and fog. Walking and just absorbing the energy of Machu Picchu.
We found our way to the Torreon, the Temple of the Sun. This semi-circular tower is just like the one in Cuzco, and is considered one of the best pieces of Inca architecture. The stone is carved perfectly to create the circular shape of the Temple. Also, the windows are aligned with the first ray of sunlight on the summer and winter solstices, so that the first beam of light enters through the window and lands on a stone - the stone that, it is believed, once held a golden statue of the Sapa Inca Pachacutec. (Nothing was random with the Inca, everything aligned with something important and major.)
There is also space under the Temple of the Sun, which people once thought was a tomb. No bodies or mummies were found there. (Yes, the Inca mummified their leaders.) So no one is really sure what this space was, nor why there are various shelves. Whatever was once there was looted long ago.
By this time it was 7:30 AM or so. It was beginning to really rain. We were chilled, damp, and hungry. We walked back to our hotel - and this is the beauty of staying at the Belmond. Just walked out the gate, a few meters or yards to the hotel, and walked inside. Into the warm restaurant, where we were greeted by the staff and seated for a nice hot breakfast. Then we went up to our room and took a nap, while the crowds came and went. (This is why staying at the hotel next door is perfect.)
By early afternoon, the rain had let up. We grabbed a quick bite at the café and headed back inside. Oh, after 9 AM there's a stamp pad and stamp so you can add a Machu Picchu stamp to your passport - how amazing!
A practical note - wear insect repellant. I didn't. I have several big red itchy bites. Definitely wear insect repellant!
We walked around just about everywhere, except Huana Picchu. In and out of buildings, marveling at the trapezoidal windows, doors, and niches. We walked up and down endless stairways, some of which seemed to stop abruptly, with a thousand foot drop. We hiked and climbed and wandered. And happened upon a vizcacha, a cute little Andean animal that looks like a big rabbit with short ears, but more with a tail something like a squirrel. An absolutely adorable little fuzzy animal who blended in with all that rock everywhere. We saw another vizcacha in a doorway later on, and could see his little squirrel tail.
There are large grassy plazas in the middle of the residential areas, partially to separate the royal residence from the living quarters of invited guests and distant family. This was for security measures. But the grassy plazas were used for government functions, religious rituals, and general family and guest events. Think Inca picnic with corn, potatoes, corn beer, and maybe some grilled lama. (At least, that's what the physical evidence points to as the usual diet.)
I wanted to see the Temple of Three Windows, which is the white-ish building with, obviously, three big windows. No one is exactly sure of it's function, or even if it really was a temple. However, this building was made of finer stonework and larger stones than most of the houses, the way the Temple of the Sun was. The residential buildings seem to be made of more golden colored rocks, which are rounder and less blocky, often not as square and stacked. I think the quality of the stone and the work is considered evidence of the sacred use of the buildings. Once again, people giving their best materials and best effort to create something to please their deities. So universal!
At one point while in the middle area of Machu Picchu, we could see that we were surrounded by mountains. I had read that the Inca had apus, holy or sacred mountains - sort of a combination of the place where deities live, and/or the deity themselves. After all, thunder (fire) came from the mountains. Rain (crop fertility) came from the mountains. Weather in general came from the mountains. Light (sun) appeared from behind the mountains every day, and disappeared behind the mountains again every afternoon. So the mountains were apus, holy and sacred places.
I knew Mount Salcantay was one of the most major apu in the Inca world, and that Salcantay could be seen from Machu Picchu. So I asked one of the park rangers where was Mount Salcantay, in my not very good Spanish. (I should add here that the indigenous people are the descendants of the Incas, and that Quechua is the language of the Incas. So while the local population is Catholic, many of the practices and rituals incorporate Inca traditions. I figured one of the local rangers would know which was Mount Salcantay.) Well, Mr. Ranger explained that Salcantay is behind the Mount Machu Picchu. That one needs to climb either Machu Picchu or Huana Picchu to see Salcantay. (Many people believe that this is why Machu Picchu is seen as a sacred location, because it is within sight of so many major apus. As well as is aligned with a series of similar Inca sites. With the Inca, everything is connected.)
Anyway, Mr. Ranger was chatty, and asked where we're from, how long we're in Peru, how long we're in Machu Picchu. I answered, and explained that we were here for my husband's birthday. So he congratulated Richard for his birthday, and even gave him a little hug! All in Spanish! It was so funny! He also pointed out a few other mountains to us. (And it seems as if nearly every window or door either faces sunrise, or a sacred mountain.)
Richard headed back to the hotel, but we still had a little time before the national park closed at 5 PM. So I sat on a bench overlooking the terraces, with the city beyond, and just enjoyed the peace of the place. I know, the Inca are often described as a war-like people, especially since they conquered other tribes in the region and built their empire. But on a sunny afternoon, the place just exuded peace and tranquility.
It also emptied out, until there were just a handful of us hanging around, watching the shadows lengthen. Pretty soon one of the rangers started pushing the four llamas back toward one area where I guess there was some kind of enclosure. The llamas, of course, were more interested in eating as much of the grass as they could. But the were very cute, and much cleaner than the llamas were saw in Ecuador. Obviously not wild, and washed occasionally.
At one point, I noticed that it was raining in the distance. And over the mountain that our friendly Señor Ranger called Montaña Feliz, Happy Mountain, there was a double rainbow! Decidedly a happy and lucky and fortuitous mountain!
So it was a wonderful day. A pilgrimage to one of our must-see places around the world - which is appropriate, since some archaeologists and historians believe the Inca Trail is a pilgrimage route, with Machu Picchu as the end of the route. No one knows why it might be the site for a pilgrimage, although for modern travellers it definitely is. As I said earlier, Machu Picchu conjures up images of explorers and lost cities and Inca gold. Definitely the Indiana Jones school of thought, right? (Hiram Bingham's story "Lost City of the Incas" may have been the basis for Indie, at least according to rumors.)
For us, it was "como una sueña" as I told Sseñor Ranger - like a dream! A lifelong dream come true.
And as good as we always dreamed it might be! Maybe even exceeding those expectations!!!
So - a bunch more photos, huge, because Machu Picchu really is that gorgeous!