We left early from Cusco. For various logistical reasons, the Peruvian wake-up time seems to be four or five AM. This time, we had a 6:30 pickup, got to the train station about 20 minutes away and waited to board. We took a long, slow train ride to get to Macchu Picchu, because there aren’t any roads to the base town. En route, we saw a lot of the local people and landscape. It is a beautiful ride and the train has skylights so you can see the mountains overhead as well. What we did not know is that our train was low priority and was sharing the tracks with other trains. We occasionally had to pull over into a side track and wait 10 minutes or more for another train to pass. It ended up taking about an hour longer than scheduled. Now I know how trains can be days late in Bolivia – the state of the tracks (or track, as the case may be) is what determines it. But hey, Tom & I met a nice couple across from us who were newlyweds, and they patiently allowed us practice our Spanish.
We arrived ready to see the big show above Aquas Calientes, the tiny town that “hosts” Macchu Picchu (it used to be comprised of only a couple of farms). First, though, we had lunch to prepare against the coming exertion. I got a quesadilla that had chicken, green beans, red peppers and no cheese in a crepe. Note to self: stick to Peruvian cuisine. Then we were ready to go – thank goodness our travel companions Nick & Barbara lent us some bug repellent. As it turned out, the Andean mosquitoes leave nasty little bites, different than the ones in Indonesia or Tanzania and just as unpleasant. Ah, diversity. Full of anticipation, we all got on the Macchu Picchu bus and headed up the road. They have a fleet of these large Mercedes buses, at least twenty of them (they are numbered). Turns out, we had found a road that rivals the Himalaya road for sheer heart-stopping potential. It wasn’t the worst I’ve been on. It was a short distance and not raining, and that’s the only reason. Our guide told us a joke about a priest and a Macchu Picchu bus driver who died the same day. Upon reaching the Pearly Gates, the priest hurried in front of the driver, expecting to be admitted directly to heaven. He made his case to Saint Peter with some arrogance, explaining how he had been a minister of the Lord his whole life and saved many souls. St. Peter told him to wait. He asked the bus driver about himself, heard about his job, and immediately sent him on to heaven. The priest, indignant, asked why he was not immediately admitted, and St. Peter told him: “On Sundays, people slept in your church. But the Macchu Picchu bus driver, he had people praying every single day!”
Even from the bus, the scenery was beautiful. You could see the great mountains, though not yet the city atop them. I wondered what it would be like – I really had no idea. And then we got there and saw it. Wow. It is mysterious, moving, enigmatic, and there is so much I cannot tell you, even if I wanted to, because so little is known. I suppose, for me, the most striking part about Macchu Picchu is the location. It is so beautiful up on the top of the Andes, seeing so many steep mountainsides, and sharp valleys all at once. It must have been wonderful to have such a place as your “backyard”. I don’t know how anyone could be in these mountains and not be moved. No wonder the Incas worshipped the earth mother. It is inspiring.
Truly, the Inca people built magnificent places. They were planners -big time civic planners. My friends at NASA could probably relate to the amount of planning that clearly went into any Inca building. They had drainage, retaining walls far below the main city, a temple, another city in planning on a nearby mountain top, an agricultural area and a city area. There was a guard/caretaker house at the top of the city and the few entrances to the city were secured. Much has been found here, but also, much has not. It is theorized at this point that perhaps Macchu Picchu was meant to be a trading station and a school of astronomy and agriculture, and perhaps religion. The location is close to the Amazon and what was once a neighboring trading society. It is tropical; there are birds of paradise, orchids, bananas, avocados and other tropical plants in the area. When supply lines from the capital at Cusco were cut off by the Spaniards, it is estimated that the Incas left Macchu Picchu, taking most of their treasure and daily belongings with them. Burial sites have been found here, and it is mostly women who were in the graves, leading scholars to theorize that it was a place where men were transient and women were not, such as a university or a religious post. There are small stones deposited near one of the alters, and those stones are from all over South and Central America, leading scholars to think maybe this was also a place of pilgrimage. Even today, many people believe that one of the sacred stones here is a source of great spiritual energy, and they come to draw strength from it.
The BBC’s travel web site says this: “Visitors should be aware that visiting any Inca site can be a physical activity. Even if you opt not to make the climb to the ruins by foot, you face some tough walking along the mountain within the ruins, with uneven footing, steep ascents and descents and vertiginous drops next to narrow paths.” No kidding. That’s the understatement of the year. The stairs are inconsistent, sometimes very steep and other times shallow. It is not an easy climb, but it is do-able, even for a non-hiker. Our partners in crime, retirees Nick and Barbara, gave it their best shot, and I was very impressed that despite some trouble with the stairs, Barbara kept at it and managed to do the whole walking tour the first day. You go, Barb! I was all right, though my knees were sore at the end of the day. There were stairs (no railings) that seemed to descend right off into sheer vertical nothingness. It’s an acrophobiac’s nightmare, I think, and I experienced some vertigo a couple of times. But you feel, at the same time, almost like you are an eagle atop an eyrie. The freedom is intoxicating.
At the end of day one, we were tired, but finally we decided to go ahead and go back on the second day for more hiking, more photos, and just being in Macchu Picchu. I am so glad we did. It was truly marvelous.