Machu Picchu, Peru – It’s not surprising that Machu Picchu is stunning, awesome, amazing, and any other sort of descriptor of that sort you might come up with. We did a pretty straightforward tour. That meant not being there at seven in the morning to climb to the top of Wayna Picchu, the sacred mountain – limited access by arrangement anyway – a maximum of 400 people a day, and only allowed to start up the mountain between 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. No, we took the train from Cuzco… which is a fascinating experience in itself – I had never thought about how a train might go up and over steep mountains – I guess I’d sort of pictured the Little Engine that Could puffing away straight up and over. Nope. The train heads up a track for somewhere around a kilometer – sort of cross the mountain and slightly up. Then, the track switches, the train reverses, and goes up another length of the track… essentially zig-zagging it’s way up the mountain a bit at a time. What’s more interesting is there’s only one engine – so about half the time, the train’s actually running in reverse and the engineer can’t see where he’s going – a conductor stands at the back of the train to watch for any problems. Once we reached the top of the mountain around Cuzco after nearly an hour of zig-zagging, we headed out on a winding, serpentine road (I kept hearing Peter Falk’s voice yelling “Serpentine, Shel! Serpentine!” – if you don’t know, I leave it to you to find out) for about another four hours.
I got to find out that Machu Picchu wasn’t what I thought it was. It’s not the former capital city of the Incan Empire – that’s Cuzco. It’s not the “final stand” of the Incas – that’s a mountaintop city miles away and hidden up in the hills, called Vilcabamba. It’s not the spot where the annual sun god festival is held – as mentioned in an earlier post, that’s Sacsayhuaman, right outside the city of Cuzco. It’s not even the main mystical spot for folks into that sort of thing – there are several, depending on what they’re up to in particular.
Here’s the problem with Machu Picchu. It’s not the place itself. It’s the setup. It’s touristy. No, really. Really Touristy. They get more than 2,000 visitors a day, packed into buses 30 at a time that rocket up the hill from the town of Aguas Calientes below. The bus drivers make Buenos Aires’ bus drivers look like amateurs. These guys go up hairpin curves, right up the mountain, as fast as they can. Roughly every minute or so they have to slam on their brakes as a bus coming in the other direction suddenly appears, and both skid to stops, often no more than a few feet apart. Did I mention the road is one lane? Yup. But every 100 meters or so, there’s a slightly wider point, and whoever’s closer to one, or whoever feels like backing up, backs up along those same hairpin curves to a wider point so they can pass. It’s completely nerve-wracking. Meanwhile, there are native children in costume running around on the roads, and up and down the hiking paths and stairs (this is part of the Inca Trail after all)… in fact, there’s a group of children who take turns racing each bus to the bottom of the hill – the same kid will keep appearing on the side of the road as you pass (they run down the steps at full speed) – they, and the drivers, have it all timed out of course, it’s part of the show… for requested tips at the bottom.
Entering Machu Picchu itself is an exercise in patience. There’s paperwork to complete, and of course, it’s not cheap (121 soles for foreigners, or about $40) by local standards – after paying for both the train and the bus – figure on about $130-140 in total. There’s a line to stand in and get cleared to enter. Then you group up with your guide (assuming you’re with one). Then you start climbing. And climbing. You’re also vying for space along pathways with other tour groups. The Babel of languages is constant, and every guide seems to have their own preferred spots to head to. Our guide met up with another guide, and between them they decided not to each do their tours in both Spanish and English, instead, splitting up the groups into one of each… which unfortunately meant that since there were only five people who didn’t speak Spanish, the guide we went with ended up with more than fifty people in his group while the better of the two English speaking guides headed off with his five. If Henry spoke more English, we’d have gone with him. So our group just added to the congestion as we went. Overall, it was still an amazing experience, but one marred by the huge numbers of people everywhere (before someone notes that several of my photos seem to show virtually no people, the main temples on Machu Picchu are closed to the public, you can look, but only from afar).
I’ll leave the rest to the pictures – it’s probably nearly impossible to take any photos that haven’t been taken before of this city, but so be it…