Machu Picchu at Last

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Machu Picchu Peru

At 5:30am this morning, there were several of us from the hotel gathered in the lobby for Oscar to take us to the train station. 

Joining me, there was a family of four from Spain and two grad students from the University of Wisconsin, Vik and Jarron, who were on a 2 week tour of South America. We were all on the same train up and were all planning to spend the night up there and return the next day.

The train from Cuzco to Machu Picchu

The train ride from Cuzco to Machu Picchu town (also known as Aguas Calientes for the hot springs that are nearby) takes slightly less than 4 hours and the scenery is beautiful all the way up. But it’s not just the scenery that makes this ride interesting.

In order to get up the enormous Andean Mountains, the train utilizes a method of “switchbacks”. For the first hour when you leave Cuzco, the train will go forward for about 15 minutes and then stop and go backwards onto a different upward sloping track for another 15 minutes, then forward again on another track. There is actually a train system employee who stands at each point and manually switches the tracks.

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This zigzag process continues until the train has reached the highest point of the journey and then it continues in forward motion for the remainder of the trip.

Aguas Calientas Machu Picchu Town Peru
Arrival in MP town

Unfortunately this morning it was still raining. When we arrived at MP town at 9:45am, there was again someone from my hotel (the Casa Andina) waiting to greet me. Given the choice between heading straight to the bus to Machu Picchu or going to the hotel, I opted to go to the hotel and check-in first figuring I had plenty of time and it’s not like the weather was getting any better.

The folks at Torre Dorada were kind enough to let me leave my luggage in my room for the night I would be at MP so I just had my backpack with a change of clothes to drop at the hotel. A little while later I headed down the street to the Machu Picchu tourist bus stop (everything in Aguas Calientes is walking distance, it’s a very tiny little town) and hopped the next bus up to the ruins.

The Machu Picchu Bus Ride

The bus ride up the mountain is an adventure in itself and not for the squeamish. The road zigzags up the mountain for 30 minutes with sheer drops off the side and nary a guardrail to be found. 

But the drivers must be pretty experienced with this route since I did this trip up and down twice over two days and we didn’t go careening off the side of the mountain even once.

I was disappointed with the weather but I knew I was coming during the rainy season so it wasn’t exactly a surprise. Regardless, I was determined to continue on and make the most of my time up here.

A Little Machu Picchu History…

For the uninitiated – as I was until recently – Machu Picchu was “rediscovered” by Hiram Bingham in 1911. At the time, the Machu Picchu area wasn’t unknown but the ruins themselves remained undiscovered by the outside world until Bingham’s expedition.

He named the ruins Machu Picchu after the mountain they were found on, Machu means old or big, and Picchu is the name of the area. The sugar-loaf mountain that overlooks the ruins is called Hauyana Picchu (small Picchu).

Bingham had discovered not only a lost city of the Incas but a whole lost province that the Incas had miraculously concealed from the Spanish conquistadors (no one knows how they managed to pull this off). 

Within the mountains now enclosed by the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary are numerous Inca roads and ruins, towns, cities, forts, and outposts – everything from humble mud-and-rock structures to castles of magnificent dressed stone – which have only survived the centuries because no one knew they were there.

Alpacas Machu Picchu Peru
Alpacas relaxing at Machu Picchu

No one knows for certain what role the lost city played to the Incas but the generally accepted theory is that Machu Picchu was an agricultural outpost used to maximize the rare and valuable growing zone between the Amazon jungle and the high valleys of Cuzco.

There are also theories that Machu Picchu is a big observatory. It has recently been discovered that at dawn on the winter solstice the sun shines right through the middle of the window in the Torreon, casting a shadow. There are a number of other structures within Machu Picchu that lend further credence to this theory.

Regardless of its original purpose, it is impossible to understate just how impressive the site is as you approach it (rain or no rain).

It was much, much larger than I realized and you could easily spend days exploring every nook and cranny. Obviously, I don’t have that much time (or intense desire for knowledge) so I opted for the scenic route.

Though the rain had let up considerably from earlier in the day, it was still cold and dreary and hard to get great pictures with the clouds covering most of the top of Huayana Picchu.  I spent a few hours wandering around and taking in the beauty of my surroundings before calling it quits and heading back into town with hopes for better weather tomorrow morning before catching the train back to Cuzco at 3:30pm.

Machu Picchu Day 2 – The Sun Finally Emerges

The day started out dreary but not raining so I took that as a good sign and left the hotel in time to catch the 1st bus of the day up to the ruins at 5:30am.

When you visit Machu Picchu, you can take the train up from Cuzco and back down later that same day or get a hotel in town and try to catch the sunrise before heading back. I opted for the later figuring I needed to increase my good weather odds at this time of year.

It turned out to be a good decision – though the morning started out very cloudy, it cleared out by 9am and the sun actually appeared. Hooray!!

Finally, I would get some good pictures. However, before the sun made its appearance, I had some time to kill while the cloud cover was too thick for pictures. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize in advance to my mother for how I decided to fill this time.

Truth be told, I climbed a rather large and scary mountain. This makes perfect sense; I mean what else would you do when you’re already at 10,000 feet? Climb higher! I know how you all love my mountain climbing stories so I will, of course, elaborate.

Machu Picchu Mountain Peru
My view over MP from Machu Picchu Mountain

I didn’t start out planning to climb this mountain (Machu Picchu Mountain to be exact) and I had no idea initially how high it was – as I said, the cloud cover was very thick and I couldn’t even see the top. 

I just started wandering my way through the ruins hoping that if I took my time climbing up somewhere really high, the clouds would eventually clear and I would be in a prime spot for pictures and then could slowly work my way down.

I followed a path going up from the ruins and (innocently) started climbing. After about an hour of climbing basically straight up over sure-footed trails and not, I started to wonder where exactly I was going to end up. 

Every now and then I could see a sliver of Huayana Picchu and the smaller mountain beside it in the distance so I knew I wasn’t anywhere near either of those.

It’s not that I was lost, mind you; I could have easily followed the path back down to where I started at any time. There were a few (very few) other hikers on the trail and I got the sense that none of us really had a feel for our ultimate destination. I just kept thinking that it couldn’t be much further to the top so I pressed on.

The further up I climbed, the more treacherous the trail became. At times it was a very small ledge balancing over a very long drop. But I was buoyed by the fact that the clouds were indeed beginning to clear as I had hoped and the view of the ruins below me (way below me) became too impressive not to continue the hike.

Plus, it was a marked trail so how dangerous could it be? And I was getting some great pictures.

After 2 hours I was only about 100 feet from the top but the trail was getting more suspect by the minute (very small ledges, very long drops). The view was breathtaking enough from where I was and good sense finally prevailed and I headed back down.

Now, you may recall my previous perilous hiking experience up Table Mountain in Cape Town. The great thing about that hike was that once you were at the top, there was this lovely cable car to take back down. Unfortunately, Machu Picchu Mountain offers no such convenience. The only way to get back down is to start climbing.

And since I was even starting to make myself a little nervous – and I did not want to be the subject of a Dateline episode – that’s exactly what I did.

Machu Picchu Peru
Picture-Perfect Machu Picchu

Now, if you’ve climbed a lot of mountains or are even an experienced hiker, you know that the climb down can be just a tricky as the climb up (sometimes even more so).  This was especially true of this particular descent. 

I had trouble enjoying the view on the way down since most of my time was spent trying to keep my footing solid on the sometimes slippery rocks. 

Eventually, I made it back down safe and sound but I imagine I will be feeling that hike for days to come. 

Side note: Those few other hikers that I saw on the way up, I never saw again on the way down so either they fell off the side or they were smart enough to give up before I did.

I spent a few more hours taking pictures in the sunlight and exploring the ruins then headed out to catch the bus back down.

Husky Machu Picchu Peru
Machu Picchu husky singing for his supper

As I was walking down the stairs to the bus stop, a 4-legged blur whipped past me going the other direction. I thought it might have been a husky but he was moving so fast I couldn’t tell – clearly, a dog on a mission. So, of course (dog lover that I am), I turned around and followed him.

He made straight for the concession/picnic table area just before the entrance and when he got there he immediately got everyone’s attention by singing in that howling tone that huskies do. Everyone thought he was very cute and immediately gave him all their food (well, mostly).

Those of you who know how much I love huskies will understand when I say it was all I could do not to try to squeeze him into my carry on bag and take him home. He clearly had his routine down and wasn’t hurting for food. Very cute.

I finally left him and took the bus back down around 1pm in time to have some lunch and catch my train back to Cuzco where Oscar was cheerfully waiting to pick me up. Vik and Jarron were on my train as well so we all got in the car with Oscar and asked him to drop us off at the Plaza de Armas so we could grab something to eat before heading back to the hotel.

They had had a big day of hiking as well (though up Huayana Picchu instead…amateurs) so we were all starving and exhausted. We grabbed dinner at a restaurant on the square and then walked around a little but I was beat and Jarron wasn’t feeling well so Vik was outnumbered and we called Oscar to come pick us up around 9:30pm.

I’m so excited that I was finally able to check Machu Picchu off my Bucket List. Ill-advised hike aside, it was truly an incredible experience to see this beautiful site for myself. In fact, I consider it one of my Top 30 most extraordinary travel experiences around the world.

Here are 29 more if you’re curious: Around the World in 30 Extraordinary Travel Experiences

Next up, Lima!