Once I got to Cusco, I thought: Naaah – too expensive and too touristy!
However, after seeing some of the ruins, like Saksaywaman and Pisac in the Sacred Valley, I thought I must go and see Machu Picchu. And I was going the expensive way – by train! So I sold one of my kidneys and bought a return ticket to Aguas Calientes with Inca Rail. The only other way to get there is walking for 12km from some hydroelectric station; no roads lead to Aguas Calientes, which is the town that caters to Machu Picchu visitors. I’d heard that the town was a bit of a dump, just there for the tourist dollars. This is true in a way, but it is also quite nice and its location is stunning! Nestled among steep peaks of cloud forest covered mountains, it sits about 500 vertical meters below Machu Picchu.
Expensive it may be, but the train ride is certainly the most scenic and beautiful I’ve ever been on. I caught it in Ollantaytambo, about 1 hour bus ride from Cusco. The train departs from said town (which has pretty impressive ruins of its own) and snakes through rather barren, rocky mountains along the Urubamba River. Eventually, the scenery becomes greener and the mountain sides steeper, until it winds its way through thick jungle. For some reason, this was quite a surprise for me! I didn’t picture Machu Picchu being in the jungle. About 1 1/2 hours later (per kilometre, this tis the most expensive train in the world!), we disembarked in Aguas Calientes and immediately had to fight our way through the jungle of handicraft stalls and souvenir stands of the local tourist market, which is located between the train station and the town. Like I mention earlier, the town was a pleasant surprise. Yes, its main reason for existing are the Machu Picchu visitors, and yes, it is expensive and touristy, but still, I kinda liked it.
I didn’t manage to get a ticket to enter the ruins in the early morning (this is the main season), so I didn’t have to get up early, which was just as well. After a night in a somewhat noisy hostel in Aguas Calientes, I had a local brekkie and made my way to Machu Picchu. I didn’t realise that 500 vertical meters involve that many steps and I also underestimated the heat. After battling my way up the many many steps, I finally got to the entrance at about noon. As expected, it was crowded. I entered and thought I might just as well continue climbing and made straight for the sun gate, Inti Punku. Although there were plenty of people, it wasn’t terribly crowded and one could walk around without having to yell at other tourist to get the f-“beep”-ck out of the way. Despite the heat and intense sun, I very much enjoyed myself and I think I ended up going at a time where the really big crowds weren’t there. The location is magnificent and the complex of Machu Picchu is huge, sitting on the tip of a very steep-sided mountain, with mind-blowing views in all directions. It’s worth visiting, it really is that good!
The Inca certainly knew how to choose a location! The views are like no other I’ve seen and the climate is quite pleasant too. It still keeps most of its mysteries; scientists are still not sure about the building techniques and what exactly it was used for. The most widely accepted theory seems to be that Machu Picchu was a retreat for inca royalty, which considering the location, makes total sense to me. Had it been permanently occupied, the spaniards probably would’ve found it. It lay abandoned for centuries before Hiram Bingham rediscovered it and brought it to international attention in the early 20th century. Local farmers have always known about it, though, and used its terraces to grown their own crops. However, the main part of the structure remained hidden underneath thick jungle.
Pretty knackered from the hike and the heat, I returned to Cusco that night with another very memorable travel experience under my belt.