To get to Machu Picchu, you can either get the truly authentic experience by walking like the ancestors from Cuzco or you can get there by train like the tourists. Since we weren’t fooling anyone, we took the tourist path. We took the train. Our train departed at 6 am from Cuzco to Machu Picchu. After about 20 minutes of travel (potentially less), the train stopped, and we started going BACKWARDS for 5 to 10 minutes. Perhaps the train had taken the wrong track? Not reassuring. After going forward for another 5 to 10 minutes, the train stopped AGAIN to go backwards. This time, we noticed that the scenery heading backwards was different from that which we saw before. That’s when an announcement came on indicating that the train was actually taking a series of four back and forth switchbacks down the mountain because it is too steep for regular railroad curves. We had never experienced a train ride like that. We just wish the scenery was better: there was tons of garbage around the tracks near the towns, a phenomenon that’s typical of a lot of cities we have traveled to. There were a few stops along the way, including Ollantaytambo. If you ever travel by train to Machu Picchu from Cuzco, we suggest you take a taxi to Ollantaytambo, and then board the train there. It took us around 4.5 hours to get to Machu Picchu.
Upon arrival, we saw a sign for the hotel we were staying at: The Sanctuary Lodge. We dropped off our luggage with the porters there, and then walked through the souvenir market, across the street, to the Rio Urubamba bridge where the buses are located. The tour book indicated that a one way ticket to Machu Picchu grounds is US$4.50, but it cost US$6.00. All the prices have inflated since the publication of the book in January 2004. We think prices continue to go up each year because… well, they can, since tourists continue to come.
The bus we took us directly to the entrance of Machu Picchu where the Sanctuary Lodge is located. The Sanctuary Lodge (which is owned by the same group as Hotel Monasterio in Cuzco) is the ONLY hotel at Machu Picchu. As you can imagine, the proximity and exclusivity means that it is the most expensive hotel in the area. We paid ~US$550/night. If you think that’s a lot, Jenny told us that they are raising rates next year and will be charging US$800/night! Even though that price includes all meals, decent accommodations, TV (3 channels but only one in English: CNN), and great proximity to the site, it is still way overpriced. An average of 2,500 people come to Machu Picchu during the high season: 2,000 by train and 500 by the Inca Trail. The best time to come is May and the first two weeks of June where only 300 to 400 people come and the weather is nice.
While waiting in the lobby, we noticed that there was a framed letter on the wall written by Henry Bingham, the [great] grandson of Hiram Bingham. Hiram was the American historian who “discovered” Machu Picchu in 1911 while on a quest to search for Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Incas. Machu Picchu was covered in thick vegetation, and only the locals knew of its location.
During our mediocre buffet lunch we discussed our plans for that day and the following one. One of our plans was to climb Huayna Picchu (”young peak”) which is next to Machu Picchu (”old peak”). As we were eating, Jenny pointed to this mighty steep and high mountain and told us that it was Huayna Picchu. It didn’t help that Eugene had purchased a book on Machu Picchu which said that even thought it is accessible by almost anybody (I highly doubted that), to be very careful and not attempt it after it is raining since the steps will be slippery and possibly treacherous. It also specifically said not to rely on the foliage to break your fall and that a tumble can be fatal. Great.
After lunch, we went directly outside to buy tickets to enter Machu Picchu. The tickets cost S/77 each (they don’t take US dollars!), and despite saying that the entry fee is for two days, the “2″ is crossed out, so they in effect double prices, although we’re not quite sure when they did that. Most tours had already finished for the day, and the hotel staff said that it would take at least an hour for a guide to arrive. Instead, we loitered around the entrance and tried to see if we could hire somebody on the spot. As it turned out, we ran into this guy who had just finished a tour and was only too happy to make an easy extra US$40 and show us around for a couple of hours.
We should mention that in the three hours we had spent at Sanctuary Lodge, we saw two injured people come out of Machu Picchu! One person was in a wheelchair (and obviously WASN’T in one before going inside), and an older woman was hauled out in a stretcher with blood coming out of her head. With this backdrop, we expected the grounds to be very dangerous, but it wasn’t at all. It was magnificent and spectacular!
Machu Picchu was built in 1450 and developed for 50 years. It was never finished. One day, the Incas left and abandoned the area. Nobody knows why. It wasn’t to avoid the conquering Spaniards, because they never made it there. We were told that at its peak, a population of 700 Incas lived there – only priests and engineers, no common folk. Being built between two geographic fissures, it has excellent shock absorption to withstand earthquakes. They also built a sophisticated drainage system to route water from the mountain. As with most Inca architecture, there is a series of terraces for planting, temples for worship, and six wide plazas for people to congregate. Approximately 70% of the area is exposed and the remaining 30% will be cleared over the next ten years.
All the temples in Machu Picchu are built without mortar (sound familiar?). The natural color of the stones are white, but it takes only a few weeks for them to turn grey by the lichen. The quality of the stones are determined by the purpose of the structure. There’s one wall where the stones are incredibly smooth for the temple, and then look noticeably rougher where it turns into the wall for the high priest’s accommodation.
The buildings in lower Machu Picchu are built with rustic stones where the plebians (engineers) lived. Our guide said 4 to 5 people lived in each room/house. The rooms of some of the homes have been rebuilt, complete with thatching to show tourists what they would have looked like thousands of years ago.
The Sun Temple is easily identified because it is round and below it is a cave-like structure known as the “Royal Tomb” which is really the Temple of Mother Earth. Important people were mummified back then, and they found some mummies inside. To my disappointment, there is no evidence of human sacrifice at Machu Picchu (I kept on threatening to use Lauren as a test subject throughout the trip), although the bodies of pre-pubescent sacrificial children have been found in the mountains of other areas. Unlike the Aztecs in Mexico, however, we don’t think these rituals were performed on a regular basis. In addition to the usual moon temple, star temple, etc. one of the more interesting structures is an unfinished building our guide called the “energy place” because there are strong magnetic fields there. He said that a lot of people come here to expressly experience it. One neat thing about this place is that there are a series of holes in the wall, and if you talk into it, you can hear the sound reverberate throughout the building.
Fortunately, Machu Picchu is a natural quarry, so it wasn’t necessary to haul boulders from neighboring surroundings. The Incas would find stones with a natural fissure and then use it to determine where to split the rock. There’s one rock where it looks like copper and bronze tools are used to chisel and break the rock, but that isn’t attributable to the Incas: it is a rock that a modern archeologist tried to split using ancient Egyptian methods.
We had a long discussion regarding vegetation and diet with the tour guide. There are 300 species of orchid found in the area! Orchids are beautiful but they seem quite fickle and difficult to grow. We talked at length about the coca leaf. It is an important part of the local “diet” because it contains a lot of minerals and vitamins. People chew about one pound a day (7 to 8 pounds of coca leaf generates 1gram of cocaine). Although it is legal to buy, sell and chew coca leaf, it is illegal to grow. Go figure? One pound of coca leaf only costs S/1 so it is very cheap. Jenny informed us that the stories about Coca-Cola used to containing cocaine are true: it is because coca leaf is/was an ingredient (hence the name). Over time, however, they extracted the cocaine… at least from North America.
We noticed that there were some llamas in Machu Picchu, but were told that they were only brought up there for the tourists. Back in the day, the Incas grew and ate corn, potato and kenois (sp?). “Kenois” is a cereal which was used to make food such as soups and pancakes. It was especially important because it contains both protein and calcium. North Americans typically drink milk for that, but cows were rare in Peru, and alpacas don’t create enough milk. Crops were built on the terraces and moved from one level to the next over time to acclimatize them.
Like most ancient societies, the Incas were quite hierarchical. There were approximately 500 Incas (royalty) at the top of the food chain, and then men practiced polygamy. Next came the nobility (priests) and there were approximately 2 million of them. At the bottom where the poor 15 million or more farmers. Back then, there was no currency and no ownership of property. The farmers would pay taxes with labor. Each year, the farmers would spend six months building and six months farming. We already told you about how they placed buildings to align with astronomical phenomenon. That’s part of a much larger concept called Tahantinsuyo and can be illustrated with a drawing that exhibits the importance of the numbers four (the four magnetic corners: N, S, E, W), three (the number of worlds: condor, puma and snake), two (duality, similar to yin & yang), and one (the creator). There’s an Intihuatana in Machu Picchu, and the principal granite base points to the four magnetic corners. It is now cordoned off by rope because some years ago, a filming crew made a beer commercial there, and the crane swung into the Intihuatana and broke a piece off!
After our tour guide left, we climbed to the top of the Watchman’s Hut. It had started to rain, so Eugene and Jenny decided to go back. We wanted to wait it out and then head to Intipunku, the Sun Gate. As we sat there enjoying the scenery (most people take a shot of Machu Picchu there), I admit I checked my Blackberry. Lauren wishes she had taken a photo of me if only to email it to the head of my firm. Sitting next to the Hut, we could barely make out the voice of somebody singing. That’s when we looked over and saw some guy in red pants singing and dancing. We wondered what it was all about: was he performing an official Inca ceremonial dance? Was he just a nut case? Fortunately, it wasn’t raining that heavily, and we even managed to take a photo of a rainbow.
It takes anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes to trek to Intipunku. Most people head up there first thing in the morning to watch the sun rise, but I wanted to check it out in case we were unable to go there the next day. It is all uphill, but the road is paved, and the slope is quite gentle. The Sun Gate is actually where people walking the Inca Trail first show up when they arrive in Machu Picchu. We must say, it was quite underwhelming. You can take some interesting shots of Machu Picchu from there, but we had expected a lot more. Since we had started late heading up to Intipunku, we were very late returning to the Machu Picchu. In fact, it was quite dark when we got back, and we were the last two people to leave.
We had dinner at Sanctuary Lodge and the quality of the food was about the same as lunch. A Peruvian band played while we ate, and as we have experienced at every restaurant where there is a live band, one of the band members came around selling CDs after they finished. I call the music “Peruvian Gamelan”. When we went to Indonesia, we heard gamelan music EVERYWHERE. Much as we love Indonesia, and especially Bali, we were sick of it after a few days. The Peruvian equivalent is better, but not something we would choose to listen to. We planned the next day’s itinerary as we ate: meet at the front gate at 6a.m., head up to Intipunku, return for breakfast, and then climb Huayna Picchu.
The following day we received a call at 5:30a.m. It was our traveling companions. Jenny was up all night with food poisoning, so we were on our own. Even though we were at the front gate by 5:50 a.m., we were completely unprepared for the long line that had already formed at the ticket office. By the time we bought our tickets, it was already 6:15 a.m. so there was insufficient time for us to head up to Intipunku to watch the sunrise. So if you ever go: be sure to buy the next day’s tickets in advance! Instead, we headed up to the Watchman’s Hut again to watch the sunrise. We thought it would rise over the direction of the Sun Gate (since everybody says to head to Intipunku to watch the sun rise), we were surprised to see it come from a different direction. I wonder what’s the big deal about watching sun rise from Intipunku? Maybe it is not the fact that the sun rises over the Sun Gate (which it doesn’t), but the ability to see Machu Picchu gradually light up from afar as the sun rises.
We went back for a quick breakfast before heading to Huayna Picchu. If you ever go, start early because it starts getting busy at around 10 a.m. They only allow 400 people into Huayna Picchu each day (you have to sign in and out), and even though it is open from 7a.m. to 4 p.m., the last admittance is at 1 p.m.
Lauren was really nervous all the way up to Huayna Picchu. After about 5 minutes, the path split off with directions to Hicchu Picchu and Wayna Picchu (different spelling of Huayna Picchu). The path is incredibly well marked like a US park so you can’t get lost. The path to Huayna actually starts with a cabled portion descending down to the saddle between Huayna Picchu and Una Picchu, before the long climb upwards begins.
As we headed up, we couldn’t help but think about the Incas who had to carry rocks and lay the path up to the summit. Partially up the mountain, the path forks with one route heading towards the Temple of the Moon. We took the other one and head to the top of Huayna Picchu via what’s known as the Storehouse Route.
Even if you are afraid of heights, you should definitely push yourself to make it to the summit. The view from the top is SPECTACULAR. After passing the Sacred Rock check point, we stopped at the viewing platform where there’s a phenomenal view of ALL of Machu Picchu. I went to the edge of the platform while Lauren stayed a good 15 feet back and screamed at me to be careful since it was a straight drop from where I was standing. We took some great photos at the edge with Machu Picchu as a backdrop.
After admiring the view, we passed by the Usnu, which is an elegantly raised platform which is a symbol of power and government. It was used as an altar for prayer and scarifice as well as being some sort of throne/seat. The Usnu was off to the side and required climbing some precarious steps.
We continued to ascend to the very top of Huayna Picchu. After navigating several boulders and slopes, we reached a V-shaped seat carving on the edge of a rock. Later we found out that this seat carving is the highest point of Huayna Picchu and points to Mount Salcantay which is a holy mountain 20 miles away. To start the descent down, we had to somehow negotiate down a huge sloped granite rock. Some gutsy (aka foolish) guys RUN down the rock.
Upon reaching the bottom of the granite thoroughly shaken but unscathed, we saw a sign pointing to the direct route Temple of the Moon. Let me tell you about the “direct route” to the Temple of the Moon. It is definitely a short cut, because you travel 1,250 feet (380 meters) horizontally over 2,600 feet (800 meters) vertically, resulting in an average slope of 48%. One of our guide books said it is “not well maintained”, “daunting”, and provided several warnings not to hike the path alone (it is not well traveled) and can result in a fatal fall. Even the guide from the previous day had warned us not to take that route so we bypassed it and went the traditional route past a two story security building and storehouse with three windows and a panoramic view on the southeast side.
This traditional route is called the Tunnel Route and eventually meets up with the Storehouse Route. To go down, you have to descend a long, steep staircase which had hanging terraces to the west, below the storehouse. People had expected corn to be cultivated on these terraces, but they have actually found traces of mate (pronounced “ma-TAY”) instead. Mate is tea, and is used in a brew called aramatio, which has stimulant properties. Some people actually walked sideways down the staircase, but Lauren decided to sit on the steps and go down face forwards. Most people do it this way. Unlike in other places, in case of a fall, Lauren wouldn’t actually fall off the mountain, but would barrel into everybody else going down the stairs in front of her and they’d all go down like bowling pins.
When we got to the fork in the road, we took the other route to the Temple of the Moon. This temple is all the way at the bottom of the mountain which was discovered in 1936. We’ve read conflicting things about this temple: some say that it is just called Temple of the Moon but has nothing to do with moon worship. Others say that the cave there is flooded with moonlight as an analog to the Sun Temple at the end of the day when the sun sets and the moon rises. Who knows? Frankly, I thought the Temple of the Moon looked like a great, secluded place for human sacrifices!