After a few weeks going nowhere in Pisaq (and hence the lack of blogging), Machu Picchu called. The Inca ruins of Machu Picchu – “The Lost City” – is arguably the most significant archeological site in South America, and the most visited. Many walk to Machu Picchu, along the Inca Trial; most take the train; but we (me and my Chilean amiga, Paulina) chose to take the little-travelled back route and ride the bike there.
Trekkers and train-riders approach the village of Aqua Calientes – the ‘base camp’ for Machu Picchu – along the Urubamba Valley from the south. There is no road to Aqua Calientes, but a dirt track reaches to within about 10km from the north. This was to be our route. To reach this track required a four and a half hour drive from Pisaq. Leaving the Sacred Valley an Ullantaytambu, the road climbs 1500m into the high mountains and crosses the pass shrouded in cloud. It then drops 3000m into a valley thick with mountain jungle; a totally different world from the Sacred Valley and the Altiplano; hot, lush, with a languid feel in the air, even the locals feel and look different to those I have become accustomed to.
We arrived in Santa Teresa, where we would leave the bike, late in the afternoon. The following day we spent a lazy day at the hot springs beside the Urubamba river. Too lazy, in fact – by the time we had taken a taxi to the end of the road from where we would set off on foot, there were only 30 minutes of daylight left. Following the train tracks, we walked for two hours through the jungle. In darkness we lost the views, but gained the solitude of the night, being the only people making the trek at that hour.
Aqua Calientes comes as a bit of a shock to anyone, but even more so after walking through the tranquility of a jungle night. It exists solely to serve the thousands of tourists making the trip to the ruins, several hundred metres above the valley. Hotels, hostels, restaurants and souvenir shops, with the railway running through the heart of the village in lieu of a high street…. and so many people. It was a little overpowering, but all part of the experience.
The rush to the ruins starts early. We were up by 5.45am and on the street by 6.30am, but nevertheless found a long queue for the buses which finish the journey up series of switchbacks ascending the mountain side. I’m not sure why everyone is up so early – I assume it is because many people want to take the train back to Cusco later that day. I have been reluctant to visit Machu Picchu due to the crowds, but the splendour of Machu Picchu overshadows the volume of people. It is a truly enchanting and beautiful place, perched high on a mountain ridge and surrounded by breath taking mountains. You can’t help envy the Incas when you imagine them living in such isolated splendour. As I said after visiting the Pisaq ruins, they certainly knew where to build their towns and temples…
Expecting a sea of tourists, we went armed with our own crowd-mitigation strategy. The site closes at 5pm. So around 4.15pm, we descended from the ruins and found a secluded spot on the terraces below, out of site of the guards. We then emerged at dusk, climbing back to the ruins which were now deserted. For a few minutes we had the magical place to ourselves. Then came the task of leaving the now-locked site. The guards at the gate were surprised – and I think a little irritated – to see us emerge from the gloom. We played it dumb, pretending to speak no Spanish, and they soon lost patience with us. We were through the gates, and set off walking down the mountain to the village. Back to the madness of Aqua Calientes. The next day we back-tracked along the railway and then continued back to Pisaq on the bike.
I’ve visited most of the ‘must see’ places between Ushuaia and here during my trip, only to be underwhelmed on nearly every occasion by the experience, as I fight my way through the crowds of camera-toting tourists. Machu Picchu had the most tourists of all, but on this occasion this ‘must see’ destination lived up to the hype. Truly special…