After 3 days of fun-packed adventure on the Jungle Trail, it was finally time to see Machu Picchu. It’s one of those places I’d dreamt of visiting my whole life, and one of the few places I was happy to get up at 3:30am for.
Aguas Calientes is a strange place, because it comes to life so early in the morning. Its sole reason for existence is to cater for the hundreds of tourists who flock there daily in anticipation of seeing the most impressive ancient city in the world.
For some reason, our tour company had specifically advised us that we wouldn’t need a torch. We were fortunate that one person in the group had brought one anyway. It’s about a 20-minute walk along the road out of town to the first check point.
We joined a queue of eager travellers and waited for the gates to open at 5am. As soon as they did, those with enough energy bounded up the mountainside like they were possessed. The rest of us took the steep steps more steadily, stopping frequently to strip off the layers of clothing we thought we’d need for the dark start.
It’s quite a strenuous path, and the humidity doesn’t make things any easier. About 45 minutes later, we reached check point number two, where we joined our guide and a massive line of lazy tourists who’d paid $18 return for the bus.
There’s a toilet block at the check point that you have to pay S/1 to enter. Be aware that there are no bathrooms once you pass inside the gates of Machu Picchu, although you can come in and out as you please if you keep hold of your ticket. You can also reuse your toilet ticket – something it took me three visits to realise!
If I’m completely honest, I was initially a bit disappointed when we walked out into Machu Picchu. I think this is because the impact of the city doesn’t hit you unless you see it all from a distance and can take in the enormity of it. We strolled onto one of the terraces in the agricultural side of the city and many of the surrounding mountains were still shrouded in mist.
As part of the Jungle Trail, our guide Yoel took us on a tour of the main points of interest. He explained that Machu Picchu means ‘Old Mountain’ and that the city is surrounded by 23,000 hectares of national park. Machu Picchu was a place for pilgrims to come to cleanse their spirits and to learn about Inca techniques.
He said that children around the age of 5 used to be sacrificed by the Incas. They would choose those who were weak, because the Incas strived to be a very strong civilisation.
Machu Picchu was divided into an urban and an agricultural sector. These were separated by a street that was on a techtonic fault. For this reason, the whole city was gradually sinking by approximately 2-3 cm per year. The effect of this could be seen in some of the buildings, which were beginning to collapse. The agricultural sector had been used for cultivating avocado, corn and coca leaves. The coca leaves were grown only as offerings to the Gods.
Machu Picchu had been built using rocks from a quarry above the city. The rocks were split using wooden splints, which expanded when water was poured on them. It would have taken one man one day to prepare one rock and, in total, approximately 20,000 men had contributed to the city’s construction over 13 years. The city and the Incan civilisation had survived until the Spanish arrived and conquered in 1534.
As we walked around the buildings, we saw many llamas, which had been brought to the city to help ‘mow’ the grass. When our guide told us that sometimes the llamas ‘spit to people’, my friend Christina thought he said ‘speak to people’ and actually responded with an astonished ‘How?!’. I think that goes to show how tired we were!
You’re not allowed to eat in Machu Picchu, but our guide led us to a thatched hut where he said we could hide from the security staff. We still got shouted at. We were sitting by a giant rock shaped like a guinea pig and as we ate, a woman came over and placed her hands near the rock as if trying to absorb its energy!
Once the tour was over, Christina and I wandered over to the entrance gate for Huaynapiccu. We’d paid an extra $10 and booked it in advance. Only 400 people are allowed to climb the mountain per day – 200 at 7am and 200 at 10am so tickets sell out fast, sometimes weeks in advance. As we waited, I bumped into Michel, the Swiss guy I’d climbed Cotopaxi with in Ecuador. We both must be suckers for punishment.
It took me and Christina about 50 minutes to climb to the top and it really wasn’t as hard as it looks, aside from the narrow steep paths that could get a bit nerve wracking at times. There are plenty of hand rails in the difficult spots though.
At the top, one group was sharing a beer and we wished we’d thought to bring one, especially given the extortionate prices of food and drink back at the check point – even a small water was S/8 (that’s about £2!). Coming back down, the steps were so steep that I sat down and shuffled along on my backside!
Before our return walk to Aguas Calientes, we strolled up to the gate keeper’s hut. This is one of the best places to get a good view of the whole city with Huaynapiccu behind, and it really should have been the first place Yoel showed us. As you get your typical photo taken here, don’t attempt the ‘jumping shot’ or you will be reprimanded by the security staff! We saw a long line of people holding hands on the cliff side and praying. Machu Picchu sure does attract a lot of hippies.
It started to rain and we hurried back down the mountain, being passed by hundreds of busloads of people who couldn’t even be bothered to walk downhill and save themselves a hefty $9!
We were disappointed to collect our train ticket and find that the agency had booked us in for 9:30pm. This meant we had a lot of time to kill and wouldn’t get back to Cusco until 1am. We passed the time in a roadside restaurant, watching men scurry down the hill with impossibly heavy wheelbarrows of food. At one point, four men hurried past with a guy on a stretcher.
The train was worth the wait. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen carriages with chairs that swivel to face the opposite direction, so you never have to go backwards! At Ollantaytambo, we had to find a woman with a board with our names on, and then it was just an hour and a half on a freezing mini-bus to get back to Cusco. Finally, I was glad to have carried my fleece around for 4 days.