After nearly six months travelling around South America, I’ve finally arrived at the most popular tourist destination on the continent, Machu Picchu. But there’s more here than just the ancient ruined city at the top of a mountain.
Located deep in the mountains, a 3.5 hour train ride from Cusco or 4 days via the Inca Trail, is a town called Aguas Calientes, meaning hot waters, or hot pools in Spanish. With no road leading into the town, there’s no other way to get than walk or catch the train.
Aguas Calientes is a beautiful little town set on the side of the Rio Urubamba and nestled among the mountains. It’s purely set up for tourists visiting Machu Picchu, meaning if the ruins didn’t exist, neither would the town. There are a vast number of restaurants, hotels, hostels and massage places all for the pleasure of the tourist and the tourist dollar. With so many restaurants, the owners fight to get just a few customers in each night.
I arrived by train at midday and set about investigating the town. With a plan to hike up the 2000 steps to Machu Picchu early the following morning, I headed out towards a nearby set of waterfalls only 45 minutes walk from the town. The trail leads you along the side of the train tracks that wind through the valley.
When I got to the house with an arrow pointing at it and the word cataratas (waterfalls in spanish) on a sign I was sceptical as I couldn’t hear the waterfalls. So, I decided to just keep walking along the trail instead.
It was a pleasant walk with no hills, so I just kept going and going until I came to a place called Santa Teresa and decided to start back. The scenery was absolutely beautiful…
What had begun as a 45 minute walk turned into a 5-hour hike. On the way back, I was able to see a single building from the ruins at the top of the mountain.
While a casual 90-minute walk wouldn’t have been a problem, I wasn’t really prepared for the length I ended up walking. I wasn’t wearing the correct socks and managed to gain a couple of blisters, something that rarely happens to my feet.
The next morning I was up at 4.30 and getting ready for the climb to the ruins. The hostel is prepared for this as breakfast begins at 4am.
The 2000 steps climbing up to the ruins were built in typical Inca style, although with the road winding up the side of the mountain for the buses, I’m sure the stairs weren’t built by the Incans.
The stairs were strenuous on their own although I’ve climbed more difficult mountains, but add the altitude and it becomes challenging. (Add blisters and it’s even worse!) I made it just after 7 when the mass of tourists from the buses were trying to get into the city. This is what I’d expected and why I call Machu Picchu the Disneyland of South America.
I finally got in just before the sun rose over the mountains to shine on the city, lighting it up the stone work in the pinkie yellow of first light.
There’s a lot that can be said about the city, but much of it is speculation and not on my part. There are few signs but beyond telling you where the exit is, they don’t tell you anything about the ruins. No-one’s really sure what the full story behind the city is and I was only able to garner a small amount of information by listening in to the many guides around the different parts of the city.
These two mountains are Huayna Picchu (the shorter) and Wayna Picchu. Wayna Picchu has a temple built atop it with a precarious path leading to it. You need to pre-pay to get to these mountains and I hadn’t.
The ruins were discovered in 1911 when a local advised a US American that there was Incan architecture atop the mountain. He scaled the mountain and discovered the overgrown city.
Machu Picchu was thought to have been built as the winter home of an Incan emperor and is said to have been abandoned before the spanish conquests in 1534. This is one of the many speculations of its existence. The house at the top of the tiers is the highest point in the city and the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain is behind it.
The city was thought to be the lost city of the Incas but many think the lost city is another, larger city, several days away in the jungle. Other stories say that this was an Incan Concubine city for the emperor, with 100-200 concubines living here.
Nestled as it is on the top of a mountain, the city isn’t flat, with many terraces and stairs. Corridors were thin or closed off to protect areas of the ruins, meaning it could be slow going with all the tourists trying to get around.
It takes about two hours to walk around the ruins, but even in the middle of winter it’s very warm during the day. There are large open grassy areas, possibly where crops were sown.
At the end of my walk around the ruins, I decided to climb Machu Picchu Mountain. The stairs up the side were even steeper than those leading up to the city.
I got to a spectacular viewing area about half way up (about the same height as Wayna Picchu). With the altitude, the heat and my general state of exhaustion I decided to forego the rest of the climb and headed back down again.
I found my way to the exit and began descending back down the stairs to Aguas Caliente. At 30°C+ it was very hot going and exhausted, I finally reached the hostel and a welcoming shower.
While Machu Picchu is packed with people – 2500 are allowed there a day – that was the only downside of the ruins. The reconstruction of parts were great and the city overall is amazing. I certainly enjoyed my visit and while expensive, it’s something I had to do, unlike the Inca Trail, where the amount of people would have spoiled my enjoyment.
Next, I am off to Arequipa, a southern city in Peru in hope of hiking through Colca Canyon, a canyon twice as deep as the Grand Canyon in the US.
The Lone Trail Wanderer