Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Peru Part 4: Machu Picchu

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Big day today! Like many other folks, the reason we picked Peru for a vacation was Machu Picchu. Now it was time to see if the site lived up to the hype.

We left our hotel around 7am and took a 40 minute drive back to Ollantaytambo. There was a small market area outside the terminal so you could load up on snacks, bug spray, and alpaca wool items. Inside the station there was a nice cafe and a coffee stand. Our train, The Vistadome, was leaving at 8:29. When it pulled up to the platform the staff checked tickets and passports while marshaling about 200 people into the right trains cars within 3 minutes. The Vistadome has glass ceiling panels allowing you to have a better view of the mountains. We were served a beverage and a snack. The ride to Aguas Calientes took around 90 minutes. On the way we were following the Urubamba River as we passed by some ruins and the entrance to the Inca Trail.

Aguas Calientes is the last stop for the train. It's a town similar to Ollantaytambo in that tourism is its prime focus. Many people stay overnight in Aguas Calientes before or after visiting Macchu Picchu. From here it's a 25 minute ride to the ruins up a windy road. Some people choose to walk. We have no clue how long that takes.

A Peruforless rep was at the station to meet us and showed us to our hotel's bell station to take our overnight bags (the only luggage we could bring on the train) to their property. She then escorted us to a bus and we were off!

The road was narrow with nothing but hairpin turns. As we kept climbing we were able to see more and more of the surrounding mountains and valley below. It was beautiful. Unfortunately the Incans did not value the "wow" factor of what they built and we were able to catch a glimpse of the ruins from the bus.

We got off the bus and met up with our tour guide, Fabricio. We had a few minutes before our tour would start so we went to use the restroom. It costs 40 cents to go in and you had to grab your toilet paper at the door - in front of everyone.

There was a map at the entrance to the site we completely ignored until the last time we left the ruins. Might have been useful to read beforehand....To enter the site you needed pre-purchased tickets (which included your name) and show your passport. This gets a little tiring since you need to leave the park for facilities and food or drink.

Our guide lead us into the park and gave us a real nice tour of most of the important buildings, mountains, and features of Machu Picchu. We learned that Machu Picchu is actually a mountain where the ruins are located. We found out the nicer the stone work, the more important the building. The Incans also had a fountain system running through the site that still works today.  About 35% of the site is still covered in the brush at the lower edges of the site. Machu Picchu is bigger than it looks in pictures. We visited the Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Condor, and saw The Sacred Rock. Incans liked rocks a lot. Our guide took us around the lower parts of the ruins and told us that we were on our own to climb to the top to get the iconic photo.

Photos really can not do it justice. The place is truly beautiful. You have mountains, a valley far below, great buildings, rain forest, orchids, llamas, chinchillas, glaciers in the distance..... Dave could not put the camera down because every turn gave a new opportunity for a great photo.

The mountain in the background in this picture is Huanya Picchu. We paid for tickets to hike it on our second day. We were worried about the hike before we arrived, but after seeing how high and steep it really was we totally bailed on the hike. It's higher than it looks. We were also getting winded just going up 20-30 steps. Doing it for an hour+ didn't seem like a good time. We did another hike in its place that morning to The Incan Bridge. Anyway, back to the tour....

The Incans found symbolism in natural rock formations. Our guide pointed out formations that looked like mummies, kings, a lady laying down, and the fact that Sacred Rock mirrored a mountain right behind it. They were also into hiding symbols in the walls they built. The next photos show a hidden llama (symbol of fertility) and a yin-and-yang like symbol of a chinchilla and a fetus. The chinchilla is a symbol of birth and it was in the temple where the dead's remains were placed to await the trip to the after world (via condor) until reincarnation.

After visiting The Temple of the Condor and seeing the bunny our tour was over. We left to have lunch and to check into our hotel, the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge. This is a very small hotel at the entrance of the ruins, while all the other hotels are a 25 minute ride down to Aguas Calientes. Lunch options by the ruins were the snack bar run by the park, a $35/pp buffet or a la carte dining at the Sanctuary Lodge. Since our hotel included all meals and drinks we went for the a la carte option. Nice meal despite a service mishap.

We went back into park and spent the next 3 hours taking in as much as we could. We started climbing up to the guard house and felt awful. This is when the next morning's hike got the last nail in the coffin. At the top we were rewarded with the iconic view of Machu Picchu. Since this is the view most of us are familiar with, it gave us true appreciation for the size of the entire site. You really only see a small bit of it in these photos. We explored some other buildings and spent a good hour just sitting in the grass taking it all in. With most people catching buses back to town the site was pretty empty around closing time, giving us a virtually private view of everything.

Back at our hotel we had a pleasant evening which included having some time in the hot tub looking at the mountains, listening to the house band playing traditional Andean music, trying Pisco Sours for the first time, and having a fantastic dinner.

Our next morning started early with breakfast and getting to the park at 6am. Lots of people were on line to get in, but the process went pretty quick. We climbed back up by the rock where we took the iconic shot and watched sunrise. Pretty darn nice.

After sunrise we started the hike to the Incan Bridge. This hike took us on a relatively level, but narrow, path towards a back entrance to the site. Folks with height issues may not like this trek either.   Views of the river and valley here were gorgeous.

The Incans built a log bridge here. If invaders came they would drop the logs into the gorge and fend them off with rocks.

The Guard House - Holly's favorite building

The rest of the day was spent exploring everywhere one more time. As Holly put it we were like little kids playing fort. 

We headed down to Aguas Calienties around 2:30 and had a couple beers at a bar that overlooked the river. We hit the tourist market and then boarded our train at 5:30. Our driver met us. At Ollantaytambo with the rest of our luggage and too, us back to Cusco. We got to our hotel at 9:00, ordered some food and drinks, then packed it in. We were wiped out.

More pictures in this slide show (mobile or iPad click here):

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