Machu Picchu

There are a few challenges involved in making a visit to Machu Picchu.  The primary issue is access.  And then there are the crowds that you have to deal with once you are there.  The uncertainty of the weather is also factor.  It rains a lot in Machu Picchu.

The only way for tourists to get to Machu Picchu is to first take the train to Aguas Calientes (also called Machupicchu Peublo), and then take the bus operated by the authorities up the mountain to the ruins of Macchu Picchu itself.  You cannot drive to Machu Picchu, but you can hike the Inca Trail to the place if you have a few days to spare – and the determination, stamina, and physical fitness, to undertake the challenging walk.

We had to get to Machu Picchu early to try to avoid the crowds.  Our train was to leave Ollanthaytambo at 6:40am.  We were up early,  to have breakfast at 4:30am, to prepare our bags to be picked up for checkout by 5:00am, and then checkout and depart from the hotel in Urubamba at 5:30am by bus.  Early morning departures tend to play havoc with the internals of the human system, especially as you get older.  There was a mad rush for the restrooms in the station at Ollantaytambo once we got there, before we boarded the train.P4230014.jpgA short while after the departure of our train from Ollantaytambo, the valley that it was traveling in began to narrow, and we entered a canyon with Urubamba river flowing next to the train tracks.  We were getting into the park area.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe train ride was very comfortable and there were some nice views.  It was difficult to take pictures of the scenery through the window.  We were in the woods and among the trees.  In a short while we were offered some complementary snacks and drinks.  We were traveling on the Inca Rail. (The other train operator to Machu Picchu is Peru Rail.)P4230058.jpgOur tour manager was determined to get our group to our destination quickly, before the crowds.  Based on his experience from trips past, he knew that most people were delayed because they had to stop at the restrooms in Aguas Calientes before boarding the bus.  He devised a strategy that required all of us to use the restrooms on the train before we got to our destination.  He was going to signal to the group when we should starting lining up in front of the restroom on the train in order to use it.  And that was what we did!  It was somewhat amusing to see folks queued up in the narrow corridor, blocking the way, concerned that this might be the last pit stop for a while.  The other passengers in our carriage who were not part of our group must have been wondering what was going on.

The train stopped along the way at a station for the start of the famous Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu.  It is called the Camino Inka-Inka trail.  It covers 26 miles and takes 4 days to complete.  It starts at KM 82 of the train tracks.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou have to cross the river from the train stop to start your trek.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe trail rises immediately on the other side of the river.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt had started raining by the time the train arrived at Aguas Calientes.  Members of our tour group quickly assembled and exited the train.  We headed off in a line towards the bus stop on the other side of a bridge across the Rio Aguas Calientes.  We managed to follow our leader who was carrying a sign above the crowd with the name of the group.  We followed him through an enclosed space of small shops while trying to get ourselves organized with our ticket and the rain gear.  I almost lost my raincoat in the process, but one of the other members of our group picked it up from the floor behind me.  In the chaos of the situation, I could not even get myself organized to take pictures.

Very soon we were near the front of the line for the buses.  We boarded a bus and headed towards the top of the mountain on the Hiram Bingham Highway.  It was quite a steep climb of more than 1000 feet.   There were 13 hairpin bends on this road.

We finally got to use the restrooms once again (for a small fee) before entering the park itself.  These were the last restrooms we saw for next 3 to 4 hours!

Once past the entrance gates, you come upon this sign commemorating the civil engineering work involved in building the Machu Picchu complex.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere was a good climb at the beginning of the walk.  Machu Picchu is close to 8000 feet high.  It is a challenge for some people.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen we arrived at one of the well known viewpoints, we were greeted by a cover of fog  in the valley.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABut the clouds were moving rapidly, and one had to be patient in order to be able to get a view of the ruins.  The mountain to the right side in the above picture is called Huanya Picchu.  You can hike to ruins at the top of that mountain.  That sounded tempting, but that will probably only happen in my dreams!

Our patience was rewarded when I was able to take the picture below from the same location.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe walked further up the hill, and on to the Inca trail.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below shows the Inca trail headed in the direction of a pass in the mountains.  This place was full of temptations to do some real hiking!P4230134.jpgThere were a lot of llamas around the area.  This one looked particularly majestic with its long neck.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It was munching on the grass on one of the terraces.

It rained for a short while we were walking in this area.  Fortunately, the rain did not last too long, nor was it very heavy.

Here are two other views of Machu Picchu from up on the mountainside from which the Inca trail approaches the ruins.  The pictures were taken before we descended into the area of the ruins itself.  The actual peak of Machu Picchu was behind us.  (Again, no time for a real hike!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see the crowds that throng the place in the picture below.  I had thought that the authorities managed the number of tourists visiting the site at any particular time, and that tourists had to be accompanied by guides, but this obviously was not the case.  The place was packed!  Navigating our way through the crowd while staying with our tour group proved to be a challenge.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe passing clouds and the fog gave us some amazing views of our surroundings.  This is indeed an intimidating and otherworldly place to live in.  The Urubamba river flows at the bottom of the valley surrounded by the towering mountain peaks. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile descending to the ruins, we walked past the Temple of the Sun, or the Torreon. Two of the windows face the direction of the rising sun during the solstices.  There is an altar in the middle.  Observe the stone work in the construction of the walls.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below once again shows the nature of the crowds visiting Machu Picchu.  We ourselves had been up there in the higher sections of the mountain that you see in the picture during the initial part of our tour. (We did manage to cover a few miles during our visit to the place!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe picture below shows the temple in the main plaza.  Unfortunately, a part of the wall is collapsing.  Note the precise work with the rocks.  Behind the temple is a hill with the Intihuatana, a rock structure whose function is not exactly understood today.  We climbed to the top to see the rock.  (Inti means sun in Quechua, the language of the Incas.  The sun was a very important deity for the Incas.)  The Intihuantana is the highest point within the complex of the ruins.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe four sides of the Intihuatana represent the 4 cardinal points (north, south, east, and west).  There are mountains particular mountain peaks surrounding Machu Picchu in these directions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe left the ruins after walking through the central plaza area.  I will not post any of those pictures.  I took so many pictures during this visit that I had a hard time selecting the particular ones to show here.  I did not wish this blog to be overwhelming.

The visit to Machu Picchu was supposed to take a couple of hours, but we ended up taking three to four hours.  If I had been on my own, I might have ended up hiking the peaks surrounding the ruins, getting me away from the crowds, and also providing some even more fantastic views of the ruins.  I would actually like to go back, but I have my sincerest doubts that this will happen.

After using the restrooms at the exit to the park, we made our way back by the bus to Aguas Calientes.  We had a nice lunch in a restaurant there, and then caught the 2:30 train to Ollantaytambo.  The picture below was taken from the train.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPeople took time recover during the ride back.P4230286.jpgThese were our tour managers.  They looked exhausted.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAArrival at Ollantaytambo.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Ollantaytambo, we boarded our bus to Cusco, our stop for the next two nights.  The day had been busy and tiring so far.

On the way we stopped to stretch our legs.  This place had a store for tourists, and also hostel rooms for the young and the adventurous.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe travelers were encouraged to take part in a game of Sapo at this stop.  It is a Peruvian game. The general objective is to throw the coins into the open mouth of a frog seated on the box.  You are looking at the winner in action below.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sun set while we were on our way to Cusco.  We stopped along the way to look at the night sky.  I tried to take some pictures but I have not yet mastered the use of my camera in the dark.

Back in Cusco, we checked into our rooms and walked across the road to a restaurant for dinner.  We were advised to eat light because of the altitude.  No red meats, we were told!  I enjoyed a simple plate of spaghetti, something I had not done in a long time.

And then it was off to bed after a very long day.  The next day was to be spent exploring Cusco.


Visit to Ollantaytambo, Peru

We headed out to the town of Ollantaytambo, at the western end of the Sacred Valley, in the afternoon, after the morning trip to Maras and Moray.

Ollantaytambo is an Inca town that existed even before the time of the Spanish conquest.  It served as a fortress, and as an agricultural and religious center.  It saw action during the time of the conquest.  Today, the town is known for its ruins.  According to Wikipedia the town also has some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in South America.  Ollantaytambo appears to be a major tourist attraction in the Sacred Valley.

It took about an hour to get to Ollantaytambo from Urubamba.  We drove through narrow streets of the old town, and then past the town plaza, OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto arrive at the starting point for the climb to the Temple of the Sun.

The Temple of the Sun sits atop Temple Hill at the top of a series of terraces.  The terraces were used for agriculture.  The Incas were well known for the design of their terraces – they had a good irrigation system, and means for drainage of excess water, and you can also see the excellent stonework in the walls of the terraces.  The rocks were cut to fit snugly into each other without the need for mortar.  (The Spanish stonework was extremely crude in comparison.)  The Incas were good civil engineers! OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Pinkuylluna ruins lie on the mountainside opposite the Temple Hill, on the other side of town.  There are trails that go up this mountain and past these ruins.  (I would have loved to explore these trails if we had been on our own.)  The ruins include granaries and other kinds of buildings built into the mountains slopes.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is a closer picture of one of the granaries on Pinkuylluna.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou can see the town sprawled out in front of you as you climb Temple Hill.  The buildings towards the middle of the picture house shops for tourists.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou arrive at the temple at the top of the steps, and the first thing you see is a structure called the Wall of the Six Monoliths.  You can get an idea as to how big these pieces of rock are, and also how perfectly the rocks fit against each other. This is another example of the great Inca construction capabilities.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAbove the Wall of the Six Monoliths, you find an open space with ruins, and you can also see that the ruins extend further up the mountain.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWorthy of note is the fact that this temple was left uncompleted.

This is another view of the town from the level of the temple.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOn the other side of Temple Hill you can see the fields in the valley to the west of Ollantaytambo.  The train to Machu Picchu departs in this direction.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe steps to get to the Temple of the Sun are rather steep.  We were told that the steps here were more regular than at Machu Picchu. Our tour manager had convinced some of us to buy sticks to help with tackling the steps.  It was probably unnecessary.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe stairs were generally crowded – packed with tourists going in both directions.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI noticed that there were other trails on the mountain that led to other destinations beside the Temple of the Sun, including this one.  We, unfortunately, did not have the time for further explorations.P4220389.jpgAfter getting to the bottom of the hill, we had to walk though the shopping area to get back to our bus.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOnce on the bus, we drove past the town square once again to get out of town.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThat evening, after we returned to Urubamba, we went out to a local family home for dinner.  The dinner was an optional part of the tour, and was part of a program set up by our tour group, Gate1, to provide local people with an additional source of income, and at the same time give tourists an opportunity to meet and get to know some of the locals.

We took the tour bus from the hotel to the home we were visiting. As we parked, a door opened to a closed and walled compound to let us in. We walked through a front yard, and then past the kitchen,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto get to the room where dinner was being served.

During dinner, we conversed with the family with the help of our assistant tour manager who served as interpreter.  We were joined for dinner by the matriarch of the family.  She is the older lady sitting to the left of the picture below.  She oversees her clan, including two of her sons who live on the property with their families.  One of the sons takes care of the property, including the garden and its produce.  He sits to the left of the picture in the foreground. His wife, sitting at the far end of the table, prepared the dinner.  (She could not sit with us during dinnertime, but joined us for dessert.)  The other son is sitting on the right side of the table.  He makes artwork out of ceramics.  (We saw his workshop on the way out.)  Dinner was excellent.  We had a unique dessert made out of tree tomatoes grown in their garden.  The quinoa soup was exceptional.  I understand that the dinner was prepared with ingredients from their garden.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAGate1’s dinner program helps the families during hard times.  I understand that occasional flooding is an problem in places like Urubamba and others that depend on agriculture.

Earlier on in the day, we had been a little concerned about going to this dinner because we were scheduled for an early start the next morning – a 5:30am checkout and departure.  But, at the end of the day, we were glad that we visited the family.  It was a simple affair, and it was over early enough in the evening for us to get back to our rooms and prepare for the big day tomorrow!

Next in this series of blogs here.