The next day on my itinerary there was a trip scheduled to Peru’s own home-grown contender for “8th Wonder of the World”, Machu Picchu. The trip started badly (again), the driver arrived 10 minutes late. Then after getting away, we had got as far as the outskirts of the Municipalidad when as a matter of course I queried the driver to make sure he was in possession of my tickets for the rail journey and entrance to the Inca site. Incredibly he didn’t have them! He thought I had them! He quickly phoned the tour organiser who indicated that the hotel receptionist was holding the tickets and had been supposed to have given them to me when we left. The driver sped back to Utaytambo nearly cleaning up half a dozen semi-comatose early morning strollers ambling insouciantly across the road on the way. Fortunately the errant but smiling receptionist was waiting outside in the road with the tickets, so the driver was able to curtly grab them and hare off once again without getting out of the vehicle.
My driver proceeded to drive like a maniac (or if you prefer – like your average Peruvian motorist!) to get me to the Ullantaytambo railway station where I was to pick up the PeruRail train to Machu Picchu. Passing through the ingreso I was on time for my scheduled train but unfortunately the PeruRail organisation setup at the station was a shambles. There were delays, trains were waiting on the track for a long time but we weren’t allowed to board them. The train that I was told was my one came an hour later and duly went. To my surprise, although the station was packed with would-be boarders for Machu Picchu, each arriving train only contained two or three carriages! It was reassuring to reflect on the fact that PeruRail was functioning at the lofty standard of railways worldwide! I did have to admit however that the railway staff at PeruRail were extremely polite – if not particularly useful. In frustration I forced my way onto the platform and into the queue for the next train. Although the journey number on my bolero de acceso (ticket) didn’t correspond, I was allowed on to the train much to my relief.
The train went to Aguas Calientes which is the rail terminus for MP. On the way, the scenery was really picturesque, a full, flowing river with the stunning postcard backdrop of the Andes mountains, which was just as well because the trip was a very long haul. At Aguas Calientes the local Chimu reps with their yellow T-shirts were fortunately easy to spot in the tangled mass of humanity at the station gate. From there we were rushed off to the coaches which delivered thousands of visitors nonstop to the Machu Picchu site. The ride up the mountain was an adventurous one owing to the narrow, rough zig-zagging road and the propensity of the drivers to hurl their coaches blindly around curves in the road! At 2,430 metres above sea level Machu Picchu is very high but still considerably lower than Cusco and other locations in the Urubamba Valley.
Machu Picchu was an interesting experience, certainly unique and monumentally laid out, but somehow I felt underwhelmed by its ‘grandeur’. I don’t know why, possibly I was feeling blasé about the Inca monuments as a result of all of the native sites I had seen since arriving in Cusco. I didn’t find it breathtakingly magnificent in an aesthetic sense when set against Abu Simbel in Egypt. Machu Picchu’s incomplete state seemed to me a bit of a mishmash of broken architecture. I think that when viewed from a distance, Machu Picchu is infinitely more impressive. The sum of the whole, with its pattern of terraced fields and the ruins sitting on a ridge beneath the two peaks (Machu and Huanya) is a more spectacular sight compared to it’s scattered individual parts up close. One thing there is no doubt about is that it does have atmosphere – in abundance. The clouds resting serenely on the twin peaks of a once impregnable fortress city, give it a tranquil and unearthly appearance from afar. Peaceful yes, but depopulated, never! Vast crowds throng all over Machu Picchu all year, climbing its inestimable number of steps and exploring every nook and crevice of it! MP’s enormous pulling power brings tourism, but with it the threat of degradation to the precise and fragile site!
Our guide showed us some of the more notable features, such as the Sun Temple and the sculpture known as the “Eyes of Pachamama” (two carved circles in the ground) and the Inyiwatana, a rock pillar with profound astronomical significance for the Incas. He also pointed out the line formed in the mountains that represents the hiking trail that leads to Machu Picchu. I observed countless modern-day Hiram Binghams embarking on two or four day hikes in the footsteps of that famous first trek to this archaeological magnet.
The great mystery of Machu Picchu is that its purpose for being remains uncertain. Archaeologists have not yet resolved whether it was built as a royal retreat or palace for the Emperor Pachacuti, or for religious purposes to honour its sacred landscape (the river that encircles most of it, Rio Urubamba, was thought by the Incas to be sacred) or for some other reason, such as defence.
The massive crush of tourists, roaming all over the site was a bit off-putting, and when the guide suggested an early departure to avoid the horrendous lines of visitors queuing up for the buses later in the afternoon, I was highly amenable to the idea. I walked back down to the entrance with the guide who alerted me to the gimmicky custom of visitors having their passports stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp (“passport control”, like it was a pretend visit to another country). Despite my scepticism about such things I went along with the charade and allowed the guide to stamp the book.
The queue was already lengthy but with a host of coaches backed up in the parking area there wasn’t a long wait to get back to Aguas Calientes. Coming down from the mountain allowed passengers to appreciate how much of a ‘hairy’ ride it really was! Buses were whizzing past each other along a narrow ledge of a road, at times coming within a metre or so of the edge and the prospect of a disastrous drop to the bottom of the valley. Getting back to the base camp of Aguas Calientes early I had a lot of time to waste before the departure time for my return train to Poroy. After a pizza lunch (quite cod-ordinary) and a much needed cerveza, I wandered through the many tourist shops and the main mercado and accidentally struck a better bargain than I had intended to with a native vendor on bulk place mats (verifying as if I needed to be reminded that I am much more successful when I don’t try!).
Whilst in the markets I experienced that nil degree of separation sensation, running into a friend from Sydney, the organiser of a meetup group I am a member of. I did have advanced knowledge that she was travelling to Peru at the same time as me, but I hadn’t expected to run in to her at the most congested spot in Peru. Maddy, when I tapped her on the arm and she recognised me, became instantly quasi-hysterically excited in that slightly over-the-top way of hers. This seemed to spook her companion, her sister, who appeared momentarily taken aback by Maddy’s uncharacteristically Icelandic lack of composure.
I spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around in the township of Aguas Calientes, a settlement that seems to exist solely to exploit the fame of Machu Picchu, its restaurants and goods shops there exclusively for the tourist trade.The inward trip on PeruRail to Poroy was even longer drawn out than the outward one had been in the morning (perhaps I was just tired but it seemed that way to me). Either way, it was a good three-and-a-half hours till the PeruRail ‘Express’ finally dawdled into the station. After my recent, unhappy experience of connections in Cusco I was relieved to see the Chimu driver there waiting for me at the exit. After spending half the day either in the train or waiting for it, I just wanted to get back to the Cusco hotel for a good night’s rest before the prospect of even more travelling in the morning.