The Journal  

1 February 2006

Machu Picchu

Author: Jeremiah

Photographer: Holly


Machu Picchu

January 18

Our trip through Mexico , Central and South America had taken us past some of the most significant sites of pre-Columbian culture, from Mexico 's pre-Aztec city of Teotihuacán to Guatemala 's Mayan Tikal. The last archeological stop of our trip was also our most anticipated, the lost Incan city of Machu Picchu .

The city of Machu Picchu was unknown and consequently undestroyed by the Spanish conquistadors. It was completely unheard of until American Hiram Bingham happened upon the overgrown ruins in 1911. Heavily excavated and restored, it has become the major tourist attraction for Peru and South America .

Machu Picchu was the most expensive and hard to access ruins we visited. From Cuzco , a rough and primitive road only goes part of the way and is often closed during the wet season. The only direct route is by train. We went to the station in Cuzco at 5:30 a.m. the morning after our long ride, but tickets were already sold out. We purchased tickets for the following day.

Tickets for the train cost $68 dollars for the 40 mile, 4 hour journey. The following morning we were back at the station bright and early to claim our seats on the budget “backpacker” train, where tourists are packed into cars pulled by a diesel electric engine.

The first hour of the train ride involves getting out of the valley that contains Cuzco . The only way that the train can make the steep grade is on a series of graded tracks. The train pulls forward, stops, tracks are switched, the train backs up onto the new track and then pulls forward on another grade. While the trip to Machu Picchu seem like it would never get started, the hill climbing afforded spectacular views of Cuzco as it is just beginning to be lit by the sun peeking over the mountains.


We rode the train out of the city on a series of switchback tracks that climbed out of the mountains.

Reaching the top of the ridges the train passes through Cuzco 's suburbs, row after row of mud brick houses on streets that have been churned into a muddy soup by the wet season rains and inhabited by stray dogs and horse drawn carts. The track passes so close to houses that you can see into doors and windows or see the snot dried on the upper lip of a child eating breakfast on his front porch.

Outside the town the track pushes through the lush and green valley of the Rio Urambamba, known as the “ Sacred Valley ” by the Incas. The train passes through small towns of mud brick houses, fields of corn and potatoes and past a road that is interrupted every few miles by a landslide or a stream that rushes off the mountain. There are several stops along the way where locals join the train and the stationary train cars are swamped by Peruvians selling food and souvenirs.


We stopped at several train stations on the way to Agua Calientes. At each station vendors held up figurines, dolls or food to the passengers sitting on the train coaches.

In Aguas Calientes, the last stop of the Machu Picchu train, you're assailed by a gauntlet of souvenir sellers as you exit the station and head for the bus station. It was raining as we wandered through the maze of stalls selling everything from bottled water to camping supplies and native crafts. We had to find the ticket booth in the town square to purchase tickets to the site before making our way back to the line of buses parked along the road that leads to Machu Picchu.

The $11 round-trip bus ride takes you up the mountain on a windy and muddy road. Guardrails are sparse and the edge of the bus seems to hang over the cliff on some turns. The bus drivers seem suicidal, careening around blind turns only to meet another bus coming down the hill on the one lane road. Both buses screech to a halt on the wet road, stopped until one backs up so the other can scrape by. On our ride a group of Australian tourists clung to their seats, eyes closed, for the entire 30 minute trip.


From Agua Calientes buses curved around a narrow dirt road, taking tourists to the ruins.

We left Cuzco at 6 a.m., but it was nearly 11 by the time we arrived at Machu Picchu . From the entrance gate we climbed a trail to the Hut of the Caretaker, a small stone building that overlooks the site. The view from the top is worth all the trouble and every penny that you just spent to get there.


The Hut of the Caretaker gave a good overview of the layout of the ruins.

The Machu Picchu ruins are situated on a mountain top, leveled off and terraced by the Inca. It is surrounded by other higher and spectacular mountain peaks, all of which drop away steeply into the valley below, where the Urabamba River rings Machu Picchu 's mountain like a moat. The massive complex is made of hand fitted stone, some of the pieces so huge they make you wonder how it could have been quarried on other ridges and brought by man power to the site. An elaborate city, Machu Picchu includes temples, palaces and the dwellings of common people, all laid out on integral streets and maze-like bridges and passageways, where aqueducts cut through to carry water. Llamas grazed on the green open courtyards and high terraces.


The Incan ruins at Machu Picchu had the most impressive location out of all of the ruins we had visited during our trip.


Llamas that had been introduced to the site probably for the sake of photo opportunities and to keep the grass mowed down grazed quietly on the terraced steps.


Species of plants and flowers popped out of crevices in the stones.


Many visitors went to experience the ruins for spiritual reasons or to take a photo of the site with their cell phone.


Hour after hour tourists filed by to photograph the llamas that took up residency around the structures.

Though only five miles from Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu 's isolation meant that the souvenir sellers that had overrun the other sites we had visited were absent. But they were replaced by a huge midday crowd of tourists, many led in a guided group. Still, it was possible in the elaborate ruins to find a quiet spot, tuck yourself away amongst the stones and look out on a seemingly uninhabited valley below. As evening approached, clouds rolled in above and below the site and it began to rain.


The fog and clouds didn't detract tourists from visiting the ruins during the rainy season.


The ruins were a maze of passages and rooms, some which were crowded while others were tranquil with an amazing view of the mountains surrounding the ancient Incan empire. Photo by Jeremiah.


Jeremiah perches himself on top of a rock.

Like the Nazca Lines, the purpose and use of Machu Picchu is a mystery. Some theorize that it was a ceremonial center or an Incan summer palace that may have already been abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived in the Americas.

The bus ride back down the mountain had us keeping company with a large group of drunken Russian tourists, who loudly thanked our driver at the bottom of the mountain for “No muerto, no muerto.”

Our return trip by train was not so easy. One hour outside of Aguas Calientes the train stopped so that a rock slide could be cleared from the road. A promised 20 minutes turned into three hours. Two Dutch tourists drank up all the beer in our car and the rest of the passengers got rowdy.


The 4 hour train ride became even longer when we had to wait for a rockslide to be cleared off the tracks on our way back to Cuzco.

It was after dark when the train finally jerked to a start, stopping several times before the trip was underway again. When the train stopped at the Poroy station, we jumped off for a half hour bus ride back to Cuzco , to save ourselves an hour of the zigzagging rail descent back into the city. It was 11 p.m. by the time our bus dropped us back at the Plaza de Armas, but the streets were busy with other returning tourists and we found a little pizzeria that was still opened for dinner.



All photographs © Holly Marcus / Page design by Robin Marcus