The Etheral City

Machu Picchu. The Etheral City of the Incas; The Lost City of the Incas; The Inca City. What ever you know it as it is without a doubt the greatest acheological site in South America and argueably the most famous place on the continent. Just the thought of Machu Picchu creates visions of fantastical stone temples high in the clouds out of harms reach. The incredible setting is mind boggling alone and the question of why? is even more confusing.
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail (a 46km trail once used by the Incas to access Machu Picchu) pretty much go hand in hand. It is probably the most popular way for tourists to visit the site who can (i) afford it; and (ii) are fit enough. Between the months of June and August, it is almost impossible to book onto an Inca Trail tour unless you get in months advance. I never knew exactly when I would be there so I never booked. So fortunately for Craig and myself there are other alternatives. We could have taken the train from Cusco but we were looking for a little adventure, sightseeing and exercise. All that came with doing the “Inca Jungle to Machu Picchu” trek, and at a third of the price if the Inca Trail.
So just like the Inca Trail it would be a 4 day tour, 3 days to get there and the 4th spent at Machu Picchu and getting back to Cusco. But unlike the Inca Trail there was no camping or sherpas required. We took day packs and stayed in hostels, ate at resturants or had boxed lunches. Almost everything was included in the price including transportation and entrance fees to Machu Picchu. It´s a pretty sweet deal.
So on day one we left the hostel at 7.30am, met our guide “Zorro” and the other 2 people in our group, Paval from the Czech Republic and Mischav from Israel. Altogether we embarked on a 6 hour local bus ride to where we would begin our journey.
The bus ride was the most unbelieveable bus trip I´ve ever done. It firstly took in sections of the “Sacred Valley”, which is home to a great deal of Inca ruins. Once we left Ollantaytambo things began to get interesting. The highway ascends up through a beautiful valley, winding its way along the side of the mountains. Snow capped peaks abound on either side. The highway peaks at Abra Malaga, a hieght of 4,350m and then begins to ascend down the other side. All of a sudden the road turns from bitchimum to gravel and the road works begin. The highway is only half finished and hundreds of men and women cling to the sides of the mountains building the scariest road I´ve ever been on!
Through some marvellous engineering work, a road is being carved into the sides of incredibly steep mountains. There are no guard rails and the drop into the valley floor below is hundreds of metres. The bus has to drive close to the edge because of the width of the road, and the steep views into the valley below send shivers through your whole body.
Craig was next to the window and after 3 close calls with the bottomless pit he´d had enough and we swapped (he doesn´t do great on hieghts). I was more excited and amazed than anything else about the precarious position we were in. The differences in our feelings about the situation couldn´t have been better expressed than when we drove along the edge of one of many landslides, and I said, peering over the edge, “Wheelie, check this out. This is awesome”. Craig peered over from the ailse seat and just said, “Oh Jesus Christ!”
The best was still yet to come because the main highway came to a sudden holt, as the workers were still blasting away the mountain side to cut through the route. So a makeshift road had been made, taking the route even higher and windier. It just didn´t feel safe!
The bus rocked from side to side and the back wheels skidded out on every bump and pothole. The bus was to big to get around the bends so we had to reverse everytime to get around, and we just preyed the driver was making good use of the handbrake!
When the locals looked uneasy it didn´t boost our confidence at all and the numerous warning signs saying " Warning! Earth Movements", just shatered it altogether. As we neared the end of this temporary path Craig summed up the situation perfectly when he said “This is a life and death situation”, and it really was. The number of crosses we passed told the true story of the building of this road.
The Karakorom Highway in Pakistan use to be the most incredible bus trip I had been on, but it has been well and truely surpassed! The thing is, I know in the western world that a road like this would not be opened until it was completed and once again I point out those suttle differences between our worlds.
With our hearts back in our chests we rejoined the main highway and wound our way down the ever winding path to our destination.
But the excitement didn´t end there. We had 30km´s to go till we arrived in Santa Maria, our nightly stop over, and we did this on mountain bikes.
So on the same gravel highway we charged along (practically all downhill) dodging vehicles and potholes, racing around blind corners, jumping water streams and off speed humps (I blew a tyre on one), stopping off at locals for fermented juices and arriving in Santa Maria looking like ghosts from all the dirt we were covered in!
It had been a spectactular day, exceeding all expectations, and adrenaling pumping PLUS! And remember this is just day 1.
Day 2. Departing Santa Maria at 7am, we left the bikes behind and set out on foot for Santa Teresa some 30km´s away. Overnight mozzies have had a field day on our legs and arms, reminding us we´re no longer in the high altitudes but in the jungle (Craig was eaten alive the whole trip).
Starting out was pretty easy going just following the road which followed the valley floor. We passed through a small village, kids sang out “Ola” and we joined a couple of other groups walking the path.
Fruit trees are the main plant grown by the people and we passed by large groves of lemon and orange trees. When the walking track split from the road we ascended a little and stopped to eat fresh mandarins off the tree with gorgeous views down the valley.
Things became a little more difficult from here for a while. We left the valley floor behind and wound our way up the mountain, into the lush rainforest. Wild mango and papaya trees were in abundance, and huge avocado trees hung fruit nearly the size of mid sized rugby balls!
The higher we went the harder the breathing got, the blood pumped through sore thighs and calves, and “old man Wheele” (a year older than me) struggled with the pace and had to resort to a walking stick to help him along !
We took a well earned break at a house perched high on the hillside and admired the tranquil setting.
The next leg was the exciting part of the day because the trail met up with an old Inca path. Ascending higher still, the path narrowed as we passed out of the rainforest tree line in the cleared mountain side. It was a single file path with a spectactular drop into the valley below bringing back memories of yesterdays bus ride.
Some parts were certainly unsafe but you would just remind yourself that people had been walking this trail for hundreds of years, stone steps in the same place since before Europeans arrived. The reward was wonderful views and the knowledge that you´re trekking on a path that was built by a legendary people.
The path descended once again into the rainforest. We crossed over many fresh spring water creeks and passed by banana plantations on our way to our lunch stop at a small resturant in the jungle. We got to eat delicious wild avocado and my favourite Peruvian dish “Lomo Saltado”. Fried beef with onions, peppers, tomatoes and chips done ina special sauce with rice. Umm, Yummy! Best meal of the trip.
The last leg of the hike followed the river of the valley floor. All day I had been amazed at the peoples ability to farm the side of the steep mountains. Clearing sections of hillside to plant crops, like banana trees. They really know what a hard days work is.
We had been working up a sweat all day, and Craig, Pavel and myself managed to get well ahead of the other groups. We decided a swim was in order in the river. Shedding the clothes we took a very liberating swim in the cold, snow melted water, which consisted of plent of “god that´s cold”, and “aarrgh!”.
Clothes back on we finished the last of the trek, arriving at the Santa Teresa hot springs. We soaked our aching bodies in the warm waters, downed a couple of beers and enjoyed the scenery.
Day3. Leaving Santa Teresa, we cheated a little and took a mini van half way to the town of Agua Calientes, our last nights stay. We did pass a unique waterfall though which derived from a lake high on the top of the mountains, passed down through the centre of the range and out through a huge whole under the gravel road.
The mini van dropped us at the end of the railway line that comes from Cusco. We just followed the track to Agua Calientes. Craig and I agreed that following the rail track reminded us of the movie “Stand By Me”. It even included a rail bridge!
We passed by a couple of Inca ruins and even caught sight of Machu Picchu high above momentarily, before arriving in the extremely touristy Agua Calientes.
Every tourist that comes to Machu Picchu must go through Agua Calientes. So all you will find are souvenir shops/markets,resturants/bars and hotels/hostels. The name means “hot water” and you can visit some hot springs for a bath. The town is over done, over priced and over rated. But all the Peruvians see are the dollar signs that walk off every train, bus and tour group. Can´t blame them I guess. Everyone needs to make a buck.
Day 4. The big day was finally here, the one we´d put our bodies through so much pain for!
Departing at 4.30am, heading out of town Craig said, “Today is going to be a good day Zaco” and I replied, “I´m excited mate”, and I really was. This is a place I´ve dreamed about seeing for a long time and it was about to come true.
The hike up there was bloody tough though. Keeping in the spirit with the rest of the trip, it was very steep and very windy! We really pushed ourselves to make it up there in under an hour. Well worth it too because only a small group arrived before us and we´d beaten the first buses.
The gate opened at 6am and we all charged through. My first reaction was “wow”, it was pretty spectactular. But there was no time to stare and admire. The reason to get there early was to gain access to the grand view point of Waynapicchu, high above the main site. Only 400 people a day are allowed up, 200 in the morning and 200 in the afternoon. So it was essential to race through the ruins to get to the Waynapicchu entrance. On the disappointing side of things there you have to wait for another hour till they open it!
Craig and I were 11th and 13th through the gate, but, along with Pavel and an American bloke, we made sure we were the first to the top! And crickey is was hard work, the steepest and windiest track of them all. Bloody worth it though because to have that place with that view to ourselves was priceless.
I never realised how big Machu Picchu was. The scale, the grandeur, the planning, the symmetry. The view from Waynapicchu told it all. We sat, we ate breakfast, we congratulated each other and above all, we marvelled in the brilliance that was the Incas.
Unfortunately our time was limited to 5 hours, and we spent an hour of that in the Waynapicchu line. So after half an hour of marvelling, we literally ran down the path to the main site.
We spent about 45mins wandering through the walls, buildings and terraces, making our way to the vantage point where that most famous of photo is taken from. You know the one I mean, we´ve all seen it at sometime or another. It´s even better in real life than in the pictures.
From here we hot footed it to the Inca bridge and saw another incredible path that had been carved into the mountain side by the Incas.
Back to the main site. Our last planned mission was to see Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. If you do the Inca Trail this is where you´ll enter and first see Machu Picchu. 20mins of more hard yakka to get there, but once again rewarded with awe inspiring views.
Craig and I spent the last 45mins of our time sitting on one of the terrace walls just taking it all in. Plenty of tourists walked around (not as many as I expected though) and tour groups were dragged around the ruins by their guide.
We had the chance to do a guided tour but opted against it to do our own thing. So I know as little about Machu Picchu now as I did before I went there. And truely, that´s the way I like it. Just like the Pyramids, there´s that mystery about Machu Picchu of Why? and How? To me this creates half the aura and atmosphere of the place.
So we said our goodbyes and headed out the entrance, back down that steep path to meet Zorro in Agua Calientes. We took a train and bus back to Cusco. By the time we arrived we were completely stuffed, but over the moon with our trip.
This trip ranks highly amoung the top things I´ve done in South America. Machu Picchu ranks highly amoung the most impressive places I´ve ever been to. Definately on par with The Great Wall of China and Petra in Jordan, and just below the Pyramids. It deserves it´s new ranking amoung the new “Seven Wonders of the World” (even though that was just a popularity contest). So if you ever make it down this way, put it at the top of your list.

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