Grant McWilliams

Machu Picchu

img_0567img_0568 Most of the cost of us being in Cusco was Machu Picchu. It cost us $155 ea for transport to the train station, train tickets, bus from the station to Machu Picchu, English guide and return trip. Multiply that by 4 and you get a reasonably large cost but how could we come to Peru without seeing Machu Picchu? As a matter of fact this is one of the principle reasons we came here.

A taxi showed up at 5:45 am to take us to the train station. There were a million people in the station but he told us to stay put and he disappeared. He reappeared a minute later with our tickets. The train ride was four hours and we were a bit worried about food so I went out the night before and picked up some junk food from the local convenience store. This turned out to not be necessary because the train had meals you could purchase for about $3 ea. Peru has suspended all train service except for the Cusco to Machu Picchu line and Cusco to Puno. The train isn't real fast but was comfortable. It doesn't actually take you to Machu Picchu but instead takes you to Aguas Caliente which is a small town at the base of the mountains.

From Aguas Caliente you need to catch a bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu. Aguas Caliente is an interesting little town nestled in the mountains straddling the train tracks. The area around it looks like the mountains around Machu Picchu, namely junglish. If you haven't seen a picture of Machu Picchu (where in the world have you been!) you'll know that the mountains are very steep and the vegetation very lush. It also looks as if it's a million miles in the sky because the clouds are always hanging low. img_0575This is an illusion as it's actually 3 thousand feet lower than Cusco. The riverimg_0603 Urubamba flows from Cusco down the Sacred Valley and past Machu Picchu so you know right there that it's lower than Cusco. It later flows into the Amazon and eventually the Atlantic ocean. Cusco doesn't look anything like the area around Machu Picchu because Machu Picchu is on the edge of the Amazon jungle. When you're riding the train from Cusco you keep thinking that the scenery should change at some point because it doesn't look anything like the pictures. It actually doesn't start to change until you get about 10 miles from Aguas Caliente. The trees along the river start to get more dense and vegetation starts to show up on the hillsides. The Urabamba river starts getting fierce around the same time. At the time we came through there was a lot of runoff from the mountain rain so the Urabamba was chocolate brown. Instead of looking dirty it looked delicious! It reminded me of the movie Charlie and the Chocolate factory where the little fat kid Augustus tried drinking from the chocolate river. I bet Augustus' river tasted better than the Urubamba. People who are into white water rafting would have a great time with the Urubamba because it gets pretty viscous. As I've said in the last 10 or so minutes of the journey the mountains get real steep, the trees dense and the clouds img_0621start hanging low. Machu Picchu is pretty amazing in itself but the ride up to it builds suspense. People who are not impressed with this place need to check their pulse.

img_0644The road to Machu Picchu is a small one lane dirt on that starts out by following the river Urubamba. There are very steep mountains with a clump of equally steep mountains in the middle. The Urubamba makes a wide swath around the clump of mountains in the middle and our bus heads straight for them. This is where Machu Picchu was built. The road up the side of the mountain is one 180 switchback after another. They are tight enough that the bus can barely make the turn. There are no guard rails to speak of and every so often another bus will come careening down the road and either we have to pull off as far as we can or it has to back up until we can get by. I think as I'm going up that I can't imagine what this road is like in the rain, later I get to find out. As our bus climbs the mountain it all starts to sink in – we're at one of the most magnificent and beautiful ancient cities of the world. Aguas Caliente gets smaller as does the panoramic train left next to the river. We look up only to see sharply peaked mountains covered with trees tickling the clouds with their needles. Even if Machu Picchu wasn't up there this would be a thrilling and forever memorable journey. Mo starts crying just from the overwhelming beauty of the ride. I imagine what would happen if a bus actually didn't make the turn. The mountain side is so steep I don't think the trees would even slow it down. I try to put the thought out of my head and we barrel toward the next hairpin turn. Just coming out of the turn we img_0619meet another bus head on. The bus heading down yieldsimg_0647 to us and starts backing up the narrow dirt road and toward the edge to let us pass on the right. I start to wonder what the people on the bus where thinking about right then, probably the same as I was thinking a minute earlier. The bus shifts down to first and slowly grinds it's way to the next turn. We get higher, the river gets smaller and the train has virtually vanished in the distance. The clouds are not that far away now and it looks like we could almost touch them. Finally we reach the summit and none of us can believe we're here. The Andes have got to be the most beautiful mountains on earth and we are virtually insignificant in comparison. Who are we but a bunch of advanced monkeys with just enough brains to destroy the earth?

Let me talk for a moment about big things again. I talked earlier about how some things are big things before you visit them like Venice and some don't become big things until after you experience them. Machu Picchu is a big thing to most everyone. All you have to do is mention the name and people img_0676respond. Some big things are over rated and don't hold their significance after you've been there. Most of Italy is that way for me. I had high hopes for Florence and in reality it's just a big, dirty Italian city with way too many tourists. Sometimes you don't want to visit your dream places because while you're sitting on the pyramid contemplating life you might realize that it's just a bunch of rocks and not that spectacular after all. Initially I'd thought about not going to Machu Picchu because I was worried that visiting it would ruin it's magic. I have always loved this place and didn't want to destroy my vision of it. Let me be clear on one thing – Machu Picchu delivers. If this were a speech I'd pause right now to let that sink it but since it's just a blog you'll have to stop here and think about it fimg_0704or a moment. Machu Picchu delivers where so many other places fail. Machu Picchu did not let us down in any way, shape or form and in fact exceeded our wildest dreams. I believe there is no place on earth like this nor with there ever be. The Incas knew what they were doing by putting it here. This is the type of place that makes you reconsider your meager existence on this planet. It makes you wonder if you amount to anything at all.

We exit the bus and follow a path through the ticket gate and up the side of the mountain. We still can't see the city yet. We climb rock stairs built 500 years earlier. As we exit the forest we see for the first time the ancient city of Machu Picchu and we gasp at it's size and beauty. Nestled between two virtually vertical mountains and ringed by the Urubamba river hundreds of feet below is a city made of stone surrounded by terraces of lush green grass. Grazing on the terraces are Alpacas and Llamas just as there probably were half a millennium ago. At one time there was an estimated 800 people living here and it's believed that most were priests and priestesses serving religious purposes. I have never been a spiritual person but I try to imagine what an honor it would have been to have been chosen to live and work here. This must have been the highest img_0601honor anyone could have ever achieved in Incan times. What would it have been like to wake up in the morning to the sound of the Urubamba river far below and walk out onto the grassy plateau and just gaze up at the mountain peaks so gently cuddled by the clouds? It would be hard not to think of the mother earth as a God with this kind of beauty around you. A fresh breeze blows by and I inhale as much as I can. What an aimg_0703mazing place to be and what an honor as well. Machu Picchu gives more than I know how to receive.

I would love to have a place like Machu Picchu of my own in the jungle where I could go just to contemplate life. The ride back on the train yielded some very impressive sunset photo opportunities. Unfortunately I missed most of them because of the train moving, power lines or window glare.

Our visit to Peru has ended because we're flying out to Ecuador again in the morning. While here we ate quite a lot of alpaca, rice and other grilled dead animals. We however didn't have cuy which bums me a bit. We had planned on having it after Machu Picchu but we were tired and I just picked up some noodles from the local Italian like joint.