Peru: Machu Picchu and the streets of Cusco

Our main goal for coming to Peru was realised yesterday when we travelled to marvel at Machu Picchu. All I can say is that it is well worth the trip and more; it is an absolutely staggering sight with its dexterity and ingenuity making it incomparable to anything else I have seen in this year of travel. I can understand how it has been named one of the 7 Wonders of the World. How the Incas managed to build this mountain top citadel by hand with no machinery and no pack horses, only llamas to help move these huge granite rocks to this mountain top is beyond comprehension.

We got here by the Vista train that leaves San Pedro station in Cusco and goes 4 hours through switchback mountains to Aguascalientes, the nearest town to the Machu Picchu site and also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. You have to book the train in advance as it is such a popular destination, the vista train cost $71 per person for a return ticket; the backpackers’ train runs a little cheaper at $48 dollars return but isn’t quite as comfortable. The best way to book the tickets is in advance at but even once the tickets are booked you then have to go at least an hour (or more easier a day) in advance to collect them from the other train station in Cusco taking your passports as ID. The train leaves at 6.15am and you have to be there 20 minutes earlier.

4 hours later we pulled in to Aguascalientes station and were immediately bombarded by touts. We made our way through the winding tourist market and over the river on rickety iron bridges and to the queue of buses charging $14 per person return to take you the 30 minutes or so up to the Machu Picchu ruins. The alternative was to walk but it takes around an hour and 30 minutes, it’s a very steep trail straight up and it was an absolutely scorching hot day. We were also pushed for time and wanted to spend as much of it as possible exploring the ruins rather than on the road.

The bus route shown snaking up the mountain side above is a great journey in itself as it switchbacks back and forth and wraps around the mountain carving itself precariously out of the dense granite rock. I looked down out of the window as the wheels threw up chippings as they veered close to the edge where the road dropped away. The mountain scenery got more dramatic the higher we climbed with white mists haloing the peaks and a mass of greenery as the trees sprouted stubbornly out of rock. The wheels bit in to the loose rock chippings as we ground our way upwards occasionally having to find space at the lip of the edge to allow a downward travelling bus to pass.

I was I admit a bit disappointed when we reached the entrance to the site as it was swarming with tour groups of all ages and nationalities who were forming huge queues at the toilets and restaurants and rummaging through the tourist tat for sale at various stands. To avoid the volume of people here at this time of day (around 10.30am) you can stay overnight in Aguascalientes and join the early morning sunrise tours that trek up to the site at 4am. I imagine that these treks are popular but they would not be as crowded as what we experienced when we arrived. However Machu Picchu is a world famous destination and it’s not realistic to expect to arrive at such a site and expect to have it to yourself.

We had a shock when we went to pay the entrance fee as it was far more than we had seen listed in the guide book and was now charged at $40 per person. They wouldn’t accept credit or debit cards and we had a frantic few moments thinking we had come all this way only to be 70 Soles short of the full amount required to get in. We swallowed our pride and started asking around to see if anyone returning to Cusco that night could lend us the money….and after a few and frankly rude refusals on one instance from some of the older people we asked, a young backpacker guy called Tom from England loaned us 100 soles so we could get in. Tom if you’re reading this – you’re a bloody star! It’s great to know that independent fellow travellers (other than tour group members) retain that sense of community and will take the leap of faith and help each other out. 100 soles is around £15 so it wasn’t a tiny amount to be lending on trust. We found Tom later that night back in Cusco and paid him back plus some extra – which Tom then donated to a charity helping Peru’s orphans. If you can spare any change I have looked this up and it is a very worthy cause:

Once inside the site the hassle, the expense and the time it had taken to reach here was all worth it. The setting is stunning and the mystery of how this citadel (established circa 1460) came about and how it was abandoned is fascinating and still only historical speculation. The Incas had no written language and the citadel was never chronicled by the colonizing Spaniards. Apart from the indigenous Quechuas people Machu Picchu remained undiscovered until allegedly an American historian called Hiram Bingham led by a local boy came upon the overgrown ruins in 1911 whilst actually searching for a different site; the lost city of Vilcabamba, the last stronghold of the Incas. However some of the local Peruvian guides believe that the site was originally discovered by a local mountain dweller which seems entirely plausible. A local indigenous person was unlikely to be educated to be able to record or broadcast what he had discovered.

We spent a couple of hours walking up and down the steep ruins admiring the granite stonemasonry formed with only very basic tools and taking in the incredible mountain setting. Hopelessly unprepared for the sweltering heat and sun; we had got accustomed to the bitter cold and rain of Cusco, we had come packed with thermals and waterproof coats only to suffer sunburn and relentless insect bites from swarming small green flies. The weather just cannot be predicted in advance; the day before had been heavy rains and poor visibility with low hanging mists… we were incredibly lucky to get blue skies and clear views for miles. Kind of made up for the volcano climb back in Guatemala!

Check out the menu in Aguascalientes- baked guinea pig for £10 – you must be joking.

The Vista train.
Dave and new friend June use GPS to check on the altitude readings, you actually descend from Cusco to Machu Picchu by around 1500 hundred metres.

Back in Cusco today it had actually stopped raining and was really hot so we explored the city some more before we leave tomorrow and head back for Lima.

Dave’s new business.

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