To get there, we boarded a train at Cuzco; the only one we’d ride in South America. It zigzagged up switchbacks to climb a mountain as it left town. Then, it descended smoothly through a narrow river valley, between towering mountains. The whole railroad must have been quite a technical feat. At one point, I looked out the window, and was surprised to note we were surrounded by dense jungle — hanging vines and chaotic greenery. Quite a change from the austere Altiplano, and in less than an hour. Altitude really influences temperature, and what can grow in a place. After several hours, we pulled into Aguas Calientes, the little town that serves as base for visitors of Machu Picchu.
Looking around, we were surrounded — boxed in — by these amazing high jungly mountains that almost looked volcanic, but weren’t. They reminded me of some of the grandest landscapes of Hawaii. What’s sad is that Aquas Calientes looks like an old west-style shanty-town. It’s a hastily slapped-up tacky place bent on making the quickest buck, in the middle of some incredibly majestic scenery.
We headed to the town’s hot spring later that day, and took a dip in sulfur-smelling (and looking) warm pools. Lots of tourists and locals had the same idea.
The next morning, getting up at five, and boarded the bus for Machu Picchu. The bus proceeded to scale one of the aforementioned, ridiculously steep mountains, on a road composed entirely of switchbacks. The sun was rising as we reached the top.
Machu Picchu was shrouded in clouds that morning, and gradually revealed itself as the sun burned through. It was a particularly dramatic way to see the site.
Location is one of the most impressive things about MP. Basically an Inca pleasure palace atop a high mountain, it is composed of a massive amount of stone. The stone was all hauled up an incredibly steep, tall mountain, covered in thick jungle, and bordered by a river, by people with no horses or oxen. After clearing the jungle at the top of the mountain, the Incas proceeded to build a large and architecturally ambitious palace. And the top of the mountain isn’t even that big. Many times during the day, it struck me that, with one wrong step, I could plunge into the canyon, never to be seen again. So many people must have died just laying the stones.
After climbing terraces to the top of the site, we relaxed for a while and watched llamas munch grass. Then we followed a mysterious trail marked "Inca Bridge" for about half an hour. On this trail, we were often on a very narrow cliff-side path, with no railings. There was nothing to our right except a valley so far down that it resembled the view from a small aircraft.
Arriving at the Inca Bridge, it defied reason. These people really loved to climb. This was basically a very large, sheer cliff, at the top of a very tall mountain, that they’d somehow built a path against. And when they ran out earth or rock that could be carved into path, they piled stones on the narrow strip of earth below to form a bridge. It’s hard to convey what they did, or the scale and danger of this site. We obeyed the "Do not enter" sign festooned with skull and crossbones, and went back to the main site.
To give an idea of scale, there must have been hundreds, if not thousands of people visiting Machu Picchu that day, and that was before the afternoon rush. But often, we felt alone with the ruins.
We didn’t have a guide that day. It was good to go at our own pace, but we didn’t learn the significance of every detail. Temples took a variety of shapes, including this curved one. Inside, it incorporated an existing rock from the site, which the Incas carved into an alter.
The quality of stonework varied depending on the function of the structure — whether it was a temple or storage area, for instance. Below is some of the finer stonework.
At one point, we saw a viscacha. We’d seen a different variety of viscacha in Bolivia, so it was fun to compare.
On the ride down the mountain, a little boy in an "Inca" costume kept appearing in front of our bus. We’d turn down another switchback, and there he’d be, waving furiously. He was running down the mountain, at top speed, catching up with our bus on every pass. Amazingly, he accompanied us all the way down the hill, then boarded the bus, panting. He couldn’t have been older than seven, and was looking for a tip. We were amazed by his feat, and gave it. Later, we realized we probably shouldn’t have, as he’s probably forced to perform this dangerous stunt daily, and our tip could only reinforce that.