Machu Picchu

Posted by on Nov 30, 2013

Machu Picchu

The words ‘Machu Picchu’ have reached mythic popularity in the west, driven by a powerful tourism industry. It’s the poster image of Peru and arguably South America, if you had to choose.

I love the way we did Machu Picchu, sort of stumbling our way towards this iconic destination. Steve and I had just worked our way through the Sacred Valley and lucked onto a late bus from Ollantaytambo to Santa María where we dozed in a squashed stupor until 2am when we tumbled out into a waiting taxi for the next leg to Santa María. Now this one of those WTF moments, when I, squashed into the boot of a taxi gazing at the canopy passing in silhouette before a bright starry sky, began reflecting on my experience as a whole between potholes and sharp banking left and right.


 It was all visible, the ruins, the river, the valley where it was 25 degrees and humid up to the snow on the higher mountains. People rave about Machu Picchu, but on a clear day it is all just ridiculously amazing views. RSI of the shutter finger material.


Santa Teresa was not our destination – but rather the hydro-electric plant some 30 minutes further. Consistent with our current level of planning, we’d assumed there would be some form of accommodation at the hydro plant. Well sure! For workers! It was like 3am or more and we had no were to go but on! The gorge had narrowed now and the feeble light of the clear starry night did not pierce the pitch black of path which followed the rail. After holding the taxi driver to his quote of a discounted fare for having ridden in the boot, despite his sudden price hike and protests.
Pero quedamos en 10, ¿recuerda? No se puede ir cambiando el precio después porque ¡yo no puedo quitármelos los dolores resulta de saltos en el camino!
He didn’t agree. I didn’t care and just walked away.

We knew there was accommodation about an hour and half up the path between the plant and the base of Machu Picchu and we realised we were going to have to do it in the dark. Fortunately I’d brought my brilliant CREE LED long-life torch and spare batteries so we struck out, criss-crossing the railroad tracks which led away among the lush vegetation. I was told this was a 45 minute walk but the early hours of the morning we traipsed along for a full 2 hours. Around us the vegetation closed in and the sound of the river accompanied us most of the way, visible off to the right as a dark mass with pools of white spume where it tumbled over rocks making it more visible in the moonlight. Shortly after 5am we arrived at the hostel Jardines de Mandor which we had been told lay along the side of the train tracks. Unable to find or raise the owner, we found an unoccupied room with two beds and fell onto them where I surrendered to the sweet oblivion in moments. Sleep is bliss.


Many set out really early to the ruins, to watch the sunrise and not have to climb in the heat of the day. When I was in Cusco I’d been to the raw vegan restaurant that seemed to double as a kind of shaman tour agency for those wanting an edge on your ‘standard’ tour. While packing in a green-ish smoothie I smirked at the ‘I need to find myself’ guru-shaman voyage junkies standing in a circle, dressed in flowing garments, eyes closed, serene expressions, faces and arms uplifted to receive the cosmic healing chakra energy from the sun rising behind the ruins in the background. Just swipe your card here. Now with bonus vegan wifi. Don’t get me wrong, full thumbs up for veganism! I’m just not sure what to do with my thumbs about Shamanism. Perhaps there’s some pressure point….

But the sunrise healing whatever was not for us. We made our way in the gorgeous morning, not the midnight zombies of earlier but sporting packed lunches, charged cameras and plenty of enthusiasm. The surrounds of the Machu Picchu site are beautiful and lush, all around the mountains soar upward making the ruins just about impossible to see from below. The valley bends in a long U shape around the mountain upon which sits Machu Picchu which as a result of its prime placement offers some singular vistas from above – but we’ll get to that. For now it was straight ahead along the train tracks until we arrived at the tiny pueblo Machu Picchu which houses the train station where all the wealthy whities alight from their polished wood carriages and are led to busses which carry them up the many switchbacks on their way up the side of the mountain to the ruins. We climbed the stone stairs and steep track on foot, sweating in the heat of the sun and admiring the vista as we went higher and higher.

We’d arrived, and the beauty of it, the reason I like so much the manner in which we did Machu Picchu and the whole of the Sacred Valley – we had no hurry, no rush. We’d start from somewhere and we’d end up when and where the mood took us – there was no agenda.

Map of Route

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For those who are curious, there are two mountains at the Machu Picchu site, the first is the more popular Huayna Picchu which is the one seen behind the ruins of a tradition Machu Picchu photo, and the other is Mount Machu Picchu, which is higher and longer and will provide you with the classic shot of the ruins. Access to climb is purchased with the Machu Picchu ticket for an additional 30 soles but I imagine his will change. Those who want to climb Huayna Picchu will have to reserve a month in advance as access is limited to 400 people a day. There’s no waiting for Mount Machu Picchu. Steve and I climbed the latter, and after having firstly climbed up to the ruins, the mountain was a bit much and we stopped at two thirds of the way up after more than 1,000 vertical meters of climbing. I doubt the view could have improved much with more altitude as it was already completely unique. The entire valley we had walked in the dark in the early hours of the morning and then continued on our way to the ruins was visible in one sweeping vista from the hydroelectric plant around the Machu Picchu site and disappearing further up the valley. The green walls of the mountains rose steeply on all sides of the valley and the river could be seen far below winding its way through the gorge. Sheer green walls rose up to the right and further in the distance they rose still further, finishing in snow capped peaks which shone beneath the sunlight against a blue sky. It was all visible, the ruins, the river, the valley where it was 25 degrees and humid up to the snow on the higher mountains. People rave about Machu Picchu, but on a clear day it is all just ridiculously amazing views. RSI of the shutter finger material.


After descending we actually walked the ruins, which are bigger than one would expect and very well maintained. There are multiple sections to the Machu Picchu site, with traditional Inca (agricultural?) terraces on the lower slopes of Mount Machu Picchu, followed by temples, an open green space in the middle with llamas grazing on it for effect, followed by what I would assume was a ‘residential sector’ and more random wildly impressive stone-work constructions which don’t fit any of the above. The precision of Incan masonry is immediately noticeable with its very large and precisely cut stones perfectly laid together without mortar. The doors and windows sport a trapezoid design, familiar to me from the Q’oriancha Temple of the Sun in Cusco which was an effective earthquake-proofing mechanism. The stone were usually rectangular blocks perfectly fitted together but this was not always possible due to terrain, or when two sections of the wall meet it would require customized masonry, and how exactly does one fit together rectangular blocks to created trapezoid shapes for doors and windows? You don’t. Here the Incas would adjust and customise the shape of the stone so it would fit perfectly into the required space. If this meant block with many slightly irregular cut-outs or customised facets then that it what they did so that the end result was symmetry, evenness and an overwhelming feeling of supreme build quality. I think there’s a stone in city of Cusco with exactly 12 sides! Each of these stone are quite large as well, many would weight hundreds of kilos and at some sites even dozens of tons which have remained because they were too large for the Spanish to move or even destroy.


Machu Picchu was packed with people, but surprisingly you don’t really see them from above so the photos appear quite authentic in that respect. Due to the daily throughput park wardens want you to keep moving along around the ruins and not double back and I heeded them insofar as it aligned with my desires and disregarded it the rest of the time quite certain I caused discomfort to no one. Silly regulations demand such a response.



I think we were about two and a half hours ambling the ruins after one and half on the mountain by which time we were thoroughly tired, satisfied and ready to leave. As plump whities piled into expensive busses for the short trip down to the train station, we retraced our steps down the steep stairs and winding track to the river and walked slowly back along the train line towards the hostel. We’d initially planned to go back as far as Chincheros on the way back to Cusco but we were tired and the shadows were lengthening in the gorge so another night, and the prospect of a long sleep amidst the lush habitat was too tempting. We’d seen the river and valley by night, by morning light and now we saw it in the later afternoon and it was still enchanting so why the rush?

Given the manner and direction in which we had come to Machu Picchu, around the back through the towns of Santa María and Santa Teresa with many hours of travel time – followed by a walk in the dark and the amazing experience gave the whole experience, for me, a slightly surreal feeling. Like it seemed to be its own small adventure there at the end of our trip through the sacred valley in a way disconnected, separate or isolated and therefore distinctly memorable.