The Machu Picture Trail

14th April 2018

[Extra-long read alert]

As I’ve mentioned before, we were staying in Urubamba, at the very lovely Inkaterra Hacienda. In order to tick the next box, sorry, experience the next wonder on our journey, we had to get somewhere near Machu Picchu so that we could hike up to see one of the wonders of the tourist world, the sight of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate. The accepted way to do this is by PeruRail train from Ollantaytambo. The downside of this way is the logistics, which involved getting up at 4.30am to be taken by taxi at 5.30am once again up that bloody bumpy road into Ollantaytambo. However, our guide for the trek, Alex, had done a good job of making sure that things worked smoothly. We arrived in good time for our train, which was due to leave at 0710, with tickets and passports in hand, both of which are necessary for the journey.

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The train is described as a Vistadome train, which means it has large windows, and also some windows in the ceilings of each compartment to give the passengers the maximum chance of catching the scenery. It’s pretty good scenery, it has to be said.

Urubamba River scene

During the journey, snacks and drinks are served, and we had a chance to chat to the Australian couple who had seats opposite ours. We spent much more of the journey listening to the husband rather than having a conversation, but they were clearly good-hearted people and they’d travelled extensively so had some interesting stories to tell.

The train stopped at the border of the Machu Picchu national park for the madmen, sorry, keen beans who were doing the 4-day hike to get off and start punishing themselves. It then stopped some distance further on, at a point formally called “Kilometre 104”, which was our cue to get off and start our 1-day hike. Again, we had to provide our passports before being allowed to proceed (no-one is allowed on the trails without (a) booking the date and (b) a guide – this enables the authorities to control the numbers on the trails).

And so we were off. The trail we were doing consists of a long, consistently uphill section starting at about 2,100 metres altitude and toiling up to a place called Wiñay Wayna at 2,560m, followed by an “Inca flat”, i.e. not particularly steep up or down, section leading to the final pull up to the Sun Gate. It was spitting with rain for much of the first section, but not so much that it spoiled anything, and we got some great views as we went up. This, for example, is just down the track from where we got off, showing a passing place for trains near a hydro-electric station (now disused after being wiped out by flooding and replaced by another, bigger one elsewhere).

PeruRail Trains Crossing

and you can just see the green roof of our starting point at the foot of this photo.

View along the Urubamba River

This is the sort of trail we were hiking

and it moves relentlessly upwards.

Alex and Jane share an interest in flowers, particuarly orchids, and I have to say I was grateful to Jane for engaging Alex in conversation about the various species to be found, as this gave me a chance for a breather whilst they chatted and I took photos of various orchids along the way (we found 12 different species in all, a record for Alex); here are a couple:

An orchid on the trek

There were also wild lupins growing along the route.

Every so often, we had to stand aside as porters (supporting the multi-day hikes) came down the mountain – carrying camping equipment and at a run, for God’s sake!

Porters running down the hill

Eventually, the relentless uphill stopped and we had arrived at Wiñay Wayna (which is also the final camping spot for those on the 4-day hike). Alex had mentioned that there was an Inca site there, but I had never heard the name before, and so hadn’t thought it would be of any great pith or moment. How wrong I was!

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This site has been described as a mini Machu Picchu, and one can see why. Its name means “Forever Young” in Quecha, which is a reference to the perpetual greenness of the grass on the terraces, kept irrigated by clever Inca design and building. It displays many of the Inca skills with stoneworking and offers some stunning views.

Wiñay Wayna

We stopped at the camping spot for some lunch and then moved on towards our final destination. On the way, we had a fine view of the first section of our hike.

The zig-zag trail you can see on the right-hand slope is what we walked up to get to Wiñay Wayna.

About 90 minutes after leaving Wiñay Wayna, we were getting very near to the Sun Gate, whence you get the Famous View. But there are a couple of obstacles you have to overcome beforehand. First is a 53-step, very steep, section of the trail. Alex used this as an opportunity to show off

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doing it in 13 seconds (his record is 12 seconds, but he’s a young thing and likes mountaineering and stuff like that). And then, almost immediately, there’s the final pull up to the Sun Gate.

The final steps up to the Sun Gate

And then……there you are. The View.

Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate

Is it me, or is this a bit of an anti-climax? Seeing this, I felt the same way as I had on first seeing Stonehenge, which I had expected to be a massive, towering edifice, but which turned out to be, well, just a group of stones in the middle of a large open space. Perhaps my vision isn’t good enough to pick out the detail, but I found that as we got closer there were many more rewarding views of the site, where you could actually begin to understand the phenomenal complexity of what had been achieved by the Incas.

Machu Picchu - scale and complexity

We carried on to the site,

and its true breath-taking nature became ever clearer as we got nearer.

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And getting on to the site itself gives some awe-inspiring views

Machu Picchu - my favourite photo

as well as some less awe-inspiring, but quite charming, as there are llamas on the site.

Llama at Machu Picchu

Alex is as knowledgeable about Machu Picchu as only someone with a passion for a topic can be, and he had all sorts of fascinating insights into the history and culture of the place as well as its astonishing architecture.

We took a bit of a break at this point, as it was late on in the afternoon (which was good, as it meant the site was not crowded), so we took the (very bumpy, bouncy, twisty, turny, 10km) bus ride down to Machu Picchu village (also called Aguas Calientes) for the evening. Jane and I stayed at another splendid Inkaterra hotel, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo. This is a resort-style hotel at the eastern end of the village and it shares the same high-quality brand values as its sister location in Urubamba, except the Pisco Sours are even better.

The next day, the site was much more crowded (this platform was empty when we were there the day before)

Crowds taking THE postcard photo

but it wasn’t too intolerable. The second day’s visit provided some more insights into the details (as well as some more great views)

A lot of work goes into maintining the site, with workmen removing vegetation from the stonework

and even abseiling down the walls to keep them in good shape.

The vast scope of the terracing becomes clear as you walk around

and the trademark Inca Trapezoid shape can be seen everywhere.

Inca archway at Machu Picchu

The temple part of the site has a formal entrance gate

alongside which can be seen the demarcation line between the religious part and the farming part of the site.

There are ceremonial chambers with specially shaped stones for sacrifical purposes (llamas got a raw deal, particuarly black ones, which were regarded as being extra lucky in sacrifice). this is the Temple of the Sun

Temple enclouse and ceremonial stone

and this is the Temple of the Condor.

note the special runnels in the sacrifical stone for the blood to run off in a controlled way.

The site has extensive living quarters, some for farmers, some for noble and religious leaders,

and some roofing has been reconstructed, albeit using eucalyptus wood instead of bamboo to support the thatching.

House with reconstructed roof at Machu Picchu

Note the rope ties and pegs used to hold things in place.

And, all over the site, there is evidence of the astonishing stoneworking abilities of the Incas, with intricate interlocking patterns, and even rounding in the corners.

Detailed Inca stonework in Machu Picchu

The quality and robustness of the Inca stonework is shown in its resistance to earthquake damage. This is not universal, though.

This is a temple chamber (you can tell by the niches, which were used to contain idols) that one might think had suffered earthquake damage. However, there’s a photo from 1911 – well before recent and serious earthquakes – which shows this damage, and it’s now widely accepted that it was caused by dynamiting in creation of the local railway. This is, of course, a shame, and it’s good to see that the authorities are taking some steps to control access and to maintain the site. However, one gets the sad impression from talking to guides and others that there are urgent investments needed which are unlikely to be made. One can only hope that common sense reigns so that the wonders of Machu Picchu are preserved for future generations to marvel at.

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