Peru 2003 - Machu Picchu
My second day in Cusco - tuesday the 18th of Feb - we woke up early to take the train to Machu Picchu, a trip that took 4 hours or so. The start of the trip is most interesting: the train tracks make a zigzag path up the mountains surrounding Cuzco. First, the train goes forward until a certain point. The train then stops, changes the switch, and the train then goes in reverse on the new track. Eventually the train reaches another switch, which is changed, and the train goes forward, and so on, until we finally get over the mountain and the train continues forward through the valley to Machu Picchu. For the most part, the zig zag tracks go through the poor part of Cuzco, so from the train we see lots of pigs, dogs, kids playing, and lots of mud-floored houses. Once out of Cuzco we go through farming communities, with lots of cattle grazing on grass and fields full of corn growing in other farms.
Once out of the Cuzco area and the farm towns following that area, we enter the valleys that follow the Urubamba river. The river is surrounded by high Andes mountains, in which this picture tells you some interesting things: trees grow around the river, grass grows all over the mountains, and the clouds cover the tops of the Andes. The river itself is brown as a result of all the sediment that runs off the mountain and mixes with the Urubamba, the waters of which will really pick up in strength as we approach Machu Picchu. The brownish color of the water will remain that way all the way to the Amazon and beyond. We will pass several farming communities also, and several bridges that cross the river - which is impossible to cross any other way due to the flow of the river and the rocks within the river, which are quite sizeable.
At times the river is flowing quite strong; plus, numerous small waterfalls run down the mountainside and into the river. These side tributaries are usually fairly clear in color, though the main river is distinctly brown. Being that this is rainy season, the river is at its high point, and thus the strength of the current is at its maximum. Past expeditions attempting to navigate the river during rainy season have lost lives of their crews, mostly due to the large rocks in the middle of the river.
At times, the Andes are gorgeous, with grass growing on the mountains all the way up to their peaks. The Urubamba river is at only 9000 ft or so at this point, and the surrounding mountains aren't usually covered with snow. There are lots of trees, of various types, and the clouds are sometimes high enough that they are not broken up by the mountaintops. For the most part, it's beautiful throughout the valley, and the Inca terraces are still visible on some of the mountain sides.
Eventually, we reach the village of Aguacalientes, from where we take a bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu, located at 9900 ft. After waking up at 530 in the morning (and having Carlos take us to the train station, the result of an agreement we made with him the night before), getting on the train at 615am, arriving in Aguacalientes at 1100, and getting on the bus, we finally arrive at Machu Picchu at about 1130 in the morning - and we'll have to get on the bus to go back at 230 or so.
To say that Machu Picchu is awesome is an understatement. It sits atop a mountain, yet even at this altitude it is ringed by other, higher peaks. The Sacred Plaza, according to the map I got in the Cultural Museum just inside the entrance, is located 8150 ft above sea level; it's not visible in this photo, but would be considered the mean height of the complex of ruins.
Of course, I was dismayed to see how many stairs I would be climbing while exploring the ruins, but given the limited time we had I figured we should ignore our desires to sit down and breathe, and instead see as much of the ruins as possible. That turns out to be easier said than done, although since it is rainy season (and it rained fairly often while we were there) there weren't as many tourists as one might ordinarily expect to find there. That turned out to be a big help, since we didn't have to wait for many people to pass by a staircase or narrow passage in order to move on to where we were going.
The ruins are constructed of granite blocks. For the most part, they cobbled them together as can be seen in this picture, creating terraces, temple walls, and other useful structures. But when we get to the sacred rooms - those where the Inca and the priests lived - we notice a much higher quality to the rock, much more precision engineering, and greater attention to aesthetic detail. Nevertheless, the rough-hewn stones did the trick as far as holding the terraces together, as can be seen in this shot of some French tourists making their way down a terraced path.
Really, walking around Machu Picchu is just a lot of looking around in awe. There isn't much to discuss as far as what the functions of the ruins are: while it is true that such information is interesting, there isn't a lot that requires explanation - some of the temples being one exception. And it's good to learn about what the ruins mean, but that's not what my point was. My point is that the scenery is so incredibly majestic that it doesn't require any explanation or context to appreciate its beauty: it's a given. You don't have to do anything but be there, and you can absorb the grandeur of it all. It's not something that needs to be explained, like the ruins at Sachsayhuaman or Qenqo; Machu Picchu stands alone (no pun intended) and intends to overwhelm, though by no means does its beauty sail over one's head.
Llamas really are funny-looking animals. The one on the right here was chasing after the brown one and then all of a sudden stops dead in its tracks and starts eating grass. Later it was running right at me, but when I started photographing it, once again it stopped, looked at me, and commenced eating another snack of grass. To the left of the brown llama is an Alpaca, whose fur is quite soft and makes a great scarf. Alpacas are traditionally sheared every two years, yielding several kg of better-than-wool fur that is very soft and comes in several colors. There is also the Vicuna, but I am not aware of having seen any while I was there. Vicunas are apparently very rare and expensive, though they too are, like the llama and alpaca, related to the camel.
I'm just going to throw a few more pictures on here for views of the site without explanation. Just look.
I mentioned earlier that the more-sacred locations used higher-quality rocks and construction techniques; here you can see what I'm talking about. Notice how the stones are smoother, more symmetrical, tightly interlaced, etc. Compare to the stones used in the terraces several pictures back. Clearly there was some kind of hierarchy within the city that gave privilege to the best-off, probably the priests and the visiting Inca himself. These rooms have their own closets, antechambers, and obvious rest room facilities, which of course are plumbed by the running water that flows down from the mountaintop. Ingenious what the Incas built.
Finally, as it came time to go back down the mountain, we headed for the bus stop that would take us down the twisty, hairpin-filled road you see here. This would take us back onto the train to Cuzco, eventually getting us back into the city at about 830p - well after dark. Indeed, I took no pictures on the way back because it was already too dark in the afternoon. We sat across from a couple of Chilean women who we had seen on the trip in, and this time Scarlet talked to them for much of the journey. I tried to sleep, but it was to no avail. And eventually that night I got a migraine, which was compounded by the altitude, no doubt.
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