I was still feeling awful, constantly nauseous and shaky, but mind over matter and all that, we had an Inca city to visit. Voted one of the 7 modern wonders of the world (by somebody?), I had been here in my 20s, although much of my memory of that time was wiped by excessive partying in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, and still today a magnet for backpackers looking to party, hippies looking to get strung out, and well heeled old Americans who wheeze around the city in brightly coloured tour groups with remarkable fortitude.
Its still not that easy to get to Machu Picchu, although admittedly easier than it was for Hiram Bingham, who ‘discovered’ it back in 1911 when he noticed Inca artifacts in the houses of local peasants and asked them to show him where they found them. The Spanish never found it, although they still managed to kill most of the inhabitants off through disease. Well, that’s one of the theories as to why it was abandoned anyway – there were just two local peasant families living there when Hiram Bingham uncovered it.
First, we had to get a taxi at 5am to the station which is not in Cusco but half an hour drive away in Poroy. Then we got on a super swish train along with masses of tourists (foreigners aren’t allowed on the ‘ordinary’ trains unless they are permanent residents).
We edged our way slowly through the mountains towards Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the mountain upon which MP perches. At one point they announced a ‘zig zag zone’ and the train zig zagged its way down a mountain, shunting back and forth as it went. We moved from fairly arid mountains to a more jungle/rainforest type environment, with some weird and wonderful cactuses (ok, pedants, cacti) and then orchids, vines and weird and wonderful flowers and trees.
Once in Aguas Calientes, we had to queue up and get a bus (no way was I walking like I did 19 years ago – its straight up for an hour and a half minimum). The bus journey itself was, ahem, interesting – racing round steep curves for 40 minutes.
19 years ago, we arrived on a crusty local train, stepped off directly onto the train tracks, dumped our bags in a small hostel in the (then) tiny village of Aguas Calientes – which had about 3 hostels, one slightly nicer place, a couple of local eating places and not much else – and started walking. Things have definitely changed – AC is a big town now, with loads of places to eat and stay, from relatively nice hotels to dumps, but even the dumps have wifi! Getting tickets to MP is also a much more bureaucratic affair than back then, which is not surprising given just how many people visit (thousands per day in high season).
Anyway, once up at the top we checked our baggage in and found a private guide – another difference from when I was first here, when I just wandered around with my trusty Lonely Planet.
The guide was great, and although it was a fairly steep climb and I was in constant fear or throwing up, he made us go slow and answered all of Lauren’s questions until we made it to the highest point and I could rest, take the obligatory photo (attempting not to get too many of the thousands of other tourists in), and breath again.
I won’t go on about MP, yes its incredible, yes its worth seeing, and yes a lot of what the guide had to say about the social, economic and military organization of the Incas was interesting. I’m glad we went, and Lauren learned loads – she was particularly taken by the ‘compass stone’ – an exact replica of the southern cross, pointing due South – and the temple of the sun, constructed so that the sun lights up the altar exactly at the solstices.
Once we had seen everything – including the chinchillas chilling on the stones (if you zoom in on the photo above, you can see one on the bottom right corner of the altar), and the llamas munching away on the terraces – we agreed we’d had enough, and retreated back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes for a late lunch, before I had to retire once more to bed.
Next – on to Quito, then, the Galapagos!