Aguas Calientes, Peru

We take a train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, traveling along the Urubamba river. We get glimpses of the “Inka trail”, feeling smugly superior as we wave to the backpacking, tired looking hikers who we know will be sleeping in tents while we ride the train and stay in comfortable hotels.

Aguas Calientes is a tourist town wedged at the bottom of the canyon created by the Urubamba river. Because it is down at 6,000 feet, it is warm and humid and our first experience of the jungle. Greenery, including exotic flowers such as orchids, birds and butterflies abound.

Johan, our guide, suggests a change in plans that has us up at Machu Picchu the afternoon we arrive in Aguas Calientes, instead of the next morning. That alone earns him his tip as we get a relatively uncrowded, sunny few hours at the Inka ruins. It is pouring rain the next morning and we stay in bed late with our french doors open to an orchid garden dripping with moisture, sorting through our photos. It is the start of the rainy season and we have been lucky to not have too much of it, so really cannot complain.

From Aguas Calientes the only way up to Machu Picchu is via bus, on a one-lane gravel and stone road that hugs the mountain on one side with plunging cliffs down to the valley below on the other. I can’t look. Even though Johan reassures us that there has never been a bus accident and that more people die on Machu Picchu because they fall off the terraces while trying to get a better photo, it is still terrifying. When we meet a bus going down, we back up to a wider part of the road and the buses squeeze by one another.

Having survived the trip up we disgorge at the entrance to Machu Picchu, where there are hundreds of others either just arriving or waiting for the bus to go down. No more than 2,500 visitors are allowed per day and it feels as though they are all milling about at the same time. But once we are on the ruins themselves, the site is large enough that it feels a lot less crowded.

We have traveled a lot and seen a great many natural and man-made wonders, but we all agree that Machu Picchu surpasses them all. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

The setting alone is spectacular: high on a plateau, 8,000 ft above sea level and 1,500 feet above the Urubama River below, which winds around three sides of the mountain, surrounded by green mountains and higher granite peaks reaching into the clouds.

The city of Machu Picchu cascades over the terrain and is huge, much larger than the photos suggest. It was built by Pachacutec, the Inka leader largely responsible for expanding the empire, in the mid 1400s, as a retreat from the capitol of Cusco. And it is some retreat! Makes our place on the Shuswap look a bit shabby!

The current thinking is that the Spanish never found the place, so it was left relatively intact. The locals always knew it was there, so the idea that Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who is credited with “discovering” it in 1911 is a bit of a joke. He did, however, bring the world’s attention to the site and he is enough of a hero to have both the road up to Machu Picchu and the rail line from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes (try saying that quickly!) named after him.

We spend two afternoons at Machu Picchu. The first with Johan who guides us around the important sites and gives us a history and astronomy lesson. The second day we go on our own once the rain stops and do two hikes, one to the Sun Gate and the other to the Inka bridge.

The trail to the Sun Gate is long and uphill, but the views at the top are well worth the work. The photos from here show just how massive the site is. The trail to the Inka bridge is not for the faint of heart, particularly those with a fear of heights. The trail is narrow, clings to the mountain side, and the drop down is steep and long. Donna has more than a few moments of terror along the way. We get a look at the Inka bridge and wonder how the hell they built it?!?

Aguas Calientes is a strange place. The railway tracks run down the main street. Several large Inka statues and some interesting rock carvings as well as a few lovely hotels are the only artistic flourishes in a town that is otherwise kind of tacky. “Tarted up” is Craig’s expression. However we do find a great restaurant for our last dinner.

We take the early train back to Ollantaytambo, where we shop and have lunch before taking a mini-van back to Cusco. Our week in the Sacred Valley and at Machu Picchu has been amazing. In fact, we use the words “amazing” and “fabulous” and “wow” so much that by the end of the week Johan is mocking us. After taking a group shot with one of our cameras he would say it in an exaggerated way: amaaaaaaazing!

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