There are only two ways to get to Machu Picchu: By foot, on the famously grueling Inca Trail; or by buses that shuttle up and down from the town of Aguas Calientes (well, a few people hike up from the town). And the only way to get to Aguas Calientes is by train, which is how we went. I’m sure there is enormous satisfaction in completing the multi-day hike but the train was well worth it. Huge dome windows provided spectacular views of the wild Urubamba River alongside the tracks, and the high Andean peaks beyond. Anyway, we had our own grueling hike planned for later in the day.
Aside from the hot spring for which it’s named, Aguas Calientes is all hotels and restaurants, its only raison d’etre being tourism to Machu Picchu. As you walk down the street in the evening, every restaurant has someone whose job it is to stand outside and wave a menu in your face, trying to get you in the door. We tried unsuccessfully to find a place for dinner where they weren’t so pushy. So we used the “if it’s crowded then it must be good” method, combined with the “oh, that one’s nicely decorated!” method, to decide where to eat.
Before heading back to our hotel for the night, we discovered many beautiful stone sculptures depicting various Andean myths and creatures. One was in an open space surrounded by shops, but many were in the unlikeliest of places: Carved into the stone along the pleasant path to the hot springs, or in the stone foundation of a bridge. There’s a nice little slide show here.
We awoke at 4:30 AM and by 5:30 we were at the bus stop, behind hundreds of other people already waiting in the pre-dawn twilight. But soon enough we were heading upward on the narrow, winding road. The terrain became more and more like tropical jungle as we ascended. A terraced farm perched impossibly on the side of a cliff. Wisps of cloud hung over the thick blanket of green that covered everything else. I kept looking out the window for some hint of our destination, but it was invisible until we disembarked and walked through the entrance gate.
And suddenly there it was, spread out before us with the sun just rising over the mountains to the east. We climbed up to the guard house, where Incan warriors kept an eye out for travelers or invaders. This is where the iconic view of Machu Picchu, like the one below, is always photographed. It was stunning, almost overwhelmingly beautiful, more than any photo can express. All we could do was speak superlatives to each other: “Oh my God!” This is amazing!” “WOW!” “We’re really here!”
After gawking for a very long time, we finally decided to go down and actually tour the grounds. Our only regret was that we didn’t arrange a private guide ahead of time, because the guides that are allegedly for hire at the gate were nowhere to be found.
Fortunately, by the time we arrived at Machu Picchu we’d already had guided tours of other sites, so we weren’t completely ignorant of Inca history and architecture. We spied out tour groups with English-speaking guides from time to time and followed them around, which really helped us to understand what we were looking at.
No one knows what Machu Picchu was called before a young Yale professor named Hiram Bingham came searching for Inca ruins. He was directed by a farmer to the machu picchu (Qechua for “old peak”), and the name stuck. The “Lost City of the Incas,” as Bingham coined it, was never actually lost; it was always known by the locals. Bingham wasn’t even the first foreigner to find it. But he was the first to study it, and he told the world what he’d found.
Even though nearly every theory he advanced about the place and its people has been disproven, his main legacy was in making it so well-known that treasure hunters could no longer plunder it at will (his other legacy is an ongoing, decades-long effort by the Peruvian government to recover the thousands of artifacts he took back to Yale).
After completing a circuit of the grounds, we embarked on the most intense hike of our lives: Ascending to the top of Huayna Picchu (“young peak” in Qechua), which is the mountain at the back of the photos. First, we climbed down for a while and crossed over a narrow, knife-edge ridge. After that, for an hour, we climbed nearly 1,200 feet up the steepest 1 1/4 miles I’ve ever trod, on uneven steps carved into the granite by the Incas 500 years ago. In some places steel cables or wooden banisters have been added to give hikers something to hold on to. In other places there was nothing but broken rock and sheer cliffs, and we were glad to be sharing a pair of hiking poles. Despite having spent three days in Ollantaytambo at an even higher altitude, we had to stop every few minutes to catch our ragged breath and let our hammering hearts slow down.
At a certain point the trail became one-way; we would be taking a different route down. Ten minutes later, it seemed like we were near the top, in an area with small terraces that stacked up the face of the mountain, each one 6-7 feet above the other. There were narrow steps along them, climbing at more than a 45˚ angle, straight up. There was nothing to hold onto but the steps in front of us. And after that, multiple stair switchbacks had to be scaled, until we reached a small temple.
But that still wasn’t the top of Huayna Picchu. We passed through the temple and out the other side, to find even more steps. Finally, we reached a tumble of huge boulders perched on the peak, with a 360˚ view of the surrounding mountains.
Of course, we had to come down. Whereas going up was lung-shattering, going down presented its own challenge of maintaining focus when losing one’s balance on the steps could mean falling 2,000 feet to the Urubamba River far below. We passed a woman who was completely panicked and terrified. Three male friends were doing their best to help her down one step at a time, as she wept and froze, wept and froze.
We wandered back through the main grounds of Machu Picchu, exploring a bit more as we slowly made our way back to the bus. Our feet were tired but we were proud of what we’d accomplished; just ask anyone we spoke to in the hours and days that followed. Yvonne says that climbing Huayna Picchu was the hardest thing she’s ever done aside from natural childbirth. I would love to climb it again one day. Yvonne isn’t so sure.