If you missed it, find out how we got here on Day 4 of our Salkantay Trek!
Ok, here we are. After four days of hiking over mountain passes and through cloud forest, we’re finally going to see Machu Picchu. But of course, we weren’t going to do it the easy way.
You have two options. You can be a super lazy, worthless tourist and take the bus up from Aguas Calientes for $10. Or you can hike up the side of the mountain for 30-60 minutes. Guess which we chose? The trick is, in order to beat the busloads of lazy, worthless tourists, you have to get up at about 4 AM, eat a quick breakfast, and make it to the bridge across the Rio Urubamba before it opens at 5 AM. Which we did. Seems a lot of other people had the same idea!
Then, if you want to get in to the ruins before the crowds and have a few moments of relative solitude, you have to race up about 3000 Inka stairs as fast as you can, passing as many people as you can. Like I said, it takes from 30-60 minutes to climb the 400 m of steps, depending on how hardcore you are. Our guide Leo said his best time was 20 minutes, and of course the Swedes had to try to match him. I tried to keep up, but eventually fell behind. Turns out a year of almost no exercise wreaks a bit of havoc.
We climbed up and up, passing most everyone who’d been in line in front of us, and sweating profusely. Leo had mentioned we should consider bringing a new shirt to change into, and in retrospect, it may have been a wise move. In the end, the Swedes made it up in 25 minutes, and were first in line. I lagged a bit behind, at 34 minutes.
We then had a half hour or so wait until the site actually opened, and it was crazy to see the lines of people piling up behind us. The others in our group came in in small clusters, and we saw the lazy, worthless tourist buses begin to roll up about 10 minutes before opening.
When we made it through the gates, we wandered off in the morning fog, trying to see what we could while we were still only a few people among the ruins. We hiked up to the high point, at the guardhouse, but it was impossible to see more than 20 or so feet through the fog.
We did the best we could, and took a few shots with no one else around. As you can see, I wasn’t lying about getting sweaty on the way up.
I came across the herd of llamas that are used for the dual purposes of tourist appeasement, and lawn mowing. At 6 AM , they were still quite sleepy, and I was able to get right up close and say hello.
The fog shifted over the next 30 minutes or so, revealing tantalizing glimpses of the ruins below as we scurried around, trying to meet up with the other members of our group for our tour. We eventually got everyone together, and Leo began to tell us the history of Machu Picchu and the Inkas who built it.
As he explained how the complex was built for religious purposes, and how it was not a ruin, but an archaeological site, having never been sacked by the Spaniards, the fog finally started to lift. The morning sun began to burn it off, and amazing views were revealed to us of the walls and surrounding verdant peaks.
Our tour continued, passing through many of the famous areas of the ruins. We were shown how the Inkas used irrigation to create fountains running through the city, and saw the impressive Temple of the Sun, the only circular building at Machu Picchu, with impeccably tight stone block construction.
Directly below was what Leo described as the Temple of the Earth, and some other sources identified as a tomb. Here, the stone blocks were melded with natural rock formations, and the typical three-tiered Inka steps were reduced to two. It was explained that the third step was underground, signifying the importance of the underworld.
We passed through several intricate rooms, said to house sleeping quarters for visiting royalty, and well constructed doorways, through which only nobility could pass by law. Climbing towards the upper areas of the ruins, we passed the Eastern Agricultural Sector to our left, where seemingly endless terraces had been used to grow all manner of crops in Inka times.
Atop the ruins, we stood in front of the quarry where all the rock for construction had been taken from. Leo explained that archaeologists had discovered carving and splitting tools in nearby circular pits, and that rock had been quarried by driving water into channels and allowing the freeze/thaw cycles to do their work.
We then headed to the main temple zone, where we saw the Temple of the Three Windows, once again with immaculate construction technique.
Set in the ground was half of an Inka cross. On the summer solstice, the sun shining through the temple windows would create a shadow, completing the cross. This theme of shadows creating shapes or meaning on the summer solstice would be repeated in many other places throughout the ruins.
The symbolism of the Inka Cross is quite complicated, and I can’t remember all of it, but here is what I can. There are four sets of three-tiered steps, on each of the sides of the cross. One set is for the sacred snake, puma, and condor, symbols of the underworld, present world, and world above. Another set is for the Inka laws, “don’t be lazy”, “don’t lie”, and “don’t steal”. I can’t remember what the other two sets were for. In addition, each of the corners of the steps also had an additional meaning.
At right angles from this first temple, was what has been named the Principal Temple, supposedly because the stonework is so fine. Due to settling of the earth since its construction, the stones of the right side have fallen out of alignment, no fault of the Inkas, as all the guides were eager to point out.
Continuing upwards, we reached the most important site of the ruins, the astronomical observatory. Here, a large stone had been intricately carved to be able to make predictions based on shadows cast by the Sun at certain times of here.
From here too, we got amazing views out over the main square towards the industrial sector. For a site that was crawling with tourists as if they were ants, it was really amazingly easy to have views completely devoid of human life. It says something about the scale of the space. We also were shown a natural rock formation that eerily mimicked the mountains in the background, a sort of model of the range.
Having come upon the quintessential view, we of course had to stop and take all manner of glory shots. Alina later commented that seeing Machu Picchu was an interesting experience, because it was exactly what one expects, no more and no less. What you see is exactly the postcard views you’ve seen a million times before. Still, it was undoubtedly spectacular.
After leading us through winding stone corridors and many, many series’ of small walls (cf. Eddie Izzard), Leo finally left us after five days of excellent guiding. He’d done a wonderful job, especially considering he’d only started learning English 3 months earlier! We had a great time with him, and I hope he continues to do well.
Having seen most of what the ruins could offer us, we decided to start our hike up Machu Picchu Mountain. We’d read that it was a longer hike than Huayna Picchu, the more popular option, but that it afforded better views, being about twice as high. Well, no one mentioned that it would be an absolute bitch to climb!
We duly signed in with our names and ages (more on this later), and began hiking, up and up and up. Pam was a real trooper, trudging along as the way got steeper and steeper around every bend. At least we were able to get out of the sun at times, and the views of Machu Picchu getting ever smaller below us were stunning.
We ran into a couple of girls coming down at one point, with this to say. “I’m not going to lie to you, from here up it’s pretty hardcore, but the top is totally worth it.” Ok, well that’s encouraging. About five minutes later, I heard another guy start laughing as he turned a corner at just how much more ridiculously steep the stairs got. Things were pretty exposed too, and Alina learned, after 28 years, that her mom isn’t especially fond of heights.
Well, we kept on going, and after a pretty respectable amount of time reached the summit, where a nice shaded hut and incredible panoramic views awaited us. We promptly sat down, rested, and ate some lunch, while taking everything in. Machu Picchu was so tiny down below!
With a height of 3084 m, the hike up to here from Aguas Calientes that morning had actually been our biggest ascent of the whole trek. It was certainly a tougher side trip than we’d anticipated, but was definitely worth seeing.
Making our way back down into the terraces and temples, we signed out of the checkpoint, noting that Pam was the oldest woman to climb the peak that day! (by about a factor of 2) She did an awesome job the whole trip, and this was no exception.
We passed by the main gate to the city, leading from the agricultural areas into the working, religious, and living zones.
Winding our way slowly downwards, we discovered several new areas, including some room with strange circular depression in the floor, the purpose of which Pam later learned, but I have no clue about.
Finally, we walked through the grain storage huts, all arranged in a nice line at the edge of the complex and headed back down into town. The ladies decided to save their knees and took the tourist bus. I decided to run down all the steps we’d hiked up so early that morning. It was pretty fun, bounding my way downward, with almost no one else on the trail. Now all we had to do was catch our train back to Cusco!
Machu Picchu Logistics:
Start at Aguas Calientes (2000 m)
~3000 inca stairs up to the entrance (2400 m) (30-60 minutes)
145 /s entrance fee, usually taken care of with your agency
$6 fee to climb Machu Picchu Mountain, can start till 11 AM
$10 to climb Huayna Picchu, but quite hard to get these tickets. Only 400 per day.
$10 each way to take the lazy, worthless tourist bus up and down the mountain