We left Ollaytantambo on a 7:20 train to Aguascalientes. the relatively new town beneath Machu Picchu (MP) built specifically to serve the tourist industry in the area. It was packed with tourists, probably ¾ of them Peruvians (this is their summer holiday period). As we neared our destination the vegetation gradually changed to rain forest and the valley narrowed to accommodate no more than the rails and the raging Urubamba River. Jair met us at the station at 9am and we lined up for the bus to MP. Both transportation and site entrance are very efficiently run – tickets are purchased in advance and verified at each juncture with photo I.d.
It was a half hour of multiple switchbacks up to MP and every so often we saw hearty people making the ascent by foot up hundreds of stairs cut in the rock that zigzagged the road. Perhaps 20 years ago I might have risen to the challenge but, given the altitude and my level of fitness, the bus was just fine! I am in awe of those who traverse the ** miles over 4½ days along the Inca trail from just past Ollaytantambo to MP.
From the entrance it is perhaps a 15 minute climb up stairs to get your first glimpse of the whole site surrounded by mountains and, despite having seem pictures from others, the shear size and incredible beauty of it all really takes your breath away. A further uphill climb takes you to the watchman’s point from which the view is even more spectacular. You can see cascading terraces from both sides into the valley below. These very steep terraces were built solely for slope stabilization, whereas the wider terraces of the main site were for agriculture and the approx. 200 buildings (royalty and priests up above and workers down below).
The site was planned for security with steep walls surrounding it and just one entrance to the main living area. The quality of Inca masonry was so high that most of the stone walls were still in tact when Yale Professor Hiram Bingham was first shown the site by local farmers in 1911. This despite multiple earthquakes in the years since its construction. Photos he took at that time and during his archeological survey in 1912 show overgrowth of vegetation but, otherwise, much the same structures that we observed. They have reconstructed a few roofs to show the wood/thatch construction that would have been on all of the dwellings at that time. The temples and dwellings for royalty or priests are especially well built and it boggles the mind as to how they sculpted the rocks so intricately to fit so tightly together.
Jair was a wonderful guide – explaining the history and culture of the people and the area very well. We were fortunate to have him as our teacher and leader that first day on the site. The next morning we went up on our own. Tony decided to climb to the Sun Gate, a two and a ½ hour trek uphill and down, while I (having more difficulty with the altitude) decided to wander the site, stopping to contemplate the skill of the craftsmen and beauty of the area from time to time. I even enjoyed the mating dance of some rather frisky llamas!
All in all….we both feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to see this incredible UNESCO World Heritage Site.