Saturday, April 28, 2007

Machu Picchu (pt1)

(back to nic)

The whole idea of taking the train at night was to allow us to get up at the crack of dawn and be on the first buses to Machu Picchu. Since the train is the only way into Machu Picchu, and since the first train doesn't arrive until around 10 AM, those who sleep in Aguas Calientes ("Hot Waters") can get the site to themselves in the early morning.

Sadly, when our alarm went off at 5:00 AM, it was also greeted with the sound of some pretty heavy rainfall. This combined with our extreme grogginess made it an easy decision to press the snooze button and sleep in for a few hours more. Others around us were more motivated, as was all too obvious by their banging and jabbering around.

When we finally did roll out of bed, we were greeted with an empty hotel. We went down to grab breakfast (typical breakfast here is coffee or tea with a round, pita-like bread and jam), where we found the resident adorable begger kitten. We only mention the cats we've seen here, because they are so rare in Peru. Aquas Calientes seems to be an oasis for cats.

Now it's here that I must pause and comment on just how unprepared we both were for what lay ahead. Yes, two people with more GoreTex, outdoor gear, hiking boots, Schoeller and more - all of which they even lugged to Peru - somehow completely forgot to bring said gear to Machu Picchu. Instead, we showed up in cotton jeans and normal street shoes. No GoreTex jackets. No hiking boots. No Clif Bars. No extra water.

Oh, did I mention it was pouring out?

Thankfully, in a town dominated by forgetful tourists, the local populace is always happy to oblige. So three soles later we were both happily equipped with brightly colored trashbag ponchos. It was still raining, but the day was young, so we decided to see whether we might wait it out by visiting the Machu Picchu museum first.

The museum is about two kilometers from town, on the road to Machu Picchu (the ONLY road out of Aguas Calientes). There aren't any taxis here so we just walked along the raging swollen river to the museum. Even though entrance to the museum was NOT free with Machu Picchu tickets as our book promised, it was still a good visit. Providing a nice background on Inca culture and construction techniques, it was the perfect preamble to our exploration of the site. Even better, by the time we were done, it had stopped raining. Our laziness had paid off.

There are two ways to get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes. Either take one of the nonstop buses shuttling between the town and site, or hike through 8 km of switchbacks on an old Inca path. As we were already 2 km into it, and the buses only leave from the town proper, we decided to do the hike. 6 km doesn't sound like much, and it isn't really, but to my defense it WAS at 7,000 feet, and I was wearing jeans and leather town shoes, and it was incredibly humid. But anyways.. uh.. ya, Ali totally beat my ass up the trail. As it turns out, this would be the theme for the day.

I'll spare you the macro photos of a few flowers I took along the way (a sly way to get a breath I tell you!), but the trail itself was really well built, and before long we found ourselves at the entrance of the site.

Now, Machu Picchu comes with a certain reputation. Its name precedes it, we have all heard about how big it is, how impressive. We've all seen the pictures, the videos, the PBS documentary. But none of that really prepares you for just how freaking huge it is. It's HUGE! No really really! HUGE! Great tracts of land I tell you!

Uhm.. ya. Let's just say when we first rounded the corner and saw it we were both pretty dumbstruck. And we couldn't even see it all from that point. To say that this dwarfed anything we had seen before would be an understatement. The terraces go on forever, the buildings are everywhere and you just can't get over that the entirity of this ridgeline and mountain has been transformed into a village. It really is awe inspiring.

By this time of the day, the rain had completely stopped and all that remained was fog. Sadly, with the nicer weather also came the throngs of tourists that had arrived via train and bus, so the site was swamped from head to toe. Regardless, it was such a huge place that it never felt truly crowded.

Historians are still debating what purpose exactly Machu Picchu served. The current theory is that it was a vacation retreat of sorts for nobility and not a living town proper. It probably never housed more than five or six hundred people, but boy did they ever have a view. The city was largely self-supported; the numerous terraces provided land to farm at various elevations and aspects to support different crops. Additionally, an irrigation system throughout the city was installed to provide fresh water to the fields and people. Although it is built in a terrifically impractical location, it was still practical, as it needed very little from the outside.

To be continued..

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