Clearly a visit to Peru is incomplete without getting to Machu Picchu. The site is extraordinary, but in my mind, in an attempt to capture and convey the magic and mystery of this ancient royal sanctuary, many guidebooks and reports are economical with the truth about the complexities of the reality of getting there and the rather tacky village of Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Picchu. However, despite these modern day annoyances, the lofty Inca hideaway is truly, madly, deeply amazing.
We’ve all see the pictures of Machu Picchu and heard stories about the Incas, so I wasn’t sure whether my expectations could possibly be met. It wouldn’t have been the first time I had arrived at such a well known UNESCO site only to be ever so slightly underwhelmed. But this certainly wasn’t the case with Machu Picchu.
The place is quite simply awesome. Its so much more than the ruins. No amount of over exposure of the site in the media can undermine its impact. More than anything its the sheer scale of the location. Perched high upon the mountain, the lost city is surrounded by the most stunning scenery – huge mountains, ridiculously deep canyons and a vast sub tropical forest.
Clearly we came to explore the ruins, but for me the location was the most magical part. Yes, of course the skill, sophistication, power and determination of the Inca Empire is impressive. Their knowledge of astrology, their advanced construction methods; and the extravagance of this once golden royal citadel all make the place unique; but the natural environment is equally superb. The mountains just resonante.
One advantage of not hiking up the near vertical mountains to the site, using steps carved into the forest floor, is that one has the energy to explore the site fully. Taking one of the trails towards the ancient Inca bridge, one gets a flavour of the lush forest vegetation, with its wealth of butterflies, flowering bromeliads clinging to ancient trees, exquisite ferns, and flowering orchids. You can spend hours discovering this site, I love plants and exploring the highland forest has so far one of the highlights of the trip.
The journey to and from the lost city however was not one of the highlights of the trip! Machu Picchu is one of Peru’s greatest attractions and probably one of its biggest draws for international visitors and foreign currency. Yet even know, in the 100 anniversary of the international scientific discovery of the ancient city by Yale University’s Hirim Bingham, the infrastructure for visitors is quite poor and really does little to enhance the magic of this place. Coming here is a inspirational experience for most, and spiritual for many – yet dealing with the chaos of Peru Rail and the bus drivers does slightly erode that “wow” feeling.
It may seem unfair to criticise these things, but the Machu Picchu experience is now big business. This is no longer a few wholesome explorers trekking up a mountain; this is over 2000 people a day being charged premium first world prices. For example, the short flight to Cusco is around 200 euros; a luxury Inca Trail Lodge is between 200 and 400 euros a night; the short train journey is over 120 US dollars (you have to pay in US currency or pay a ridiculous exchange rate that makes the journey prohibitive); and the access to the lost city is 126 Peruvian soles, about 40 euros. So, putting it bluntly, to take in that world class view, you need to fork out about 550 euros per person – and yet still you have to queue to use the loo and you are given a few pieces of loo paper as you enter – just as it was in Russia when I went there in 1985. Compare that to the experience of visiting the Alhambra in Granada, a site of equal awesome historical and cultural impact and beauty and yet the price, quality and service are very very different.
Anyway, moving on…..the classic approach to Machu Picchu is hiking through the Sacred Valley, taking the Inca Trail, with routes taking from 4 days or more. If you are like me and want the pleasure without the pain there is a train service.
Cisco is only about 100 kms from Machu Picchu, but getting there can take over 5 hours by train and bus!
When we checked into our Cusco Hotel, they told us breakfast started at 4.30am. What?! Well, it makes sense when one realises that taxis and minivans are outside all the hotels from 5.30 am ready to take you to the station to start your journey to Machu Picchu – you have to start early to have a full day, otherwise you are forced to stay in the ugly and tacky village.
Earlier rains had closed the closest station to Cusco so we had to take a 90 minute, white-knuckle minibus ride to the Ollantaytambo station, in an ageing minibus operated by Peru Rail. Passing trucks on blind bends, aborted overtaking and being stopped by the police were all part of this authentic transport experience that most travel website choose to ignore!
Boarding the train was a welcome respite. Trains are operated by Inca Rail or the national operator Peru Rail and take you through the Sacred Valley, hugging the banks of the Urubamba River, which at this time of year is a torrent of stormy earth coloured water. Rail options include a budget Expedition Train for backpackers, and also a posh ‘Orient Express’ style experience for a more formal journey.
We opted for the classic Vista Dome train, with its light filled carriages that afford views of the valley, its mountains and the river.
The modest 45 km journey from Ollantaytambo takes 90 minutes as the train meanders along the precipitous track, offering amazing views and preparing you for the magical location the lost city to come. Breakfast is served on board, on a delightful little bento box style tray, complete with flowers – all charming.
But the charm was soon to end once we arrived in Agua Calientes – the village at the foot of the ‘Old Mountain’ that gives the most famous Inca settlement its name.
Let me not be poetic about this ‘village’; frankly in my mind it’s a dump. Filled with people trying to sell you their restaurant menus or massages from girls that look far from innocent, this is a shanty town built for back packers looking for a good time, catering to the lowest common denominator. With the recent elections one can see that local politicians have been campaigning on an image revival theme – banning alcohol consumption in the streets and vowing to keep the younger more rowdy visitors in line.
From the village you can take the exhausting hike up the mountain, or grab a minibus that frequently shuttle visitors to the entrance of MP. The bus whisked us up the mountain on a dirt track with loose stones at a speed completely at odds with the hairpin turns! We quickly discovered the extremely narrow track cut through the forest is not one way – our bus screeched to a barely controlled halt whilst negotiating a blind corner and encountering a vehicle heading downhill! There are no crash barriers and the bus wheels spin on the dusty edge of the road, close to a near sheer drop down into the jungle – incomprehensible.
Our return journey took 9 hours! A fresh landslide had temporarily closed the station from early afternoon, so by the time we arrived to get our Vista Dome train back, the station was full of hundreds of people. Luckily the earth was cleared and we were able to leave later that night after enjoying some beers and friendly banter with fellow stranded passengers in the village. We we fortunate as previous landslides this year have closed the station for days. We headed back to Ollantaytambo station, but it was so late that there were no taxis or even locals to take the few of us from the last train to our hotels.
Rafa & I had agreed before we left on the trip that such inevitable, unpredictable events must be a source of laughter not frustration, but when it is approaching 1 am, its dark, you’ve been up since before 5am that day and you’re miles from anywhere, we felt it was appropriate to have a sense of humour failure! Luckily a member of staff from our new hotel in Urubama, in the heart of the Sacred Valley, rescued us in a twin cab pick-up!
We are guests of the outstanding Tambo del Inka Hotel, a Luxury Collection Resort and Spa, so a huge thank you to them for their generosity (and I will link later from here to my feature on this property once published). The hotel is on the banks of the Vilcanota River, built in materials that blend perfectly with the surrounding mountains.
These days its hard to exceed expectations, but the hotel is fantastic. It excels at everything from location, design, food, attention to detail and the team. Luxury hotels give a glimpse of life as one sees it in a magazine lifestyle features – everything beautiful, organised and pristine. A guilt-free pleasure, no? Well, being here in a room that is so elegantly furnished with fine hardwoods, bespoke furniture and high thread count linens, located in a developing country is indeed thought provoking. As Rafa & I stood frustrated at being stranded at the station late at night, three men rolled out sleeping bags and prepared an open air camp-site on the station pavement. They had been loading products on the returning night trains and were preparing to sleep rough: away from home they had nothing, just the clothes they stood in, a portable gas stove and a sleeping bag each. The inequalities and unfairness in a nation like this are disturbing and distressing. In little more than a day we had seen the cultural pinnacle of Peru and tasted the luxury of one its new network of high end Inca Trail lodges, yet at the same time glimpsed the poverty and hardship of some of its Andean people.