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DAY FIVE: Armed Guards and Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu By Train 2011

Performers, Machu Picchu CelebrationsPerformers, Machu Picchu Celebrations (Ann Umlauf)
We awoke to crystal clear skies and fresh mountain air, our breath visible as we walked to the train station. There was an obvious bounce in our step - we were headed to Machu Picchu!!! The blue sky shined overhead while we stood on the train platform and enjoyed our gourmet coffee freshly made by a man in black tie standing behind a Parisian-looking bakery counter. This was certainly the most picturesque send-off I'd ever had - a far cry from Penn Station.

Prior to the trip, we debated the option of booking the Hiram Bingham train. We were glad that we ultimately took a friend's recommendation to stick with the Vista Dome - we couldn't have been happier. We shared a practically empty train car with National Geographic photographers who were in attendance for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu.

We boarded the train to Aguas Calientes and as the Vista Dome screamed past rainforest framed by snow-capped mountains, I captured some of my favorite photos of the trip. It's worth mentioning that the only way to get to Aguas Calientes is either by foot or by train. There are no roads to this secluded destination. The town resides deep in the Andes, in the middle of the cloud forest at 7,000 feet. For just under 2 hours, the train ride follows a roaring river that feeds the Amazon. While descending into the cloud forest, the elevation continues to drop and as a result the plants and wildlife come alive. We were able to see a large amount of lush jungle flora as well as colorful birds and other rainforest wildlife.

Upon stepping out of the train, we were greeted by a parade of painted faces, bright Incan costumes and native music. We had arrived on the exact day of the 100th anniversary celebration and the festivities were in full swing (FYI - this was a complete coincidence - we didn't know anything about this anniversary/celebration before we booked the trip, so it was a total surprise and HUGE bonus). A five minute walk from the train station brought us to our hotel. Our hotel, El Mapi was highly cosmopolitan - flat screen TVs, wireless internet, trendy candle lit bar, etc... and while these amenities are lovely (and much appreciated), they feel out of place in a hotel that is hidden so far into the jungle.

Aguas Calientes is 15 minutes (by bus) below Machu Picchu. The buses depart every 20 minutes and climb a steep and winding road to the ruins. On the bus, as a result of the celebrations, we were surrounded by performers that were dressed as if they were preparing to be transported back in time (very few actual tourists were allowed up to the ruins that day). Simply due to the fact that we didn't have painted faces and costumes on, we were completely out of place. We were the equivalent of the only people wearing bathing suits on a nude beach in France. On the short drive up to Machu Picchu, we passed throngs of armed guards in full camouflage and riot gear, shields and all. The Peruvian President landed by helicopter atop of the ruins about 40 minutes later.

We passed a second glut of armed guards and entered the gates of the park. As we rounded a corner, without a cloud in the sky, the ruins came into view in their full glory. The mountains framing the site sprawled endlessly into the horizon. Machu Picchu is known as the lost city in the sky. It's a wonder how anything this spectacular ever could have been lost. It's much larger than either of us could have ever imagined, and the backdrop is over the top. I have visited the Eiffel Tower, the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Sydney Opera House, Buckingham Palace, etc... and typically, the hype of these icons exceeds the wow-factor in person, and the experience pales compared to the overly inflated expectation. Not so on this occasion. Despite the increasing level of press that Machu Picchu has received in the last decade, it remains much more breathtaking than could ever be conveyed by travel guide or article. The magic in the air will forever elude the capture of photography.

Due to the 100th anniversary celebration, only a small fraction of park passes were sold on that day. The park was empty; we essentially had the place to ourselves. What a treat. We explored the site from corner to corner. Marco accompanied us the entire time and explained the historical significance and background of each structure. After spending many hours at this unbelievable site we went back to our hotel where we sat in aw over dinner.

Later that night, we went out for ice cream and coffee. We sat with a crowd that had gathered in the main square of Aguas Calientes to continue the celebrations. We couldn't have scripted a more perfect end to a more perfect day.

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