We were up at six today to try to beat the crowds to Machu Picchu. This is a futile task as thousands of people flock to Aguas Calientes early every morning to see the site but we were hoping to beat at least a few. When we went outside the morning fog was hanging low, a fact which made us feel good about our decision to forgo the sunrise bus up to the site. The bus wound its way up the mountain and we were all eager to get into the site. Once our passports had been checked and our tickets verified, we proceeded past the threshold to the grounds of one of the new seven wonders of the world.
The fog dulled all sounds and lent an eerie light to the city. It gave us a patch-worked view of the ruins which was constantly moving and unveiling different bits. We started at the terraces, then wandered north above the sun temple to the three windows temple. Teddy regaled us with Bingham's theories on the function of various buildings and tried to paint a picture of the importance of Machu Picchu in the Inca empire. We were all amazed to learn that many geographers believe the main area of Machu Picchu had at one time been a mountain that had been leveled to make way for the city. This theory was corroborated by the 10 meters of gravel below the city and the huge, bedrock foundations for many of the buildings.
The sun broke through the clouds just as we reached the sun dial. Teddy made sure to point out a nick in the stone that had happened during the taping of a Cusqueno beer commercial, and although he told us this antic had ruined beer for him forever, the last night's dinner suggested this might be a bit of an exaggeration. By now the site was filling up and there was a group of people waiting for the 10 AM slot to climb Wayna Picchu. I would have liked to climb up with them but had been warned that my fear of heights would not serve me well on the way up, or the way down for that matter.
The sheer size and complexity of the site was hard to grasp. There seemed to be endless rooms on top of each other, most of whose function would forever remain unknown. Carved into the floor of one room were two small basins, about a foot in diameter, with a very shallow lip. Archeologists were still arguing as to weather the basins were mortars or water-mirrors to reflect the night sky. It gave us an idea as to how little we know about Inca culture and daily life.
The line to enter the temple of the condor was ridiculous. The huge throngs of people bobbing like ducklings behind their guides were beginning to get on my nerves. The quiet of the morning fog had evaporated into the constant clicking of pictures and chatter of tourist groups. I began to lose focus as we shuffled single file behind the condor wings, across a few alleys, and up to the sun temple. The sun temple had just been cleaned and was blazing white. It had a unique D shape and would have been really neat to see during a solstice when the sun hit the strategically placed windows in the wall.
By now our time was running low and we would have to say goodbye to the ruin. It was hard to grasp the site in a short, three hour tour. The trifecta of so much to absorb, so little known, and so many people left Machu Picchu just as mysterious as it had been when seen from high up in the sun gate. Perhaps now it felt more so; from that vantage point the city had just looked like a natural homage to the surrounding landscape but from down below it was hard to put that in the context of a place where people lived their daily lives. However I was satisfied to leave the sight with a sense of humbled awe and the knowledge that I would never quite understand how it came into being or what it meant to the Inca.
Before we loaded the bus to leave we said our goodbyes to Daniel. He was staying on at Machu Picchu for an extra night while we were headed back to Cusco. We wished him luck and safe travels as our bus pulled out of the site. Once back down we grabbed a quick lunch of pizza and headed to the train. It was a nice train, with comfortable seats and small windows lining the roof of the car. They brought around a small snack as the train pulled out of the station and it wasn't long before I had nodded off. My window faced towards the side of the mountain and so without a view there was not much to keep me awake.
My nap turned out to be short lived as I was jolted back awake when some very loud and lively music started blaring over the speakers. The man and woman who had served us our snack had now morphed into models and were walking up and down the aisle displaying locally made alpaca clothing. They both looked embarrassed and awkwardly twirled as the passengers clapped and cheered. In the end it was a pretty funny sight to see although I don't think they managed to actually sell any of the clothing.
It was a short train ride and in an hour and a half we had covered almost as much ground as we had hiked in four days. However the experiences were in no way comparable and it made me cherish my hiking experience even more. Julio our driver met us at the train station in Ollantaytambo and we joined the line of cars waiting to exit the town. I am not sure what the hold up was but it probably had something to do with the fact that huge touring buses should not be trying to pass each other on narrow streets. Suffice it to say we spent almost an hour sitting in stopped traffic as everyone tried to work their way out of the town. Once we broke clear of the city limits it was smoother sailing and we had an uneventful trip back to Cusco and our now second home, the Taypikala hotel.
It was dark when we arrived at Cusco and we made reservations back at Limo, our first choice having been full. Kevin and I left a little early to inspect the souvenir shops but we came up empty handed. At dinner we savored our last taste of Peruvian cuisine, replete with potatoes and quinoa. Kevin went out on a limb and ordered an alpaca steak. He enjoyed it, saying it was lean and tender. No one else stepped up the plate and we resigned ourselves to the fact that we would leave Peru without having any guinea pig. I don't think anyone was too disappointed.