Following breakfast and storing our luggage in the hotel, we took a short taxi ride to the train station for the 1.5-hour ride to Aguas Caliente. The PeruRail train, which was very clean and comfortable, followed the course of the rapidly descending Urubamba River through narrow valleys and towering mountains.
Unofficially the base camp for Machu Picchu, this small town is full of souvenir shops, hotels, and restaurants. The Peruvian and local government is now joining forces to improve its infrastructure by paving the roads near the river, train and bus station. The cobblestone roads are very steep with few vehicles. The town is relatively prosperous based on tourism.
Arriving in town, we checked our luggage at the El Mapi Hotel, walked a short distance to the bus station and began the 25-minute ride to Machu Picchu. The road followed a series of switchbacks and hairpin turns through the massive tree covered mountains. A shortcut consisting of stone steps allowed for the more adventurous to forego the $8 bus fare and walk to the top - we choose the bus ride.
Invisible from the Urubamba Valley below, and cradled at the center of a radius of Andean peaks at 8,000 feet above sea level, Machu Picchu remains one of the world's great examples of landscape art. Steep terraces, gardens, granite and limestone temples, staircases and aqueducts appear to be carved directly out of the hillside. Forms echo the very shape of the surrounding mountains, and windows and instruments appear to have been constructed to track the sun during the June and December solstices. The only major Inca site not destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century, many of its architectural features remain in excellent condition.
Teddy suggested we take two short hikes and tour the ruins later in the afternoon after the crowd of tourists had departed. The first hike was to the Sun Gate that followed the usual steep rock path. Dick and I were more than happy to view the ruins from the midpoint as the air was thin and the sun hot. We enjoyed the view while sitting in the shade and snapping pictures. Both Sarah and Christopher climbed to the gate, another 20 or 30 minutes further up the trail. We then discovered the descent was more difficult then the ascent. The next hike was to the Inca Bridge. Although initially a very steep climb, the trail leveled and at some points resembled a trail through a tropical cloud forest. We observed orchids, bromeliads, bird of paradise, wild strawberries, begonias, and numerous other plants along the trail. Birds were plentiful. Although the trail was narrow with steep drop-offs, we did complete the hike and were glad we did.
At 2:30 we ate ham and cheese sandwiches at the only concession facility on site before starting the tour of the Machu Picchu ruins. Being extremely knowledgeable and familiar with the ruins, Teddy led us through the ruins identifying the temples, residential, and agricultural areas. Steep difficult climbs were well rewarded with magnificent views. Exhausted, we left the site at 5:30 and return by bus to Aguas Caliente and to the hotel. Following a few cervazas and dinner at the hotel bar and restaurant, we were sleeping by 9:30 pm.