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Ollantaytambo & Train to Aguas Calientes

The legendary Machu Picchu
The legendary Machu Picchu
The next day we climbed the Inca terraces beginning with the Temple of the Sun, composed of 4 or 5 smooth vertical slabs of stone, and speculated about how they were raised to such a height. We inspected stone terraces and residential remains before descending to examine a solar clock carved on the face of a cliff with notches marking the solstices and equinox. We also saw elaborate fountains. Then we encountered a little boy who offered to sing us a song. Edwin boosted him on top of a stone and conversed in Quechua and Spanish. A clever and appealing little boy, he told us he was 2, maybe 3. We gave him some candy, and another friendly tourist whom I waved over gave him a bubble-blowing kit. In his eagerness he spilled half of the soapy liquid on his poncho and then shook it off. We left him happily blowing bubbles and singing to himself.

Edwin arranged a ride to the train station in a little 3-wheeled motorcycle cab. The train to Machu Picchu was an incredible experience a two-hour trip on a first-class train with roof-top windows in order to see the steep peaks as we followed the gorgeous Urubamba River cascading over boulders and past the occasional Inca ruin. We descended from more open fields into thick forest as we went. I perched on the arm of my seat so I could see the water. We were served an elegant box lunch, and the service was superb. At the end of our journey we debarked at the tiny town of Aguas Calientes, sort of a Shangri-la populated by aging hippies and 20-somethings from Japan, Germany, Australia and England. Our hotel was the elegant Machu Picchu Inn, where we had a suite with a view of the mountain.

Edwin wanted to avoid the crowds so we waited until after lunch to take the bus up the mountain, zigzagging up countless switchbacks, passing wild orchids, begonias and other exotic blooms. About 25 minutes later we arrived near the ruins, across from the top of a stele-shaped mountain. A short while later we were climbing the stone steps for our first view of this incredible site. Edwin pointed out the various sectors of the ruins -- the temple of the sun, the sundial, the royal residence, the urban and agricultural sectors. What we saw was a collection of stone structures, some with steep gable ends surrounding a central lawn. One the most dramatic features was the cave-like Royal Tomb with a stepped Inca cross on one side. The three steps represent the three levels of existence in the Inca cosmology. The first step, symbolized by the snake, represents the underworld or death. The second step represents the present, human life, and is symbolized by the jaguar. The highest step represents heaven, symbolized by the condor. Llamas wandered freely around the grounds, and we saw a condor (a rare sight) while Edwin walked us through the maze of stone walls. We also saw a chinchilla (a wild rabbit with a long bushy tail).

After our orientation, Edwin guided us to a bench under a thatched-roofed shelter, and we sat for a while, just taking it all in. We watched as the light left the sky, about 5:30 pm, and guards blew whistles to announce the closure of the site. Back at the bottom, we tried unsuccessfully to get cash, either by exchange or ATM. In fact the ATM ate my American Express card just the bank was closing. Edwin again saved the day by convincing the security guard to let us in and getting the teller to retrieve my card. After dinner we went to bed early so as to rise the next day before the dawn of the winter solstice. Edwin instructed us to meet him at 5:15 am in the hotel lobby in order to be on the first bus. I hardly slept that night. (Little did we know that Edwin was up late performing Karaoke.)

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