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Day 5: Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu

Thursday, May 11, 2001. Partly sunny 65°

We are up at 6:00 AM so we could visit some of the ancient buildings in Ollantaytambo that are still inhabited. We walked through back streets, which still had the irrigation, and drainage systems initiated by the Incas. The walls were massive and curved inward to avoid collapsing in the event of earthquakes. We spotted a Black Phoebe and an Amazon Kingfisher while walking around the town.

Guinea Pigs in Ollantaytambo, Peru HomeWe stopped at an ancient Inca house that was still inhabited. The owner was very gracious. We later found out that one of her relatives had just been killed in an accident and still she welcomed us. We were surprised by the group of two-dozen guinea pigs running all over the dirt floor inside the house. So cute and cuddly. Too bad they would shortly be dinner. In fact, one dead pig was lying near the fireplace. We were also astounded by the three skulls or ancestors resting on the fireplace mantel.

Ollantaytambo is one of the major jumping off points for the Inca trail. It's about a 25 miles long and takes three to four day of hiking and is and rated as moderate or difficult. Marco says that those on the trail would see many ruins. And that the scenery will change from snow-capped mountains at 14,000 feet to so-called “cloud forests.” Some people hire porters from nearby villages to help them over the highest points on the second day called appropriately Warmiwañusqu (or Dead Woman). Others opt for horses to help them. Once Marco and his friends even did it on trail bikes. Never again - too many steps. The record for the climb is 3 hours (!!!) by a local Inca native.

We opted for the more modern and rational way of travel - taking the seventy miles by train. At first, we were put on an end car all by ourselves - clean, but very worn. In the end, they moved us up to a first class car. The upholstery colors were fantastic: royal blues, hot pinks, vivid reds, and bright yellows - colors that are in all the fabrics and tapestries of Peru. Along the way we spotted an Andean Gull - at 11,000 feet elevation.

Train to Machu Picchu, PeruThe trip was to take about 60-90 minutes. Because we were now on the Espresso class car, we had toilets and snacks (including Oreo cookies that we taught Marco how to eat properly, by pulling the wafers apart and first eating the frosting. Too bad we didn't have any milk). At this altitude we were amazed to see so many cactus and the variety, including some that looked like they belonged in Arizona: prickly pear, saguaro, and challa. From the train, we could see some ruins, such as Llaqtapata at Km 88 that was a large settlement of farming terraces that probably supplied the other Inca Trail sites. At Km 104, we could see Wiñay-Wayna (or Forever Young Terraces), which from a distances looks like clear cutting of forests, rather than terraces. Every once in a while we could spot some hikers. Oh, to be young again.

Agua Calientes, PeruWe finally arrived in Aguas Calientes at the bottom of the mountain where Machu Picchu is located. It is a little town that has grown up along the railroad tracks. We hiked back up the tracks about 8 minutes to our hotel, Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. It was beautiful with colonial style rooms with balconies and patios surrounded by the cloud forest, lovely gardens, and a pool (which was empty). Two drawbacks: no washcloths and to reach our rooms, we had to climb many more steps. The hotel was definitely not “Handicapped Accessible.”

We dropped our bags and headed back down to the tracks for lunch. We stopped an open-air café called Tato's House, overlooking some very serious rapids of the Urubamba River (also called the Vilcanota River on several maps), with a wonderful buffet with Pizza and great tasting avocados and tomatoes.

Road to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail in PeruImmediately after lunch, we boarded a bus to take us up the road to Machu Picchu. “Up” is an understatement. The road is a series of 14 switchbacks that climb 2,000 feet up the mountain. Entrance fee for the park is US$10.00 payable in only clean, crisp notes.

There is a tremendous feeling of awe as you first witness this incredible sight that is a combination of mysterious and sacred. Like most of the Quechua names of towns and different sites in the region) is a compound word that comes from machu = old or ancient, and picchu = peak or mountain; therefore, Machu Picchu is translated as “Old Mountain.” The ancient citadel straddles the saddle of a high mountain with steep terraced slopes falling away to the river snaking its hairpin course far below. It has massive walls of carved stone, typical trapezoidal doors, and terraced gardens. Towering overhead is Huayna Picchu (or Young Mountain) and green jungle peaks that provide a backdrop for the whole majestic scene. Words like “awesome,” “overwhelming,” "breathtaking,” “splendid,” “majestic,” “mind boggling” and “amazing” just didn't convey the scene. Perhaps a better word is “humbling.”

Ancient Inca Ruins of Machu Picchu, PeruMachu Picchu was first found and reported to the rest of the world by Hiram Bingham (Yale professor) in 1911, although some graffiti indicates it was found earlier by others. He was looking for the lost city of Vilcabamba and followed a trail (which is now the road) to the mountain top ruins. There he found three families living in the ruins and farming the ancient terraces that had been overrun by jungle. He wasn't very impressed until a small boy took him through his “playground” and he discovered the intricate structures. It was the only major Inca site to escape 400 years of looting and destruction because of its inaccessible location. Rather than being a fortress or an agricultural station as envisioned by Bingham (who was an historian and not an archeologist), Machu Picchu is now believed to be a special observatory of the solstice sunrise. It is clear that Machu Picchu was deliberately abandoned by its inhabitations. Marco believes it was abandoned to protect the site from the Spanish.

Watchman's House at the End of the Inca Trail Overlooking Machu Picchu Ruins in PeruUpon entering the site, we climbed a set of stairs so that we could view it from the Watchman's House which at the end of the Inca Trail. It is about ten stories over the fabled main square. It was perfect: The weather was beautiful, the sky was azure blue, and the mountains were forest green. Every one of our pictures looked like they were taken by a professional photographer.

From our perch, we could see the agricultural terraces off to the right. Straight ahead was Huayna Picchu, the obelisk-shaped mountain that that overlooks the ruins and the Temple of the Moon. Immediately below us were the main gate and the Temple of the Sun. Off to the left was Intiwatana, the highest point in the center of Machu Picchu. Today about 30% of the site is cleared. Clearing has also been done near a steep cliff to show that that terracing takes place down to that natural “end of town.”

Intiwatana, Machu Picchu astronomical observation pointIntiwatana, or the astronomical observation point, is reached by climbing 78 finely carved stone steps. It has a true north-west and south-east alignment, indicates how far south of the equator it is (13°), and notes the difference between true north and magnetic north (and this is South of the Equator!). It also marks the summer solstice. All these elements affirm the idea that the Intiwatana sculpted rock has great religious meaning, clearly associated with other geographic points, that determine important ceremonial axles in Inca times.

ntiwatana, Machu Picchu astronomical observation pointLike many others, Marco was very upset that the stone had recently been chipped by a camera crew filming a beer commercial! He was also upset that more than 30,000 tourists visit the spot every year and yet few spend the time to learn what it all means. As are result, they can't distinguish it from Disneyland. He was afraid that they were driving the “spirit” of the place away.

Machu Pichhu Inca Ruins in PeruThe stonework is interesting:

The largest and smoothest stones are in ritual areas;
The carved stones used in wall construction with are not especially smooth;
Primitive stone walls are used to organize space; and
Retaining walls are unworked, rough stones.
Steps in Ancient Inca Ruins of Machu PicchuIn some places steps are carved directly into huge stones while in others the smooth polished stones placed to form intricate walkways. Again it's hard to conceive of how the stones were cut, moved, and placed without the aid of iron chisels, wheels, or horses. The sheer magnitude is hard to believe could be done by such a small population in such a short period of time.

We also noted that while the Incas may have been small people, they certainly build big steps.No American with Disabilities Act regulations here.

“Chatchi” messenger boy giving a goodby saluteThat evening, we boarded a bus to take us back to Aguas Calientes. But at every switchback, there was a young boy yelling something at us. After several encounters, we realized he was a “Chatchi,” or messenger boy who was running down the steps and yelling “G-o-o-o-o-d-bye” with a salute across the chest . At the end of the switchbacks, he got on the bus for a donation. It was then we noticed that he only had on flip-flop sandals. He became one of the trips more endearing memories. In fact from then on, when the group was split up, we'd salute each other with the Inca salute, yelling “G-o-o-o-o-d-bye.”

That night we had a wonderful dinner at the Hotel. Once again we were entertained by a wonderful Peruvian band - in fact the best yet. And yes, we bought another CD. One of the guys in the band could do a fantastic bird call.


Because of its increasing popularity new rules are set to go into effect this year raising the hiking fee, limiting on the number of hikers, limiting on the amount of weight a porter can carry, and requiring that all visitors travel with a licensed guide.
Lana has a friend who said he had visited Machu Picchu in the early 1960's. He said there was no road, only the original path used by Bingham. In the ’60s, we might have been able to climb it, but 40 years later we were glad there was a bus.
Use of the bathroom is $0.50, but at least it had toilet paper.
The driver would indicate to the young boy the nationality of the passenger so that the boy say good bye, or sayonara, auf Wiedershen, or au revoir.

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