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Ever since we got together, Flo and I have tried to put our own spin on celebrating holidays. Thanksgiving means nothing to our European families, and everyone's too far away to get together for Christmas, not to mention that some of us don't even celebrate it on the same day. Holidays are generally received as a gift from our corporate overlords - a few days of freedom to indulge our wanderlust. But - we still have our own personal ways of acknowledging and celebrating them, and keep our own family traditions. On Christmas day, we like to do something special. So, on Christmas day of 2012, we went to Machu Picchu. We thought that was pretty $@*%# special.
The day began with a 4 am wake up call, because getting to Machu Picchu - from anywhere - involves a bit of a commute. From our monastery in the clouds we took a half hour bus ride to a train station where we boarded a train. A scenic hour and a half ride followed, through valleys and mountains, running along the serpentine Urubamba river. The Urubamba Valley has become a tourist destination mostly because it offers the easiest access to Peru's most famous landmark. Trains also run from Cusco, but that ride takes about 5 hours so going through Urubamba is by far the best option (unless you're into hiking, in which case you can trek along the Inca trail and reach Machu Picchu by foot - in 4 days)
The train ride itself is a gawker's paradise. The whole time you're gently descending, from 9,400 to 7,900 feet, and the vegetation grows more lush and jungle like along the journey. Not only are you treated to jaw-dropping panoramas around every bend, but remnants of Incan architecture can be seen everywhere - stone parapets, hanging bridges, a wall of a house here and there - it's amazing how much remains, just sitting quietly in the jungle.
Our train arrived at its final destination just as the sun had risen fully, and the morning mist was being burned off the mountains.
The "destination" we arrived at is a small town at the foot of the mountain, called Machu Picchu Pueblo, aka - Aguas Calientes, which basically only exists to funnel the hordes of tourists up the mountain. It's a cute town, but it looks like something out of Epcot, with its ubiquitous signs for coffee shops, bars and souvenirs.
|There are hot springs in the area, where weary feet can soak after a grueling hike. Massage parlors also abound. We didn't take advantage of either, but what a great way to end a day at Machu Picchu.|
From the Pueblo, it's a half hour (crowded) bus ride up a narrow winding road - and then - finally - you've made it! (FYI - tickets have to be bought WAY in advance, so don't make it this far just to be turned around. And bring your passport.)
The first thing we did at Machu Picchu was run away from it. The city sits between two mountains - Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu. Huayna (meaning young) is the peak that rises right above the city - the one you see in all the photographs - and Machu (meaning old) is to the Southeast, offering panoramic views of the whole complex and the surrounding valley. Huayna can only be climbed by the day's first 450 visitors, and we didn't qualify, so we went the other way.
|Trekking up Machu Picchu towards Intipunku Temple. It was a hot and humid hike!|
|A huge rock marking the site of the cemetery. About 1/3rd of the way to Intipunku. 1000 feet above city entrance.|
|View of the valley with Urubamba river|
|Machu Picchu spread out below us|
|My Lion King moment proved to be a not-very-prudent idea, as, being out of breath and woozy from the altitude, I got a nice case of vertigo on that rock and almost went over head first. That branch above my head came in handy.|
|Colorful tropical plant life around Intipunku.|
|The Inca Bridge|
|Distinct trapezoidal architecture. By building their walls and windows in that shape, their structures were more stable and resistant to earthquakes. The city is built on the intersection of two faultlines, after all.|
|The residential part of Machu Picchu|
|Terraced agricultural area|
|Showing the locals where the best grub is.|
At the end of the day, we spent nearly 5 hours hiking, climbing and running, and we still didn't see everything. But by then, our knees were on the verge of exploding, and we smelled like Roquefort after performing all these activities on a very humid 80 degree day. We boarded the return bus shuttle stinky, parched and hungry, but also thoroughly satisfied and awestruck by all the amazing things we'd seen that day. It may be touristy to the point of cliche, but seeing it for yourself gives you an instant appreciation for why people flock here. There's an indisputable draw to something so huge and wonderful, so old and new at the same time. A whole city nestled in this remote corner of mountain and jungle thicket, where, if you find a quiet corner, you can listen to the wind whistling along the stone walls and almost see the people that lived here 500 years ago, almost feel the gods they worshipped. Incas were great builders, and - lucky for us - so much of their legacy endures to this day. Machu Picchu is of course the Big Kahuna of Inca ruins - the one name that's synonymous with this part of the world, but there are many other sites, including the far less known Choquequirau, called Machu Picchu's Sacred Sister. Very few tourists ever go there, but it's no less spectacular than its more famous counterpart. Maybe next time...
Here are a few cool facts about Machu Picchu, somethings you may not find on the Wikipedia page, to conclude this virtual tour.