We woke very early to catch a 6am train to the tiny mountain village of Aguas Calientes , also known as Machupicchu Pueblo. The train platform is literally just outside our hotel door. Our guide, Juan meets us with tickets. We drop our large bags at the front desk for safekeeping, say goodby to the hotel dog, Chaska, and weave through the crowds to find our seats on the Vistadome Train to Machu Picchu.
The platform is crowded with travelers. Folks who have hiked the Incan trail have returned by train with giant packs on their backs and weary looks. Porters, hired by the hikers, are fighting to get bags and equipment off the luggage car in a large scrum. We elbow our way through and take our seats in the glass-domed train car. Juan has had a late night, up with sick kids. He quickly settles in for a nap. We find ourselves seated across from a Scottish couple in their seventies. We can barely understand them, but they are hilarious.
As the train climbs uphill we pass a point where the landscape changes suddenly from arid and scrubby to lush and green jungle. We’ve entered the cloud forest. The Amazon River basin is to the east. Warm wet air blows into the Andes mountains and as it rises it cools to become clouds. We watch the vegetation zoom by as we crack jokes with our new Scottish friends. About half way the train stopped for hikers to disembark. They’re doing a “short” run of the Incan trail. Just the hard parts in the mountains.
The train arrives at Aguas Calientes. Crowds pile out of the train and try to find a restroom. Juan leads us around a corner to a deserted waiting room with empty restrooms. Juan is Batman. He just knows things. The exit from the train station is enveloped in vendors hawking tourist crap. It’s hard to even find our way out. Juan spots the crew from our hotel. The crew adds our bags to a large cart full of more bags. This town only exists to get people into and out of Machu Picchu so the hotels cater to that need. Hotels will collect and hold bags, and return them to your train station.
The little town straddles the Urubamba River , which here in the foothills is a roaring rapid. The town is stitched together with small bridges. Our early train and immediate bus ride is scheduled so we can beat the throng of tourists arriving behind us. It takes our bus about 30 minutes to weave up the mountainside on switchbacks and hairpin turns. At the top buses unload their passengers and tourists line up to enter the archeological site. We have a choice. We can take the high road over the top of Machu Picchu - where all the famous photos are taken - or we can take the low road where all the interesting features are. We only have Juan to guide us today, so we choose the low road and continue our informal education in Andean and Incan history.
At the gate we have our tickets stamped and march down a small stone path into the archeological site. Juan directs over to the one bench in the whole site. Next to us a beard tourist in hiking gear snores, supine on the bench. Juan gives us an impromptu lecture about the rediscovery of Machu Picchu by explorer, academic, and bon-vivant Hiram Bingham . Bingham reintroduced Machu Picchu to the world in 1911, which is the same year our little house in Portland was built. I imagined Bingham tromping through the jungle on a mountain top with a teenage guide at the same time some burly lumberjacks were hammering planks onto my home’s roof. The synchronicity of time and space tickles my brain and for a brief moment I am four dimensional. Machu Picchu is a good place to touch the universe.
Juan leads us through the ruins explaining the use of the different structures and waxing almost lyrical about the ingenuity of the agricultural terraces (still occupied by llamas). What you see with your dumb gelatinous eyes are a stair-step structure of a wall holding back earth. If you are four-dimensional like me you can see that beneath the carefully managed topsoil is a network of aggregate rock and channels which route excess water away from the site and prevent erosion. But seriously, the site maintains a glass-encased aperture into the terraces where you can see the layers of rock and soil and get a sense of the complex structure hidden beneath your feet.
Temple to the sun standing above the entryway to the priest’s house.
We approach the temple to the sun - which is a curved wall with two trapezoidal windows facing out. Juan borrows a pen and using the pen as a prop mimes stabbing the pen into a paper envelope that once held our tickets. He explains that of course the sun would cast a shadow from the stick (pen) placed in the ground. And if you tracked the position of that shadow through the year to the winter solstice, the shadow will stop at a certain angle. He draws a line to indicate this. 6 months pass and he draws another line to indicate the position of the sun at the summer solstice.
Juan bisects the angle. “Now you know north and south”. A line perpendicular to this first line is east and west. The temple to the sun is a calendar. The little windows align to the position of the sun at the solstices. A few minutes later, my brain starts working and I look around and realize that all the windows on every building face east or west. to capture the sun. Beneath the temple to the sun we find a structure labeled “priests house”. Juan explains that this is a guess. We don’t know for certain. Next to the priest’s house is another structure beneath the temple to the sun, the king’s house. Both of the structures have the most elegant and precise stonework. The Incan tradition seems to emphasize status through quality of architecture.
We walk and listen to Juan and try to absorb knowledge and I surreptitiously touch ancient walls trying to feel history in my fingertips. He tells stories of idiot politicians trying to land helicopters at the site, too proud and lazy to take a bus they destroyed an important features of the site.
Tourists have started flowing in behind us. Tour groups are muscling their way through to important site, blocking paths, with little regard for others. Silly Instagram girls, both under and overdressed, are taking selfies. One absolutely Karen is holding a FaceTime chat while her tour guide is trying to explain the significance of the site they’re viewing. “I have to be quiet, I’m on a tour.” There are so many cliffs at Machu Picchu. It would be a shame if someone were to fall to their death while live-streaming on Instagram. A darn shame.
We finish our tour and my brain is full and bubbling. The bus ride back down the mountain seems to take seconds and my attention is elsewhere. Back in town, we find our hotel and collect our bags from the crew who gathered them from the train station. We head to our room and take showers. This town, Aguas Calientes, is such a tourist trap. It’s cute. The bridges over the river offer spectacular views. It seems like the town is under constant construction, more hotels for more tourists, at varying price points and degrees of luxury. We do a little shopping for souvenirs but soon the cacophony of street music, vendors, and clueless tourists is too much and we retreat. Mrs. Barrett books a massage in a quiet place. I put on headphones and read.
This entire town can only exist thanks to the railroad. There are no drivable roads in or out. This means the buses, construction equipment, food, everything, comes on a train each day. Amazing. We mostly hide the rest of the day, enjoying a nice meal at the hotel. Eventually the street grows quiet and the town is peaceful.
The next morning we are up early and on our own. After a quick breakfast in the hotel we line up for our bus. While we wait we watch a very confident dog stroll across a pedestrian bridge over the river, down some stairs where he pauses to check for traffic, then trots across the street to see if he can score some pets or treats from the tourists lined up. When this doesn’t pay off, he trots back across the street to a gaggle of school kids where he is immediately lavished with attention.
There are bus stops for each entry time into Machu Picchu. We line up at the 7am, entry stop. We take the bus up the twisty mountain road and to the park. This time we choose the high road, which requires a short but serious hike uphill over ancient steps.
Our path today will come down from the mountain side to the “top” of Machu Picchu - an alternate trail on the highest ridge line. It’s cloudy this morning and we’re not sure if we’ll get any good photographs, but the hike is lovely and there’s so much to see.
There are few restored thatch roofed buildings dotted around the site to help folks understand what the place might have looked like 600 years ago. The clouds are thick this morning and it seems to keep things quiet. Our walk around the site leads us to a high terrace overlooking the rest of the site. The clouds are a grey wall between us and the rest of the citadel.
We decide to wait and rest with all of the other tourists hoping to take the photo. It’s pleasant hanging out there. We lean up against a wall and watch folks sitting on their ponchos, talking amongst themselves. About 45 minutes later we see motion in the clouds. The crowd stirs and gasps as the whole of the city is revealed below us.
An interesting community formed spontaneously. Unlike the terrible Instagram girls, these folks waited patiently for a turn to take their great photo. People gestured to one another with the internationally understood symbol of “I’ll take your photo, will you take mine?” We get our photo taken, we take several more. At this point, as lame and bougie as it is, I am very glad that I recently upgraded my iPhone. I got a truly excellent photo.
We linger a while watching people watch each other take photos and then proceed through the rest of the trail. This trail leads up to an astronomical observatory on a small peak. Another temple to the sun with a small outcropping of carved rock which seems to serve as a compass point. The way there is treacherous. Tiny paths and tiny steps cling to the side of terraces overlooking cliffs and certain doom.
My brain does backflips and I breathe heavy. I begin to try to cling to the wall with both outstretched palms. I try to focus on my feet and walk but at every corner I can see deep into the valley below and my brain tries to jump out of my skull. Idiot tourists park at the top of stairs to take photos, oblivious to my suffering. I curse like a sailor under my breath. Everything we’re seeing is amazing and hate that I can’t take it in because my dumb brain doesn’t know that I’m safe. We finally descend from the maddening peak and nervous system calms down. I feel like I just sprinted a mile.
At the exist there is a lovely small café for tourists to relax at while waiting for a bus or waiting to enter. We have a little brunch. It’s still quite early, just barely 9am. We get small pizzas and I order a beer. The café is open to the air and overlooks mountain peaks through the trees. The beer works on my jangly nerves and we sit and chat for a bit, comparing photos.
We line up for our bus behind a throng of school kids in really cool uniforms. The school uniforms look like they were designed by Nike. Sleek track gear. I really wanted one of my own. An attendant wrangling the lines motions us forward. We take two of four remaining seats on the bus. The school kids are loaded together, en masse, on the next buss. Good planning.
Back in the little town, the noise has returned. The street musicians are back and filling the streets with the same four songs, Andean renditions of American boomer-pop hits. Terrible. We hide in a coffee shop until it’s time to board the train back to Ollantaytambo.