The majestic Incan ruins of Machu Picchu were the last and most impressive stop on our gringo trail itinerary!
We departed from Cusco via a bus/train combination operated by Peru Rail that takes you through a river valley to the town of Aguas Calientes. The tiny town is built up between the mountains were the ruins rest and alongside the Urubamba River. It’s really not much more than a place for tourists to gather before heading up to Machu Picchu, and it is the most expensive town that we have visited in all our time in Peru because every supply has to be brought into the town by the train.
I had visited Machu Picchu 10 years ago as part of my semester studying abroad in Ecuador; Chris had visited 5 years ago during his first pre-dissertation field work trip to Peru; and it was our cousin’s first trip. It has changed SO much since my first visit. The amount of development along the route from Cusco, and then the town of Aguas Calientes itself was just astonishing. The train 10 years ago had hard wooden benches, and I purchased corn on the cob with cheese from a woman selling it from a bucket. The train now not only has fold down tables laid with table runners and center pieces to accompany the hot meal that is served, but it also has entertainment including a local dance performance and a fashion with the staff modeling alpaca sweaters and ponchos made exclusively for the railway by one of the top alpaca knitwear producers in Peru (yes, you read that right, a fashion show).
Our train arrived to Aguas Calientes around 1 pm and we wandered around the town (for all of the 15 minutes that it takes to walk through it) and then rested up for our early morning journey to the ruins. We were up at 5:30 am, purchased our bus tickets, and were on the bus up to the entrance by 6 am. The bus ride takes approximately 30 minutes on a very winding road that zig zags up the mountain. You can also hike to the entrance, but we opted to pass on the hour-long (or possibly more) hike to save our energy for exploring the ruins!
Being the height of the rainy season, the ruins were shrouded by misty clouds, ever shifting in shape and allowing you to see only portions of the ruins and surrounding mountains at a time. Armed with our rain jackets, we went off to explore the ruins. Many independent tour guides were waiting outside the entrance upon our arrival and we negotiated with a lovely guide to show the three of us around. She guided us through the ruins, explaining how the ruins were built by the Incas in the 1450s, but was abandoned to help fight against the Spanish after their arrival in 1533. The ruins were then re-discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham of Yale University with the help of a local family who lived at the bottom of the mountain. Despite all the years that the ruins passed without occupants, the majority of the stonework buildings remain intact and even the fountains still flow with clear, fresh water.
The Incans used a trapezoidal design in their building construction, making the buildings extremely resistant to earthquakes. The mountain is covered with large boulders and stones, which were used as the building material. To carve out the rocks, they chinked out holes into the large stones covering the mountaintop, filled the holes with branches soaked in water, and as the branches dried the rock would break apart. From there, the rocks were sanded down using sand until they could be used. The buildings of the common people had more jagged stones, whereas the temples had the most polished stones, almost smooth to the touch. And, quite amazingly, some were built in concert with the large boulders with stones sitting just perfectly atop the boulder.
It’s thought that the sight was chosen for its strategic location, high up for protection, alongside the Urubamba River for water, and the abundance of building materials scattered over the mountaintop. The city had incredibly good urban planning, with different sectors designated for certain activities–crops, animals, textile and pottery production, a marketplace, and more. To protect against erosion, terraces were built up the sides of the mountain and then the main buildings were placed on the top of the mountain.
My favorite part of the entire visit was climbing up the watch tower to catch a glimpse of the entire sight, including Wayna Picchu, or the Young Mountain, the rises up at the other end of the ruins. We watched the clouds shift across the ruins, sometimes completely obscuring the surrounding peaks, and listened to the rushing waters of the Urubamba River rising up from far below. It was such an incredible moment, sitting together with my family, looking out over the ruins of Machu Picchu and imaging the energy that it must have taken to built such an incredible place so high up in the mountains with such precision to leave it standing more than 500 years later. A humbling and special experience that I will treasure forever.