DAY 616 - MACHU PICCHU

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Day 616 - Machu Picchu - 12721 km

Machu Picchu - Evoking curiosity

The ruins of Machu Picchu are one of the most visited landmarks in South America, if not the most. Getting there takes a lot of planning and research, if you don’t want to pay a fortune. At first I was sceptic to jump the tourist train, but there is true magic in these landscapes and I’m glad I didn’t skip it.


I woke up at 4am in my hotel Machu Picchu Pueblo, the small town that serves as a tourist hub to visit the Machu Picchu ruins. It’s hidden deep in the green valleys where the Andes slopes down into the jungle. It’s only accessible by train or foot, there’s no road. The host had prepared a lunch packet for me. I had an entry ticket for the ruins for 6.00-12am which I had to purchase upfront online. When I walked out onto the streets it drizzled. It was still dark, but the town was already alive at this hour. Shops were open and people were waiting at the bus stop with a 24 dollar ticket in their hands for the short ride up. I chose the trail. Along the roaring river I walked towards the trailhead and first ticket check point. There were other people walking too. Head torches danced in the dark. A rocky staircase through the jungle led up the mountain, 400 meters higher. It still rained, but it wasn’t cold. The altitude was only 2100m at this point. The steps were slippery and muddy, rain dripped through the thick bushes that covered the trail. It took me an hour to walk up. I passed some people who were struggling. I knew I would struggle 2 days later, when the muscle pain kicks in. At the top there was already a group of about 100 people or more, waiting at the ticket booth. I joined the line, checked in and walked up the mountain amongst the crowds. We waited at the viewpoint near the Guardhouse. There was nothing to see but dark blue clouds that slowly turned light. No sight of the Inca citadel. I stared at the fog. Next to me people in ponchos made selfies in front of an unrecognisable view. Then the clouds disappeared for a moment and I took the shot that I came for. It was very different than I’d hoped it to be. Dark, gloomy and full of secrets.

 
The train station in Cusco. MP is only reachable by train or foot

The train station in Cusco. MP is only reachable by train or foot

The train station in Oyllantaytambo.

The train station in Oyllantaytambo.

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The weeks before I contemplated if I wanted to visit Machu Picchu in the first place. As a photographer this place is the least unique place to photograph, but at the same time every travel photographer wants it, regardless a somewhat stressful travel experience. Because my journey is all about unexpected and unplanned happenings, choosing the unbeaten paths, there was a good reason not to go. It’s not cheap, compared to other destinations in Peru. You pay 50$ for an entry ticket (30$ extra if you want to climb one of the surrounding mountains), 70 dollar for a (one-way) train ticket, which was the cheapest — there are luxury tickets of 500 dollar. Also hotel and restaurant expenses are higher than usual. But I couldn’t refuse it. I would fill unfulfilled, to skip the most popular tourist destination of South America.

So here I am, in the rain, trying to get a glimpse of one of the seven world wonders on perhaps the worst day of the year. I wandered around a bit on the main viewpoint area and went to the trailhead of Machu Picchu Mountain, which would open at 7am. This is the highest peak in the area. On top you would have a birds eye view of the ruins and the surrounding valleys. Most visitors don’t go here because it’s another 500 vertical meters via a slippery staircase. There was hardly anything to see, except for the river I walked past a few hours earlier, 900 meters lower. People looked in the distance in silence, waiting for a good moment. You could see the disappointment on their faces after the long hike.

I walked back to the main site. The weather had cleared up a little bit, but it was also more crowded so I started to make my way down into the ruins. The Inca city, that served as a royal estate for Inca emperor Pachacuti, dates from approximately 1450. Although know by locals it has always been hidden from the Spanish during colonial times. It was only discovered in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, after a local farmer had told him about the ruins. Since then the site has been cleared from all the trees and debris and most of the structures have been restored.

It makes you curious about how these people were able to built an entire city on nearly vertical mountains, with an ingenious stonework using huge shaped boulders that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Agriculture was highly developed on hundreds of terraces that curl around the mountain slopes. The Inca’s didn’t use written language so there is no documentation of any sort. They exchanged messages via a network of fast road runners — horses were not used for transport — that would run the entire length of the country to relay a message, orally or via a communication system called Quipu, which were a combination of strings and knots, tied to a necklace, that is similar to the binary code used in modern computers. It’s obvious that the Inca’s were an inventive kind, but curiosity remains widely unanswered since there is so little known about this civilisation. One can only marvel at the wonder of this place, the magic of the smoky jungle, the iconic peaks and its ancient ruins.

 
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The view from Machu Picchu Mountain

The view from Machu Picchu Mountain

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River Urubamba

River Urubamba

Terraces for agriculture

Terraces for agriculture

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The Lone Tree at the centre of the square.

The Lone Tree at the centre of the square.

A window in one of the Inca dwellings

A window in one of the Inca dwellings

Hiram Bingham, who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911

Hiram Bingham, who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911

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The 2 hour walk back along the train tracks to the first village to catch a bus back to Cusco.

The 2 hour walk back along the train tracks to the first village to catch a bus back to Cusco.