I haven't posted in a little while, partly because my life settled into a routine of volunteering and studying, and partly because Milena met me here in Cusco for my birthday yesterday and last weekend was very busy.
And last weekend was a very good weekend. It was another of those shining spots of places I've really wanted to go to for years - Machu Picchu! And I made it my 25th birthday present to myself. The most lavish gift I'll probably ever give myself.
We made it a two-day bonanza so we'd be able to go early on the Sunday morning and see the sunrise, and beat the crowds. There are so many options for getting to Machu Picchu from Cusco - by train, by bus, by combi, by hiking (the Inca Trail or one of the less famous trails that wind through the mountains here). But if you don't do the Inca Trail (I didn't because you need to book it so far in advance and I didn't know when I'd be in Peru, and also it's not a cheap thing to do) then you will need to take the train to Aguas Calientes, which is the town at the bottom of the mountain on which Machu Picchu rests. It is also called Machu Picchu Pueblo. Then it's a 20 minute bus ride to the archaeological site itself.
You can take the train all the way from Cusco, via Ollantaytambo, or you can take the train from Urubamba or Ollantaytambo and make your own way to either of those towns from Cusco. That's what Milena and I did because it was the cheapest option. But it wasn't the quickest or easiest. So if you're looking to just sit back and roll to Aguas Calientes from Cusco, it's probably best to go with Perú Rail (the only train company that goes from Cusco), although it will cost you a pretty penny.
On Saturday Milena and I went to get a combi (a minibus that goes a certain route and departs when it's full) from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. It leaves from Pavitos, a road just off Grau, and costs 10 soles. Don't let them overcharge you because you're foreign!
We had left plenty of time to get our 1pm train, getting on the combi at 10am for the two-hour journey. But unfortunately no one else seemed to want to go to Ollantaytambo and we were waiting 40 minutes for the bus to fill up. We were both getting more and more anxious, but we finally got on the road. The scenery was gorgeous. Absolutely beautiful. As you'd expect from Peru's Sacred Valley. Patchwork fields dotted with lakes and rivers occasionally gave way to sharp drops into valleys overlooked by snowy Andean mountains. At times the views weren't dissimilar to rural England, which surprised me, but was quite comforting.
The gods of travel were on our side, and we arrived at Ollantaytambo with half an hour to spare before our train. If you do the combi route, which is significantly cheaper, make sure you leave loads of time to get there. Ollantaytambo is a beautiful town as well, so it might be worth stopping off there before heading to Aguas Calientes if you can spare the time.
There are a few train companies that do the trip from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. I went with the cheapest train (Expedition) that Perú Rail offers and spent US$130 return. Yeah, doing Machu Picchu ain't cheap.
The train journey follows a churning river as it cuts its way through a steep-sided valley, which is occasionally engulfed in swirling mist which clings to the trees and rocks as you whiz past. Even the cheapest option for the train was comfortable, with good seats and legroom. They served a drink and a snack halfway through the 100-minute journey as well.
I did see two guys walking the train tracks to Aguas Calientes, so I suppose that's an option as well, although how legal that is I don't know.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes mid-afternoon just in time for a tremendous downpour. The rain was so heavy, and combined with the rivers that split the town into quadrants and the low clouds in the mountains above, it felt like we were swimming through the town to find a restaurant.
There's not a lot in Aguas Calientes except touristy markets, shops and restaurants, and hot springs. I quite fancied relaxing in a hot spring but once we got to our hostel we were so tired we decided just to chill.
We bought our bus ticket for the following morning that afternoon. It costs US$19 return. The alternative is walking up the mountain, which takes 90 minutes. But I was there to see Machu Picchu, not tire myself out before I'd even got there. The first bus leaves Aguas Calientes at 5.30am and gets there in time for the 6am opening of the site.
On Sunday morning we got up at 4.30am and got to the queue for the buses at 5am, passing clubbers who were just leaving Cupido's. There were already a lot of people waiting in line, and we got on the second bus just after 5.30. The bus took us up black mountainsides towards the purple sky, which was slowly lightening to a blue. I was just praying that the weather held and didn't turn into the rain and mist that we'd had the previous day.
We had read that you're not allowed to take food or drinks into the site, so we were prepared to throw ours away when we went through and showed our tickets and passports. (You have to buy your entrance tickets in advance at an official office, and you can't get them online, which is awkward if you're on a time deadline. It cost 126 soles per adult for just Machu Picchu without the extra climb of Huayna Picchu). They didn't check us for anything, which was lucky as we were in the site for four hours in the sun, so the water came in very handy!
We went in and followed the trail round the hillside, and there it was. Blanketed in shade, but absolutely majestic. Exactly as I'd seen in photos, and exactly as I'd expected, but so incredible to see it with my own eyes.
I'd recommend going left as you go in and heading up the hill to get the overview and take your photos while it's still relatively quiet, then going and exploring the ruins when it's not as important to have a clear view. And definitely go early to see the sunrise if you can. It's not a red sky deal - the surrounding mountains completely block the horizon - but what you do see is the sun creep above the mountainside and illuminate the tip of Huayna Picchu (the steep peak behind Machu Picchu) with a bright gold. The light gradually spreads down to the ruins and fills each street with golden shafts of light, and the morning humidity means that you can actually see the beams of light. You'll see the ruins half bathed in light and half sleeping in the shade before the whole mountainside and the river below are aglow with the sunlight. It's a fantastic sight.
And as soon as the sun is up you'll need your sunblock and hat. Being so close to the Equator the sun is intense, but I was just delighted that we had clear blue skies. It was exactly how I'd imagined. (It did cloud over that afternoon though, so if you go in rainy season like I did - it will be quieter than peak season in May to August - that's another reason to go in the morning, as it tends to rain mid-afternoon every day, or at least cloud over).
After taking the obligatory postcard photos from the top of the hill, we did a 20-minute trail to the Inca drawbridge. The bridge itself wasn't amazing, but the views from the narrow cliff-hugging path suspended above vertical drops into the valley below were worth it. Only go if you're sure-footed and have sturdy shoes though. It was slightly perilous at times.
We returned to the main site, took some more photos (why the hell not, ey?) and then descended to look around the town itself.
We were under the watchful eye of Huayna Picchu (aka Wayna Picchu) the whole time. You can climb it by spending a bit more when you buy your main entrance ticket. They let two groups of 200 people go up per day, one at 7am, the second at 10am. Get your tickets even further in advance if you're keen to do this extra. Milena and I were happy with just the main site though.
The town was fascinating, and we spent almost two hours wandering through the winding alleys and ruined buildings.
We left Machu Picchu at 10.30am, in need of food and a toilet (there are no toilet facilities inside the site) but very happy.
What an absolutely amazing day that was. What an unforgettable way to celebrate my 25th. And in the combi on the way back to Cusco we met an American journalist who had been seemingly everywhere in the world. She had a story for every country we could throw at her. Something for me to work towards? Possibly...