Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is one of the wonders of the world so it would be foolish to visit Peru and miss out on the Lost City. Working our way through the abundance of tour companies, packages, deals and prices, we settled on the Jungle Trek which is a four day excursion combining activities with hiking en route to Machu Picchu. Our itinerary on day one was mountain biking and white-water rafting so after a rude awakening at 3.30 we began the ascent from Cusco to our start point at just below 5000m. Still on the bus, we wound our way through the Sacred Valley passing through Ollantaytambo, the best surviving example of Inca city planning. As we climbed higher the weather took a turn for the worse pushing our start point back. Finally on the bikes kitted out with full body armour we set off and whizzed down the hairpin bends skidding round the corners on the wet tarmac and negotiating waterfalls which cut into the road. After a short uphill struggle (struggle indeed in the altitude!) we made it, three hours later, at the checkpoint for a delicious four course lunch! 
Full to bursting we loaded into a collectivo and set off for the Urubamba River our start point for the rafting. In the native Quechua, the name translates as 'sacred river'
A fun, if not a cold, afternoon had by all as we navigated the waterway, were tossed around by the white water into whirlpools and splashed water at rival rafters in sister boats. 
I had been a little apprehensive about this trek following our Ciudad Perdida hike in Colombia but day one surpassed expectations by keeping a hold of my enthusiasm with thrilling activities.

Day two was a little more understated as we made our way through the valley on an 18km hike. It is hard to come to terms with the stark contrast in scenery that we witnessed - at the point of two densely covered mountains meeting at the Urubamba river, the snow-capped formidable Salkantay mountain looms in the background as a reminder that this wilderness is not to be underestimated. We learned of the Chacana or the Inca Map (photo) which depicts South America and the 70,000km of Inca Trail which cuts through the continent and is still used today by those visitors who choose to follow the Inca Trail en route to Machu Picchu. 
On the final stretch of our trek we took a rickety old cable car across the swirling river - by cable car I mean a self-operated cage on a pulley system wire thrown from one river bank to the other which providing a thrill after a long walk in the blazing heat along crumbling cliff tops and over rockslides. Our final stop was at a natural hot spring site. Produced by hot volcanic water seeping through the jagged rock face, the springs were a deliciously balmy respite to the throbbing blisters that had formed during the day and with a stunning location and pebbles underfoot, this was a perfect end to a long and tiring day.

On the third day we had more activities lined up in the form of zip-lining. Although I am no pro, I have done this many times before so I was intrigued to see how it would compare in this stunning landscape and it didn't disappoint. The five lines where zigzagged over and around the raging Urubamba River below and because of the height of the initial line, all the others were on a downward slope so we whizzed down at a great speed. To top the morning off we traversed a 200m suspension bridge with only thin planks of wood to keep us on track; this was the most nerve-wrenching part!
After lunch it was time for us to begin the 11km walk along the famous train tracks from Hidroelectrica to Aguas Calientes which is situated at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain. Hidroelectrica is exactly what it sounds like, an electricity site utilising the power of the Urubamba  River. More so than this it is an eyesore in the stunning Sacred Valley, but arguably a positive development for sustainable energy. 
The train track is still in use for those tourists able to afford the high prices and so during the two hour walk we had to hop off the sleepers into the jungle to avoid the bulky carriages crawling sleepily through the valley. 
Aguas Calientes, named after the hot springs we visited the day before, is the epitome of a tourist trap with countless souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants convincing visitors to part from their Nuevo Sols. With a 4am start time on our last day, we needed no excuse to skip the generic gimmicky set up, head to the hostel and get as much well-earned rest as possible.

On 'Machu Picchu Day,' we embarked on our ascent to the Lost City. An eery but excitable atmosphere took ahold of those clever (or stupid?!) enough to be stumbling to the start point at 4.30am in the pitch black with nothing but a head torch as guidance. Following a check of our tickets and passports we were finally allowed to begin to climb the 2000 steps to Machu Picchu which was HARD. The Incas built the stairway with a variety of sized steps to make the climb difficult for attackers... And inadvertently tourists some 700 years later! An hour later and soaking wet from the humidity and sweat we had arrived!! One final set of stairs to climb, a corner to round and finally we were rewarded with incredible views of the sprawling Inca site of Machu Picchu as the sun tried to shine from behind the eery low lying clouds which hugged the peaks. When the explorer Hiram Bingham discovered the site on July 24, 1911 he said: "tremendous green precipices fell away to the white water of the Urubamba below. Immediately infront... was a great granite cliff rising 2000 feet sheer. To the left was the solitary peak of Huayna Picchu surrounded by seemingly inaccessible precipices. On all sides were rocky cliffs. Beyond them snow-capped mountains rose thousands of feet above us." 
For us, and all first-time visitors, a moment is needed to catch your breath upon first arriving as the views, much like Bingham described, are so impressive; it is easy to see why the Incas chose this spot to live.
During the course of the morning we explored many parts of the site including the Sun Temple which is the highest point in the whole site and therefore the most important building reserved only for meaningful events, the Temple of the Condor where a bird shaped rock was used as a place of sacrifice to ensure that Incas would make the transition into the afterlife, the Temple of the Three Windows used to locate the exact location of the sunrise,
the quarry where they cultivated the huge building blocks with only man power to shape and move the enormously heavy slabs and the medicinal garden where they concocted remedies similar to the modern day paracetamol. Another impressive feat of the Incas was the basics of their buildings. The slabs used as bricks are held together in what is now called the "Lego technique," an overlapping of edges to create a sturdy wall built at a 7-15 degree angle to survive the many earthquakes which occur in this area - Machu Picchu is built inbetween two mountain ranges and close to the  earthquake-prone Circle of Fire; something which only serves to provide even more of an energy at the site. 
The fact that so many Incan buildings are still intact and in perfect condition today shows their ingenuity and even further emphasises their dominance as a civilisation. Research puts the only reason why they left was when the Spaniards arrived and brought with them disease which they were unable to resist. 
The only downside was the sheer amount of tourists who arrived a few hours after we had fully equipped with selfie sticks, bulky cameras and clean non-sweaty clothes following their luxurious journey by bus or train. This is part of the territory now for Machu Picchu as its popularity continues to grow; for me the most important thing to remember and appreciate is the site itself and the mysterious magical history the Incas have created and left behind.