SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 19
It was 4.30am and darkness had pursued me through the streets of Aguas Calientes. Beneath the orange glow of a street lamp I prepared myself for the impending challenge – I was about to climb 1000 jungle-clad steps to the ruins of Machu Picchu.
A small crowd bustled before the locked gate at the bridge across the Urubamba River, the starting point for the ascent to Machu Picchu. I naturally formed a queue, my British blood being so fond of such things, which snaked its way towards the town. At 5am the line slithered forwards as the entrance opened and my clamber up the stairway began.
Stairway to Hell
It must have been at step 50 when my lungs thought I was being strangled. Through gasps of warm air I pushed myself onwards, reaching the top in a flat-out time of 45 minutes. There were about 20 people in front who looked as equally as sweaty as I did and we gave each other a knowing nod that we’d qualified to climb yet more steps up a higher peak.
The race to Machu Picchu’s entrance is to ensure a place at the vantage point of the neighbouring peak, Wayna Picchu. Only 400 people daily are allowed on the mountain and in high season it’s a race of the fittest. It was, however, low season which meant it was simply a race of the stupidest – no more than 400 people arrive before 7am. This meant we could have taken the comfier option of the 5.30am bus. But that would be cheating, right?
Clouds hugged the surrounding hills, their green sides donning a white coat. Llamas momentarily stopped their grazing as the morning crowd entered the lost city, searching for the postcard shot of the Inca ruins. I rounded the outside of a stone house to see it: stone-lined terraces giving way to granite houses, still standing six centuries after they were built. In the background loomed lush Wayna Picchu.
The impressive landscape gives this UNESCO World Heritage site its magnetic pull as Machu Picchu towers 2,430m above sea level encircled by evergreen peaks. It’s towering presence was one of the main reasons for its location according to our guide: “Defence from invasion, an agreeable climate, 12 litres of fresh water per second and fertile land made it a great place for the Incas to build here.”
It’s not 100 percent known why Machu Picchu was built but our guide believed it was for the Inca emperor Pachacuti circa 1420. Only around 80 elite families are believed to have lived there and its size is surprisingly small. I could see the entire lost city as I perched on top of Wayna Picchu, my legs and lungs wondering what I was doing to them.
Huge slabs of granite lay around untouched, the stone from the mountainside abandoned during the Spanish conquest. Although the colonists didn’t find Machu Picchu it’s believed that the Incas abandoned it 100 years after it was first begun during the Spanish invasion. It was only in 1911 that the towering city was brought to the attention of the international world (the local Quechua people knew of its existence) when American Hiram Bingham rediscovered it.
I was marvelling the work of the Incas, stones over one metre carved and erected with complete precision, when the heavens unleashed a torrent of rain on me. Our group dashed under cover, leaving those who had succumbed to injuries on the four-day trip to Machu Picchu limping behind. Downhill biking had claimed two casualties, two more had twisted their ankles and another’s leg had swollen up to ridiculous proportions after suffering from copious sand fly bites. We all wondered who would be next. Luckily, there were no more injuries (unless you count my phone which had been drowned in my bag by an uscrewed bottle of water).
Back in Cuzco, the town built by the Incas and still a thriving place today, the local population had gone fancy-dress crazy. It was Hallowe’en and hundreds of toddlers dressed as bumble bees, Buzz Light Year, Dracula, princesses – you name it, there was someone dressed as it – congregated in the main plaza. Shop keepers were inundated with hordes of kids rushing in to claim their goodies (many shops actually give them sweets) while parents looked on at their children dotingly. I don’t think the locals have any idea of the pagan origins of the festival – celebrating the summer’s end (it’s the beginning of summer in South America) and wearing costumes to frighten away evil spirits. I had to laugh when one mother, accompanied by a mini vampire and witch, turned to the cathedral and made the sign of the cross before carrying on with her ghoulish evening.
WHERE TO STAY IN CUZCO
Samai Wasi 2 on Calle Siete Angelitos 675, in the San Blas area (7 soles by taxi from the bus station).
It has a garden, DVD room, incredibly slow internet and the usual breakfast of unfilling white bread and coffee. Not a party hostel, perfect for a tee-total like me!
BEWARE of James the tout in the hostel who’d try to sell you his liver if he could, at a highly inflated price. Shop around before accepting a tour from him, I was overcharged by US$35 for the Machu Picchu trip.
WHERE TO GET DOSED UP ON CHOCOLATE
Chocolate, Choquechaca 162, San Blas, Cuzco
Super cute chocolate chop with the best hot chocolate I’ve had since the cocoa heaven of Bariloche, Argentina. (https://southamericajourneys.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/bariloche-a-slice-of-chocolate-heaven/) A must for chocoholics or those just wanting to while away a rainy afternoon in Cuzco.
WHERE ON EARTH?
Machu Picchu, Peru
- The site was built around 1420 but abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers after a century
- It comprises of around 140 structures built for the Inca emperor Pachacuti
- It’s 80km from Cuzco and 2,430 meters above sea level