Friday, February 27, 2009
Going to Machu Picchu, especially for a budget traveler, is a very expensive undertaking. Unless you are hiking the Inca Trail, your only option is to take a round-trip PeruRail train, the one and only company offering such services (read: outrageously priced monopoly), to Aguas Calientes, the cost of which ranges from the $60 Backpackers’ Train to the super deluxe $500 Hiram Bingham express (the latter of which includes such perks as musical entertainment, a private guide, and a four-course meal on the return trip to Cusco). If you plan on staying overnight in Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, a ho-hum hotel room runs $60 per night, highway robbery by Peruvian standards. Then, there is the matter of actually getting to the ruins. Admission tickets cost $40 per day, and unlike Jordan’s Petra, no multi-day passes are offered. We were shocked to learn that the 20-minute bus ride between the town and the site, the only option other than hoofing it up a steep hill for an hour and a half, costs $14 round-trip. In the apt words of Rene, our host in Buenos Aires, who visited Machu Picchu a few years ago, “It’s Disneyland prices.”
We had planned on visiting Machu Picchu over two days in order to really take in the experience, not realizing until we arrived the extent of the sky-high prices. The train tickets and hotel room had been paid in advance, so there was no going back early. We stood in the ticket office, agonizing whether we should enter for one or two days, a difference of $108 (nearly an entire day’s budget). To make matters more complicated, it was beginning to drizzle: who knew if it would be pouring once we got up there? In a moment of fate and impulse, we took the plunge and bought two-day tickets, hoping for the best.
Was it worth it? In a word, absolutely.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a photo of Machu Picchu, the Inca’s Lost City, a sprawling stone complex perched high on an emerald hilltop deep in the Andes Mountains. It looked like something out of a fairy tale, so much so that I truly couldn’t believe that modern, everyday people could visit the site today. (I was flabbergasted to learn that, if a person was so inclined, he or she could actually walk to the site via a four-day trek on the Inca Trail.) Other than knowing it was built by the Incas, I had no clue as to what Machu Picchu actually was, but I was mesmerized by it, and when we began crafting our itinerary, it was one of the first items on the docket.
The train chugs into Aguas Calientes and deposits passengers in a deep sliver of valley, and as you make your way up the long, winding road towards Machu Picchu, it’s clear why it’s referred to as The Lost City of the Incas. When Yale University archaeologist Hiram Bingham “discovered” Machu Picchu in the late 1800s, he was actually in search of Vilcabama, believed to be the last Inca stronghold. Instead he found Machu Picchu, swaddled in overgrown foliage and in a state of neglect. When he found the real Vilcabama, it turned out to be much smaller than Machu Picchu, and he began to believe that perhaps Machu Picchu was actually the site of more significance.
What is amazing about Machu Picchu is that it was never discovered by the Spanish, no doubt due to its remote location. Most Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley consist of an Incan foundation with Spanish architecture slapped on top, so Machu Picchu is special in that it remains a “pure” example of Inca craftsmanship. Upon entering the site, a sweeping vista of the city below takes your breath away, a blaze of eye-popping green plazas and rugged stone walls, all set against the backdrop of towering emerald sugarloaf hills, as banks of clouds are swallowed by the valley below. The whole scene lends the effect of being perched on the precipice of the world.
No one knows the exact purpose of Machu Picchu. Some theories suggest that it was a transfer station for goods bound for Cusco. Others suggest that it was a central administration site. Yet others think it may have been a “summer home” for an Incan king, given the area’s year-round temperate climate. The romantics amongst us believe that Machu Picchu may have been the home to a clutch of chosen virgins for the God of the Sun, as evidence originally suggested a disproportionate number of women when mummies were excavated from the site.
Whatever its purpose, its size is impressive. The city looks manageable from a distance, but once one begins exploring, the scale and perspective suddenly shift: once you’re in the middle of it, everything feels impossibly huge. Gone are the thatched roofs that sheltered great A-frame buildings, but their bones remain. Narrow stone staircases lead from one “complex” to another. Great tumbling fountains dot the buildings – Incas were great worshipers of water. Huge terraced hillsides, once used for farming and erosion control, occupy nearly 60% of the site, now the grazing grounds of llamas imported by train from Cusco, poor man’s lawn mowers.
The Incas were great astronomers, and stone-carved astronomical instruments, such as sundials, remain today. One such instrument, purported to emit positive energy, sits high above the city (a corner of the dial was damaged during the filming of a beer commercial in 2001). There are temples and stone carvings that, when the sun hits it just so during the solstice, cast a shadow that resembles the shape of the Andean cross. It’s no wonder that spiritual gurus from all over the world flock here. “Even Cameron Diaz came on the summer solstice,” said our guide.
No one knows why Machu Picchu was abandoned. Some believe that the Incas caught wind of the advancing Spanish. Others believe that a drought plagued the city. Like Easter Island, there are the standard UFO theories. Whatever the reason, a city perched high on a mountain peak – a hidden place that you can walk to, if the mood strikes – is pure magic.2 comments