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Thursday, August 5, 2010

Peru Vacation Day 5: Machu Picchu

Often referred to as "The Lost City of the Incas", Machu Picchu is perhaps the most familiar icon of the Inca World. Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

Our tour in Machu Picchu lasted about 3 hours. We were split up into two groups after we got off the bus, with the Spanish-speakers being led off by one tour-guide, and the English-speakers being led by another tour guide. We started with a long, steep hike up to what is called the guard house (this involved climbing up many, many steps). From this vantage point, you can see the whole of Machu Picchu. We then walked down to Machu Picchu, and ended our tour at the lower levels near the bus stop.

A few things to remember if you visit Machu Picchu. We were told to use the restrooms on the train because there are supposedly no clean restrooms beyond that point. That is not entirely true. The Machu Picchu station in Aguas Calientes has clean restrooms. Right next to the bus stop at Machu Picchu is the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge (a luxury hotel run by the Orient Express group). This hotel has restrooms thought they may not appreciate the general public trouping through their property just to use the restrooms. It is true that here are no restrooms once you start your tour of Machu Picchu though.

The place has a lot of steps that you have to climb up and down. Wear comfortable shoes that you are prepared to spend several hours in, walking around. An entry ticket to Machu Picchu usually covers 3 consecutive days. So, if you have the time in your travels, stay in Aguas Calientes, and visit Machu Picchu multiple times. The site certainly takes more than 3 hours to take in fully, so you will appreciate the chance to spend more time there. My main regret on this trip is the short time I had to spend in Machu Picchu. You do have to buy bus tickets back and forth between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu for every visit (or you can hike it up and down, if you are physically up to it. Better still, if you can afford it, stay in the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, and you can walk through Machu Picchu any time you fancy!).

The place is very photogenic because it is quite compact, and the surrounding mountains give you a good aerial view of the entire Machu Picchu complex. The mountains themselves are also covered in greenery rather than being dry and brown. So, take a good camera with lots of batteries and enjoy it all!

By the way, even though the site is called Machu Picchu, nobody knows exactly what it was called when the Incas built it and inhabited it. Machu Picchu is actually the name of the high mountain on one side of the site (literally, it means "old mountain"). Huanya Picchu (which literally means "young mountain") is the name of the shorter mountain on the other side of the site (most frequently seen in popular pictures of Machu Picchu). The name of the site was just chosen to be the same as that of the higher mountain perhaps because the discoverer of the site, Hiram Bingham, could not come up with any other name! The name is not very appropriate for the site since the site is not actually a mountain (and Picchu means mountain in Quechua).

Anyways, here are some photographs from Machu Picchu for you to enjoy!

Guard house, Machu PicchuA view of the guard house from just below it. This is where we began our tour from. There are several hundred steps from the bus station up to this point. Our tour guide waited here patiently while everyone on his tour group huffed and puffed their way up to here!

View of Machu Picchu from Guard HouseView of Machu Picchu from the guard house. Huanaya Picchu is the mountain in the background, behind Machu Picchu. Huanya Picchu is 8,920 feet (2,720 meters) above sea level, so it is about 360 meters above the Machu Picchu ruins, but more than 1000 feet below the elevation of Machu Picchu mountain.

Machu Picchu MountainView of the mountain Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is 10009 feet (3051 meters) above sea level, so it is over 2000 feet higher than the ruins that are popularly known as Machu Picchu!

Inca trail from machu picchuThe trail you see, coming down the mountain side, is the famous Inca Trail. The ridge above the trail leads up to Machu Picchu mountain.

Entrance to city of Machu PicchuThe entrance to the Incan city of Machu Picchu. Notice the trapezoidal shape of the entrance way.

Temple of the sun, Machu PicchuThe famous Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu.

Temple of three windows, machu picchuTemple of Three Windows. The three windows are trapezoidal also.

Principal temple, machu PicchuThe Principal Temple at Machu Picchu. The name derives from the massive foundation stones and fine stonework that comprise its three walls.

Sundial at Machu PicchuThe famous sundial at Machu Picchu. This is also known as Intihuatana, or Hitching Post of the Sun. The four corners of the rock at the center point to the 4 cardinal points of North, South, East and West. People touch the rock around the sundial to absorb "good energy" from the rock, which is supposed to be rich in quartz. Tourists are not allowed to touch the sundial itself ever since a film crew broke off a corner off it by accident with a crane during the shooting of an ad.

Valley view from Machu PicchuView of the valley below from near the sundial.

Carving of Huanya Picchu at Machu PicchuNotice the uncanny resemblance between the shape of Huanya Picchu and the carving in the foreground. This carving may have been used for astronomical purposes.

Park at Machu PicchuPark inside Machu Picchu. I did not have time to spend in this park because our tour ran long and we had to rush back to Aguas Calientes to catch our train back. But several people do spend a lot of time in this park, which has several llamas that keep the grounds well-maintained by eating the grass on grounds of Machu Picchu!

Huanya Picchu trailThe beginning of the trail that leads up to the top of Huanya Picchu. Because of environmental degradation, and the narrow and dangerous trail, only 400 people a day are allowed to climb up Huanya Picchu nowadays. You better get to Machu Picchu pretty early if you want to snag one of those 400 tickets! The trail was built by the Incas, who also built terraces and temples at the top of this mountain.

temple of three windows from belowLinkView of the Temple of The Three Windows from below.

Temple of the Condor, Machu PicchuTemple of the Condor at Machu Picchu.

Fountain at Machu PicchuOne of the many fountains, and other water channels at Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, this being the dry season, there was not much water in these fountains when we were there.

Putukusi from Machu PicchuView of Putukusi mountain from Machu Picchu.

Huanya Picchu Over Machu PicchuMachu Picchumeadows in Machu PicchuPanaromic view of Machu PicchuSome other views of Machu Picchu, taken from different points of the tour.

At the end of our tour, we were asked to take the first bus that had room for us down to Aguas Calientes, have lunch if time permitted, and then catch our train back to Ollantaytambo. The long and short of it is that we did not have time for lunch. We barely had time to get back to the train station to get on our train.

And the train ride back was not as comfortable as the other direction because we got the last seats in the compartment. What is wrong with the last seats in the compartment? Well, to fit these last seats into the compartment, Peru Rail had to compromise on leg room by making them rear-facing so that passengers in these seats share the same leg room as the forward-facing passengers sitting in the seat opposite to them. Why they felt compelled to do something that cheap when people pay quite a lot to travel on these trains, I have no idea (think about it, these trains cost $51 for just 43 km of travel, so it is well over $1 per km, which makes these train trips some of the most expensive I have ever been on!).

But, at least, the snack helped dull the pangs of our hunger. The train once again took 2 hours and 10 minutes to get back to Ollantaytambo. Our driver picked us up outside the station there, and drove us back to Cusco in about an hour and 25 minutes. We reached Cusco at about 7:15 PM.

We asked our driver to take us directly to the pizza restaurant, Pizza Verona. That is when we found out that we did not know the real name of the pizza place, as explained in this post! When we asked the driver to take us to Pizzas A La Lena, he explained to us that that could not be the name of the restaurant. He offered to take us to one of many restaurants like that, but I managed to give him some landmarks so that he could get us close enough to the one we wanted, and we found our way to Pizza Verona from there. We had had enough adventure for the day, so after dinner, we went back to our hotel room, prepared for our long trip to Puno, scheduled for the next day, and went to bed.

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