Saturday, April 11, 2015

Peru, Day 4: Aguas Calientes & Machu Picchu

This is probably the post a few of you have been waiting for... MACHU PICCHU.  It was definitely the #1 reason we went to Peru in the first place, our big "bucket list" item.  Ever since I can remember, I've been fascinated by history and old cultures.  My Dad is a history buff, so maybe I got it from him, as well as my history professors in college.

Our driver took us in the morning to Ollantaytambo, where we boarded one of the trains to Aguas Calientes.  We were on one of the nicer trains (though not the most high-end, the Hiram Bingham) and received a beverage service and plated snack along the way.  The ride was along the river, with awesome vistas that showed some of the different microclimates in the area.  After nearly two hours, we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu, which is the mountain on which the Incan site was built.

Aguas Calientes

Aguas Calientes is a tourist town filled with hotels, hostels, stores, restaurants, and shanties that house the people who work there.  You need tickets for the bus up and down the mountain, as well as tickets (and your passport) to enter Machu Picchu and to hike Huayna Picchu, the adjacent steep peak.  Our guide accompanied us on the train ride, then went with us to the site.  (If you don't have a guide, there are plenty for hire standing outside the gates!)  From there, he introduced us to this "new" wonder of the world.

First look at Machu Picchu, in the rain and fog

According to Wikipedia, "The Incas built the estate around 1450, but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham. Since then, Machu Picchu has become the largest tourist attraction in South America."

Our guide gave us an extensive tour of the property, explaining some of what historians and archaeologists have guessed about the structures over the years.  What's interesting is how little we truly know about the place, as much of it has been exaggerated, assumed, and distorted over the years.  For example, at first it was supposed that the majority of residents were women, as the skeletons were smaller than American and European archaeologists were used to; as it turns out, it was a pretty even split when you factor in the relative smaller size of the Inca people at the time!  Having a guide help explain the history of the place was fascinating, but you definitely have to step back and just accept a lot of it as unknown, and appreciate it for its sheer magnitude of size and effort on behalf of whoever built it hundreds of years ago.

After our tour, we ate lunch at a restaurant just outside the gate, then said goodbye to our guide until the following evening.  We went back into the site (your entry is good all day), to enjoy it at our leisure.  Note: The only bathrooms are outside the gates of Machu Picchu, and they cost 1 "sol" to use... so go before you enter!

Groundskeeper Llama

It wasn't just Machu Picchu that was dizzying and impressive... the entire environment and views seem surreal!  It was kind of like watching the movie Avatar or something, you felt like it was another planet or some kind of dream world.

Our favorite spot in the complex was up past the guard hut, on the terraces that overlook.  As you can see from the photos, we had some rain and fog, but that just added to the mystique of the place!

This was my happy place.
Finally reaching Machu Picchu was the climax of our trip, hands down.  It was just invigorating and moving beyond description.  We sat, relaxed, and soaked it in.  We took our time.  We savored it.  And then we decided to head back to our hotel for the night, knowing we would have the opportunity to come back in the morning to pursue one of the hikes.

Tip: Near the gate exit, on the right you can stamp your passport... we both decided to do it, to commemorate our visit.  It felt so gratifying to do so!  We were finally there, and we couldn't have been more happy.  It was worth every penny, every mile, and every effort to see it in the end.

Passport Stamp! You can get this upon entering/leaving the park, off to the side near the Passport check.

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