Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Inca Empire Cruise - Day 16 Cusco to Machu Picchu

Today was the big day, we would be seeing Machu Picchu, and we couldn’t wait!  We were up at 6:30 and down to breakfast just after 7:00.  Breakfast was a continental breakfast, but what a continental breakfast it was! Probably the best we’ve seen in our travels.  There were all kinds of hot dishes, an array of breakfast meats, an egg station where you could get eggs any way you wanted, all kinds of fresh fruits, breads and cakes, cereals, many juices and drinks and of course coffee and coca tea.  It was huge and I’m probably forgetting something, but you get the picture.  After breakfast it was back to the room to get our day bags and then meet the group in the lobby at 7:45 for the first leg of our day’s journey.

The first part of our trip today was a bus ride to the train station in Rio Sagrado, which was pretty far away and would take about an hour and a half to get to.  There was some sort of holiday celebration going on in Cusco today so traffic was terrible.  We had to walk about a block and a half just to get to the vans just because of the jammed streets. The streets in Cusco are still the original Inca roads and are very narrow.  They were built for carts and walking, not driving, so it doesn’t take much to create a massive traffic jam.  

During the drive to the train station we got a good look at Cusco and the surrounding towns and countryside.  Peru is a third world country and the standard of living is well below what most of us enjoy in the US.  The poverty was obvious, and it seemed everything was either falling down or in the process of being shabbily built.  It made us grateful for what we had.

There were many street-side vendors

Since the Cusco traffic had delayed us quite a bit, the drive to the train was harrowing and wild. The driver did everything he could to make up time and there were times when we wondered whether we would make it there in one piece or not.  There seems to be no traffic laws or enforcement and driving is a bit like a game of chicken to see who will get out of the way first.  There is no other way to get to Aguas Calientes, the last town before Machu Picchu, than by rail and there are several trains a day, but the Hiram Bingham train only makes one round trip a day so we had to get there before it left.  We did make it to train in time, though barely.  We got on the train and started the next leg of our day’s journey.

These pictures were shot from the bus as we made our journey to the train.
Our first view of the Andes.

These small vehicles were all over the place in this town we passed through.
The Hiram Bingham train was wonderful.  The train was very elegant with very nice classic décor throughout.  We were seated at a table with white linen tablecloths, silver table settings and hors d'oeuvres.  As soon as we were all on board, the train started its three hour journey to Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu.  

This is a picture I got from Tony.

Another from the shared pictures.
The only way to get to Aguas Calientes, is by train which follows the Urubamba River through the Sacred Valley for much of the route.  The scenery was very beautiful and made the trip worthwhile in itself.  After watching the scenery go by from our window for a while, Val and I decided to go back to the bar car which is also the observation car.  When we got there we found a party going on with a live Peruvian band and people having a good time.  Val and I worked our way to the end of the car, which was the rear of the train and open to the outside.  We shot some pictures, listened to music and watched the countryside roll by for a while and then went back to our table as it was time for lunch, and what a lunch it was!  We had delicious appetizers, a beef dish for the main course and cheese cake dessert.  There was wine, beer and pisco sours for those that wanted alcohol and soft drinks, juices or water to drink.  This was not just good train food, this was just very good food.

The bar car. All the action was out on the observation car.
Everyone was having a good time.

The band was keeping us entertained with everything from Peruvian music to the Beatles.
Sights from the train.

We followed the Urubamba River almost the whole way.
As we got closer to Machu Picchu we started seeing signs of the Incas. 
I don't believe the building was Inca, but the terraces behind were.

This is the start of the Inca trail which is the difficult way to get to Machu Picchu.
Lunch is served and what a delicious lunch it was.
The time went by quickly and we were in Aguas Calientes around 12:30, but we still had another bus ride before we got to Machu Picchu.

We made it to Aguas Calientes.  That's the Urubamba River flowing through town.
Aguas Calientes was teeming with people, but our tour guides kept everything organized and we were soon on the bus for the 20 minute drive up the mountain to Machu Picchu.  The ride up is quite spectacular itself with breathtaking views of the valley and Urubamba River below.  The dirt road is quite narrow and there are a lot of buses going up and down so there were several times we had to stop and backup to let other buses pass.  As we neared the top we started seeing signs of the Inca terraces on the slopes below.  The weather was much improved with mild temperatures and a mixture of sun and clouds.  The humidity was quite high as despite its 8,000 foot altitude, Machu Picchu is in a cloud forest, which is a tropical forest and typically has a dense layer of mist or fog hanging at tree level.  If I remember the numbers correctly, it gets between 73 and 96 inches of rain a year.  Luckily this day would not add to the rain total.
We finally arrived at the top and we were given our tickets and were finally ready to enter Machu Picchu.  One of the advantages of our tour is that the arrival was later, which meant there would be less people there.  Machu Picchu is very popular and even though the number of people visiting per day is limited there are still many people there every day.  As we walked up to the gate people were coming out and very few were entering.  Most people make the day trip from Cusco as we did, but another advantage of the Hiram Bingham train is that it starts its trip later in the day and leaves Machu Picchu later so there are less people in the afternoon.

Another picture from our group.  This is the road from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu.  As you can see there is not much room for two buses to pass.
Our bus dropped us off at the entrance to the Sanctuary Lodge and as you can see,
Tony is full of energy and ready to go.  This is another photo from the group.
This is a look down at the Urubamba River and you can
see the train in the lower middle of the picture.
Our group was split into two groups, assigned a guide and led into Machu Picchu.  You could go on your own, but we decided (as most did) to stay with the guide who showed us some of the most important areas and explained about the history and culture of the Incas and Machu Picchu.  As we walked along the ancient cobbled walkway our excitement grew as we would soon get our first view of the main part of Machu Picchu.  As we turned the corner around a wall, there it was, our first view of the lower part of Machu Picchu.  The terraces, the buildings and the mountains above it. Awe inspiring.  It was hard to believe what these ancient people had achieved with nothing but their stone tools and muscle.  Needless to say we weren’t disappointed.  I could go on and on about our amazement of what we saw, but I think I can say it better with some of the numerous pictures we took. I am not going to try to caption everything we saw, but just let it speak for itself.
Our first view of Machu Picchu.

This is an example of two types of stonework.  The fine stonework in
 the foreground was reserved for sacred buildings and buildings used by the Inca chief,
while the rougher stonework in the background was used in everything else.

Looking up at the Temple of the Sun.
This stonework was amazing considering it was done with crude stone tools. 
This wall looked like it could have been made recently with manufactured blocks.

Rounded stonework was made to tie beams and the thatched roofs.

In the foreground is the Temple of the Sun.

We did see some lamas.

The following are more pictures taken by others in our
group with some different views than we had.

Tired but happy, Tony, Val and I head back to the Sanctuary Lodge for a cool drink.
Tony doesn't look quite so energetic after exploring Machu Picchu.
We had almost three hours to spend walking around and at the end we were very tired from climbing up and down the uneven, sometimes high steps; Machu Picchu is a vertical city.  There is a very nice hotel at Machu Picchu called the Sanctuary Lodge and as part of our tour we could end our day there taking High Tea or we could use that time to continue exploring.  I was originally planning on walking on up to the top to get a view of all of Machu Picchu, but by that time I was worn down from the climbing, the altitude and humidity and opted for the High Tea.  As I write this I am wishing I had bitten the bullet and made that climb, but at that time I was just worn down and just wanted to get into the air conditioned hotel.

High Tea at the Sanctuary Hotel sounds fancy, but in reality it was mostly just a dessert buffet with whatever cold drink you wanted (yes, there was coca tea).  It was a very nice buffet and the cold drinks really hit the spot.  After cooling down and relaxing a while it was back to the buses to make our way back down to Aguas Calientes and the Hiram Bingham train.  Before we boarded the train though, we were given 20 minutes to shop in the numerous small shops around the train station selling local and Peruvian crafts.  Though disappointed by the short time, Val was all over that and found some great things and came away happy.  In particular you could get very nice alpaca sweaters at a very low price.  It was a tired but happy group that boarded the train for the start of our trip back to Cusco. None of us could believe we had just been to Machu Picchu.

We had our same seats on the train as we did going up.  Once again the bar and observation car was hopping, but Val and I stayed away this time as it was getting dark and we couldn’t see anything.  We stayed in our seats, relaxed and chatted with our table mates who it turned out were from Whitehorse in the Yukon.  Since we had just been to Whitehorse last summer we were very interested in getting a locals point of view of the area.  He turned out to be a Mountie (Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and also had competed twice in the Yukon Quest dog sledding race.  We were really interested in this as we had met another musher who competed in the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod during our visit to Whitehorse.

The time passed quickly and it was soon time for dinner.  We had an appetizer and then a salad and a main course of grilled trout followed by a very good dessert.  I thought lunch was good, but this surpassed it. I don’t know how they can prepare these excellent meals on the train.  Once again the time passed quickly and we were soon at the station to catch our bus back to Cusco.  We were quickly on our way for the hour and a half drive back, but this time it was less harrowing as we had no train to catch.  We finally arrived back at the hotel around 10:00 and went straight to bed as we had to be up at 6:00 tomorrow morning.

It was a very tiring day, but well worth it.  Seeing Machu Picchu was another one of those experiences of a lifetime for us.  Neither one us ever thought we would ever be in Peru let alone seeing Machu Picchu so we both feel very grateful for the opportunity.  Reading about the Incas before our trip truly added to the experience and gave us a greater appreciation of the Inca’s life, culture and history as we walked through one of their cities.  This was an awe inspiring day we will always remember.

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