After discovering Machu Picchu was only an overnight bus ride from La Paz, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to visit. I made a fleeting trip there with a friend last weekend, and it proved to be well worth it. After previous excursions across the border, I surmise that of all Bolivia’s neighbours, Peruvians bear the most resemblance in terms of both physical appearance and accent, likely due to the large indigenous population.
Often referred to as “The Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu means ‘Old Peak’ in Quechua and dates back to the 15th century. It is thought to have escaped the Spanish Conquest, lying undiscovered for centuries, thanks to its hidden location amongst thick vegetation high up in the Andes. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Machu Picchu overlooks the Urubamba valley with majestic Huayna Picchu (“Young Peak”) towering above.
Up until 2011, this legendary tourist attraction welcomed an astounding 4,000 visitors daily. However, the number of visitors has since been limited to 2,500 per day, with a view to preventing erosion and preserving the ancient archaeological site.
With limited time, hiking the Inca Trail on foot over several days was sadly out of the question, thus my whirlwind visit included various modes of transport instead. Having booked a tour that involved several transfers, I was instructed to look out for someone holding a sign with my name at the train station. A novel concept for me, I was highly amused to spot a sign for “Juni Wats” on the outward journey and “Yoni” upon my return – two brilliantly original variations to add to a lifetime list of misspellings. (“Like Mitchell!” isn’t as effective an explanation around here.)
The train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes is a picturesque journey, with breath-taking views of rolling hills, waterfalls and snow-capped peaks. After so many lengthy and unpleasant bus rides, the train seemed positively luxurious in comparison, despite the pan-flute instrumental of Elton John’s ‘Sacrifice’ which played every 15 minutes. A small town nestled in the mountains at the base of Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes caters to the constant crowds of tourists and boasts natural aguas thermales (hot springs) in a truly idyllic setting.
From Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu is an uphill hike or a shuttle bus ride away. Waking before 4am, I made the steep, sweaty hike up to the entrance as soon as the gateway opened at 5am. I quickly realised hiking up a mountain through rainforest in utter darkness is less than ideal, but with a steady stream of hikers it was easy enough to follow the flickering lights of torches. A breathless 50 minute climb later, I emerged from the trees.
At dawn, the mountains were shrouded in thick fog and a steady rain was falling. Gradually, as the sun rose and the mist lifted, the spectacular sight of Machu Picchu was slowly unveiled. It was surreal to be confronted with the stunning postcard image in person, that I’d seen so many times on screens and in books. Even with the throngs of tourists, somehow it did not feel remotely congested, but peaceful and awe-inspiring instead. I spent a full day contentedly taking in the scenery before making the hike back down.
Cusco was only a brief stop before heading home to La Paz, but from what I glimpsed it struck me as a beautiful, captivating city. With its colonial feel, the historical area is a maze of winding, narrow, cobble-stoned streets and a mass of terracotta roofs spreading for miles.