Day 8 — In the Clouds at Machu Picchu

Friday — April 10

We woke to the pitter-patter of raindrops falling on the skylight in the bathroom. Hoping the weather would clear-up by the time we were ready to head up to Machu Picchu, we went to breakfast. We were seated at the same two-top where we'd eaten dinner the night before, but now we could see the view — steep canyon walls covered in lush greenery; the muddy, churning Urubamba River flowing down the center; Aguas Calientes a little ways downriver.

View from the dining room at the Inkaterra.

Breakfast was set up buffet style and was a veritable feast of pastries, breads, cheeses, breakfast meats, fruits, cereals, and juices. Made-to-order items — such as omelets and quinoa pancakes — were available on request.

The breakfast buffet offers a wide-variety of tasty choices.

We met up with Vidal at 7:00a and walked the short distance into Aguas Calientes. En route, we stopped to buy a couple of cheap plastic ponchos so that we could protect our backpacks from the light rain that was continuing to fall. As I had left my hat in the room, we also picked up a baseball cap to shade my eyes — hoping the sun would be out before long.

Just as there are two ways to get to Aguas Calientes — hike or take the train — there are only two ways to get to the ruins of Machu Picchu — hike or take the shuttle bus. We’d been encouraged to reserve our energy for exploring the ruins of Machu Picchu, so we took the bus up. The queue was short and moved fast — even more so because we had our bus tickets already in hand. Twenty-minutes later, thankfully free of any motion sickness that might have been induced by the sharply zig-zagged road, we were at the entrance to Machu Picchu (which, by the way, means Old Peak — in reference to the sacred mountain it’s located on).

Google Earth image showing the road we traveled to get to Machu Picchu.

Again, with tickets in hand, we had no waiting to contend with, but we did have a short delay when the guards at the entrance spied the tripod attached to Mui's backpack. The website had indicated that rubber-tipped tripods were OK, but the guards begged to differ. Rather than argue, we checked the tripod at the nearby facility and proceeded to make our way up the steps to the ruins.

Our first glimpse of the sanctuary was a “Samantha Brown” moment. What’s that you say? Let me explain. Samantha is the host of a popular travel show on TV. In the episode that was filmed at Machu Picchu, she rounds the corner of the guardhouse, excited to see the fabled site, only to find the whole place socked in by fog. That’s how it was for us as well — though maybe just a tad bit better as we could still see much of the terracing. But Huayna Picchu, the mountain that forms the impressive backdrop to the sanctuary, was definitely not in view.

Our first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

I have to admit to being in a wee bit of a snit during the early part of our long-awaited visit to Machu Picchu. It wasn’t the weather that had me out of sorts; it was the crowds. Yes, yes — I knew to expect crowds, but not only were we there during the “supposed” off-season, but it was still early in the morning and except for a couple of two-car trains that might have already arrived from Ollantaytambo, the trains that would be bringing the hoards of tourists were yet to come. Once I grasped the fact that Machu Picchu was not going to be the quiet, spiritual experience that I had hoped it would be, I got over my funk and set about enjoying the site.

At a spot overlooking the main body of ruins, Vidal gave us an overview of the site and the places we would be visiting when we ventured down the many steps to the bottom. He familiarized us with the theories as to the purpose Machu Picchu served during Inca times. Was it an Andean Shangri-la? Was it a city where the “Virgins of the Sun” lived? Was it a secret refuge to escape the conquistadors? Or, was it a ceremonial center built on the orders of Inca Pachacuteq? Most recent archaeological evidence seems to point to it being a royal estate. The site, built somewhere around the 1460s (a best-guess on the part of archaeologists) was abandoned within 100 years of its construction and remained “lost” to the world until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham, an American historian. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Bingham re-discovered Machu Picchu since the campesinos (farmers) who guided him to the site would have had to discover it first in order to lead him to it.

As we watch, the fog moves in and out, giving us glimpses of the ruins.

With our brief lesson in history over, we headed down step after step, eventually getting to the main body of ruins where we spent the morning exploring all the nooks and crannies. I’m glad we opted to do a half-day tour with Vidal to kick-start our visit as his commentary helped us to grasp the significance of what we were seeing.

Our meandering walk through the site took us to many of the conjuntos (groups of buildings), amongst them the Principal Temple (unusual because some settling of the foundation has caused damage to the wall); the Intiwatana; the Sacred Rock complex (where we saw the first of several “image rocks” — rocks carved to mimic the shape of distant mountains — in this case, Mount Yanantin); the Temple of the Condor (so named for a stone carving that resembles the white-ruffed head of a condor); the cave under the Temple of the Sun (the temple itself was roped-off for renovations).

The Principal Temple has been damaged due to the settling of the foundation.

Agricultural terraces.
(the thin line just below the clouds on the far left is the portion of the Inca Trail that runs through the sanctuary).

A closer look at the qolqas (storehouses) and the homes of the farmers.

We explored niches and narrow pathways; waited to see if a new-born llama was going to take its first steps (it didn’t — at least not while we were there); studied the construction of the canals and the fountains; walked out to balcony-like structures that afforded expansive views of the landscape; peered through windows; and climbed terraces — all the while making sure we weren’t doing anything to cause the guards to blow their whistles in admonishment.

Erin checks out the view from a balcony.
Mui’s caught peering through a window.

Exploring the narrow alleys. (photo by Vidal)
The stone carving on the ground resembles the head of a condor; hence the name of the temple.

The clouds lift and Huayna Picchu (Young Peak) reveals itself.
(photo by Vidal)

My favorite part of our morning at Machu Picchu was the time we spent at a quiet overlook with a view of Mount Putucusi, one of the sacred mountains in the area. Perched on a ledge, we watched the play of shadows as the clouds drifted through the valley. Far below us, the Urubamba River encircled the mountain, adding a fluid beauty to the scenery. To one side, we had a clear view of the zig-zag road leading up from Aguas Calientes to the sanctuary — having seen it from this angle, I’m even more amazed that we made it up without resorting to motion sickness medication.

Perched on a rock near the ledge we study the landscape.
(photo by Vidal)

Putucusi means “Happy Mountain” in Quechua.

The peace and quiet at this spot was what I had envisioned for our visit to Machu Picchu. We sat there for quite a while, oblivious to the rain that was falling softly. When the drops started to get bigger and fall more rapidly, however, we decided to seek protection before we got soaked.

Next Up: Day 8 — Machu Picchu After the Rain

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