The mystical Machu Picchu is one for everyone’s travel bucket list. The infamous Inca ruins are the setting for many a photo in albums the world over… along with all the tourist in the background. Yep, for those of you who haven’t been, it’s true what they say, Machu Picchu is crawling with snap-happy visitors. This can be irritating, like all crowds are, but they come for a reason. I wasn’t sure I would say this about a place so teeming with people, but it’s true that Machu Picchu is as mezmerising and beautiful as everyone says it is.
Most of the visitors team up a day at the ruins with a trek along the Inca trail. This makes a lot more sense financially and adds to the experience as a whole, but I didn’t have the luxury of time when I was in the area. I had one window of opportunity to do Machu Picchu, and that was a single day. I booked a day trip through my hostel, costing me a total of $240. I couldn’t quite believe my eyes when I saw the price, but those of you who have been will know that that’s just how expensive it is nowadays. After everything I’d heard, I couldn’t bear the thought of being so near to one of the greatest sights known to man, and not going. I hesitantly handed over the wad of cash that could have kept me going for a month, and prayed to the Inca gods that this was going to be worth it.
My alarm went off at 2.45am the next morning (if you can even call it morning), and I got up with the feeling of both excitement and dull nausea in the bottom of stomach that I always get when I have to get up at an ungodly hour. From Cusco, it’s a long journey to Machu Picchu. First you have to take a bus to the train station at Ollantaytambo, then the train to Aguas Calientes, and finally a bus up the winding road that is Hiram Bingham Highway.
Luckily I managed to sleep for the entire ride to Ollantaytambo, where I got off my bus and headed to find my train. The Inca Express trains to Aguas Calientes are some of the grandest I’ve ever been of, contributing to the whole experience of adventure. The trains run through some unbelievable scenery, along past the river and through the high and mighty mountains. I couldn’t keep my eyes open for most of it, because it was 6am at that point, but when the refreshments service came round (which is thankfully free) I sipped on a cup of tea and couldn’t believe the beauty I was seeing out the window. Along with the soundtrack of cheesy panpipe music that the train was playing, this slowly woke me up and excitement set in for what was about to come.
Aguas Calientes is the closest town to Machu Picchu, and is there purely to accommodate the tourists going to and from the ruins. It’s only a few streets, most of which are just lines of restaurants and hotels. Buses up and down the highway run every few minutes or so, and by the time I got on mine I had fully woken up and was itching to get up to the top. Once we arrived at the entrance 20 minutes later, I managed to locate my guide that came included the money I’d paid, and off we went. As I climbed the steps up that first hill, knowing that on the other side was Machu Picchu, my heart fluttered a little, as I was nervous that it wasn’t going to be as stunning as I thought. As I reached the top, however, I saw down below that postcard picture one of the most famous spots on the entire planet, as realised what all the fuss was about. These sharp and spikey peaked mountains roll off into the distance, piercing the clouds that lie low here, and tower above this beautiful and intricate stonework village. I stood there and tried to rebuild the picture of Machu Picchu back in the days when it was inhabited, knowing that that was virtually impossible.
My tour around the ruins was interesting and informative, but the book I was reading at the time was probably the reason why I enjoyed Machu Picchu so much. ‘Turn Right at Machu Picchu’ by Mark Adams is a humourous and in-depth account of the author following the same Inca trail as the supposed discoverer of the ruins, Hiram Bingham III. I learnt more history about it all from that book than anything else, laughing with the author about his mishaps and mayhem along the way.
If I had had more time, I would have opted for an Inca trail trek instead of doing Machu Picchu in just one day, but even though it was expensive, I felt like the day trip was well worth going for. I would have to suggest reading up a bit on the history beforehand, because the meaning of the ruins, and the mystery that surrounds them, was half of the experience to me. As I snoozed on the train back to Ollantaytambo, the panpipe music lulling me to sleep, I dreamt of the Inca people and ancient civiliastions, thinking all the while of how lucky I was to have stood in exactly the same spot as them.