The Machu Picchu mountain is one of the highlights of most visits to Peru. The citadel in the middle of two mountain peaks has not always been so easily accessible. This 550 years old center of ancient Inca culture is located 2,430 metres (7,973 feet) above sea level in the Urubamba Valley in the misty Andean cloud forest.
Ainnelise Niyvold Liundbye UPDATED: 24 JAN 2020
Part 2 of our 2-day tour to the Machu Picchu mountain – Read part 1
After visiting the Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, Henry takes us to the train station where we say goodbye to our fabulous driver. It is by the end of the first day on our 2-day tour to Machu Picchu, where we have toured the Sacred Valley.
We are deeply impressed how much Inca culture our tour operator, SAM Travel Peru, has been able to squeeze into this 2-day tour – still leaving us with time at each location to walk around at our own pace to discover. We could never have covered all these important Inca sites in the Sacred Valley on our own in just one day.
Tour Machu Picchu – train from Ollantaytambo
We have tickets for the regular tourist Machu Picchu train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain. Even if we have not chosen the most expensive tickets, for the Vista Dome or Hiram Bingham trains, our tickets for the Machu Picchu tour are definitely not cheap. Only Peruvians can benefit from another local train with reasonably priced tickets, but that train does not allow foreigners. There is a strict control with people’s identity, and Henry notifies us that we must show our passports when entering our train.
We take our hand luggage sized backpacks out of the van and walk through the station to the platform where the Machu Picchu train is announced. Following the instructions given at the meeting in SAM Travel Peru’s office the evening before, we have taken as little as possible with us. Although not travelling with much luggage at all, we have therefore left a few things at our hotel in Cusco.
Machu Picchu train tour
It is without doubt the strictest train boarding procedure we have ever tried. Our reservation number is checked on a list with our passport details which we submitted way back – half a year ago! If your name, reservation number and passport number are inconsistent, you will be denied admittance to the Machu Picchu train (and hence to Machu Picchu). It is seemingly how they keep track of the number of people going to Machu Picchu! The train staff even take your paper reservation to keep. You will need to memorise your seat number to be able to find your reserved seat, once on the Machu Picchu train!
As there is no road between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes, there are only few alternative ways to get to Machu Picchu. Some people hike the Inca trail, which is by the way not either any budget solution. The only other alternative to the train from Ollantaytambo is to make a long detour by car of maybe 6 hours, according to our guide. You then arrive from the other side of the mountain at the station Hydro Electrica. From here you will have to walk for a couple of hours along the rails, which to the best of my knowledge is not completely legal. Nevertheless, due to the lower costs, it is a popular option for backpackers.
As far as I read and understand, the Peruvian government could easily decide and undertake road constructions to Aguas Calientes. That would make it so much cheaper to get to the Inca citadel. However, it does not happen since this would remove the revenues from the valuable tourist train tickets. The Peruvian government is not at all interested in that, since it today is an unexpendable contribution to the state economy.
Aguas Calientes at the foot of the Machu Picchu mountain
The Machu Picchu train snakes through the picturesque Urubamba Valley, gorges along the river and lush rainforest. On the way we pass one of these coal-fired trains uniquely dedicated to the Peruvian passengers. It is pretty packed. At 9 p.m., after a couple of hours on the train, gradually pulling slowlier through the mountains, we finally reach Aguas Calientes. The town is named after the hot springs where it is perfectly possible, still today, to get a well-deserved bath after a maybe exhausting trip or demanding hike to the Inca citadel.
Aguas Calientes is a somewhat funny place. Arising only due to the discovery of Machu Picchu and a need for a base at the foot of it, it is a village which is today nearly 100% dedicated to the Inca culture and tourism, tours and activities around the Machu Picchu mountain.
An indoor handicraft market, restaurants offering tourist menus, convenient hostels and hotels, as well as the thermal baths, make up the village altogether. We are surprised to see the streets bustling with people at this time of the evening – in such a small, isolated place! It apparently is crowded whenever you come since there are always tourists for Machu Picchu, although the dry season (May – October) probably is more popular than the rest of the year.
For once on our South America trip we haven’t had to plan, book and find our hotel on our own. Our guide for the 2-day tour to Machu Picchu, Henry, is in charge! It is really a new feeling since we usually do everything on our own. He now conveniently shows us the way to our hotel and leaves us there for a few hours of merited rest. To our delight there is hot water in the shower, something we have not been too used to during our last weeks in Ecuador and Peru.
Machu Picchu and Inca culture
Early next morning we take one of the buses going by the slightly scary, hairpin road to the very top of the mountain. We agree that it was the right decision not to hike all the way to the top as some do. It really looks too demanding when we look at the people we pass, that actually take the trail, along the bends of the winding road.
The elevation of Machu Picchu archaeological site is ‘only’ 2,430 metres (7,972 feet) which is far below the elevation of Cusco (3,400 metres or 11,200 feet). This means that you, contrary to what many visitors think, are not as exposed to altitude sickness to the same degree at Machu Picchu as for example in Cusco.
The old Inca culture
We are now in the Amazon rainforest, reaching Machu Picchu. Here the mountainous terrains of the Andes meet the (sub-)tropical jungle. As you go down from the high-altitude plains around Cusco to the tropical cloud forest surrounding Machu Picchu, the flora and fauna stunningly change. In the lush forest species like puma, bobcat and even bear exist, as well as hundreds of butterflies, hummingbirds, other nimble birds and colourful orchids.
Machu Picchu was unknown to the outside world until 1911 when the American Hiram Bingham rediscovered the lost cities of the Incas. In 1983 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is today considered one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Something has gone wrong with the weather this year. We are supposed to arrive in good weather since it is July which is safe dry season … we thought. Nevertheless, this year the climate has been turned upside down. In Europe the summer is record hot as hardly ever seen before – and here in Peru the unthinkable happens in July: it rains! All day!
Fortunately, we have taken precautions in the unlikely event of rain. In our compact rucksacks we all have a lightweight rain poncho. There is no way to escape the fact that we need it now. Of course I first think that it is really a shame that this is the way we are going to visit the ancient Inca culture of Machu Picchu. However, I must admit that the magnificence of the citadel is still the same. Trying to turn the dramatic weather into something positive: we actually get to experience the Inca site in an unforgettable manner where the Inca deities reign in the sky!
A thick fog wraps the mountains, and Machu Picchu only now and then in all its majesty appears between the clouds deep inside the Andes. The 15th century historic site is absolutely impressive despite the mist-covered peaks around.
Fascinating Inca culture around the Machu Picchu mountain
One of the ancient entrances is the Sun Gate, Inti Punku. For Inka trail hikers the ultimate highlight is to arrive early in the morning to watch it at sunrise. Unfortunately, due to the weather conditions that is just not an option today!
Our guide takes us through the well-preserved ruins and explains about the Inca culture and the significance of the various parts of the ancient Inca settlement. He discloses a lot of interesting details which enrich our picture of the old Inca culture and the Inca way of living.
The complex has had considerable astronomical importance since several of the constructions and the sun fall in a straight line for summer and winter solstice, respectively. Henry takes us to the ruins of a specific window inside the citadel that the light from the Sun Gate strikes precisely at winter solstice. It is a world of wonders and a mythical universe of the Incas.
He shows us places where the condor has been used as a symbol and a messenger between the gods and the Incas. It is depicted on the rocks together with the snake and the puma. These three animals are subject to several distinct interpretations in the Inca culture. According to one of them they symbolise the underworld, our present world and heaven, respectively.
Speaking about animals, the true residents of Machu Picchu today are the photogenic llamas and alpacas appearing among the Inca ruins when we least expect it!
Back in Aguas Calientes we find a quiet spot opposite our hotel in the upper part of the village where we spend some time studying exotic and colourful birds in the trees overlooking the river and the rainforest.
A couple of workers pushing heavily loaded wheelbarrows up the slope catch our attention. All of a sudden we detect the poor-looking houses on the other side. Maybe Aguas Calientes’ ‘favela’ ?!? On the other side of the river near the hot springs, we discover the building complexes where the locals live and the tiny supermarket seemingly of local character with all kinds of stuff. The mountain village is indeed multi-faceted, although with a strong emphasis on the tourist industry.
From the Machu Picchu mountain back to Cusco by train and van
Before catching the train from Machu Picchu Station and heading back towards Cusco we just have time for a few purchases on the local market together with Peruvian mothers carrying children on their backs in the typical striped, woven sling. Then we board our train for a 2-hour ride through the lush rainforest back to Ollantaytambo.
In Ollantaytambo a van conveniently picks us up to take us back to Cusco. This is included in our Machu Picchu tour. We now appreciate that everything is just taken care of for us since we are pretty exhausted after two very long sightseeing days climbing ruins! But we all agree that the 2-day tour to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley has been absolutely worth the trip! It is not without reason that the archaeological site of Machu Picchu with its mystic and mythic Inca culture is one of the New Seven Wonders!
Read part 1 of our 2-day tour to the Machu Picchu mountain.
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