March 15th: The Machu Picchu Excusion - Part 2
Our hotel is delightful – there are humming birds, peacocks and macaws in the gardens and alpacas roam the lawns. Our en-suite sports an enormous two-person spa bath. This would be a great place to stay for a few days, but our time here is short. It was very early morning when we left the Sacred Valley and caught the bus to Ollyantaytambo from where we’d catch the train to Machu Picchu.
Before we boarded the train we explored the archaeological remains of the old Inca town at Ollyantaytambo. This is going to sound naïve, but I had no idea of the extent of Inca ruins that exist. The farming terraces up the steep mountains were all made by them – and much of the original stonework and irrigation systems they created still exist and are in current use. Their granaries, sentry posts and roads are still clearly visible up on the crags.
The train ride was fun. We’d been provided with an enormous lunchbox each, so happily picnicked as we sat and watched the scenery go by. As we got closer to our destination, the weather started to pack in. Fortunately, we’d taken warm and water proof gear with us, and we needed it when the rain started. By the time we disembarked, it was teeming down.
The shuttle bus service taking visitors up the mountain to Machu Picchu is manned by local drivers who know the road well. They need to. It’s a narrow, steep, cobbled road with endless switchbacks up a sheer mountain face. No wider than one lane, opposing traffic can only pass when they have a wide enough spot to squeeze through. The rain made the road slippery, and the cobbles made it bumpy. I was grateful the mist obscured the drop down to the valley below, and I’m glad I didn’t have to do the driving.
As we climbed higher, the weather eased. The peaks of the mountains were shrouded in grey mist that would clear intermittently, giving teasing little glimpses of the landscape.
When we reached the top, we saw the queue waiting to enter the site. It stretched a full kilometre and a half. Fortunately, we were on a tour, so by-passed it and headed directly into Machu Picchu. Ah, the advantages of being part of an organised group!
Apart from the occasional passing shower, the rain had stopped, but mist came and went across the mountains and through the ruined old buildings throughout our visit, adding a mysterious atmospheric dimension to the site. It was utterly wonderful to actually be here; to roam the streets, climb the steps, touch the stones and listen to the guide’s explanation of the history and purpose of the town.
I’d been sceptical when people told me the place was spiritual. It was, after all, simply a town positioned on a strategically defensible site – and yet there was something compelling about the place that moved me. No doubt the joy of actually seeing it for myself affected my mood. Then again, like so many abandoned places, there must have been stories behind every room, every temple, every terrace. Stories that had died when the population left. The Spanish never made it here. It is assumed that drought or other disaster caused the people to leave the town and in their absence the jungle claimed and covered it, effectively protecting the site from those who would have plundered it.
A wonderful, mysterious, magical place.
We caught the train back. After we’d been served tea and coffee there was a roll of drums. The music started, and down the aisle danced two masked folkloric characters dressed in fabulously garish traditional clothes. They entertained us, and then grabbed a couple of people from the audience to dance with them. It was all great fun – and then we discovered this had been the build-up for a fashion show. For the next 30 minutes or so, models strutted up and down the carriage, dressed in beautiful alpaca fashion, which just happened to be for sale.
It was an agreeable end to a perfect day. They certainly don’t liven train journeys this way in New Zealand!