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Machu Picchu

Friday, January 6th 2006

The journey to Peru was easy, with the border being just a few miles from Copacabana. I got another stamp in my passport, filled my wallet with more new currency, and got a bus to Puno. I killed a few hours there sheltering from heavy rain in cafes and restaurants, and then got an overnight bus to Cuzco, for just 25 soles. And it was an extremely comfortable bus, with the fantastic Cruz del Sur company. The strangest part of the journey was the game of bingo which happened just after dinner. Everyone on the bus was given a card, and the stewardess started reading out numbers. The prize, apparently, was two free return tickets on any Cruz del Sur route, which sounded very useful to me. Not entirely understanding whether I needed just a row, a column or everything to win, I came dangerously close to making a fool of myself, but luckily managed to avoid it. But I didn't win.

We arrived at Cuzco at 3am, and I slept on the bus until 6am. The city has a reputation for sometimes violent robbery so on the whole I was a bit nervous when I got a taxi into the centre. But the taxi driver didn't rob me, and I made it unscathed to the hostel I wanted to stay at. My whole Cuzco experience was pretty much trouble free, except for the extraordinary difficulty I had trying to get to Machu Picchu without going on a tour. After a day and a half of trying to buy just a train ticket and nothing else, I finally discovered the train ticket office opening times - 5am to 9am. Exasperated and pressured for time, I was forced to buy a train/hostel/entry ticket combination from a tour operator.

The train journey to Aguas Calientes was very impressive, along the valley of the raging Urubamba river and surrounded by towering mountains. Aguas Calientes is a pure tourist town, but not as much of a rip-off as I'd expected, and quite relaxed. After a couple of hours, though, it gets boring, and I killed an afternoon by walking down the river valley for a while.

The following morning I caught the first bus to the ruins, at 5.30am. It was still dark, and I was pleased to see that the bus was not full. It's only a short drive to Machu Picchu, up a dramatic switchback road, and so before 6am we were at the site. I hurried up to the Caretaker's Hut, which gives the classic view of the ruins with Huayna Picchu rising behind, and watched as mist drifted over the ruins while the sun rose. It was a beautiful sunrise, and there were only a couple of other people around.

I wandered down to the main ruins. They are spectacularly well preserved, and it's incredible to think that they were completely unknown less than a hundred years before I was there. But I thought that actually, they were nothing like as spectacular as the temples at Tikal, which I'd visited five years previously. One of Tikal's pyramids was the tallest building in the Americas when Columbus landed; Machu Picchu's buildings are far more modest, albeit much more spectacularly situated. Tikal is in the jungle, while Machu Picchu is sat on a narrow ridge, surrounded by a bend in the Urubamba river, and with beautiful Andean peaks stretching away into the distance.

I walked through the main square, and then to the base of Huayna Picchu, the dramatic hill which towers over the site. It's a tough and very steep climb, especially if you got up at 5am, but I made it to the top without too many rest breaks, only to find myself deep in cloud. I waited around for a long while, and eventually the clouds started to break up and move away, and I was rewarded with breathtaking views of the ruins and the mountains. To top it all off, a single condor flew by, just inches above my head, showing off his huge wingspan before flying around over the ruins for a while.

At midday, I came back down, and found the ruins far busier than they had been. I decided I'd seen enough here and it was time to move on again. I was thirsty enough to pay an outrageous price for a drink at the entrance to the ruins, but still tight enough to deeply resent the commercialism of it all. Back at Aguas Calientes I got on the train again, had another magnificent journey up the river valley in blazing evening sunshine, and then after another night in Cuzco I got a bus to Arequipa.

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