Monday, 9 March 2015

Machu Picchu: Day Four

Eventually we hit day four, which started a bit too early for my liking - 4am to be precise. Sleepily we arose from our slumber and managed to clothe ourselves in-between yawns. Going outside into the dark with our head-torch, there was then a 20-minute walk to the meeting point, where we had been told we had to congregate at 4:30. However, as we sat on a bench eating our packed breakfast, we were confused at the lack of crowds, for this was at the foot of the 1,800 Inca steps that lead up the Machu Picchu site, and we were thinking that there should probably be more than the 10 of us who were there. After speaking to people gradually trickling to the point, we subsequently discovered that the locked gates were not opened until 5:30, leaving us a little annoyed that we had been deprived of an hour's sleep. However, eventually the gates did open, and little did I know what lay ahead....

Anxiously waiting....

   The start of the steps

Views from halfway up

We had had the option to take a bus or climb these steps, which we had been told would take about an hour and a half. Easy, I thought. However, I almost died! (Figuratively of course - I didn't fall down the mountain or anything). My throat burned, my legs felt like they were made of stone, I could hear my heart thudding in my chest, and sweat was dripping down my face. In short, I was a mess. I started off being one of the first people to begin the climb, but was overtaken by almost everybody, partly because I could not seem to walk anything more than snail's pace, and partly because I had to stop for a break every 5 minutes or so. But there was light at the end of the tunnel. At one point, we began to panic, because we had 20 minutes before we had to meet the guide at the top and we were convinced we were only halfway up. But the angels seemed to be singing as we turned a corner at that very moment and saw the entrance to Machu Picchu. My pain was over, we had arrived on time, and my previous bitter regret at not having jumped on the bus gave way to an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and gladness that I had tackled that ancient staircase (isn't hindsight a wonderful thing!).

The Machu Picchu city

The tour was fascinating, although I did have to strain my ears to understand the guide's thick accent, and after 2 hours of absorbing vast amounts of information so early in the morning and walking around the incredibly hilly terrain, I was quite exhausted. So when we were left to our own devices, Tobias and I had a little nap in the sun before exploring the quite expansive place. The tour had taken us to some of the most important buildings -including the 'university', residential houses, and places where sundials and water wells told the time. The information has taken many years for archaeologists to glean because the Incas had no writing system, despite having such a sophisticated culture. I was also surprised to learn that the city took 200 years to build, but the Incas lived in the completely finished city for only 12 years before inexplicably moving away. Fortunately for us this happened, or this gorgeous relic of a lost culture would have gone the way of other Inca cities once the Spanish got hold of them - completely destroyed. Instead, this site lay untouched in the jungle for hundreds of years before being rediscovered in the 20th century.

Our guide in front of one of the ancient ruins

After our aforementioned nap, and also after having a little more food, we felt a lot more refreshed, and spent the next few hours walking around the site, befriending the llamas, and taking photos. If you want toned calves then this is the place to go - there are steps and hills to contend with everywhere. We had bought a ticket to climb the actual Machu Picchu mountain (the site is not the mountain itself - it is named after one of the mountains that surrounds it), but once we were there we felt the Inca steps had taken the energy we would have needed out of us, so we forwent that. It would have taken 3 hours too, and so we decided to use this time to explore the site instead. If you do decide to go to Machu Picchu, that would be my one bit of advice - resist the overwhelming temptation to buy the mountain ticket when you book. I think there are times later on when you can do this if you really feel up to it, and if you do make the purchase, then take the bus up to the site instead of climbing the Inca steps. Unless you are super fit then nearly 2,000 steep steps and then a mountain is a tall order, bordering on impossible.

Pictures just cannot do the reality of this scene justice...

The llamas were surprisingly social (or perhaps not so surprisingly, considering the site sees over 3,000 visitors per day). I expected that they'd shy away from humans and the most I could hope for would be to catch a glimpse of them from far off, but they were actually incredibly curious and quite unbothered by the fact that there were thousands of humans milling about. They seem to live a charmed life of chillin' in the sun and eating. We did make a couple of friends:

He isn't dead, just sleeping...

After a phenomenal day we got the bus back down to Aguas Calientes, where we grabbed our stuff from the hostel and jumped on a train to Cusco, leaving for Lima the next day. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will never forget. Utterly exhausting but totally worth it! Fascinating, fun, and exciting, I am so glad we opted for the Jungle Trek over the Inca Trail (and not just because of the price). It is hard to pick between the Amazon jungle or this as the highlight of my time in Peru.

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