At last I’ve reached an area with half decent internet and some time off to write some more stuff, but apologies for the lack of updates, even 3 weeks after MP! Bolivia has some of the worst internet I’ve ever experienced, so even loading up emails or Facebook takes about 10 minutes. Of course it makes up for it in other ways, as you’ll see later.
Anyway, on the third day of our Machu Picchu we set off at around 8 to go to a ziplining experience, where we would be taken 4km down a valley by 6 different ziplines of varying lengths and speeds. We were given a harness, carabinas, and a glove to break with, and then set off up one of the valley sides to the first line with a few other people from different groups.
The first line we were merely expected to sit back and relax as we were taken across the valley to a landing spot on the other side. We were advised not to use the break glove as it would slow us down too much, but some people did anyway and managed to get stuck half way across, so were expected to pull themselves along to the other side. The first one calmed everyone’s nerves, and soon we were getting into poses as we whizzed across the valley on each line, sometimes as spiderman, hanging upsidedown and looking at the floor 80ft beneath us, or spread out like superman, although I was the only one who actually did the real superman pose, one arm out front, one by my side. It’s all about the details with these things. There were two girls there from Sweden who didn’t look like they were having fun. They stood there next to each other not talking to anyone and just hanging limp from the line everytime, which was a source of amusement for some of us.
If you want to see some photos of the ziplining, they’re on my Facebook, but maybe when I get to Buenos Aires I’ll try to upload them here.
After we finished the ziplining we continued trekking until we reached the train tracks that take people to Aguas Calientas, the town directly below Machu Picchu, where we stopped at a trekker restaurant for lunch. It was there that you can just see the tip of one of the stone buildings in Machu Picchu on one of the mountains, but it seemed a long way off.
Almost as soon as we left we were greeted by torrential rain for the next hour and a half of walking, but I suppose it wouldn’t be a jungle trek without some tropical rain. At last, feeling exhausted, we arrived in Aguas Calientas and our hostel for the night. To everyone’s great joy we were greeted by WiFi and hot showers, and so chilled out there for a while. Dinner and snack buying was done relatively early, and so by about 10 I think I was sleeping soundly, ready for the 4am start the next day.
4am starts aren’t too nice at the best of times, such as when you’re about to set off for a holiday flight, or if its Christmas (maybe that’s the exception), but when you’re about to hike uphill for an hour OK OK in the darkness its really quite hard to wake up. But wake and dress we did, and by 4:30 we were ready to set off. Spirits were relatively high, as this was the climax of the whole 4 days, and for the first couple of hundred steps there was even conversation. However as the group spread out, with the guys pulling ahead stolidly and the girls lagging behind, an air of determination surrounded us. Occasionally we would stop to view the rising sun bathing the mountains in weak light, but we had a task to do and stopping was getting in the way of that. When we at last reached the top the relief was palpable, with hugs and high fives abound. I’d say there were less than a hundred people there at 5:45 when we got there, so we got in the queue to be some of the first in.
When the first few of us arrived through the gates and into the city entrance the sun had just risen, so we entered Machu Picchu in awe of the serenity and beauty of the surrounding landscape, which is jaw dropping in itself, and of course the stone structures, preserved from Spanish destruction and centuries of abandonment. When you see pictures of Machu Picchu, you only see it from one or two particular places, and its removed from its historical context, merely a place to take photos and say you’ve been to. I think of course part of the reason for this is the stunning beauty of it, the remarkable and unique preservation, and the effort it takes to reach it. But it also feels, even while you’re there, like it’s been commercialised. Most people arrive from buses, trains, and even we arrived with a prepackaged tour, so it’s lost some of the adventure that Hiram Bingham, the American archaeologist who discovered it in the early 20th century, or even the local farmers who may have passed it occasionally while herding their llamas and alpacas, would have felt upon first viewing. Its perfectly preened, grass cut, docile llamas there for pictures, and guards there to whistle if they see anyone do anything remotely risque (you’ve not allowed to jump for photos). It has become a similar symbol to Che Guevara, something that has been ripped out of its original context – for Che his strong political beliefs and for Machu Picchu its archaeological and historical significance – and turned into teenagers something post on their wall and make peace signs to.
But as I said, we are all part of that, me included, and if you try, you can get away from the tour groups and find a little house overlooking the mountains and jungles that surround the city and try to imagine the rather strange inhabitants of the city. Our tour guide explained that only 500 or so people lived there, split between a higher and lower caste. Strangely, a practice went on that didn’t occur in most other areas of the Incan empire, whereby some babies of the higher caste would have their head clamped and elongated as they grew, causing their eventual head to be shaped like an elf. If you go to the interesting Incan museum in Cusco, you can actually see some of these skulls preserved. Another interesting piece of archaeology on Machu Picchu is that despite a 500 person population, only 125 graves were found, suggesting that the rest left. My guess was that these eleven higher caste people, with a squashed pre-frontal cortex, managed to ruin society to such an extent that everyone else threw themselves off the mountain. But whatever the case, even though it was eventually abandoned, Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spanish, despite many attempts to follow Incan messengers and scouts back from Cusco and nearby towns.
From 7-8 was my slot to climb the mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu, Huyana Picchu, and so I set off for another gruelling climb an hour after the last, this time alone (most of the others hadn’t managed to get one of the 400 passes to climb the mountain that day). More buildings are up on Huyana, evidently for the higher caste or priest caste to live in as the view overlooks the city (meant to be shaped like a condor, although I couldn’t see it), and there are plenty of cool viewpoints to view the surrounding area. When I got to the top I just sat and appreciated being alone for a while, at the top of an Andean mountain, watching the clouds roll in and the jungle however many feat below me. That was until a 25 strong group of Canadians got there, mostly made up of teenagers, which kind of ruined it, but you persevere.
Afterwards I read what Guevara himself wrote of Machu Picchu:
“The most important and irrefutable thing, however, is that here we found the pure expression of the most powerful indigenous race in the Americas — untouched by a conquering civilization and full of immensely evocative treasures… The spectacular landscape circling the fortress supplies an essential backdrop, inspiring dreamers to wander its ruins for the sake of it”
And wander I did. Afterwards I couldn’t find any of my group, so I just spent some time walking through the houses, admiring the view and trying to avoid too many people until about 12 when I left and found some of the Dutch people from the group, who were descending shortly. I decided to wait for a while so I could get a couple of pictures for Fergus’s birthday (which you can see on Facebook) which Vini the Brazilian took for me. Vini’s friends from Brazil (they all live in a small farming village south of Porto Alegre in Southern Brazil) who he had been travelling with had taken the train then bus to Machu Picchu, but wanted to walk down to Aguas Calientes, so I joined them. By about 1 we were back in town, and so decided to get some food at watch some Champions League football in a local restaurant to celebrate. At 7pm was the train back to Ollantaytambo, and from there we took another little mini bus to Cusco. We arrived there about 10pm, and some of us split of to have showers and relax for a bit/sleep, but as my accommodation in Cusco was half an hours walk or a taxi away, I stayed and went to my favourite bar, Ukuku’s, with Vini. After a couple of drinks there I headed to an English pub, Norton’s to meet the rest of the guys, the two Canadians, Steve and Travis, and the Dutch guy Machiel (surely one of the most fun loving and charismatic people I’ve ever met) and we reminisced about the trip into the early hours. By the time I returned to the orphanage I was completely wiped by buzzing after such a brilliant time with a brilliant group of people.
Pics coming with internet soon.