The lamas were grazing around the sacred Inca site all day, yet a couple of minutes before sun down, they positioned themselves at the edge of a terrace and gazed down at Machu Pichu as the light was dissipating and dusk was beginning to envelope us all. They didn't move. It was nearly as if they were the keepers of Machu Pichu, making sure that the holy site was being preserved for yet another day, for eternity. Them, and us, admiring man's creation and the beauty of nature, all in harmony.
At that very moment you knew you were privy to something very special. A sacred site. A holy site.
The journey to Machu Pichu began with a train ride from Ollantaytambo. Crowds of backpackers were getting ready to jump on the Perurail train that was going to take us to Aquas Calientes, which is the last station, at the foot of Machu Pichu. The only way to get to Machu Pichu these days is either to take the 90 minute train ride from Ollantaytambo or to do the 4 day 82 km Inca trail. We chose the former option, although one day I would love to do the Inca trail and experience the magic of hiking through the Andes.
It wasn't just any train carriage that we were on, it was the Orient Express carriage that was fitted in old style luxury. It was fit for an Agatha Christie murder mystery. The train goes down the sacred Urubamba river valley, passing several Inca sites, terraced hills and many land slides.
The journey starts off in a barren mountainous landscape, and as you traverse the valley heading to Aquas Calientes, the mountains become more and more lush. Suddenly there is jungle everywhere, with red jacaranda trees in bloom and birds of paradise adding colour to the otherwise tropical green vegetation. How does the ecosystem change so fast?
Machu Pichu is everything you can imagine. It was built in 1450 and was a populated Inca city for less than 100 years. What is fascinating is that the 500 inhabitants that lived there left no written records, no artefacts (most have probably been looted), no artwork. Nothing. Machu Pichu today is still shrouded in mystery which perhaps adds to its appeal.
By 1550 the Spaniards had already invaded South America and it is believed that Machu Pichu was abandoned at the time, for the Inca men had to go and fight the Spanish army to defend Peru. Unfortunately, they also lost and thus Machu Pichu went into abandon for centuries, until Yale professor Hiram Bingham re-discovered the isolated city on top of the hill on July 24, 1911.
The Incas worshipped the mountain, the sky and the sacred river far below. They worshipped nature. All things considering, despite their attention to detail, their advanced building techniques and complex level of social organization, the society to some degree seems fairly primitive. After all, Europe was going through Renaissance at that same time. Nonetheless, what the Incas built is nothing short of breathless. From the very isolated location that they chose at an elevation of 2,400 m, to the stunning scenery, to the simplicity of the structures that are in perfect harmony with its natural surroundings. And peace. A very peaceful and powerful setting.
Now, the vast majority of the 2,500 daily visitors that come to Machu Pichu (that is the max number of tickets they sell each day which seems to be doing well in preserving the isolated site) sleep in Aguas Calientes and then take the first bus leaving at 0530 to get to Machu Pichu at 0600, when the gates open. If you're young and full of energy, you get up at 0400 and hike up the mountain.
And then there is us. Creatures of comfort! The Orient Express has a lodge right by the entrance to Machu Pichu called Machu Pichu Sanctuary Lodge. The price is steep and there are only 18 rooms. But as we rolled out of bed at 0530 and got dressed and headed to the entrance of the grounds, we saw a small group of young kids completely sweaty and dusty, albeit excited to enter the sacred site at dawn. Yes, that is when we realized that the money was worth it. By 0600, there was already a long lineup of people waiting to get in. We were able to circumvent all that hassle.
Given that we had already explored all of Machu Pichu the day before, this morning we headed to Intipunku, the sungate which is about a 45 minute hike from the lodge. Watching the light spill over the hills above Machu Pichu and then slowly washing out the Inca site with daylight was a magical end to our trip here.
Walking back to the lodge, smiling, we were leaving Machu Pichu knowing that we had seen it in all its beauty, throughout the whole day. The Inca's really knew how to pick a site. Location, they say, is everything.