We made it to Aquas Calientes (the town below Machu Picchu) on the train from Ollanytaytambo with a light rain and overcast skies. As the train got closer to Machu Picchu, we went from an arid desert environment with cacti and dry bushes on the hillsides to a lush jungle. The train followed the Urubamba River, which has grown with the rain and now is dark with sediment, like a river of chocolate milk crashing it’s way down to the Amazon through boulder strewn rapids.
Agues Calientes is an odd little town, one that has mostly developed to serve the tourists headed to Machu Picchu. There was never a real town here before, but now it’s a hodge-podge jumble of hostels, restaurants, bars and other tourist oriented places, and then a section for Peruvians working in tourist related jobs. The neat thing is that the town can only really be reached by train, so the only cars in town are the fleet of buses which are constantly ferrying tourists to and from the hill-top ruins of Machu Picchu. With no cars, there streets are oriented to pedestrians, and there’s a fleet of municipal workers (clad in safety orange coveralls) who pick up the trash in small hand carts and ring bells to let shop-owners know when to bring out the trash every day. The gringo areas are saturated with tourist restaurants offering overpriced pizza, burgers, and ‘happy hour deals’.
We got our tickets to Machu Picchu ($21 with student discount, $40 without) and bus tickets ($14) the night we arrived and then got up at 5:30 am to catch the first round of buses up to the ruins. We did this because we wanted to hike Wayna Picchu (the large mountain behind the ruins you see in all the postcards) and they only allow 400 people up per day. The shocking thing was not only getting up at 5:00 am, but that there were at least 100 other groggy tourists lined up for the bus at this horribly early time as well.
We got up to the mountain top ruins as daylight was breaking, but the site was cloaked in rain and fog, so we got our tickets to climb Wayna Picchu for 10:00 am (hoping for a break in the weather). In our early morning stupor, we saw some of the main features of Machu Picchu before the tour groups flooded the site, including: the temple of the sun; Intihuatana (like Pisac, this place also has a ‘hitching post of the sun’); condor head and burial chamber; temple of 3 windows; and the urban and industrial areas. It was nice to have these sites to view ourselves in the rain and fog, as having tour groups of 20 people crowded around these features makes it more difficult to view, as was the case later in the day.
The weather started to break and the sun came out as we began our steep hike up Wayna Picchu at 10:00 am (hooray!). We had awesome views of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains as we made the steep hike up the mountain, gaining about 1,200 feet. We got to the top of the steep mountain, which has ruins and terracing on it’s top as well. The mountain is massively steep, but the terracing reduces the sheer terror of the height of the steep mountainside. We had a nice relaxing break and took in the great views, trying not to look down too much.
We came back down in the afternoon and hiked up to the other side of Machu Picchu, to view the site from the ‘caretakers hut’ and relax after our rigorous hike and early morning. We did a small hike to view the Inca drawbridge and the crazy cliff-side trail that served as an minor entrance to the site.
There is great museum that many people don’t see, but really should. It explains the construction process and shows many of the artifacts found at the site. Many of the other Inca sites we have visited used more porous volcanic stones (which seem easier to shape), but the structures at Machu Picchu are built of granite, which was quarried at the mountain top site. They used Hematite (iron ore) percussion stones to chip away at the granite stones to fit them together.
There is also evidence that the Incas processed copper and bronze, to make tools and decorative items. They used little copper and bronze levers to move the stones into their final place, and larger logs as levers too. Wet logs were used to roll the stones to the various building locations. Machu Picchu was an important trade link between the Amazon and the Andes, and they even tried to experiment with growing many of the diverse tropical and arid crops at the site.
Chipped stones from the percussion shapping process were used to fill the agricultural terraces as rubble fill, then another layer of clay was capped over the rubble (to keep water from draining into the base) and a layer of good agricultural soil was added on top. Many ceremonial bowls and other decorations where found at the site and shown in the museum. They also showed how the Intihuatana stone was used to determine when the winter and summer solstices occurred, important for the timing of agricultural work for their society.