I went to Machu Picchu at last

As you may have read in my blog previously, I have become somewhat cynical about ruins, so after craving to see Machu Picchu for nigh on 15 years, I was apprehensive whether it would live up to the hype.

I rose at 4.30am to get to the site for sunrise. It had rained heavily all night, and sure enough when I eagerly went to the window, clouds hung low and a fog saturated the valley in which Machu Picchu Town sits. Trying to remain hopeful for it to clear later on, I busied myself with acquiring a lunch pack from the town’s handy 24-hour shops, and getting to the bus stop as quickly as possible.

The bus wound up the mountain towards the site entrance, and ever-thicker clouds. After we piled off the bus we joined 20,000* other people in a wide and long queue, and shuffled through airport-style gates to have tickets and passports scanned. We were then unleashed on to the site. Like animals released from pens, we all scattered around, bumping into each other, in an almost panic as to which way to go would be best.

We started climbing a set of wet stone steps; some of the tourists in inappropriate footwear slipped and struggled, while the rest of us barged upwards, no idea where we were headed, but knowing we had to get somewhere good, and fast.

I had a ticket that included entrance to Machu Picchu Mountain – I had been disappointed when the more popular Huayna Picchu Mountain tickets had sold out for the week. So I decided to head for the mountain and get away from the masses. Admittance to the mountain is only between 7-11am and I had some time to wait for the gate to open, so I sat on the edge of an Inca terrace, to breakfast on a ham and cheese croissant, alone at last in the peaceful fog.

Climbing Machu Picchu Moutain through the fog

Climbing the first of many steps up Machu Picchu Moutain through the fog

By now I had pretty much given up on the idea of seeing the sunrise, and concentrated instead on ascending the mountain. After 30 minutes of climbing, an opening appeared on the side of the path, just as the clouds began to lift off to reveal the mountain range opposite. I sat a while watching this beautiful phenomena of the sun slowly burning through. Then suddenly, magically, Machu Picchu began to emerge. The ruins on Huayna Picchu became visible first, on a craggy mountain. Then, below, the citadel now so familiar in my mind’s eye revealed itself in the flesh. The sun burnt harder and soon just a wispy cloud frame remained round the site. From this mountain, you get the classic view of Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu behind it, so in the end I was glad I got to climb this peak instead.

Clouds framing the site of Machu Picchu

Clouds framing the site of Machu Picchu

Satisfied and awe-inspired, I continued upwards. I didn’t know how high Machu Picchu Mountain is. I didn’t know how the rising sun would start to make me steam in the semi-jungle climate, nor how many increasingly vertiginous stone steps I would have to mount. I didn’t know how many times I would collapse on a step and vow not to continue.

But somehow I did, and every step was worth it – it was exhilirating to reach the summit with 360° views of the mountains all around, putting the site of Machu Picchu into its perplexing perspective. Here the Andes meet the High Jungle of the Amazon Basin, so the mountains pour with jungle down to the Urubamba River that swerves round the peaks that Machu Picchu straddles. The mountains are voluptuous with trees and life, making delicious viewing. The path all the way up had been buzzing with hummingbirds and butterflies.

Me atop Machu Picchu Mountain

Me atop Machu Picchu Mountain

When I descended and went to sign out at the warden’s cabin, I asked the time – 12 noon – we had been five hours on the mountain.

Now the site was completely different to how I left it early in the morning – the sun was blazing, and everywhere was brimming with brightly dressed tourists freshly bundled in off the train. I headed towards the ruins – I was to get close to them at long last!

My first impression? They looked fake. The buildings have been so extensively reconstructed and polished, they looked to me like Lego houses, and being surrounded by pristinely trimmed, lurid green European lawn grass doesn’t help the feeling of authenticity. I couldn’t help thinking they would have been better left how Hiram Bingham found them, with the jungle encroaching all around.

I veered off from the crowds to walk to the Inca Drawbridge. This for me was probably one of the most effecting ruins of the whole site – one I’d never heard of nor seen pictures of before. The Incas, in some miraculous feat, built a ‘road’ – a narrow path for us, but no less remarkable – clinging to a sheer mountain face. After following the path (trying not to look down to the thundering river below) for about 20 minutes, I stepped through a large rock chasm to see the road continuing round a curve in the mountainside, and almost opposite was the bridge – simply a gap in the stone road that would have been traversed by wooden planks.

Nowadays you’re not allowed to continue to the bridge as someone fell to their death from it some years ago. I was left unconvinced by the bridge itself, but for me, the thought of men constructing a road, with nothing but stones, suspended thousands of metres up this vertical rockface, some 550 years ago, was mind-blowing.

The vertigo-inducing Inca Road on Machu Picchu mountainside

The vertigo-inducing Inca Road on Machu Picchu mountainside

It was time to explore the citadel. Despite my first impression, I was still taken aback – these must be the most astonishing ruins I have ever seen – and I’ve seen a lot. The scale of the site is something I wasn’t expecting – this really is a city on a hilltop. I wandered narrow streets and broad plazas, admired temples and stood on top of rows of terraces that descended the mountainsides as far as the eye could see.

So did Machu Picchu live up to the hype? The moving way in which it appeared for me out of the clouds in the morning is one of those experiences of a lifetime; its spectacular location appealed to the mountain-lover in me; the sheer size, scale and quantity of ruins is extraordinary. What’s there not to like?

Me in an Inca window, Machu Picchu

Me in an Inca window, Machu Picchu

How to do Machu Picchu
By a trek:
various treks, including the four-day Inca Trail, can be arranged in Cusco or through tour companies from your home country.
Independently: by train (www.perurail.com; www.incarail.com; 1 hour 30 mins) from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley or organise a car from Cusco (approx 7 hours) through travel agencies there. You’ll arrive in Machu Picchu Town (commonly known as Aguas Calientes) where you can find accommodation ranging from innumerate hostals to select hotels. The town exists solely for tourists, so you’ll find everything you need here, from ATMs to bakeries, and the streets are lined with restaurants serving everything from Peruvian soups to Mexican enchiladas, and from English breakfasts to pizzas.
To get to the site: if you want to see the sunrise over the site, you’ll need to stay in Aguas Calientes the night before as the first trains don’t arrive until around 8am. You then take a bus (from right by the train tracks, the bus ticket office is also nearby; US$14 return; US$9 single) up to the site. You can walk if you fancy more exercise.
You must buy your ticket for Machu Picchu at least one day in advance – there is a ticket office just off the main plaza in Aguas Calientes.
Machu Picchu entrance fee: S/.128 basic entry; S/.142 to include Machu Picchu Mountain. There are discounts for children, students with ID, and Peruvian nationals. The site is open from 6am to 5pm every day.

My top tips for Machu Picchu

  • Contrary to what I read in my guidebook and other sources of information, you can take your own food and drinks in to the site – just be discreet and courteous about it. You can get a lunch pack from plenty of shops and cafés in Aguas Calientes.
  • There is a storage facility at the entrance gate for larger pieces of luggage at S/.3 a piece.
  • Be sure to take 2 litres of water if you’re spending the day there, and especially if climbing one of the peaks.
  • There is a café outside the entrance to the site, plus a café in the Sanctuary Lodge Hotel. Both are, as to be expected, overpriced.
  • Carry as little as possible.
  • Be sure to use plenty of sunscreen and reapply after every few hours; sunhat, sunglasses and a waterproof jacket are also essential.
  • Toilets are outside the entrance (S/.1).
  • Give yourself plenty of time in the site – there’s tonnes to see and a lot of ground to cover.
  • Before you get the train back home, unless you’re sunburnt like I was, stop for a soak in the hot springs (S/.10) in Aguas Calientes – you’ll deserve it!

*Not true. The Peruvian Ministry of Culture manages the site impeccably and with a limit of 2,500 people being allowed into the site each day, you never feel too encroached upon.

All information is correct as of the time of my visit (19/11/12).

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Adios, Urubamba

As I prepared to go away on this trip, facing the thought of leaving my life and loved ones in London was hard. What I didn’t expect was that I’d have to do it all again once I was actually out here. Yet here I am, preparing to leave Peru having spent more than three months living in the little town of Urubamba. And I feel sad.

It’s so true that only when you face losing something do you realise how much you love it – now I notice how the sun falls in my pretty little garden at different times of the day; now I spot all the shop and café owners in town who I recognise and who recognise me; I realise all the places I know where to buy exactly what I’m looking for; I know what all the prices should be; I remember how much I’ve changed since I first arrived wide-eyed. Now it’s time to start again, to be the stranger flailing around in the foreign land. It’s time for new adventures, challenges and surprises.

And this time, I don’t think I’ll be coming back to this place that has so warmly been my home.

So adios, Urubamba, gracias por su hospitalidad. Thank you Carlos and Carlos for your hospitality at Kai and the little house in Chajhuar. Thank you Johannes for taking me there to start with. Hasta luego, Cristian (don’t drink or smoke); chau Patrick, thank you for the dinners and the laughs; see you later, Clayton, Shon, Jason, Ronnie, Fran, Elise, Mel, Melinda, Erin, Ali.

Bring it on, Bolivia!

Urubamba's main plaza

Urubambians enjoying sundown in the main plaza

The not-so relaxing hot springs of Lares

While I was living in the Sacred Valley in Peru, I took a trip to the famous hot springs of Lares, however, it wasn’t quite as relaxing as would be expected…read my article on Stanfords’ website.

Lares hot springs. Photo © Rachel Ricks

Lares hot springs. Photo © Rachel Ricks

A meaty subject

Not for readers of a sensitive disposition, nor those whom are feeling peckish.

I am an animal lover.

I am also a food lover.

Therefore I have an enduring dilemma that most of the time I try to ignore, but certain recent situations here in Peru have brought the issue again to the fore: Is vegetarianism the way forward?

I love all food, so I wouldn’t go short if I was veggie. In fact, I veer towards veggie options anyway as they’re always more interesting than the same old meat dishes – vegetable lasagne I find is more flavoursome than an average beef one; and a typical sausage contains less than 30% pork. So would I really be missing much if I went meat-free?

Let’s face facts – it’s a dead animal, who 100% for sure would’ve suffered miserably at some point on its journey to my plate. Following years spent in the divine company of furred and feathered creatures, I have every evidence that animals possess individual personalities. When I eat a bit of one, I deny all knowledge that it was once a living, breathing, feeling being.

When I was on a contemplative walk recently, I sat down to rest in the shade on a country road. No one else was around, but suddenly I had company – a beautiful brown horned bullock appeared at the top of a ledge up the mountainside above me. He was tethered, but had managed to stretch so that he could peer over and nose at who was at the side of his land. We sat and looked into each others’ eyes for some time, enjoying the unusual companionship. Then spontaneously, tears began to roll down my cheeks. It hit me hard that this animal who – just like me, was enjoying the sunshine of this beautiful day – would soon be slaughtered and butchered just to fill someone’s burger.

The shops and markets in this valley do not hide or disguise where our dinners come from. In a busy shopping street in Cusco, I saw a chicken being pulled from its cage and its neck wrung fresh for the customer. Previous victims lay, beaks agape and legs akimbo, awaiting selection. In a major supermarket in Lima, an entire vaccum-packed piglet in the freezer section startled the life out of me. And in Urubamba’s market, cows’ heads sit staring eyelessly on the meat-sellers’ counters.

Last Sunday, I went with friends to buy beef for a big roast dinner. The shopkeeper and her daughter were conveniently in the middle of sawing bits off a cow’s leg balanced on wooden stool in the middle of the shop. She slapped a chunk of thigh on the scales to price up for us, taking our money and giving us the change with the same, unwiped, bare hands she had handled the flesh with.

It embarrasses me how I flinch and shudder at these sights in front of my Peruvian friends – after all, I eat all this meat as much as they do – and I know where it comes from. I should not be so surprised to see it outside of an unrecognisable shape and colour in a plastic tray inside a pretty cardboard package, but that’s just what I’ve had all my life. I wonder if meat was displayed as crudely as this in the UK and the US, whether we would still be such ravenous carnivores.

Then there was the other night, when I went for a special birthday dinner in a lovely restaurant in Ollantaytambo. After a couple of months of budget eating, this was my chance to treat myself. The speciality was 300g prime steak. With creamy sweet potato mash. And blue cheese sauce.

It was amazing.

Wish me luck.

The cow that looked into my soul

The bull that looked into my soul