Posted by: Jessie Kwak | January 5, 2010

Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, and the whole shebang.

So here it is. We finally went to Machu Picchu after four months in Peru avoiding it. Was it worth the hype? Well, yeah. It was. A big thanks to Mama and Papa Kwak for wanting to go, and for taking us out there.

Love photos? Machu Picchu set 1 and Machu Picchu set 2.

Aguas Calientes

We rushed here, to Aguas Calientes, up before sunrise for the third day in a row, with the knowledge that we’ll be up even earlier tomorrow in order to be among the first to arrive at the gates of Machu Picchu.

Aguas Calientes is a town of bridges, sliced through by two rivers that tumble out of the mountainside to join the Urubamba. The Lonely Planet talks of it as a ramshackle town full of construction gone wrong, but in the evening Aguas Calientes is also a magical place. There are no cars, only the crashing of the rivers. The full moon lights up the faint mist in the skies above; it feels tropical and charmed.

The mountains above Machu Picchu

We stumble onto the grounds of the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, their walkways and gardens sculpted to give the impression of a jungle path, but safe and romantic and lined with candles in hurricane lamps. The bridge is also lined with these candles, and the tumbling water below glints in the moonlight. This second river is a chattering cousin of the roaring Urubamba which it joins in only a few meager yards. The waters of the mountain streams are rust-brown with minerals, but clear. The Urubamba on the other hand is the color of chocolate milk, fed and gorged on mud and silt, churning it to froth as it tears its way out of the mountains.

For dinner options, there is Mexican food everywhere, and each menu looks identical—pastas and traditional Peruvian dishes done to the liking of the tourists, coffees and pisco sours, a wretched-looking cocktail called “Machu Picchu” made with orange, vodka, grenadine, and crème de menthe. Pizzas, hamburgers, and “tacos,” complete the menu. Everyone has the same offers, and everyone calls to us in the same rehearsed English phrases.

We find a set menu joint in the backstreets that fills us up for S/.6. Their a la carte menu has Mexican food, as well.

Machu Picchu.

Stone in the wall, Machu Picchu

The line is long, but it moves quickly through the checkpoint, setting us loose to crush into the same viewpoints for photo ops and move out of each others’ ways as we search out the iconic self-portraits. Dad makes a beeline for the “panoramic viewpoint,” a hard hike up switchbacks and staircases paved with rough stones. I hesitate in the throng for a moment, then follow. We stand suddenly high above the others on the edge of the agricultural terraces. Rob and Mom catch up with us and we climb higher, higher, until we have a place all to ourselves at the edge of the map, at the beginning of the trail that leads to the Puente del Inca, the Inca Bridge.

It’s a misty morning. The clouds drifting through the mountains shift our view constantly, and at times it seems we are totally alone above a gray cotton lake. It starts to clear and the ruins below become visible. Their lines become sharp, their shapes pull together. Far below us, the Urubamba River is meandering wide and lazy in the midst of green, the railroad track a thread beside it.

The drone of a guide’s voice drifts up to us. There are tiny points of bright color amid the ruins from rain jackets and floppy-eared chullo hats. The train whistles in the valley below, echoing in the mountains. It smells of decay and fertility, the sweet moist jungle. Little black birds dart through the air, arrow with rapid wings and white bellies.

Machu Picchu stone steps lead to nowhere

As we move through the ruins, we tourists stay out of each others’ way for group shots with the ruins behind us. It quickly becomes clear that there are “must-have” photo spots, such as the granite stone in the agricultural terraces. Rob comments the Incas must have left it there with the thought that someday hordes of tourists would use it to pose for photos. The entrance to the city is another popular place, where individuals pose with their hands on both sides like Samson in the temple, channeling the massive stones and their symbolic power into their souvenir shot.

Everyone seems to be in tour groups—herds of twenty edge down the narrow staircases, making way for the herd of twenty edging their way up.

Throughout the ruins we search out the places with no people. It’s surprisingly not that hard once you get off the beaten path, and our little group spreads out through the tumbled granite boulders of the quarry, the massive, beautiful stones that are just as inspiring for me as they must have been for the Incas. We’re the only ones there, though we can hear the chatter of the tourists up on the terraces drifting down with the birdsong.

granite field, machu Picchu

It’s as though the buildings and walkways were designed to display the surrounding scenery, the majesty of the mountains and the boulders. The granite boulder field is amazing, the great stones tossed carelessly aside ancient and untouched. I can see why one would want to take them and shape them.

Finally I decide to leave the quiet safety of the granite field and begin to wander through the main ruins of the city. It is built seamlessly into the hill, not just taking advantage of the stones and natural planes, but built almost as if to show them off. Immovable granite boulders form parts of walls, fitted into them and influencing their shape. The construction is whimsical and stately, like the fountains that run by the Temple of the Sun, cut through stone and carved into rock with an elegant purpose.

The best stones have been enshrined and carefully, lovingly polished and shaped. The sacred stone on the far end, standing like a sail, seems an homage to the outline of the mountains that frame Machu Picchu itself. The Temple of the Condor, with its playful passageways through stone and walls. The Condor itself is manifested in stone, it only took the Incas a few strokes to release the condor image from the stone. My favorite is the beautiful white granite boulder carved and shaped with elegant curves and whimsical planes, its beauty so great that it had to be enshrined in a curving temple of white granite of equal beauty to the stone. They say it’s the Temple of the Sun, but to me it seems as though the stone is the guest of honor.

Temple of the Sun, Machu Picchu


For buying tickets, do your research and don’t go through Luna Tours (on Cusco’s Plaza de Armas). As of this writing no trains are leaving from Cusco, so you’ll need to take a bus to Poroy or Ollantaytambo and take the train from there.

In Aguas Calientes, we recommend Margarita’s House (Barrio Orquidea Cuadra 6). It’s a quite new place, and the owner was kind enough to get up at 4:30 to make us breakfast before we climbed up to Machu Picchu. Telephone (51-84) 211.317

Bring snacks. We spent nearly 8 hours at the site, and it was nice to have a picnic. Also, there are no bathrooms in the ruins themselves—you’ll have to use the facilities outside the main gate, or do what a number of other people seem to have done and go in the bushes.

Check out the Botanical Garden next to Puente Ruinas (on the road to Machu Picchu). There’s a guided tour (only in Spanish) of their awesome orchid collections (S/.10).


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