Friday, March 30, 2012
I know exactly how long I’ve wanted to travel to Machu Picchu. One of my childhood Spanish teachers was from Peru, and in addition to teaching us his country’s language, he awed us with stories about its culture. When I was in 6th grade, he showed us a video about the Inca Empire that inspired me to travel to the famous ruins in Peru someday. That day came on Saturday.
I left Cuzco early in the morning to board the luxurious Hiram Bingham train from Urubamba to Machu Picchu. The train was operated by Orient Express, which had offered me a ticket on board its signature service.
After the quick check-in process, I watched traditional Peruvian folk song and dance in a departure lounge at Cuzco’s train station. From there it was an 80-minute van ride to Urubamba in the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
Once there, we boarded the Hiram Bingham train and spent the next three-and-a-half hours enjoying the ride to Machu Picchu. While on board, we had a glass of sparkling wine followed by a three-course lunch.
We also had plenty of time to see the changing landscapes in the bar carriage and observation car as we sipped pisco sours to the sound of live music. The dry, flat farmland gradually gave way to lush green mountains as the train moved along the banks of the Urubamba River.
When we arrived at the station in the small town of Machu Picchu, a woman from my accommodation was there to greet me. Together we walked the short distance from the train station to Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, which was located on the edge of the town just above the train tracks.
The luxury property consisted of gorgeous gardens teeming with hummingbirds, orchids, ferns, and lush vegetation. The rooms were housed in whitewashed buildings scattered throughout the grounds. Below them the rapids of the river rushed by, and in the background sat the massive green mountain with its iconic Inca ruins.
I checked into my room, which the hotel had offered me for the night, and began to settle in. There was a large bed, a wooden armoire, a table, two comfy chairs facing a working fireplace, and a spacious bathroom. In the evening the staff placed a hot water bottle in my bed to keep me warm in the cold night air.
But before night fell there was something I needed to do: visit the ruins.
First I was escorted into town by a member of the hotel staff. She helped me buy my entry ticket to Machu Picchu and my bus ticket for the 30-minute drive up the hill. I was the only person on the bus at 2:30pm, so I had a private ride up the mountain.
When I arrived at the sacred Inca site, I showed my passport and ticket and followed the well-worn path to the legendary ruins. When I got to the first vista point, I was rewarded with the iconic views of Machu Picchu that I remembered from the video all those years ago. I had arrived. Finally.
For the next two-and-a-half hours, I explored Machu Picchu under clear skies. I saw the temples and the terraces. I walked up stairs and down stairs. I peered down the mountain at the rushing rivers below.
The Machu Picchu ruins were as big and impressive as all of the videos and photos I had seen suggested. The scope of the place was amazing, and the backdrop of the mountains was stunning.
But the ruins weren’t the only things to see in Machu Picchu. There was wildlife too. At one point I came across an animal that looked like a cross between a rabbit and a rodent. When I asked a nearby guide what it was, he said “Es una viscacha. Es como una chinhilla”. It’s a viscacha . It’s like a chinchilla. “Ah!” I said, “es muy mono!” It’s very cute. “Si,” he replied, rubbing his belly. “Y muy rico.” And very tasty. Ah Peru, you never met a cute furry animal you didn’t want to put on a plate.
After climbing up and around the stones and communing with a few resident llamas, I returned to Machu Picchu town and my hotel. I tried to take a quick dip in the heated pool, but it was a bit too cold for my liking. Instead I went to one of the restaurants to listen to a presentation about hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
The trail was something I didn’t have time to do on this trip, but wanted to learn about in case I returned in the future. The speaker explained that the trek took an average of four days and covered a path that traveled through stunning scenery and alongside Inca ruins.
The Inca Trail culminated at the iconic Sun Gate in Machu Picchu, after which participants could explore the ruins before returning to the Sacred Valley via train the following day.
The presentation was followed by dinner at the hotel’s other restaurant. I had a great ceviche starter and a pasta dish for my main course. The food was very much to my liking, and later that evening I drifted off to sleep dreaming of my travels to the land of the Incas.
But there was more to Machu Picchu than just the ruins. In fact, there was plenty to keep me busy outside of the sacred Inca site. The next day I discovered many of those things, from Andean bears to local markets. To be continued…