We awoke early and went for breakfast in the little restaurant at the Albergue. From our table we could see the platform outside. It was only 7am but it was already busy as trains were brought in empty, loaded and then despatched, roughly one every 30 minutes, towards Machu Picchu. The whole thing was quite impressive and seemed to be all very well organised. Immaculately dressed staff worked as a team fixing letters onto the side of carriages, signing passengers in and guiding them to their seats.
We had booked seats on the “Vistadome” train. Vistadome is a concept that was invented by the Americans back in the 1950s for trains passing through scenic areas. In the strict sense it means the train has a car with a raised glass dome but here it just meant the carriages had panoramic windows in the roof.
Our tickets said that we needed to be on the platform by 8:23. That time was printed in large block letters on the ticket. The actual departure time, 8:53, was in much smaller letters and was almost hidden. They want to discourage latecomers obviously, I thought.
We were on the platform by 8:23 but the there was no sign of a train. Finally at 8:40 a locomotive hauling 5 coaches pulled up in front of us. There was a bit of shunting whilst 3 of the coaches were put into a siding and finally our train, now consisting of the locomotive and just 2 coaches, was ready to board.
It then turned out that only one of the coaches was actually going to be in use. We were shown aboard and we took our seats. They were organised in bays of 4 each side of a central aisle. We sat opposite a young Japanese married couple who were accompanied by their own Peruvian tour guide sitting across the aisle. Also opposite us were an Egyptian family of 3 and the rest of the clientele in the carriage looked suitably international too.
We left on time.
The 1 hour 30 minute trip was mostly alongside the River Urubamba. The windows in the roof gave us fantastic views of the valley sides, but for much of the time we were looking down at the fast flowing river. It was incredible and it was quite mesmerising to watch some of the large waves of brown water that were being created. Despite the condition of the river we were very glad to see it wasn’t raining. We hadn’t fancied traipsing around Machu Picchu in the wet.
Perurail were doing their best to keep us comfortable and entertained. They had piped Peruvian music in the carriage and from time to time they made announcements to explain some of the things we were passing. The Peruvian tour guide next to us explained everything in Japanese for her two clients. She embellished it a bit too.
About twenty minutes into the journey the attendants appeared and laid colourful llama-wool table cloths at each table. Then they served us with complimentary morning coffee and cake.
We continued to twist and turn along the river bank as the valley sides grew steeper. The coffee cups were removed and we were offered the chance to buy Inca cola and Inca corn from the trolley.
About an hour into the journey the announcer explained that the eco-system had changed and the train had entered a more jungle-like environment. She promised that there would now be orchids visible along the lineside. We didn’t see any orchids but we noticed that it had started to rain.
After passing through a few local settlements and running alongside an industrial water plant, the train finally pulled into Peublo Machu Picchu station in the town of Aguas Calientes. It was 10:30 and it was absolutely pouring down.
We had time to kill.
The strict entry system operated by the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism for Machu Picchu means that you have to choose between a morning entry and an afternoon entry. Tickets have to be booked in advance and passports must be presented at the gate. We had tickets for the 12:00 entry and so there was no point in leaving Aguas Calientes for the 30-minute bus ride to the citadel for at least another hour.
We bought a couple of ponchos to keep the rain off and went for a wander around.
The town of Aguas Calientes didn’t exist before Hiram Bingham discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 and it only really grew up after the railway was finished in 1930.
The town is obviously sharply focused on tourism. The exit from the railway station led directly into the artesian market; a massive complex of stalls all selling almost identical goods; alpaca knitwear, fridge magnets and stuffed llamas and guinea pigs. Outside in the town there were tourist-orientated shops and restaurants, with the inevitable touts outside holding menus, everywhere.
We walked up the steep central street to the gate of the hot springs that gives the town its name. Then we walked back towards the main square with its large Inca statue. This being the rainy season (the off season) the place seemed quite deserted and most of the market stalls were devoid of any customers. The restaurants were empty too and the touts outside seemed desperate for business. The little market near the main square seemed to be the only place that was busy, not surprising as it was the only place we could find not dedicated to the tourist.
Aguas had an attractive enough setting though and its big advantage was, given the fact it was isolated from the road system of Peru, traffic free. The only vehicular traffic being the local buses up to Machu Picchu and a few maintenance trucks.
After an hour or so we went to the little bus station to buy a ticket for the minibus to Machu Picchu. Just to buy the ticket we needed to present our passports as well as the entry tickets to the complex we had previously bought online. We had another two checks before boarding the little bus. It was all strict and very thorough. Peruvians get bus travel and entry at a much reduced rate and so the systems are obviously there to protect against ticket scalping.
The trip up to Maccu Picchu was a series of zig zags along an unmetalled road. I lost count of how many times we turned but gradually we climbed from the river at 2000m up to about 2400m. The views of the valley below became more and more spectacular as we rose up.
Eventually we were there. In front of us was a restaurant, the extensive gate check point and a large building housing the toilets. They had an impressive business going on up there and they were charging 2 soles (75c/ 50p) for the toilet 6 for ponchos and 6 for bottled water.
It was almost 12:00 and the area in front of the gates was filled with people waiting, passports and tickets in hand, ready to enter. At 12:00 we began to file though. The rules apparently meant that you had to employ a local guide and that you couldn’t take food in. We managed to break both rules; they checked our passports thoroughly but nobody seemed bothered about checking whether we had a guide or examining what we had in our bags.
It was still raining.
One Way Traffic
As we entered the gates we were handed a pamphlet with a map. It was clear from the map that you could only go around the citadel in one direction on the defined paths. There was a red route to get in and a blue route to get out. There were also some alternative yellow routes that offered a bit more flexibility but the main idea was that it was a one way system.
This all meant that there wasn’t really the opportunity for back tracking. There was to be no “I think I’d like to see that bit again” or “the weather has cleared up, I will go back and take a better picture”. If you tried to turn around the local wardens were there to offer friendly encouragement that you needed to keep going.
After we entered the gate we spent much of the first fifteen minutes climbing a zig- zagging stone staircase whilst the citadel kept itself out of view. Happily the rain was just started to abate a little and by the time we reached the guardhouse at the top it had almost stopped.
There stretched out in front of us was the famous view of Machu Picchu.
Except it wasn’t.
It was almost totally shrouded in mist. We knew that because of the “one way thing” we couldn’t come back later so the only thing was to wait a while. We took our time and with a wait of about 15 minutes we eventually managed to get a reasonable view of Machu Picchu.
From the guardhouse we descended towards the main gate and entered the complex. We spent the next two and a half hours walking around.
Like many people, I had come to Machu Picchu with certain expectations. In my case I had pretty negative feelings. Having seen so many pictures and read so many accounts of it, I had expected to be constantly in a queue of other tourists and being not really able to appreciate the atmosphere because of crowds of people taking selfies.
So, the first pleasant surprise was that there weren’t that many people there at all. There had been a crowd at 12:00 at the entrance but now the citadel seemed to have absorbed most of them.
Obviously we had the rainy season to thank for the relative lack of visitors. February, when even the hiking trails are closed, is probably the quietest month. At the same time the weather had also started to cooperate with us a bit. It had mostly stopped raining and although occasionally the sun came out, the mist blowing constantly through added a lot to the atmosphere of the place.
We followed the red route around past the western agricultural sector with its terraces, the “temples zone”, the main square and all the way to the foot of Waynapicchu.
I was distracted momentarily by the sight of a train passing over the river bridge far below. Where else can you get a picture of a diesel locomotive from a UNESCO-listed site?
We finished the red route and then followed the blue route back past the “three doors”, “the temple of the condor” and the eastern agricultural terraces. We headed out of the gate happy that we had seen it all and even happier that we had remained, mostly, dry in the process.
At the end, I think I felt pretty much the same as when I visited Angkor Wat; although you think the visit can never live up to the hype, it actually does live up to it and more.
Machu Picchu was impressive not just for what it was but also for where it is. In order to fully understand it all you probably just have to put up all with the tourist stuff and go there.
We caught a bus back down to Aguas and then chose one of the many empty restaurants for an early dinner. We had a delicious meal of oven-baked guinea pig whilst being fussed over by the lovely lady owner. She took the time to explain how she cooked the dish and she let us watch it being put into the little brick-fired oven. We got the impression that we were her only customers that day.
We had another look around the artisan market and then caught the “Expedition” train back. There was no free coffee but that was possibly just as well as the suspension was in a bad state of repair. The track condition was horrendous and we bounced our way down to Ollantaytambo.
The journey was mostly in darkness and was uneventful save for a lady getting a little sick and requiring oxygen from the crew.
I was almost glad to get off the jolting train in the end and I was even looking forward to being back in the car with Luis the next morning.