Once in Cusco, we set Operation Machu Picchu into action immediately.
Machu Picchu, famous because it was ‘re-discovered’ almost fully intact, sits atop a mountain, with peaks surrounding it and clouds within it. It was called the city in the clouds by Dr Hiram Bingham when he discovered it in 1911. Although it was known to the locals, and a couple of explorers had ‘stumbled across it’ previously, it was Bingham who first took real notice and brought it to widespread attention.
It is thought to have been built during the reign of Inka Pachakuteq at the height of the Incan Empire, in approximately 1440, taking 30 years to build. It was supposedly used as an elite centre for the high government and Royalty, and special or sacred religious persons. But not for long. Between 1537 and 1545, wars with the Spanish Conquistadors meant that the Machu Picchu site was abandoned and left in the care of the fast growing jungle. The Incas defeated, the new Spanish rulers never ventured to the site – if they even knew about it – meaning that when Bingham found it in 1911, it had not been touched for centuries. As a city, it was completely intact, save what havoc nature had wreaked. Of course, most of the buildings were collapsed, the terraces had tumbled, and everything was covered with vegetation, but essentially, the skeleton was still intact and could be understood. This city in the clouds, perched on top of a mountain, was soon declared one of the World’s greatest treasures – the one that the Spanish never got!
So that is why it is so famous – it is the largest, intact complex of the Inca civilisation to have ever been discovered, and it’s situation up in the clouds makes it that extra bit special. Bingham spent several years during two further expeditions, clearing the site of vegetation, opening tombs, recording and stabilising the site and buildings. Later on, into the 1930’s and 40’s the ‘restoration of the site’ began, under the auspices of the Spanish Government(!), which continues until this day, although now primarily funded by tourism.
So, back at the hostel in Cusco, among our fellow bikers was a friend we had almost crashed into on the Road of Death in Bolivia – he was going the wrong way! Pieterjan, (or Peter), from Belgium, had been waiting for us to arrive in Cusco so the three of us could make our jolly way to Machu Picchu together. Reading the guide books and looking on-line at the biking forums, there are so many conflicting opinions on how to get there, it was making our heads spin. Luckily, there was a German couple also on motorbikes staying in the hostel, and who had just arrived back from Machu Picchu. Being wonderfully efficient as Germans tend to be, they gave us a detailed breakdown of everything we needed to do, what to see, and which places to stay, taking in some breathtaking scenery on the way – Excellent! Thank you George and Anchor!
Tickets bought, bikes at the ready, the three of us set off for the hills. It would take us a few days to get to Machu Picchu, or rather, Agua Calientes – the small town at the base of the mountain that Machu Picchu is perched on top of. But before we got there, we had appointments with several ruins on the way, building-up to the main event!
First stop, only 10 minutes after leaving the hostel, was Saqsaywaman, fondly known as ‘sexy-woman’. Just outside the Incan capital, Cusco, Sexy-Woman is a temple complex on the hill overlooking the city. Despite being only a minor fraction of its original size, (the Spanish had dismantled it and used the stones for their Palaces and Cathedrals), our first ‘real taste’ of enormous stones and Inca construction did not fail to impress.
Next stop, Pisaq. Dropping down into the valley to the north of Cusco, we enter the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Along this valley are dozens of ruins, mostly temple complexes, but also some substantial ‘cities’ such as Pisaq, perched above the valley, on a hilltop, surrounded by steep and precarious looking terracing. Medieval castle perched on a cliff springs to mind when looking at the grey stone walls and look-out posts scanning the valley below…
A good hearty lunch later and we’re off again, speeding along the valley floor, wind in our hair. Or rather we were speeding along and Peter was chugging along on his 150cc Honda. Hmmm,.. not really built for speed that one. Or hills. Or in fact carrying a 6ft 2inch grown man with half a year’s worth of luggage. Poor Peter!
We arrived in Ollantaytambo, yet another sacred Inca city, by late afternoon, ready for a beer and some gentle wandering about. Ollantaytambo is one of the prettiest and quaintest little towns we’ve seen yet. Huge, thick Incan walls rise out of the ground to support little roofs and make way for tiny narrow cobbled streets. The original water system now restored, brings freshwater from the mountains, running down the streets, pooling in mini reservoirs, and rushing through open channels. The ruins of the temple complex tower over the town as the terracing marches up the hill, atop sitting the Temples and associated accommodation for the priests, priestesses and High Incans.
Next day we were off to tackle the mountain pass, up and over Abra Malaga at 4,300m, then swooping back down again into the valley of Machu Picchu. The climb took it all out of poor Peter, limping behind like a dog with three legs, but by god he made time up on the way down, flying round corners and being as nifty as you like when he had gravity on his side! The winding roads took us up out of the fertile valley, up onto the moors and then the bitter cold barrenness of the mountain passes. Thermals came out, extra gloves, jumpers and coats. One could genuinely freeze to death up here.
Cruising down the otherside of the pass, we were passing more ‘death defying cyclists’ that had paid out a healthy amount of their travel money to pelt down the mountainside, skidding round the turns as the road crosses back and forth down the steep pitch. Thankfully, all the turns slowed them down somewhat, so we could nip past and get out of their way before there was an accident. Sensible.
Back down in the valley again, things started to heat up – thermals, extra gloves and coats were stripped off again. The last hour ride along the river on a horribly dusty track led us to Santa Teresa and to the thermal baths. Finally! We could pull off our stinky and dusty clothes, have a celebratory beer, and chill out in the hot baths. Nice!
Once in Santa Teresa, we could finally begin thinking about the final push to Machu Picchu. After our relaxing soak in the thermal baths and a good night’s sleep, we were ready to get ourselves to Agua Calientes and, from there, spring up to Machu Picchu itself. A short taxi ride to an hydroelectric plant, aptly named Hydroelectrica, then we set off from there, walking along the railway track that runs beside the river in the jungle valley, swinging around the bases of sheer mountainsides and cliffs, eventually bringing us into sight of Machu Picchu mountain a few hours later.
Arriving in Agua Calientes, Chris began to feel sick, and within an hour had abandoned any form of society and had taken to his bed. Chloe and Peter battled on alone, taking a hit for the team by eating an oversized lunch, (well Chris disappeared!), sorting out tickets for the buses the following morning, and squeezing in a quick hair cut before heading back out for dinner and a few glasses of wine. Meanwhile, Chris nursed his stomach and snoozed the afternoon and evening away.
The next morning, Peter’s alarm went off at stupid-O’clock, (5am), alerting us to the fact that we had to immediately jump out of bed, get dressed, and get in the queue for the bus up the hill to Machu Picchu. So, not quite as immediately as we should have, we slowly staggered out of bed and dragged ourselves out into the darkness. The street was buzzing – the queue was already two blocks long and growing by the second. Peter downed two very strong cups of coffee from a street seller which sent a (normally) very hyperactive young male into complete overdrive. If you think Chris can be energetic, he has nothing on Peter. Funny that the only person we have met who surpasses Chris’s hyperactivity, is someone that has ADHD!!
The first bus left at 5.30am, so then after that, the queue started moving pretty quickly. As the morning light started to infiltrate the black sky, we were climbing the mountainside in a bus convey, eager to get to the top and trying not to look over the edge of the road. Once at the top, another little wait to get through the gates and we were in! By 7am we had picked a spot on a hill where we could see Machu Picchu below us, and could watch the sun climbing over the mountains in the east, eventually spilling onto the terracing and the buildings below. Beautiful!
A few hours spent wandering around the complex, the narrow alleys and the wide squares, we were ready to make our way back down again. Tired and exhausted from an early morning and brisk walks, we hopped on the train back to Hydroelectrica, seeing a different view from that when we arrived.
Another stop at the thermal baths that afternoon to relax and take in the whole ‘Machu Picchu Experience’ thing went down well. So, Machu Picchu – yes, it’s been heavily restored, so it doesn’t have that tumbled-down romantic feel of an original ruin anymore. And it’s swarming with tourists – who let them in?! – but what can you expect. But there is still something really special about the place – it’s incredible how they managed to build a city up there in the first place, and the views and atmosphere of being up there is stunning. We were half expecting to be disappointed, but the location by far makes up for any reservations we/ Chloe, may have on their keenness to ‘restore’…!
The following morning we were back on the bikes, winding our way back up to the mountain pass, then swooping back down again towards Cusco.
So following our Machu Picchu adventure, the Three Musketeers split up – Peter heading north and us back into to Cusco for a few days of sightseeing. Then we’ll be off north to catch him up while he staggers up the mountain passes!
So just a few photos of Cusco to finish off – the city is remarkable. Probably one of our favourite so far. Filled with character, with colonial palaces and town houses built on Incan walls, the narrow cobbled streets leading to quiet squares and hidden alleys, this city is spectacular. It has ancient history and colonial elegance all at once – just wonderful.
Dropped bike coming out of river Chloe 1 v 0 Chris v 0 Peter
Had hair cut with kitchen scissors Chloe 1 v 0 Chris v 1 Peter
Felt very short against two tall men Chloe 1 v 0 Chris v 0 Peter
Felt very short against taller man Chloe 0 v 1 Chris v 0 Peter
Old-man syndrome Chloe 0 v 1 Chris v 0 Peter
Young-man syndrome Chloe 0 v 0 Chris v 1 Peter