on February 10, 2011
Prelude: La Paz"It’s amazing! And the tools used for the construction were never found! It’s magic!"I was speaking with the American owner of a major handicrafts store in La Paz. As usual, I couldn’t avoid his fascination with Tiwanaku and Machu Picchu. However, I was getting tired to hear time and again the wrong arguments quoted by the lowest quality books on the area and their apparently countless readers. At least, this time I was spared the "extra-terrestrial source" speech. As if large stones were such an unusual building material."Tell me, when you walk around New York, do you see the tools used for building the Empire State Building? Tools are never left next to finished works."There was an awkward silence. He caressed his thick beard while looking at me intently."Oh! I never thought of that," he summarized his complex line of argument.A Hot Coffee at Aguas CalientesIf following the unorthodox itinerary proposed in this journal, then the departure point for the last leg to Machu Picchu is not Cusco, but Ollantaytambo, which is lower than Cusco and closer to Machu Picchu. From its central plaza walk about ten minutes southwards along the Patacancha River; the Ferrocarril ("railway" in spanish) Road follows it closely, until the river merges with the larger Urubamba River. On the northwestern side of the rivers junction is the train station to Aguas Calientes.This is one of the places where the incredible costs of traveling in South America become evident. I wrote extensively about Asian airports and air travel there. For the price of a return ticket between Bangkok and Kathmandu, you are barely allowed to speak to the travel agent in South America. The same goes for all other transports, including trains. A PeruRail Backpacker round trip costs 53 American dollars, while the Vistadome Ticket is sold at over $70. Of course, this is another advantage of following my recommended itinerary; trains from Cusco are significantly (and ridiculously) more expensive. Vistadome refers to railcars similar to those of Amtrak’s dining cars; for example see my entry about its Southern Chief train.The most popular and crowded train is the one leaving at 9:05 AM, thus a wise visitor would wake up early and get the 7:05 AM one, or even better, take the last one and sleep over in Aguas Calientes before climbing to Machu Picchu. The trip longs 90 minutes.Maybe due to its name ("Aguas Calientes" means "hot waters" in Spanish), it was unthinkable not to stop for a coffee once there. Luckily, the place has developed into a small version of the Pisac Market (the market reviewed in the previous entry): crafts, hotels and restaurants compete for the travelers’ attention. Moreover, they enable spending here the night, so that a sunrise – or sunset – over the ruins may be enjoyed. Another point of interest are the thermal baths that gave their name to the town (silly me, it wasn’t due to their coffee!); entrance costs $5 and includes towels and minimal bathing suits.The path northwestwards to Machu Picchu is interrupted by the Museo del Sitio Machu Picchu. The bucolic name refers to a quite rustic museum; the best is rushing ahead to the "sitio" itself. The entrance costs $37 for foreigners, while nationals pay just $18; the discrimination is not explained. Maybe because they can’t. Twice as much as Angkor! Does that mean this site is twice as impressive? Because otherwise it’s hard to understand; the site is tiny in comparison to the Khmer masterpiece. Having been in the area for a while, I doubted it would be very impressive.Machu PichuOnce on the wonder I faced the same dilemma I described for Angkor. A long time ago I wrote about that place:"I delayed writing an Angkor journal for a long time. Despite having visited the site in three different years, what could I possibly add to the probably millions of words already written about it? Yet, the temptation was big and after all I have a few good tips, including where to find a decent cup of coffee within the complex…"Here, I was studying the sights carefully. There hadn’t been any surprises. Pictures of Machu Picchu are too popular to make that possible. A temple, a palace, a cemetery, a residential area; all of them smallish, all of them in ruins. The Urubamba River flows gently 300 meters below the cliffs. Above all, an impressive peak which creates the million-dollar look of the site.Why? Why here? The latest theory claims this was a winter retreat built by Inca Pachacutec in the mid 15th Century; this is based on a suit filed by his descendants in the following century to get their lands back. Thus an Inca retreat became one for 21th Century backpackers. Who said things truly change?If arriving among the first 300 visitors of the day, then it is possible to climb the Sacred Rock – the Huayna Picchu (other "huayna" mountains exist in Bolivia) – and visit the Temple of the Moon. The climb lasts about an hour and is in good shape, except for the last twenty meters, where a steep rock is climbed with the help of a rope and a ladder. The temple is in fact a large natural cave, which was transformed into a recessing, carved, dark shrine.In a few hours the tour is over. Definitely, this is a single-postcard site. An abandoned "sitio" of an almost forgotten culture that left no writings and millions of displaced people all along the Andes – their tendency to move people around explains the intricate geographical patterns created by Aymara and Quechua speakers. A site that can be seen in one sight. Sordid ruins with very little hints to the culture that created them. And maybe it’s better left in such a way. It was time to descend.
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