Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes)

There are only two ways to get to Machu Picchu, either trek through the Andes on the Inca Trail for four days or take the train. Yes, by not trekking, you do miss some fantastic views and scenery and some remote Incan ruins (so I am told) and you also miss those precipitous trails, steep mountain climbing in thin, high-altitude air and the freezing nights with an ever present possibility of rain. Guess what, we took the train. From the comfort of our carriage we still got some magnificent views of the snow capped Andes in addition to being provided food and entertainment, and we were at the Pueblo within four hours. It was also pouring with rain and I can only imagine that the Inca Trail would be miserable in the wet and being drenched. On the other hand travelling on PeruRail’s Vistadome train is akin to first class train travel anywhere in the world. The train is well maintained, the carriages are clean and comfortable with windows on all sides and on the roof so we could get unobstructed views and the staff were efficient, friendly and fun. After boarding and getting settled, the train left on time and soon afterwards we were served coffee, soft drinks and snacks. Our route follows the Urubamba River through an area known to the Incas as “the Sacred Valley” with a short stop in Ollantaytambo and then on to Machu Picchu Pueblo which is also known as Aguas Calientes, the entire journey being against the backdrop of the Andes mountain range. The Andes is actually made up of dozens of mountain ranges called cordilleras and in Peru these ranges cluster together to provide some of the highest peaks in the world outside of the Himalayas. However this is not untouched wilderness, every bit of arable land is farmed. The high sierras of Peru were conquered by the Incas and it was their terraced system of farming and irrigation that allowed the large areas of steep but fertile land to be cultivated. Passing through the remote and sparsely populated areas is like viewing a window to the past. Small huts, constructed with adobe bricks and with thatched fichu grass roofs have not changed much since the Inca ruled. There is no electricity and water comes from the snowmelt filling the streams and rivers. Small enclosures have chickens, goats and cuy (guinea pigs) which are considered a delicacy in Peru and crops of corn, grains and vegetables are grown on the terraces. The four hour journey filled with steep switchbacks flew by and with a flurry of hoots and whistles we pulled into Machu Picchu Pueblo. But our journey is still not over. From the town, we must now purchase tickets for the bus ride up to Machu Picchu ruins and the Sanctuary Lodge. Thankfully the lodge had sent someone to take our luggage up to the hotel for us. The ride to Machu Picchu is steep and winding and even though I rarely suffer from travel sickness by the time we made it up the mountain, I was feeling distinctly nauseous. Although both Tom and I are taking altitude sickness pills, maybe the steep climb has affected me. I was okay after about an hour but it was a very unsettling feeling. The Sanctuary Lodge is everything we had read about and promised and is situated right at the entrance to the ruins. After lunch, we wander around the grounds, all the while absorbing the mountains which seem to envelop us. We have made dinner reservations for 8 o’clock and want to have an early night. Tomorrow we intend to enter the park at dawn to get to a great spot to watch the sun rise and we will spend the whole day walking the ruins. In addition, Tom, Marcela and Mariano are climbing Huayna Picchu, the high mountain peak that is the backdrop for most of the photographs taken in Machu Picchu. I suffer from vertigo, so while they climb the peak, I will explore the ruins. We are so excited to be here, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Fantastic.

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