Once you embark on a journey to Machu Picchu you are sucked into the mouth of a giant mouthbrooding cichlids fish called Tourism. For those of you who don’t know what a cichlids fish it is on one that holds it brood in it’s mouth opening it to suck them in and then again to spits them out. Yes that is what happens here. To get here is the mouth opening sucking all the little tourist babies into it’s clutches. It starts with the way you get here. It has be one of two ways – the long way by foot trapsing over stoney paths through the cloud forest or the much easier way via train. There is no other way as the road does not reach Agues Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu. The two train companies cater only for tourists; you cannot catch the more colourful local trains. Have to keep the tourists from the locals. Sure the train you get is likely more comfortable and you get little luxuries like trolley service which includes a snack and a drink. However the down side is that you pay up to $100 for the 100km trip. $1 per kilometer. What a bargain. I was excited to walk down to the train though as it meant I was embarking on a journey to a place that I long ago decided I wasn’t going to get to. Once you get to the train station the whole thing is a highly polished affair. The staff of Peru Rail are in the most immaculate uniforms that would not be out of place in a five start hotel. You are checked on in a systematic way where your tickets and passports are checked. The journey begins with the toot of a horn and you feel the carriages couple in that clunking way. Ah, the romance of a train journey.
Arrival at Agues Calientes has you entering the town through …. the market. See I told you that everywhere is a commercial opportunity. You have to walk through a couple of 100m of the same stalls selling the same things for the same prices as you see in every other town that has a tourist population with wallets that have the to potential to open. That sets the flavor of the town. I say that as this whole town is set up towards tourists traveling there for only one thing: Machu Picchu. There is no other reason to come here. It is nothing more than hotels and restaurants all geared up to cater for the daily influx of tourists. Oh, there is a hot water baths hence the name Aguas Calientes but there is really nothing else. Locals do live here but they are mainly involved in the industry of tourism whether it be the rail service, the hotels, building more hotels, Machu Picchu or just possibly the hydro-electric station up the line a little.
The fun thing with Agues Calientes the actually the train line. There is the posh tourist station and then there is the local station. The line for the local station runs right through one of the two main streets. It is so close to the buildings (houses or shops) it’s actually quite fun. The first inkling you get that it is coming into the station is possibly the blaring of a horn. More telling is a deep rumbling that intensifies as the train gets closer. As it gets even closer the building starts to gently shake. Residents of Christchurch would not like it and would be down on the floor and under a bed as soon as they hear it. It really does resemble an approaching earthquake. “Stop, drop and roll away from the cracks.” Nah, its just a train.
I make it sound as though AC is an unappealing little town. That’s not quite true. It is built on the confluence of two rivers and is surrounded by steep hills that just rise out of the base of the river. We were lucky enough to have what was possiby the best hotel room in town – we were right on the river with windows on two sides enabling us to look up and down the river. Just stunning if you ignore the plastic bags. The other thing that being on the riverside allows you to see is the back end of buildings. Rough finishes, half finished or bits of reinforcing protruding out of columns awaiting the next addition making this building one higher than its neighbors. I know at the beginning of the this journey I mentioned how much Cusco reminded me of Kathmandu. AC reminds me of one of the numerous towns set up for the trekking industry located along one of the many rivers. Not much difference expect for two things. This town is CLEAN. The streets are regularly swept by armies armed with a broom and dust pan and there are so many more shops and restaurants. It is what Nepal could be if it ever got its act together. Actually make it three things. The third thing is the dogs.
Most third world countries have an abundance of street dogs. The difference between the ones here and anywhere else in the world, especially Nepal, is that these dogs on the most part are friendly. People are kind to them. Many wear collars suggesting they are either loved or have been loved in the past. And so many of them wear clothes. I kid you not. Many have a jumper or even perhaps a pink dress with frills on. Obvious owners can be hard to find. The other stand out feature with these dogs is how many are of pedigree origin and yet seem to live on the streets. I have seen labradors, schnauzers, a Mexican hairless and even spaniels all of whom seem to have a life on the streets. Lots of fluffy things too with matted hair. While it obviously hard living on the street, none of them appear to be emmaciated or in obvious ill health. We were told that the restaurants feed them the food left over at the end of the day. True? Who knows. Me, being a sucker, has to stop and pat most dogs as who doesn’t love a pat. On one occasion I made a special friend. Val and I were sitting in a cafe at the end of the one of the main streets where the foot traffic is considerably less than elsewhere. This little dog with an overshot lower jaw resembling something like a spaniel/chihuahua cross caught my eye. I made that classic clicking sound one makes when trying to attract a dogs attention. She turned and came straight up to me probably in the hope of food. She looked at me, wagged her tail and then licked me. Won over instantly. I picked her up and put her up on my lap. She just turned around, leaned into me and put her head under my elbow. Gone. And there she stayed on my lap curled up sleeping. She only woke when I dangled bits of cooked chicken breast in front of her nose. Yes it was ordered for the purpose of feeding her. Her interest was in the chicken only turning her nose up with chips. Obviously not too hungry. She seemed to enjoy the company more than the food. I saw her again the next day at the other end of town. I was greeted with a wag and lick but then she was off on secret dog business.
Enough about the town of AC, what about Machu Picchu? That cichlid fish called Tourism continues to suck you into its mouth. You have to buy an entry ticket before you can go into the site. You can either buy them online in advance, with what turns out to be a premium, or you can buy them in the ticket office in AG. Supposedly only 2500 people are allowed on the site in any one day but this does not include the 400 who are allowed to climb Huanya Picchu or Machu Picchu mountains. At USD50 for a basic ticket only, it doesn’t take long to see that like the temples at Angkor, one site is a cash cow for the country. And I haven’t even mentioned the bus ticket that you need to buy unless you want to walk up a 8km winding road or up 1750m worth of steps. The bus ticket will set you back another USD15. Just add up how much money is spent by tourists on a daily basis. Did mention that the ticket office takes Soles only, no cards. One way of guaranteeing cash flow.
Being a bit of a shutterbug, my main interest was getting up to Machu Picchu for the best light. Morning or afternoon was what I continued to agonize over. Morning has the mists and them breaking up with the rising of the sun, afternoon has the best light for an overview of the city from the Guard House and less people. Decisions. The prospect of rising mists won the day. Whatever you read about visiting Machu Picchu, it says going in the morning is better for missing the day tripping crowds and the lines for the buses aren’t that long. Ummm, clearly no-one in town had read the same websites as me. The line was at least 500 people at 6.10am. The irony is a lot of people go this early as they want to get the sunrise. You don’t get any sunrise up there. Not only is it likely to be misty but the sun comes up from behind a mountain at least an hour after the sun actually rises. Hint for those who want to go there – if you travel as a solo passenger you can get on the buses more quickly as they leave with no seat empty when it is busy and they always seem to have one seat left. The good news is that despite the size of the queue the wait is not too long as they buses roll around every 5 – 10 minutes. I was on the bus 30 minutes after going the long line.
It is a 20-30 minute journey up a road of 13 switch backs to reach the site. The road is wide enough for two way traffic but the down hill bus always gives way to the ascending bus before entering a corner. Forunately for someone like me, the bus goes slowly enough not to suffer any ill effects from so many winds in the road. When you are up on the site, you can look down on the buses and they seem smaller than matchbox cars.
As I had expected and hoped for, it was indeed misty up there when I arrived about 7am. There were times when I couldn’t see anything of the site and there were other times when they parted just enough to give a sense of mystery to the place. It is after all supposed to be somewhat ‘mystical’ and a Peruvian power place. Why? Who knows. Maybe it is exactly because who knows. Like the other ruins, no body really knows much about this place other than it being built by the Incans and being on a trade highway. The rest is conjecture. Even of the history, I was interested in the know and what I saw. Morning mist, that’s what.
As the sun rose the mists lifted and the site was revealed. There is no doubt that Machu Picchu is an impressive place. Unlike Ollantaytambo is was easier to get an idea that this place was a living breathing village with distinct areas that had their own purpose. There was the agricultural area with its terraces and grain storage areas (qolquas), living quarters and areas set aside for religious events. It is a big site and can take a good 2-3 hours to walk around. Three if you have a guide who is explaining every little detail about something they can’t be sure of. Did I have a guide? I bet you can work that one out for yourselves. I wanted just to wander and capture what I saw. I was lucky enough to be here before the changes come into being on the 1st of July – no one can enter the site without a guide. Why this is happening who knows as the whole site is so well controlled with people stationed regularly ensuring you go in the right direction and don’t access areas that are off limits. I would hate having a guide as you might have guessed. I just want to capture what I see, even if it is looking through the trapezoidal window Leave the other stuff for other people.
Who doesn’t want a photo of a llama. They grace the site with their presence but in practice they are the ideal way to cut down on the lawn mowing bills. They tend to ignore tourists who don’t do the same for them. I got acquainted with Gina and Lucy. You might think I made up their names which would be totally reasonable, but I didn’t. Check out their ear tags.
All cynisicm aside, Machu Picchu was certainly worth going to. Some people visit twice in one day or fork out more dollars to do it all again the next day. Personally I wouldn’t do it unless I just didn’t get any images that worked for me. Yes, it is spectacular and visiting does leave you with more questions that answers. Why on earth did they build on such an inaccessible mountain top? How on earth did they construct it given its location and the size of some of the stones that make up the site? These are just a few. These very things that make up the glory of Machu Picchu may well be their undoing too. It is now firmly on the tourist map and UNESCO (it is world heritage listed) consider it to be underthreat simply due to its success. The Peruvian Government scientists state that Machu Picchu is sinking 1-2cm a year due to, wait for it, people jumping up in the air to taking the trophy selfie and they have banned jumping up and down. Damn, I missed my chance. They are also introducing a new ticketing system as of 1 July this year whereby you have to buy a ticket for the morning or the afternoon. Nobody is quite sure how this will work. The many daytrippers from Cusco don’t arrive until after 10am which will force them to buy an afternoon ticket. They will have to come back down on the last bus ticket at 5pm and then catch a train which is 4 hours back to Cusco. The change will seemingly force them into staying a night in Aguas Calientes. You have to wonder exactly how these changes will benefit the site as they are reportedly going to be selling the same number of daily tickets. Perhaps the cichlid Tourism might just choke on one of its babies.