When the mists part

JILL WORRALL
Last updated 09:06 20/04/2012

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The llamas that keep the grassy terraces at Machu Picchu immaculately cropped seem to know when they are being photographed.

It's almost as if the tourism authorities at this Unesco-listed World Heritage site have trained them to be photogenic. If it had been India and there were elephants, monkeys or snakes involved, I could well believe it – on the sub-continent if one so much as takes a photo of a donkey, a human minder will almost inevitably pop out of hiding and demand 100 rupees.

But high in the Peruvian Andes the llamas roam unattended around the site, but when close to the steady stream of tourists, they have a happy knack of posing picturesquely with the ruins behind them, long-lashed eyes gazing ruminatively into the distance.

They are the fluffy icing on the cake, so to speak. Machu Picchu, an Inca city perched among jungle-clad mountains, doesn't need any help from cute animals to be astonishing and unforgettable.

The Incas, who built Machu Picchu, ruled the largest pre-Columbian empire in South America between 1438 and 1533. With their capital in Cusco in Peru, the Inca's largely mountain kingdom encompassed much of modern-day Peru, along with parts of Chile, Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia.

Although the Spanish invaders swept the Incas from Cusco in the 16th century and destroyed their city, they never found perhaps the most spectacular of their accomplishments, the city of Machu Picchu. Remote, encircled by Andean peaks and perched above a river that flows into the Amazon, Machu Picchu was left unscathed simply because the conquering Spanish never knew it was there.

The Incas probably started constructing Machu Picchu in about 1400. Their mountain abode might have been a religious site, a ceremonial palace even an agricultural testing centre, or a combination of all three. No-one knows for sure.

There is also no definitive answer to why the Incas abandoned their mountain citadel less than 100 years after they began building it. One theory is that the Incas who lived there left it to avoid clashing with the Spanish, taking highly prized statues and treasures with them and melting into the jungle. Another possibility is that the inhabitants were all but wiped out by the Spanish indirectly by contracting smallpox that the invaders had brought with them from Europe.

After the Incas disappeared Machu Picchu lay abandoned, and the jungle began to reclaim it. The local people knew it was there but it wasn't until American historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911 that the rest of the world heard of Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas.

Machu Picchu is definitely lost no more. Between 1980 and 2000, visitor numbers trebled and have now reached about one million a year. It's now considered an "at risk" site simply because of the pressure of visitors and the apparent unwillingness of the Peruvian government to do more to protect it.

Helicopter flyovers are now banned, however, and there is a strictly enforced daily visitor limit of 2500.

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I had never thought I would have the chance to see Machu Picchu, but when a flight rescheduling meant I would be passing through Peru's capital of Lima, it was too good an opportunity to miss. I didn't have much time but decided even a short visit was better than none at all. However, I'd highly recommend taking longer than my three-night travel marathon from Lima.

If you are coming from Lima, the quickest way to reach Cusco, the best starting point for reaching Machu Picchu, is to take a 50-minute flight. It's at least 24 hours by road. From here the only access to Aguas Calientes, the small tourist town at the foot of the Machu Picchu ruins, is either by rail or by walking the Inca Trail.

Cusco is worthy of the journey on its own. After being conquered by the Spanish in the 16th century, it developed as a strategic and thriving centre for the colonialists. Cusco today is a city of layers of history, especially from these two crucial periods.

Plaza de Armas is the heart of the city, with its two stunning 17th-century Spanish colonial-style masterpieces, the cathedral and the Templo de la Compania de Jesus, dominating two sides of the square.

Even when time was pressing it was impossible to avoid the local hawkers, mostly women of the indigenous Quechua people. They were short ladies, clad in capacious gathered skirts and brightly coloured shawls topped off with bowler hats. They were laden with alpaca wool hats, gloves, jerseys, paintings and decorated gourds, and they were relentless saleswomen. On a short dash from the hotel in search of dinner, I was besieged and against my better judgment ended up with four pairs of socks, two hats and two gourds. The onslaught continued even while I was eating.

I tried to concentrate on my alpaca stew – my travelling companion was horrified. "How could you," she exclaimed, ordering beef instead.

"It could have been worse," I replied, "there's guinea pig on the menu."

Dinner was accompanied by cups of coca tea. Cusco is 3400 metres above sea level and chewing the coca leaves or sipping the tea is recognised as an effective way to ward off mild altitude sickness. The tea was easier to digest than munching the leaves. The taste was bearable, but my Peruvian tipple of choice was the pisco sour – a cocktail of Peruvian grape brandy, egg white and lime juice.

I was visiting in Peru's wet season, during which a section of the railway line between Cusco and Aguas Calientes is closed because of the danger of landslides, cutting the rail journey in half, to 90 minutes. This meant that in order to be up at Machu Picchu before the largest wave of arrivals, I had to be at the bus station by 5.30am. The road trip crosses the mountains into the Sacred Valley of the Incas and terminates at the railway station in Ollantaytambo, another town established by the Incas.

One look at Ollantaytambo was enough to realise I needed much more time to do it justice. Its narrow streets of stone houses looked fascinating but even more enticing were the ranks of Incan storehouses on the hillside behind the town. Ollantaytambo was an Inca estate and home to its emperor, Pachacuti. Some of the original Inca buildings are still lived in today.

Trains to suit all budgets were leaving the small station every few minutes. There was the so-called backpackers' train, the luxury Hiram Bingham train and between the two, my choice, the Vistadome train with its large picture windows on the sides and in the roof of each carriage.

For the entire 90-minute journey the train runs along the Urubamba River, sometimes so close to it there seemed to be nothing between the line and the water. And what water it was. This was the rainy season and the river was in full flood. The waters boiled, foamed and surged, and when constricted in steep-sided gorges the huge volume of milk-chocolate-coloured water created pressure waves several metres high. Eventually this water would end up in the Amazon.

While the river remained the constant, if almost frightening presence on our journey, the landscape changed dramatically. We crossed from the drier climate of the Sacred Valley, where maize has been a main crop for centuries, into the Amazonian region of high rainfall and forest. The on-board commentary told us to watch out for bears drinking at the water's edge, although with the river a raging monster only a bear with suicidal tendencies would have ventured near it the day our train passed through.

When I could tear my gaze away from the mesmerising force of the river the Incas' presence could be seen on the steep hillsides above before we reached the jungle. There were kilometres of terracing, painstakingly created to provide land for crops.

We drew into Aguas Calientes by mid-morning. This small tourist town is wedged between the river (the roar from which was our constant companion here) and the forest-clad mountains, with narrow pedestrian-only alleys linking shops, hotels, guesthouses, cafes and restaurants. Almost the only motor vehicles in sight are the fleet of shuttle buses that ply the road up to Machu Picchu.

After crossing the river, the bus began labouring up a series of hairpin bends. Most of the journey was through cloud forest, but every now and then there'd be a spectacular glimpse of the mist-shrouded mountains that surround Machu Picchu and of the river boiling through the gorge almost directly below.

The bus ride took about 20 minutes and just before it reached the entrance to the site, there was a break in the trees. Above us, the mist parted to reveal a cascade of stone terraces and the outline of buildings constructed in this remote sanctuary more than 600 years ago.

Next time: Exploring Machu Picchu

- The Timaru Herald

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