On the Tracks to Machu Picchu

Author: Toni Gillan - Article originally published in LUXURY Holidays & Corporate Travel magazine Issue 25, 2014.

High in the Andean mountains of Peru, some 116 kilometres from Cusco, lies
The Sacred Valley of the Incas. In the early 1900’s American Professor and Explorer
Hiram Bingham rediscovered significant archeological remains, which he referred to as “The Lost City of The Incas”. Local farmers called the steep mountain, where the terraced ruined city lay, Machu Picchu, which means Old Mountain. In 1983, highlighting the ruins as an outstanding example of the Incans’ architectural genius, UNESCO declared Machu Picchu a “Cultural and Natural Patrimony of Humankind”.

Travellers are intrinsically drawn to Machu Picchu but it wasn’t until I gained sway on that old mountain that I realised why.

Just getting there, flying Auckland/Sydney/Santiago to Lisbon in Peru is an arduous journey. A Lisbon stopover is recommended before flying on up to Cusco. At an elevation of 3326 metres, allow yourself time to adjust to living at altitude. If you get altitude sickness, descending into the Sacred Valley usually solves the problem. Some have to return to sea level, if they are not sensible.

As the South American gateway to Machu Picchu, Cusco is the classic tourist trap but equally is an absorbing example of Spanish colonial and religious conquest. Fast food restaurants obscure Inca stones and massage touts accost visitors as they explore the sprawling city.  Cusco is a city of mystical promise, museums and churches with narrow, steep cobblestone streets leading uphill towards the neighboring Plaza San Blas where high priced boutiques sell traditional alpaca knits alongside indigenous artisan markets where weavers sell colourful textiles. Day or night, visiting the centre city Plaza de Armas can be a very diverse experience. Most memorable, on the north side stands the imposing La Catedral. With the heady aroma of devotional flowers drifting around in the dim ambiance, it is also a substantial repository of colonial art. One painting particularly, the oldest there, shows Cusco inhabitants parading around the Plaza with a crucifix praying for the great 1650 earthquake to stop. Miraculously it did.

Guidebooks advocate online pre-purchasing entrance tickets to Machu Picchu, which are daily limited to protect the integrity of the site. It’s an involving transaction with detailed passport information required for security. It can also be bewildering to work out how to book transport to the mountain. Cars, combis and colectivos (shuttles), single line trains and then ultimately by bus travelling up a narrow road with twisty hair pinned turns will get us there.

But rather than complicate our lives, we hire a car to take us from Cusco to the transport hub, the old-world village of Ollantaytambo. Being in the know, we are staying right on the train platform in a delightful boutique hotel called El Albergue. Our driver drops us nearby and we amble down the hill with our bags in tow feeling very smug. We will be up, train-side, very early in the morning to ensure we beat the tourist crowds. That night we fireside dine at El Albergue’s Whistle Stop Café on fried green tomatoes and peppered chicken (I have the recipe in Spanish) – delicious Peruvian fare flavored with local coriander and fresh greens.

A 5am alarm call, a substantial breakfast and a picnic box tucked under our arm sees us on the platform anticipating the first “Expedition” train departure to Aguas Calientes. An empty train idles; we await boarding instructions thinking others from outside the station are still to come onto the platform. Trackside another train arrives and departs. Inexplicably that was our train and impossibly we missed it!

Upgraded without argument by the station manager we board the next train, the deluxe Vistadome, which we had already booked our return trip on. He personally sees us settled into generous plush leather seats, on the left hand side of the train for the very best outlook. With breakfast set before us, we considered our advantageous position. As we were about to embark on what is billed as, “a journey for your senses”. As if in a bubble, wrap-around glass windows on both sides and above us elongate and enhance our panoramic vista. Crystal clear, the arid Andean plains spread out before us. As the journey progresses across the sacred valley and into the hills, fast flowing rivers keep apace with the train. You daren’t look away least you miss out.

But now, top of the world, we arrive at Aguas Calientes. Our patient guide is still waiting to take us to the bus to begin the conclusive part of our expedition up the Old Mountain. On the final climb as he minds us up to the ruins he collectively refers to my partner and I as “MyLadySir”, which we find most endearing.

Coming back that afternoon in a state of sensory overload we hardly looked out the train window, content to just sit quietly but then, like children woken up for a midnight feast, we’re startled into awareness as our elegantly attired train stewards have marvelously transformed into cultural entertainers and chic models. An iridescent dancer in a bear mask, rocks down the aisle pulling people up to dance to reverberating Peruvian pipe music. Then we’re into a fashion show as staff modelling alpaca knits parade up and down the rows. Two young girls beg to wear the woollies and join in the fun.

Attaining Machu Picchu was a journey of immeasurable physical and mental determination. Enroute it became a journey of personal and spiritual enrichment, revelation, and understanding. It is an exploration of self and in that precious moment; on reaching the summit, when, through the mist those Inca ruins rise out to meet you, it is exulting.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Leave your essence within this sacred place. We do this with humble gratitude.