A New Look at the Old Peak

I’ve had it in the back of my mind for a while that someday I would visit the ancient ruins, but also on my list are about a couple dozen other places around the world that each seem beautiful in different ways.

Machu Picchu was a good place to start.

Machu Picchu ruins with Huayna Picchu behind.
Machu Picchu ruins with Huayna Picchu behind.

As someone not accustomed to waking up to mountains each morning back in the States, the landscape of Peru—especially in the south—is one of the things that drew me to this country the most. Located deep within a valley of the Andes mountain range, Cusco (also Qosqo in native Quechua, or Cuzco, as the Spanish referred to it), guarantees that most any exiting series of roads you take will be winding. Ten minutes from the main plaza, and you’re above the city’s center—a bird’s eye view of copper-colored rooftops, the soccer stadium (home to Real Garcilaso), neighborhood parks, and two of Cusco’s busiest streets: Avenida Sol and Avenida de la Cultura (a five or ten-minute walk from my house).

On a day-to-day basis, life in the city carries on as it would in any major city around the world: People go to work in big companies or small shops, taxi drivers pick up commuters and zigzag their way between traffic. Kids carry Hannah Montana or Spider Man lunchboxes on the way to school. Buildings are being constructed or repaired; elderly men and women are sipping coffee at local bakeries at the start of the day. But the nearby ruins dating back six hundred years prove that Cusco is unique, has something extremely special to offer. Most Peruvians have been to Machu Picchu, and will take their children one day too.

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For native Cusqueños, a train ride to Machu Picchu costs only 4 Soles, less than two dollars. And on Sundays, admission to the historic grounds is free for people from the Cusco area.

Most people visiting Peru for the first time also have Machu Picchu on the itinerary. And the nearly nine hundred official and informal operating/connecting tourist agencies in Cusco city alone are happy to help. As of now, all international flights must come through Lima before a second flight or bus to outlying cities. However, Cusco is in the process of building its own international airport, which locals have mixed feelings about. Those who directly benefit from tourism in the area can appreciate the prospects of new tourist money coming in. Many of the people who live in rural parts (such as Chinchero, where the blue prints have been set) worry about how this will affect their quiet lifestyles as well as the environment. Inversely, Limeños will lose revenue brought in by tourists making a quick stop in Lima before continuing their journey. Regardless, Cusco has always been a frequented rest top between surrounding cities and the ancient ruins that lay in the shadows.

In line to climb Huayna Picchu.
In line to climb Huayna Picchu.

Inevitably, almost all organized excursions will land you on the same train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, also known as the city of Machu Picchu, located at the base of the ruins. The cost there and back on was about 150 American dollars, but there are definitely cheaper alternatives by way of bus or more compact train cars.

On the way towards Aguas Calientes, there is a noticeable shift in the culture of the people living in small neighboring villages. Mainly, those who live in el campo, or the countryside, live a simple life free from the frenzied energy at the city’s focal point and suburbs. Little by little, visiting tourists are looking for quaint hostels where communicating in Spanish is both necessary and charming, and a bumpy cab ride down unpaved roads and then narrow cobblestone streets is the only way to access the downtown. Still, it’s one of the best ways to see Peruvian culture thrive, in contrast to the accommodating restaurants in fancy neighborhoods and five-star hotels with English/Spanish signs. Children play in fields attached to farms or outside small corner stores. The community gathers for local festivals, like El Festival del Durazno (peach). Women roast meat, potatoes, cook rice and corn, some vegetables too. One of these meats famous to Peru, which you’ll find at expensive restaurants but also in these rural communities, is cuy, or guinea pig. Just like my places list, I have a food list too, which cuy has made its way onto since being in Peru. My host parents love it; it’s served whole, belly up, head, legs, and all.

As the four-hour ride continues (but feels much shorter), the view becomes more about the land itself as small communities disappear behind mountain tops. The train runs alongside the energetic Vilcanota or Urubamba river, formerly called Willcamayu (holy river). Snow-covered mountains peak out above overhead windows from every angle. At the final destination, you’re dropped off in a small market in the town of Aguas Calientes. The named itself can mean ‘hot waters’ or in this case, ‘hot springs’, which are located a steep ten minutes from restaurants and shops below. Guides and locals suggest, especially at popular hot spring sites, like Aguas, that you go early in the day for the hottest, cleanest water.

Train rides pull into Machu Picchu the night before the climb. Short bus rides to the summit begin at 6:30am, along switchbacks just above the town below.

Here’s some of what you’ll see:

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In any Googled picture of Machu Picchu, you’ll see a taller mountain top looming behind. Its name is Huayna Picchu, meaning “young peak” in Quechua. Two groups of climbers are allowed each day: early and mid-morning; no more than four hundred are allowed up each day. The view from up top is breath-taking.

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To get there, it’s a vertical climb made up of narrow staircased rock at some points, which require endurance on the way up and careful footing on the return trip down. People come from all over the world to see the ruins. On the day I visited, the travel log at Huayna Picchu’s entrance included travelers from Japan, Canada, Chile, Argentina, Venezuela, and the United States. The park sees a change in visitors once summer vacation commences in countries north of the Equator.

As you stand where Incan people stood several centuries previous, you have to give your mind the chance to wander a little bit. For nearly two hundred years, Incas inhabited this secluded refuge of a village, located at 2,430 meters above sea level and surrounded by neighboring mountain tops. As Spanish conquistadors swept through the region in the early to mid-1500s, they destroyed homes and local gathering places of the native people, looting the precious gold and silver that adorned temples and entryways. Yet, because of its remote location, Machu Picchu was left untouched. Machu Picchu is one of the examples left remaining about how life might have been, before the disturbance of foreign invasion.

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American historian Hiram Bingham has been regarded by some as the discoverer of Machu Picchu in 1911. But this tidbit of history is only half-right. Tour guides are changing their lingo and portions of websites are being rewritten since it’s not quite fair to say that an area such as Machu Picchu has been ‘discovered’, when long before 1911, Peruvians living nearby knew about the site. Nevertheless, Bingham played a crucial role in restoring the site to its former glory, especially uncovering much of the historic site that had become overgrown, almost buried beneath foliage for centuries.

Sounds of Peru, Sounds I Wake Up To:
• Kids playing hide-and-go-seek: “…diecisiete, dieciocho, diecinueve, veinte!”
• Construction across the street (as a new five-story apartment is being built)
• Traditional Quechua music (coming from the construction workers’ radio)
• Neighborhood dogs barking
Pan Americana radio station from the kitchen

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