Sunday, October 11, 2009

Peru: Machu Picchu Day 1

This is my eleventh Peru blog post. I managed to edit it down to only 30 photos. ☺

After our morning train ride from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes and our twisting bus ride up the mountain, we arrived at the entrance gate to Machu Picchu and met with our guide and three other travelers for a two hour orientation tour.

Machu Picchu was kept a secret from the Spanish invaders and abandoned which saved it from the destruction that other sites were subjected to. Since it's re-discovery in 1911, the site has been mostly cleared of the encroaching jungle vegetation and now about 30% of the standing walls are careful reconstructions.

All facilities at Machu Picchu are located at the entrance gate. There aren't even trash cans located inside which helps to preserve it as a photographer's paradise. The facilities they do have at the entrance are spare. You should bring all the drinking water and snacks you will want for the day because food is expensive at the one snack bar and the lines can be long. The only bottled water available was an 8 oz glass bottle. Large bags and food are not allowed in and most bags are searched. You can take a day pack, but since it's high altitude and steep, it's best to just have a camera and water and a few essentials. You can buy water bottle holders with a long strap to sling over your shoulder all over Peru. Most people also had a granola bar or some trail mix stashed in a pocket. You definitely want sunscreen, a wide brim hat and possibly bug repellent. You can check a bag at the entrance for about a dollar, but it's only semi-secure so don't leave valuables. I checked a backpack with food and extra water and jackets for all of us. Since you are generally rushed from the train right up to Machu Picchu, you have to plan ahead for this.

Machu Picchu is located in a "saddle" of land high on a mountain in the jungle. At one end is Machu Picchu mountain and at the other end is Wayna Picchu mountain. Wayna Picchu is that stunning mountain you see in most photos of the site like in the one above. You can't see in these photos, but at the top of Wayna Picchu are buildings and terraces. Only 400 people a day are allowed to hike the steep trail up Wayna Picchu. We didn't do it and by looking at the mountain I honestly cannot fathom how anyone can get up there.

Machu Picchu mountain is larger and broader than Wayna Picchu. You can see it in the background in the photo below. The sides of the mountain drop steeply down to the Urubamba river which wraps around Machu Picchu mountain below and eventually makes it's way into the Amazon river. The Sun Gate which is a tambo or waystation and checkpoint on the Inca trail system leading into Machu Picchu is located in the notch of the mountain in the photo below. On another Inca trail that runs around the back side of Machu Picchu mountain, you can hike to the Inca drawbridge.

Above: some of the farming terraces and houses of commoners. The terraces are extensive and ingenious. They were built in a effort to make Machu Picchu more self-sufficient. Each terrace is layered with rocks, then gravel, then sand and then top soil for drainage and to purify the water as it filters through. The sand and topsoil were carried far up the mountain from the river and farmland below.

view of the ceremonial plaza and noble men's houses

One of the first places our guide took us was to the Temple of the Moon (photo above). The interior is now closed to tourist, but it is distinctive on the site due to it's curved walls. From the Temple of the Moon a series of fountains and baths cascade down the mountainside (one pictured below). The topmost was reserved for the Inca (king), the next for the queen, and on down through the ranks of priest and noblemen to commoners and slaves at the lower baths.

There is also a Temple of the Sun, but more on that in my next post.

taking a break

on the edge of the plaza below the Temple of the Sun

I forgot the name of the temple pictured above. For us it will always be the "Temple of the Llamas." Our guide was showing us the unusual rimmed basins which are carved into the natural rock floor of this temple and postulating on whether they are meant to be water mirrors, bases for sculptures, etc, when the llamas showed up for a drink. It was one of the highlights of our trip. By the way, the llamas that roam around at Machu Picchu are the best groomed in Peru.

The Incas admired natural rock formations and considered them sacred. They saw the rocks in the photo above as the wings of the sacred condor and carved the condor's neck and head into the floor of the Temple of the Condor. Caleb is demonstrating how the wings go. The photo below shows the carving of the condor's head. Animal sacrifices would have been made here and the blood would have drained into the carved grooves. To the left of Caleb in the photo is the entrance to a natural cave where there is an altar carved in the rock where offerings are still left and where mummified remains were found.

After our guided tour, we decided to hike the Inca drawbridge trail along the back side of Machu Picchu mountain. The trail itself is not that long, but it's a very steep drop far down to the river below.

Inca drawbridge trail

I have to confess that I don't care for heights and this trail was scary. I stopped just before the end and took photos of my guys going the last few yards (above). You can see how narrow the trail is. The drop is sheer and a long, long way down. There are ropes the guys are hanging onto for a rail. You can just see the edge of the drawbridge to the left. It's just some poles laid over a gap in the trail that the Incas could quickly remove if the enemy was approaching.

After the Inca drawbridge trail we explored the ruins some more:

you can see how the edges of the site just seem to fall away

The rocks used to build Machu Picchu were quarried right from the site. Caleb searches for chinchillas at one of the quarry sites above. He found one, but we didn't get a good photo.

this shows how the second storey floor would have been built in this building

Machu Picchu closes for the day promptly at 5 PM and the last bus leaves at 5:30 PM. If you miss it you have a very long hike back to Aguas Calientes.

NOTE: The Peruvian government is considering limiting the number of people allowed to visit the site to 2500 per day. Currently they get 3000-4000 per day. If they implement this it could be much more difficult and expensive to visit.

Above: The Urubamba river from the riverwalk in Aguas Calientes just outside our hotel room. It's a beautiful view, but turned out not to be such a great thing to have a room along the river. Hotels are expensive so a lot of people just hang out all night and the river walk is a favorite spot. They were somewhat noisy, but really, we were too tired to care much.

Next time I'll be writing about day two of exploring Machu Picchu. Check back soon.

Copyright 2009 text and photos. All rights reserved.


  1. Your pictures are beautiful. What a wonderful blog post :)

  2. It is just amazing....What a once in a lifetime trip ;)
    Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. Very nice expose of your day at Machu Picchu. The circular basins above are in the "mortar room" believed to be where they made dyes. Please enjoy photos from my trips at the June and December solstices...