Christmas in South America seems to be a much less commercial and subdued affair than in Europe or the USA – town squares have a nativity crib and perhaps a lit up tree but there is none of the shopping razzmatazz which is a refreshing change. Given I would be spending Christmas away from Dublin for only the second time I decided to at least make it a blockbuster visit to Machu Picchu.
Cusco is a pleasant, if touristy, town which is the staging point for most visits. Back in the day it was a key Inca settlement but only ruins and foundations remain – in some cases the Spanish building churches and monasteries directly on top of the Inca religious sites. Not very subtle!
There are quite a few different ways to ‘do’ Machu Picchu – 2 day trek, 4 day trek, or the lazy mans option of getting the train and minivan up to the gates. Places are strictly controlled on the hikes and need to be booked months in advance so it was the train and bus for me.
PeruRail runs a touristy rail service from just outside Cusco to the town of Aguas Calientes. The train is a pleasant (if expensive for South America) affair with big panoramic windows and dramatic scenery moving down forested valleys.
After about 3 hours chatting to other travellers we pulled into Aguas Calientes which sits precariously between two roaring rivers which snake around the mountain where Machu Picchu lies atop. It’s so compact the rail line runs down the main street along with everything else!
There isn’t much to distract in the town itself, pizzerias, cafes, tourist stalls etc. but checked into a good hotel overlooking the rapids. With the constant sound of rushing water just outside the window it wasn’t for the weak-bladdered.
If you think that it would be quiet on the first bus at 0530 on Christmas Day there are hundreds of people to prove you wrong. After 20 minutes climbing up hairpin turns the site is at quite an altitude – I managed to lose most of the crowds as they got all puffed out walking up the last section to arrive to, well, a soup of clouds!
Sitting down to catch my breath I watched while morning mists cleared to reveal the ancient city, completely empty, all laid out before me.
This was the historical capital of the Incas 500 years ago before the empire collapsed in the face of new diseases from the Old World and the invasions of the Spanish. No-one knows why and exactly when the city was abandoned however the Spanish never knew of its existence and it simply was reclaimed by nature until in the 1912 an American explorer named Henry Bingham happened upon it.
Rather than get a guide I downloaded an app for my phone. This was a great choice as I was able to go at my own pace and it gave some context about each area (e.g. agricultural, cultural, society, historical) which brought what might otherwise be a bunch of ruins to life.
What wasn’t so clear is why build a city on the top of a mountain where very little can be grown. Supposedly the site between the twin peak mountains was particularly auspicious and it would have been easier to defend with 500m drops on 3 sides but unfortunately for the Incas when it comes to smallpox such details aren’t much help.
I headed back down the mountain for my Christmas slap up lunch and to relax in hotel. Given I had most of the next day free I braved the tropical rain to check out ‘Los Jardins De Mandor’ which was literally at the end of the line – a 45 minute walk down the train tracks into some very picturesque forest trails with waterfalls and rest gazebos along the way.
I headed back to the main station to get the train to Cusco and my flight to Lima. Unfortunately the flight was delayed, delayed until eventually we were all boarded and they told us that because of the delays and that the pilot wasn’t certified to fly at night it was now cancelled!
It was complete chaos as everyone mobbed the agents for compensation and explanations. IN the end I met a few fun Americans in the same boat and we were all put up in the same hotel and went for dinner and drinks – all courtesy of PeruAir!