Last week I spent three days visiting Machu Picchu and some of the surroundings within the Santuario Histórico Machu Picchu. I have lost count of how many times I’ve visited the site and explored both in the main ruins as well as the rich rainforest in which it is located, but every time I go I learn new things and my knowledge of the area always continues to grow.
Day 1: Machu Picchu in the Rain
An early start to the day found me at the PeruRail Wanchaq station at 5:30 to hop on a bus to take us to the train station at Ollantaytambo. (There are no trains going from Cusco right now because the route between Huarocondo and Pachar is prone to landslides during the winter rainy season from January 2 through April 30.)
The bus is a little boring in the morning and everyone is separated by plastic sheeting separating seats throughout the bus. The trip takes a little under 2 hours and sometimes stops for a restroom break along the way. Generally the early morning trips right now run about 60-70% full as nearly everyone is visiting Machu Picchu on a day trip and will return to Cusco later in the day.
Once we arrived at the train station in Ollantaytambo, everyone followed PeruRail workers into the station where the obligatory temperature check and alcohol spray on your hands is performed. Having been many times, I always either go ahead or lag behind and grab something to eat at one of the many stalls outside the entrance where all kinds of food as well as hats, bug repellant, rain ponchos, and just about anything else a tourist might desire can be bought at the last minute.
The ride to Aguas Calientes lasts about an hour and a half. If you go, try to get a seat on the left side of the train and the views are often spectacular — especially once you descend deeper into the mountain canyons. I traded my seat with a young Canadian woman who was visiting Peru for a week while on a year-long study program in Cuba. She was able to get some great photos as we made our way down the Urubamba valley.
Upon arrival in Aguas Calientes, I always go straight to the bus ticket office to get tickets for any day(s) that I plan to go up to Machu Picchu itself. (This time I had a 1:00 p.m. ticket for the first day and a 6:00 a.m. ticket for my third day.) This allows me to avoid standing in line as sometimes there are only one or two ticket workers and it can take a long time to get a ticket. (I’ve walked up the trail to Machu Picchu and have no desire to do it again — especially since round trip tickets for residents are so cheap (19 soles/US $5) and the climb is not only tough, but often very slippery thanks to the rainforest humidity.
After checking in to the Retama Machupicchu hotel — my new go-to spot — I did a little work then headed to my favorite Chifa restaurant next to the town’s library. It’s a tradition to stop by there and get a big plate of chaufa con pollo (an Asian inspired meal of rice with eggs, soy sauce, and chicken) before going about the day’s activities. It’s one of those place where I’ve been so many times that they don’t even ask what I want to eat any more because they already know!
After this, I went back to the bus stop where people catch a ride up the mountain with it’s 17 switchbacks to reach the entrance of Machu Picchu. A light rain was coming down and had been for quite awhile. One of the guides told me that it had been raining steadily for four days so I was quite unsure if I even wanted to bother going up under those weather conditions. I literally stood there for about ten minutes trying to decide if I really wanted to go in the rain until a worker came up and asked if I was going because the bus was about to leave.
Faced with the need to decide, I hopped on the bus with my face shield covered in raindrops making it virtually imposible to see, determined to make the best of what would be my first ever trip to Machu Picchu in the rain.
There are few options to go through Machu Picchu now. Places like the Inti Punku Sun Gate, the Inca bridge, and the Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu mountains are now closed to visitors as the routes are very controlled. I took the more boring route, but the one that most visitors mistakenly take thinking they’ll get better “selfies”. My intention was just to get into the citadel quickly and take some pics with my cell phone before heading back down.
The central site itself was literally invisible from above as clouds had enveloped the mountains above. Only on my first trip in 2005 had I experienced fog and even then it was nowhere near this thick. Fortunately, it began to lighten a bit as I descended into Machu Picchu itself, but still yielding some very atmospheric photos. I only spent a couple of hours in the site, but managed to get a few nice photos.
Once I returned to Aguas Calientes, it was still early in the afternoon and I decided to take my video camera back out and film a little along the Rio Urubamba which was raging as hard as I’ve ever seen it. The power of the river always leaves me in awe — especially considering just a few months before the flow was so low that it was possible to walk across the river at this spot!
Day 2: Hiking and Filming Along the Rio Urubamba
Probably my favorite hike in the region is along the Rio Urubamba below Machu Picchu. The combination of rainforest scenery, little known Inca ruins, the gorgeous plants and flowers, along with the chance to see all kinds of wonderful jungle animals makes it a magical place to explore.
It’s even better now as the hordes of tourists hiking in from what I call “the back way” are almost non-existent. On this day I saw only three people along the way — one old man and two park rangers who stopped and visited for a bit before they continued on down the trail.
A lot of people who lived along the tracks have moved away during the pandemic seeking work elsewhere or were forced to move in with relatives elsewhere. Many had made a living by supplying snacks, meals, and drinks to the hundreds of tourists passing by during the busy season in normal times. Only a handful still live there including Señora Colonel who has a place at km 115 and has promised me there are trails to explore into the valley behind her home once the rainy season begins to fade in a month or so.
The trail is along the train tracks which follow the original path created by the Peruvian government in 1895 to allow for easier transportation of goods from the jungle down river to markets in Cusco. It’s also the same path that allowed Hiram Bingham to easily make his way to Mandor Pampa where he first ascended the mountainside to get his first view of Machu Picchu in 1911.
To me, there’s a special feeling when I think about how I’m not only following in the footsteps of Incas, but hiking along in the exact path that Bingham took as he was hoping that the promise of ruins above Mandor Pampa might turn out to be be something important. (He had a feeling they were as evidenced by the fact that he sent the rest of his team off so he could climb alone with his Peruvian military translator, known only as Sergeant Carrasco, and Melchor Arteaga who knew the way up.)
One of the place I hope to find one day is the exact spot where Bingham actually cross the river. I’ve seen a modern photo that matches up with the one Bingham took of the spot where they crossed over logs precariously connecting both sides of the river. Apparently it’s still identifiable by looking for the rocks in Bingham’s photo which still exist in the same spot today.
One thing that is certain is the location that Bingham had to climb up to Machu Picchu. There really is only one way to get up and that is through one steep but passable arroyo about a kilometer downriver from Mandor Pampa. Bingham described having to go up “a good part of the distance on all fours, sometimes holding on by our fingernails.”
What he didn’t know was that there was actually an ancient Inca road that also went up which had apparently been used by people who came down to the river to retrieve water when more was needed. A number of ruins and even fountains have been recently uncovered there after being hidden way by the jungle for centuries. This area is still being researched, but I may be able allowed to visit one day. Keep you fingers crossed!
I went a little farther downriver to near Señora Colonel’s home before dark clouds appeared over the mountain bringing a pretty heavy rain shower that encouraged my to call it a day far earlier than I’d planned and sent my back to Aguas Calientes.
My plan had been to spend the day filming in the jungle with my BMPCC 4K cinema camera, but the problem with the rainforest it that, well, it rains. Sometimes a lot. This was one of those days.
Still, I had some fun with the camera and got to use a little equipment that I hadn’t used much before. Hopefully I’ll be able to return to the rainforest soon and continue filming as the wonders of the jungle are infinite. The video I was able to capture was short, but still interesting.
Day 3: Early Morning at Machu Picchu
Despite two days of mostly rain, the third day of my trip dawned with beautiful skies and the promise of an amazing day.
I wasn’t in a hurry to get up to Machu Picchu, but I didn’t realize that neither was anyone else. I got to the bus departure location only to find three people waiting and no bus! Normally there was would literally be hundreds of people waiting to catch the buses to Machu Picchu in the hopes of seeing the sun rise over the site, but today there were only a handful of us. (I found out later that we were actually the first bus up for the day.)
I took the more “scenic” route into Machu Picchu this morning and managed to get to the overlook for the best photos of the site just as the morning sunrise began to light up the citadel. I got there even before the workers who are assigned to make sure tourists follow the prescribed route and do not venture off into the closed off areas.
I teased the worker about being late and he laughed as we talked about how empty Machu Picchu was during the pandemic as well as how incredibly clear the sky was after days of rain. The Pumasillo mountain range to the west was as clear as I have ever seen it and the view across the valleys were spectacular.
Once I made my way down to the main gate of Machu Picchu I met another worker who informed me that I was, indeed, the first person to enter the site that day! He was impressed that not only had I been there many times before, but that I knew the best route to take to explore the site.
What many people don’t understand is that Machu Picchu was never finished and was still under construction when it was finally abandoned sometime around 1570. Even more confusing is that few realize that reconstruction of Machu Picchu began in the 1940s and continues today. There is very little documentation of what was done in those early decades of work, but comparison of Bingham’s photos in 1911 and 1912 show how much has been redone since the government first began work on Machu Picchu in the 40’s.
It’s always frustrating to see the con men who promote stories of aliens and ancient “megalithic” cultures who they claim built much of Machu Picchu before the Incas. They literally make up fake stories without no factual basis at all then sell expensive tours to gullible tourists as well as promote YouTube videos based completely on lies. Sadly, the most basic research shows what they are promoting — and making a lot of money from — are wrong.
I get frustrated by the mythology that’s promoted about Machu Picchu even by the guides. One of the those myths is a story that the “Sacred Rock” is a representation of the pointed peak Yanantin that looms behind when the skies are clear. I’m amazed that this is believed by so many when it looks nothing like Yanantin. (It actually is an almost perfect reflection of the mountains Pumasillo directly to the west.)
Almost no one, however, notices the small carving near the Intihuatana that is a representation of Yanantin. Everyone passes by without seeing it because you have to drop down on your knees to see it. (I happened to notice it one time almost by accident a few months ago.)
I had fun showing some passing groups some of the noteworthy “secrets’ to be found at the Intihuatana site and got to visit with Brandon, the park ranger who was working there that morning.
The rest of the morning was spent slowly walking through the ruins and enjoying having the place almost to myself. The skies were incredible and I was really lucky to be able to visit on such a perfect day.
On the way out I took this one last photo that I posted on Instagram with the caption, “When traveling, always remember to frequently stop and look behind. Often the views where you’ve been are just as beautiful as where you’re going.”
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