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6th July 2006 - Peru Trip - Day 3 - Cusco to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu

Another early start and I needed to be at Quillabamba railway station by 05:30.

The trains are state run, and you can tell, as there more staff than you can shake a stick at, but all very efficient. I booked the Vistadome and there were 6 carriages, with 3 staff for each carriage. You are assigned a carriage letter and a seat, so no scrum to get the best seat.

I was lucky as no one sitting next to me for most of the journey. Hurrah!

Just before we left we were informed that there was a porter strike and we would have an armed police escort the whole way. Also if they encountered any trouble, we would simply return to Cusco. (Luckily there was nothing to worry about.)

At least 45 minutes of the 4 hour ride is taken up just getting out of Cusco. As the city is in a valley, the railway track needs to ascend via 5 steep switchbacks in the line. However, instead of the traditional looping switchbacks, they have built the line using the minimum space using line changes at 30 degree angles, locally called El Zig-Zag - this requires the brake man to jump off the train at regular intervals to change the points, so the train can them reverse up the next section of track, until it reaches the next switchback, and the whole episode is repeated again. This line is a narrow gauge line, while the lines on all the other routes are standard gauge.

Zigzagging up through Cusco we were exposed to the poorest parts of the city, which looked very sad – dusty soil roads, half built buildings and stray dogs sleeping everywhere.

views from train out of Cusco

Then it was onward bound to the town of Aguas Calientes.

1st stop is at Poroy, and after this the train then descends from the highest point in the journey into the Sacred Valley, traveling along the Urubamba River for the rest of the trip.

The other stop is at Ollantayambo where the local people are out in force to sell clothing and food.

On arrival at Aguas Calientes I walked to the El Presidente Hotel where I checked in. The town is literally built around the railway line, with shops, restaurants and hotels on what would be the platforms.

My room was small, but clean and quiet. I had a room facing the river that runs behind the hotel, so the only noise I heard was the rushing water.

Next I took a trip to the main square to purchase my ticket to enter Machu Picchu - one for today and one for the next day. Then off to the bus station to purchase a ticket to ascend the hill in one of the constant stream of buses. There is no schedule, they just leave when they are full up.

It's about a 20-25 minute ride from the deep valley floor to the entrance to Machu Picchu around what seems like a hundred switchbacks.

Nothing can really prepare you for the sight of the ruins. After a long steep climb up hundreds of steps with no view, you are suddenly thrust upon the classic National Geographic view of the whole site spread out in front of you. To me, it was bigger and more complete than I had expected.

It's amazing to me that this site wasn't really discovered until 1911.

photos from Machu Picchu

I also decided to take the 30 minute hike to the Inca Drawbridge. This is a narrow cliff-hanging trail that is in the sun and hilly for the 1st 10 minutes, ending in a relatively flat and shady walk to the bridge itself. It's amazing that all these steps were built against such steep cliffs and the bridge was built in such an inaccessible place.

I was going to stay until sunset, but as I was feeling so hot and tired, (I'd already been whistled at by one of the guards for sitting down on the grass), I decided to take an early trip back down on one of the buses.

It gets dark here very quickly and early, as the town is situated in a very deep and narrow valley, surrounded by very high mountains.

I was back in my room by 18:30, went to bed and didn't wake up until 04:00 the next morning!