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  • Sarah Kraemer

Machu Picchu

I’ve attempted to visit Machu Picchu several times. The story of Hiram Bingham (the real-life Indiana Jones), hacking his way through the Peruvian jungle to find the Lost City has inspired many a traveler. Last year I invited my son to take the trip with me, as a college graduation gift. He thought it was such a great idea that he went with his buddies. Ruth and I were heading to a travel meeting in Argentina, and thought a hop over to Peru would provide the perfect opportunity to visit the Lost City of the Inca. Lesson 1 from our fabulous guide Ruben: The Inca (or Inka) is the king, and the people were known as Quechua. The Quechua were decimated by the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century, but more about that another time.

We could hike the full Inca Trail, take the train, or a combo of the two. The Inca trail is a 3-night camping experience, covering 28 miles and at times reaches an altitude of 14,000 feet. The camping option seemed a bit too rustic, so we opted to take the train from Ollantaytambo to Kilometer104, and hike the last day of the trail, which is just over 8 miles. Ruben our guide instructed us to pack only an overnight bag for our stay at Machu Picchu (the town is called Aguas Calientes) and a day bag for hiking. Ruben arranged for our luggage to be delivered to the hotel from the train, so we hikers didn’t have to worry about schlepping extra pounds on the trail. Ruth and I boarded the earliest Vistadome train with Ruben, and the excitement for all the lucky travelers was palpable. The Vistadome has skylights to enable the best views of the Andes as the train chugs its way uphill. The train ride to Machu Picchu is known as one of the most scenic in the world, and we would definitely agree! When the train gets close to KM 104, the hikers gather their backpacks and get ready to hop off onto the side of the tracks. Ruben guided us across the swinging suspension bridge over the Urubamba river. We showed our passports at the gate and began our ascent. I had imagined a great outing but was completely surprised by the botanical wonders we hiked through, including the microclimates of the high rainforest and cloud forest. Gorgeous orchids and bromeliads lined the stone pathway, which had been created by the Quechua many centuries ago. The hike is a steady ascent, which challenged my fitness level. A word of caution: if you have a fear of heights, this would not be a hike for you. There are narrow pathways with sheer drops to the canyon below. As we climbed, we saw men running down the path with heavy burdens. Ruben explained that the porters who work on the Inca trail have to carry down all the gear from the campsites, leftover food, and supplies. It was a humbling sight to see these fellows ripping down the trail, many wearing sandals, as I huffed along in my treaded trail specific footgear. After about 3 hours we stopped for lunch at the last day’s campsite on the Inca trail. Wiñaywayna (Forever Young) is a beautiful ruin just around the corner from where the campers set up their tents. Llamas roam the trail and provide entertainment for the hikers…dodging scat and avoiding Llama loogies. Another 3 hours of hiking through the tree canopy provided an opportunity to quiz Ruben about the names of all the flora. At last, we came to a staircase climb so steep that it required us to use our hands, with the promise of a great reward at the top. The Sun Gate was to be the point of the “Big Reveal.” After the final scramble to the top, we came upon people standing with their cameras ready, and peering into a great cloud. “It’s gotta be out there somewhere,” said a guy sporting a giant camera lens and wearing a Texas A&M hat, pointing into the misty fog. After a bit of a wait, the crowd grew giddy as the fog lifted and Machu Picchu was revealed below. We commented on how easily Hiram Bingham could’ve missed his discovery if he had arrived on a cloudy day!

We posed for what Ruben calls “Machu Pictures” and heading down into the architectural marvel. We had a couple of hours to explore the ruins before the park closed for the day at 5 pm. We learned so much from Ruben about the advanced culture who lived at Machu Picchu and his theory of the structure. Ruben believes Machu Picchu was a university to educate the kings of the empire.

We boarded a bus down a very steep hill to the town where almost all of the hotels are located and walked from the train station to our gorgeous retreat at the end of the village. Aguas Calientes sprung up in the 1960s, to offer shelter to the travelers to the Old Mountain. Although Hiram Bingham made his discovery in 1911, tourism really boomed beginning about 20 years ago.

This area is only accessible by train, so everything from food to construction material has to come by rail. Even the buses used to transport people up to the historic site arrived via a flatbed train.

After a pisco sour to celebrate the day, we had a delicious dinner of Andean specialties. We had planned to take one of the additional hikes the next day (Ruth was definitely more game for a tricky climb) but opted to spend a bit more time in historic Cusco.

If you are planning to visit Machu Picchu, you must book in advance. Tickets are limited each day, and trains book up early. Also if you want to hike the Inca trail. the number of people allowed on the trail is strictly limited. April and May are great months to visit, as the rainy season has ended and the trail is less crowded. There is some talk of further limiting the number of daily visitors to protect the UNESCO site. Let us chart your path to one of the world’s most spectacular attractions. or

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