This has been an amazing trip, so far, and it was about to get even better. Today, we finally achieved the primary goal of the Peru portion of our trip and made the journey to Machu Picchu. For those who prefer the short version, it was awesome - it exceeded our expectations and is a miraculous place. Please scroll down and enjoy our pictures.
For those wanting more detail, here goes. In the morning, we left the beautiful Aranwa Sacred Valley Hotel and made the one hour bus ride to return to the town of Ollantaytambo (see day 4), the starting point for the train to Machu Picchu. After we arrived, we made our way to the waiting area to wait for our train - and wait, and wait, and wait. Our guide was continually told the train will be here "in 10 minutes ". Finally an hour later, the train finally appeared, and we were on our way.
We enjoyed the scenic Andean countryside as the train made the 1.5 hour journey downhill (yes, Machu Picchu, at 7710 feet and surrounded by mountains is almost 2,000 feet lower than Sacred Valley) to the town formerly known Aguas Calientes, now called simply Machu Picchu Pueblo. Here we left the train and got into line for the public bus to the entrance to Machu Picchu (the only way to get there other than by foot). Finally, 45 minutes later, we disembarked, quickly dropped off our luggage, and headed into the grounds of Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu, named an adjacent mountain, was unknown to the Spanish conquistadors. It was discovered in the early 1900s by scholar and explorer, Hiram Bingham, who was searching for the lost city of the Incas, and who died believing that he had found it. Modern scholars now think it was a country hacienda built in the 1400s for the Incan emperor, Patchakuti.
Regardless of its purpose, it is an amazing place and is amazingly well preserved. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and in 2007, it was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. Despite the difficulty getting there and the walking and climbing needed to see it, it has become the most popular tourist attraction in South America.
After we entered the gate (passport and timed ticket required), we started by heading upward to be able to view the entire complex and the incredible mountains surrounding it. Following a combination of stone paths, flights of rock steps and terraces built into the mountainside, we reached the area around the ancient Incan Guard House.
This provided many vistas and viewing angles from which to marvel at the grandeur of this place and to study the various sections of the citadel. It is mind-boggling to imagine not only how the Incans designed this structure, but also how they mined rocks from the surrounding mountains, brought them up to this site from the river far below, and managed to place them so perfectly. Keep in mind that the Incans had no large beasts of burden and only stone tools to work with.
After lots of pictures and contemplation, we made our way down the mountain and entered the citadel through what is known as the Urban Gate (there are two major sections, the urban area where most social activities took place and the residential/agricultural section). We headed toward the Plaza Principal and the worked our way to the residential area where the emperor and most of the other population lived.
Here we saw the Temple of the Sun (the sun and the earth were the two most important of the many Incan deities). There was also a complex system of 16 fountains fed by an aqueduct that could supply residents with water at a rate of up to 80 gallons per minute. Also, there is a window aligned in such a way as to provide a method of identifying the winter solstice (and another for the summer solstice).
At the end of the day we exited and took the few steps to our hotel, the Belmond Sanctuary, the only hotel right at Machu Picchu, where we had a wonderful meal and got ready for day 2 of exploring the site.