Thursday, 21 July 2011

MARCHING TO MACCHU PICHU





Afer leaving Lake Titicaca and the Andes Altiplano, the road led me to the touristy city of Cuzco. This city was the centre of the Inca Empire before the Spanish conquered it and erected their own colonial city on the Inca foundations. The Spanish used rocks from Inca structures to build huge cathedrals, and there is one around every corner. Some of the steep narrow streets in the city are still lined with Inca-built stone walls, and there are some ruin-sites around the area. However, possibly the biggest tourist attraction in South-America is Macchu Pichu, the ruins of an Inca citadel high up on a remote mountain - and re-discovered exactly 100 years ago. It seemed to me that it would be a disgrace to be in the area and not pay a visit to THE PLACE. However, we are now talking about "Richman" tourist territory, and I´m hardly in that class. The only access is by train (fancy trains run the 110 km route all the way from Cuzco, and cheaper trains run the 40-odd k´s from the end of the road - although none of them are cheap). There is also, of course, the Inca Trail and various other costly ways of getting to Macchu Pichu. After consultation with various other economically challenged people, I decided to do the "Poor-Man´s" Inca trail. I cycled from Cuzco to the end of the road at Ollantaytambo where I left my bike (Old Saartjie) in the hostal where I spent that night. The following day I packed a backpack and walked along the railway line to the touristy town of Aguas Calientes down in the valley, where the railway terminates and all the tourists must pass through. I was under the impression that the walk would be twenty-something km, but it turned out to be at least 40 k´s. Initially I enjoyed walking through the villages, and there were even a few Inca ruins along the way (free, and no other people). BUT WHAT WAS I THINKING!? For more than 4 years I have hardly been on my feet! After 10 hours I hobbled into the terminal train station, having struggled along the tricky line for an hour in the dark - dodging trains and trying not to disappear down the eroded embankment into the raging river. In the station the platform guard demanded to see my ticket (if I was feeling any stronger I may be languishing in a Peruvian prison right now). First thing the next morning I went to enquire about a return train ticket, as I hadn´t been in such self-imposed physical distress since my ultra-marathon days. While I was standing at the ticket counter debating the dilemma, the big blister under my foot burst, making for an easy decision. The train ticket costed the equivalent of 6 days accommodation, and I had to stay for another 2 days for the next available seat. At least that gave me a day to sit with my feet up before I climbed the stone stairs up the mountain to Macchu Pichu early the following morning. The entry ticket to the site was also quite costly (the whole thing seemed to be a big tourist trap). Anyway, once through the entrance gate I felt a sense of anticipation, and it was quite exhilirating to round a corner and catch a glimpse of the famous ruins through the early-morning cloudy mist. At that stage there seemed to be an eery dignity about the place, and there were not many people there yet. The site was bigger than I´d expected, and I wandered around amongst the ruins for a couple of hours until the sky had cleared enough for a photo of the citadel from the high terraces. However, by that time the trains had been rolling into the staion down below, the busses had been snaking up the mountainside, and the crowds had been pouring in. There were traffic jams, marshalls were blowing whistles to regulate crowd flow, and the atmosphere was that of a football match. I regained my composure in the forest on my way back down the stone stairs. I felt an intense longing for Old Saartjie and the rest of my worn-out belongings. After the train trip the following morning I was pleased to find everything just as I´d left it, and I spent the rest of the peaceful day doing laundry and re-packing my bags.

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