No longer is Machu Picchu a mere half-day train/bus journey from Cusco. (Note the Peruvian spelling, with an “s”, not a “z”.) The devastating flood in late January took out large sections of train track, stranding not only thousands of frightened tourists, but dozens of rail cars as well. There are still options available for travel to Machu Picchu, but all of them involve extra time and effort.
I chose a motor coach trip from Cusco to the city of Urubamba in the Sacred Valley, an aptly named corridor of lush greenery and ancient ruins along the Urubamba River. Since it is now more time-consuming to make the trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu’s gateway village of Aguas Calientes, Urubamba makes a perfect overnight stop. And that’s what I did.
The trains that used to run from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, with a stop for passengers near the ancient Aztec city of Ollantaytambo, now begin their journey almost two-thirds of the way in, past the last ruptured section of railroad. To get to this temporary depot, I had to travel by motor coach from Urubamba to the now-idle train station at Ollantaytambo, transferring there to a van small enough to negotiate the road’s curves and narrow lanes. The van dropped me at the top of a hill where I ran the usual gamut of vendors anxious to sell their wares, particularly after months of no tourist business at all and now only a fraction of what used to be.
The rail cars that were stranded on the Machu Picchu side of the ruined track are all that are available for transporting visitors to the site. Tickets are difficult to come by. There is the option of arriving on foot, but a several day hike on the Inca Trail, which crests at 14,000 feet, was certainly not in my plans.
The ninety-minute train ride along the river was a pleasant way to travel to Aguas Calientes. From there, I followed the crowd to a bus-boarding platform for the final leg, a dizzying ride of hairpin turns and all-too-close drop-offs. It’s anti-climactic to debark on the front steps of the luxury Mandarin Hotel. Where were the ruins?
Through the turnstile, armed with guidebook and map, I once again followed my fellow passengers. I must say, whoever planned the entrance layout either had great vision or was accidentally lucky with the result. I walked past a high wall and through a stone building, similar to a guard shack. A quick left turn and…there it was.
I know now where the term “breathtaking” comes from. I sucked in air, and not because of the altitude. Machu Picchu is beyond National Geographic spectacular. As I listened to the guide describe the living, building, healing and spiritual practices of these thirteenth century geniuses, I was awed and humbled. It was worth every leg, every inconvenience. I only hope that, for the people of Peru who rely on tourism for their very existence, the rebuilding effort goes smoothly. And to them I say, “Thank you for sharing your country with me.”
Susan Tornga has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Business Administration, but prefers travel to tax forms, and finds the world a much better teacher than any classroom. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including the Chicken Soup and Patchwork Path anthologies.