At the end of the Sacred Valley, winding down a lush river gorge in a quaint rail car, we finally arrive in Aguas Caliente. There is no road, only the railway and the river. A kayak would get you there but the train is much drier, faster, and safer. Aguas Caliente, named for the local hot springs, sits in the bottom of the river gorge, a mecca of hotels and restaurants catering to the sometimes 2500 or more souls making a daily pilgrimage to this Inca City in the Clouds. Tour buses wend their way continuously from the train station to the entrance of this spiritual city. The road is a combination of dirt and cobblestone switchbacks doubling upon itself myriad times to finally arrive in the clouds at the entrance to this remarkable memorial to the industry and ingenuity of the Inca peoples.
We left our hostel at five o’clock in the morning and walked through the predawn quiet of Ollanta and down to the train depot. Other folks catching the six o’clock train were gathered around vendors dispensing coffee, hot chocolate and a variety of snacks. We were finally able to board the train after waiting patiently in line in the morning cold. The beauty of the river and mountains was concealed by the morning darkness until just before arriving at our destination. Debarking, we purchased our round trip bus tickets to the top of the world and again waited in line as buses came and went with their morning pilgrims. Arriving at the entrance to the city at eight o’clock in the morning, the sun was just barely peeking up past the surrounding mountains… getting here at astronomical sunrise, recommended by many guide books, would be a bit of a joke upon oneself, no sun visible for several hours after sunrise. The theory popularly espoused is that when the sun rises on the winter solstice, it will shine through certain apertures with religious significance. The uninhabited city, swathed in clouds, appeared majestic and ethereal lit by the just arriving sunlight at eight a.m.
Machu Picchu is a large piece of real estate perched high up in the mountains. One only has to find an overlooking edge to see just how far it is back down to the river. There have been various theories over the years about the why… the main purpose of such remarkable substantial construction so high in the Andes. The City of Cusco was the main capitol of the Inca people and there is evidence that Machu Picchu was the summer retreat of the Inca king Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. The Inca road, another remarkable construction, gives access to the city. Fortunately the Spanish conquerors of Peru never succeeded in using it to find this marvelous, enduring and spiritual place.
We visited two of the other remarkable sites in the Sacred Valley, the ruins at Pisac and also at Ollantaytambo. Though not as extensive or well hidden in the mountains, they are two other wonderful examples of incredible stone work by the Inca peoples. Cusco, their capitol city was basically destroyed by the Spanish under the Pizzaro brothers and the only real evidence there is that it was the capitol, are the foundations of many Spanish colonial buildings which are of Inca construction. There are also beautiful ruins remaining above the city at Sachsywamen. The Incas were the last of a number of remarkable ancient civilizations in the Americas that endowed us with artistic and architectural wonders to contemplate and appreciate.