The wonders of Machu Pichu - South America: a first time for everything - CycleBlaze

September 6, 2013

The wonders of Machu Pichu

All aboard for Machu Pichu
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THE BEST thing about being an explorer is that you don't have to be the first person to get there. Christopher Columbus gets his face in history books for discovering America but not only did he think he was in India but Eric the Viking had arrived there centuries earlier.

And so it was for a man with the unmistakeably American name of Hiram Bingham. He is so celebrated for discovering the hidden city of Machu Pichu that I notice a train there is named after him. But Hiram was far from the first. He was just the noisiest; others had found it before him but felt it best not to make a fuss.

Well, ever since he pitched up in 1911 with visiting cards from Yale university, millions have followed. Including those, as I said, on that train named after him. And including us. Because Machu Pichu is another of those wonders of the world. It is a whole town that the Spaniards failed to find. They hesitated when they reached the Alto Plano, an air-thin plateau at 4 000m and only just a little lower than the plateau in Tibet. They suffered at that height and they progressed only slowly, missing Machu Pichu completely.

They did find the neighbouring villages, though, which just increases the mystery. Because paths must have stretched from one village to the next, including to Machu Pichu. But in this instance the Spaniards didn't explore.

The result is that here there is a hilltop village, a town by the standards of the day, nearly exactly as it was when the Incas lived there. Some has fallen down since those times, of course, and some has been restored or at least made safe. But Peru, which left it until 1981 to declare it a heritage site, boasts that 80 per cent of it is precisely how the Incas left it. All they've done is fasten a few walls and lay paths.

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We went by train because you can't get there by road. Not direct, anyway. There's a road up from the nearest town but it winds not just impossibly but dangerously, a rat run for tourist shuttle buses which joust for space on the bends. So, practically, you hike there over several days or you take the train.

And the rewards are astonishing. The train itself is a delight, turning this way and that beside a rocky river, running on metre-wide rails.

Just another view from the train window
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There's no pretence that this is an everyday travellers' train, so drinks are served where you sit. And then you emerge in a stomach-churning mish-mash of tourist stalls and countless hotels and backpackers' hostels and hurry for the not inexpensive bus up the hill.

Hardly anyone lived at Machu Pichu when Bingham turned up, pointed that way by a small boy, and began digging bits up to take back to America. In fact not much is known about Machu Pichu at all and the more honest guides concede that much of what you hear has been made up or at least deduced. Nevertheless there are artefacts which prove the point that the Incas were a bright folk even if they never read nor write. Pointed stones, for instance, lie embedded in the ground, eternally pointing to true north; windows gaze blindly for ever at precisely the point where the equinox sun will peep through a gap in the hills. This may have been a simple society but it wasn't a foolish one.

And so we walked, we explored and we listened to our guide. Steph climbed high into the surrounding hills and sat with llamas at her feet and looked down on the view that the Spaniards never saw.

It was an extraordinary day.

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