Many folks have a “bucket list” of places they want to visit before they die. For years, the number one destination on my list was Machu Picchu, the recently discovered ruins of the Inca Empire in the Andes Mountains of Peru. The history and lore of this site has fascinated me for years, and I traveled through the Sacred Valley of the Incas to get there.
My adventure started before dawn in Cuzco, where I had stayed a few days to acclimate to the higher altitudes. Leaving before dawn gave me a chance to watch a magnificent sunrise as the shuttle van meandered over a winding road to the Sacred Valley. Occasional rain showers of the past few days had given way to a sky dotted with only a few puffy white clouds.
The sleepy little villages of the valley were waking up as we drove by, and the driver made a point of telling me the names of each community. First it was Pisac, then Calca, Yucay and Urubamba. Each had their own claim to fame and personality.
As each community began to wake up, they would set up displays offering an array of their proud, colorful Peruvian clothing and souvenir handicrafts. I learned that Peruvians produce the bright colors on their distinctive clothing from cochinilla beetles found on the prickly pear cactus, using the same process as Mexicans and Native Americans.
Maybe it’s the bright colors or something else, but everyone seemed happy. The locals seemed to approach life with an attitude of joy and contentment. At the same time, they were not overly serious as displayed by their festive, rickshaw-style taxis. The first one I saw looked like a joke, but then I started to see the creative variations everywhere.
The Vilcanota River flows alongside the highway and there were many popular side trips from the Valley to archeological sites and ruins. I would’ve liked to take some of them, but my focus was on Machu Picchu – remember, my bucket list.
One of the most talked about ways of going to Machu Picchu is to hike the Inca Trail. It’s about a 30 mile hike through the majestic Andes Mountains and it certainly sounded like fun. But, I chose not to hike for several reasons: you need a permit that must be arranged several months in advance; you have to go with a guide; the weather cannot be predicted; and, most importantly for me, it would have taken an extra four days.
So I took the easy way. From the Village of Ollantaytambo I took the train. Peru Rail runs a first-class touring train, complete with meal service, entertainment, large observation windows and spectacular scenery.
The tracks followed along the Urubamba River to my destination of Aguas Calientes at the foot of the final ascent to Machu Picchu.
The town of Aguas Calientes is now officially known as Machu Picchu Pueblo. It’s a modern city compared to the little villages of the Sacred Valley. There are fancy hotels, nice restaurants and plenty of higher-end shops to compete with the huge shopping plaza at the train station. The river that flows through the middle of town rushes by in stark contrast to the popular hot springs that gave the town its original name.
I spent the afternoon walking the hills of town. The people are warm and friendly. It was a long exhausting day, but in the evening, I found time to update folks back home using the free Wi-Fi at the hotel.
Life is good!