WC was lucky enough to visit Machu Picchu last night. While the place is afflicted with the same kind of industrial tourism that plagues Alaska, the place is astonishing enough that its worth being treated like cattle to see it.
You can’t drive to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town at the base of Machu Picchu. You either hike there along the trails or take the train. The trails aren’t particular tough, but the elevation – much of it over 8,000 feet – makes them tough and time-consuming. Depending on your route, it’s a 2-4 day walk each way. So most folks take the narrow gauge train along the incredibly deep-wa;;ed Urubamba River.
Once in Aguas Calientes, you queue up for the bus ride Up the steep, multiply-switchbacked road, or you can walk up the even steeper steps. It’s about 1,500 feet. Beware of the tiny, biting gnats. And if you have any sense, you’ll spend a couple of days in Cuzco or Aguas Calientes acclimatizing to the altitude before you try the steps.
The bus ride up is pretty frenetic. By that point in our Peru trip, we had ridden on bus rides on worse roads, but the drivers are apparently paid by the trip, and seriously whip those buses around the switchbacks. Admission to Machu Picchu is about $43, on top of the $12 bus ride. Peru authorizes a limit of 2,500 people per day. WC isn’t sure the limit is followed, but buy your ticket in advance. The crowds really thin out in the afternoon. If you possibly can, stay until mid-afternoon, at least.
Books have been written about Machu Picchu. WC isn’t going to try and produce anything comparable here. But here are a few random photos.
Most of the stone work is rough, like the left side wall. Impressive, yes, and done entirely without mortar. But it pales in comparison with the stonework of the religious temple on the right.
The stone blocks are a little less than a foot high and vary from 10-20 inches in length. You cannot slide a piece of paper into the seams between the stone blocks. Remember, they were created with copper and stone tools, moved without wheels and designed to withstand earthquakes and landslips. The lines are laser-straight and, especially in the sites believed to have been religious structures, flawless.
But the heart of Machu Pichu, built in a graben between two domes, is the terracing. It’s the carefully constructed terraces that permits agriculture, stabilized the slops and made Machu Pichu possible.
Beautiful, impressive – even astonishing – and wondrous, it was apparently constructed in something like 100 years, and abandoned by the Incans before the conquistadors’ arrival. So there are mysteries surrounding Machu Picchu as well.
WC suspects that Machu Picchu is a cash cow for the Peruvian government. At $43/head and the official limit of 2,500 visitors per day – probably closer to 4,000, but we’ll go with the lower number – that’s a $40 million revenue stream. The indirect revenue is likely multiples of that. The temptation to boost the revenue with more tourists and higher fees is pretty powerful. A consequence is that increasingly areas of Machu Picchu are being closed off to the public.
So the message is to get there soon. The prices are only going to increase. And limits on numbers of visitors are likely to move lower and be more strictly enforced. If only to keep the place from being loved to death.
So scrape the money together and go. Soon. It’s worth it.