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Early morning train to Machu Picchu

An early start - the alarm was set for 4:30am as we have to get to 6:00am train (another Milla Turismo classic - they called yesterday so say we were on this one and not the 7:00am train we had expected). I feel better but not 100% and am determined to make the trip. I'm still in a bit of a daze though and I simply followed Stef to where we had to go.

To get to Machu Picchu we have to get the train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientas and from there get a bus to the site. We have splashed out on the train and are traveling in the Vistadom class (not the backpacker class) - better seats and bigger windows to enjoy the view (a bit lost on me today!). It is a well organised service with smartly dressed staff welcoming you on board at your coach.

The uphill climb out of Cuzco makes the train wind round the mountain then switchback (reversing) for a bit before starting to climb again. The tracks run in the middle of the road, close to houses and kids play areas with no barriers to stop people wandering on and off the tracks. People here much get hacked off with the noise of trains chuntering past their bedrooms at such an ungodly hour.

Cuzco itself stretches back a long way (it is a city of about half a million people). The houses are all cluttered together, almost built on tope of each other, with very little space and privacy between them. A couple of times we passed cracks in the landscape, clear evidence of earthquakes in the not too distant past.

For most of the journey we were coasting downhill - the high peaks around Machu Picchu are lower than the level of Cuzco - and the scenery changed to become more tropical. I dozed most of the way, waking to find we were almost at Aguas Calientes. The railway track here, all the way to the bus, was lined with shops selling the usual tourist stuff. Our guide, Darwin, had introduced himself on the train and gave us printed instructions on where to meet him at the top "as we were part of a pooled tour" - not a good sign.

The bus wound its way uphill on a dirt track road which was pretty bumpy and not great for my still delicate tummy! At the top, Darwin blew his whistle to summon the tour group and our suspicions were confirmed as he rattled off a huge list - I stopped counting when it got to more than fifty. The group was split into Spanish and English speaking and the English group was then split again. I'm not sure if they had planned to do this all along or whether it was a reaction to Stef querying the group size as Milla Tourismo had assured us it would be no more than twenty. Darwin simply shrugged his shoulders and said that groups were always thirty five to forty people.

Although the group was big he was an experienced guide and managed and controlled it well. He seems to have a real passion for this place and tried to sell us copies of his book at the end of the tour. I heard people from other groups commenting on how good his explanations were. Everywhere you look there are tourist groups but the guides take them initially to different parts of the site, which is large enough not to feel swamped by them.

Machu Picchu is a truly impressive place. Abandoned by the Incas before the Spanish reached this area it survived intact and was not demolished by the Conquistadors. It lay forgotten until the early 1900's when a local Quecha stumbled across it (evidenced by him carving his name and the date in one of the temples). He then brought wealthy people from Cuzco here who looted the gold, silver and artifacts. It was discovered in an archeological sense in 1911 by an American, Hiram Bingham, who then led several expeditions to explore, excavate and protect the site.

The site was multifunctional. The agricultural terraces were used as sites to test different crops to see which would grow best here, so scientists were present. There are temples confirming the sites religious significance but it was also an observatory. Many of the temples and key ornaments are placed with exact accuracy pointing east to the sun rise, or in alignment with the summer/winter solstice, or to other major astronomical features used to determine the changing seasons for agricultural purposes. Rocks have been carved to exactly mirror the outline of the surrounding mountains. The whole place has a mathematical precision to it that is uniquely beautiful.

The buildings also reflect different uses and the different status of their users. Some are high quality with exact fitting stonework and polished surfaces. Others are more roughly hewn. Yet more were still in the process of being built when the site was evacuated. It must have been painstaking work and, if the Inca people were the same size as modern Perúvians, they made very big steps for people with such little legs!

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Machu Picchu, the quintessential shot

I cannot do justice to the place here - it is something you either need to see for yourself or get  good book from the library and look it up. Our guide made a big plea for us to email UNESCO to get their help to protect the site. Even though there is a fairly meaty entrance fee to get in Darwin confirmed that this money "simply goes to the bureaucrats in Lima, it is not used to protect Machu Picchu".

With the guide we had we definitely got value for money. Would I have walked away disappointed if I had just relied on the explanations in Lonely Planet - probably. If you want you can stay nearby overnight which gives you the time to explore the ruins, potentially seeing them at sunrise and sunset, and enables you to walk along part of the Inca Trail. We had toyed with this but uninformed decided against it - it would have been worthwhile, if nothing else to have been able to see the site at a cooler time of day. Our tour was between 11am and 1pm, there is no shade here and the heat was just bouncing off the rocks - a bit too hot for me.

We got a much needed drink before heading back down to Aguas Calientes on the bus. NOt ones to miss a trick the bus stop was a little way into town and forces you to walk through a sizeable feria artisanale to get back to the train. Yet more opportunities for alpaca et al.

The train journey back was smooth enough. About twenty minutes after we left the train stopped to let off what I had though were some of the porters from the Inca Trail. With hindsight this was a bit of a daft conclusion of mine as they probably did not need machetes and hard hats to cope with the Inca Trail trekkers! The area is probe to forest fires at this time of year and one was raging on the hills. They were off to cut fire breaks to try and control the flames.

With a captive audience PerúRail did not miss out on its tourist sales opportunities. This morning they had tried to see books on Perú and Machu Picchu. This evening, after a warm up of a local dance in costume up and down the carriage, we were then "treated" to a fashion parade of .... yes, more alpaca - jumpers, scarves, ponchos, capes, all set to Madonna and Kylie!

Back in Cuzco, Perúvian bureaucracy set off a trail for copies of the receipts we had been given when we had bought out tours. We had white copies of our three receipts but one of them should have been yellow. The firm's Accounts department would not accept the wrong copy of the receipt - good to see accountants rule here too!

We were then left in peace and quiet. I wasn't feeling great. I was light-headed and my limbs felt really heavy, partly due to wandering around Machu Picchu but also due to the fact that I have not had a proper meal for a while that I have kept down. Stef is also off colour. He did not take a hat with him today and has a very brown and rather hot head.

On our first night in Cuzco we did not worry about eating out knowing we had three more nights to try the local specialities - cuy (guinea pig) being one of them. Tonight is our last night here and neither of us feels like going out or eating. We simply crashed.

My impressions of Cuzco - a beautiful town/city steeped in history but overpriced for what you get (even factoring in that its high season). There are a lot of tourists here but its not totally over run by them. They just do not seem to have the tactics for managing the tourist trade effectively and staggering activity throughout the day. As such everything feels bottlenecked.

We are leaving not having seen all the things we wanted to. I doubt though that it has a pull strong enough to make me want to come back.