Machu Picchu: Place of Wonder

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Machu Picchu: Place of Wonder

Fred the black squirrel.

The train to Machu Picchu draws into the little station at Urubamba. It is luxurious, like an old fashioned Pullman, and is called the Hiram Bingham, in honour of the man who claimed to have rediscovered the lost city. As the line runs along the River Urubamba, we watch the landscape changing. At first, the hillsides are dotted with eucalyptus trees but these give way to jungle with bromeliads and exotic flowers. In places we see groups of walkers following the Inca Trail, which is the traditional route to Machu Picchu. Where the train stops, buses take over. They wind their way up a road cut into the hillside, which consists of hairpin bends with sudden drops into the valley below. We reach the city, to find it teeming with tourists.

However, there is no disputing the beauty and majesty of Machu Picchu. The tooth-shaped peak of Huayno Picchu mountain dominates a hillside covered by tier after tier of stone buildings. We follow a guide up a steep path and look down on rows of terraces. Our guide explains that the Incas constructed their terraces in layers, with granite chippings below the top soil, so that the water drained down the slope. The Incas knew how to make best use of their environment.

Machu Picchu was a sacred site, not a defensive one, and the Incas appear to have left it as the Spaniards closed in. Its importance is demonstrated by the quality of the stonework. The Incas had only bronze tools, but worked away at stones, making them wedge shaped and fitting them together perfectly without mortar. One of the most important buildings was the temple with three windows. The Incas venerated the sun and built their temple so that, at the winter solstice, the sun strikes exactly through the window and strikes a sacred rock.

I am tired at the end of the tour: Machu Picchu is sited at 2430 metres (7,970 feet) and the altitude takes its toll. As we return on the train, we are entertained by a devil. He comes dancing down the aisle between the seats and leering at passengers. He is dressed in bright yellow, with a black mask, wild hair and fangs. I wonder if he owes as much to Inca mythology as Christian thought. He is followed by a display of clothes made of alpaca. We don't ask the price of any of them.

Although I have enjoyed my trip to Machu Picchu, I know we haven't seen all the important buildings on the site. We would need at least three tours to do justice to Machu Picchu. If I was younger and fitter, I'd like to return and walk the Inca Trail.

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