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The Way to Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is the magnificent lost city of the Incas, perched precariously high in an isolated pocket of the Peruvian Andes. This article is not about Machu Picchu itself but the route I took which diverts off the usual tourist path.

The journey to reach the complete Inca city is arduous at times but stimulating and breathtaking. Importantly it allows one to appreciate the extent of the mighty Inca Empire and to also learn about all of the inspiring and mysterious pre-Incan Indian civilisations that provided the foundations for it. Many tourists either trek along the well worn Inca trail or are herded there on a ridiculously rushed one day tour which only allows them 4 hours at the ruins (hardly worth it considering the effort and cost of travelling to Peru).

My advice is to spend at least 2 weeks on this travel experience, believe me the time is well spent.

The old heart of the Inca Empire is what is now Bolivia and Peru. When the Spanish conquerers arrived they found a highly civilised society, advanced in agriculture, architecture and astronomy. For this reason my trip starts not in Cusco, Peru the capital of the Incas but in La Paz, Bolivia.

La Paz is the highest capital in the world situated in a steep canyon. It seems to be one huge market where every conceivable item is sold on the street at virtually any time of the day or night. A place that never sleeps and never lets you sleep with the constant honking of horns and crowd chatter. Fortunately, Bolivia still has a large indigenous population and for this reason the people in La Paz are fascinating to meet, especially the women in their traditional brown derby hats and colourful petticoats.

Learning about Bolivia’s ancient Indian culture starts with a day tour to the ruins of Tiwanaku one of the major pre-Incas civilisations that date back to 2500 BC. The ruins are still mostly underground as there is little money to pursue excavations. What can be seen is very impressive and includes the remains of stone temples and palaces. The museum that is located at the entrance to the site is a must as it’s a comprehensive collection of pottery, metal works and other artefacts gathered from the site. It also gives a fascinating chronological overview of the civilisations of the Andes starting from 10,000 BC. A warning though all the text is in Spanish so I strongly recommend taking a tour from the city that includes a competent English-speaking guide, otherwise the educational experience will be very limited.

The next destination is the picturesque lakeside town of Copacabana situated on the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. This is a culturally significant and mystic region as it is an important religious centre dating back to the oldest Andean cultures. Tours from the town can be taken to the Sun Island that is believed to be the birthplace of the first Incas, the children of the Sun. There is much to explore on this remarkably scenic island so I recommend staying on it overnight as the day tours are too rushed.

Having visited the birthplace of the Incas we can now cross the border into Peru. Take the bus to Puno, which is the largest Peruvian urban area near the lake. The town itself is not a tourist attraction but rather a base for taking tours on the lake. The standard offering from the touts are exhausting, one day visits of the floating islands which house families on tiny islands of reeds and Taquile, home of a local community still practicing the day to day traditions of their ancestors. The tour left ambivalent feelings as I felt like a voyeur, peeping into their lives. The kids led strange childhoods, receiving and expecting gifts from the boatloads of foreigners who arrive punctually twice a day on boats. Later I read a report urging visitors to avoid the standard touring companies and take local transport to Taquile Island, which allows visits of several days. This provides opportunities for a greater financial contribution to the local community and a more enriching cultural exchange.

The next step in the adventure is to board the day train to Cusco. It is an extraordinary visual experience to see the magnificent mountain ranges that line the countryside. Peasant villages dot the landscape revealing a people struggling to make a living. Arrival in Cusco is most welcome as the train trip is a very rough and bumpy 10 hours, (take your travel cushions!).

Cusco is a town for tourist. Street vendors ranging from school children to old peasant women constantly harass foreigners to buy their goods. There are many restaurants designed to cater for the tourist and the prices also reflect this. Also it’s difficult to find traditional food. I did manage to find one that served guinea pig and alpaca both local meats. On the surface Cusco appears to be another European style town with its pretty main square, flanked by impressive Cathedrals and other colonial buildings. On closer inspection there are many foundations that are the remains of Inca walls that have withstood the ravages of Spanish destruction and amazingly earthquakes. Take time to explore the many Inca ruins such as the Sun Temple and Sacsayhuaman to fully appreciate the achievements of the Incas and to reflect sadly on the tragic obliteration of their civilisation by the Spanish conquerors.

Most people will take 1-day tours from Cusco to Machu Picchu. We decided to stretch this out to explore the nearby Sacred Valley. Leave the tourist trail and take the local bus to the beautiful village of Pisac. This is a cheap and wonderful way to experience how the local people take transport. Visit the Inca ruins here, they are a preview of what is to come at Machu Picchu and time your stay to take in the colourful Sunday market. An overnight rest is a must to recover from the manic market activity and inevitable buying spree.

Next day continue on the local bus to Ollantaytambo another Inca town and then catch the Peru Rail tourist train to the frontier town of Aguas Clientes, the closest resting place to Machu Picchu. Stay overnight here to energise yourself for an early morning arrival at Machu Picchu to enjoy its magnificence before the hoards of tourist appear.

The rest is legendary!

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