We have mixed feelings about Peru’s pre-eminent tourist attraction, Machu Picchu, which is a fabulous Inca complex, of course, but shamelessly over-exploited.
There are various ways to get to Machu Picchu. You can take the official Inca trail, or several alternative Inca trails, which involve anything from three to five days hike, up multiple mountain passes, to something like 3900 m, and down again. Or you can take the train – there is no road transport. Knowing our limitations – after all, we haven’t got all the time of the world! -, we took the train, the Perurail Expedition, for the bargain of US$ 35 – low season special promotion – one way, one-and-a-half hours to cover perhaps 30 kilometers. We are firmly inside tourist country.
The train ride is slow, but not unpleasant. Comfortable, and with great views of the valley of the Urubamba River, along which the train moves. At some stage we see parts of the Inca trail, or at least one of them, with groups of tourists slowly moving uphill, a lot slower than our already slow train. It starts raining. We have very few regrets. The further along, the more the landscape changes from rough mountains to a more jungle-like environment, no doubt because we are losing altitude rapidly. The village of Aquas Calientes, from which we will visit Machu Picchu, is at 2300 meters, 600 meters lower than the station at Ollantaytambo.
Aquas Calientes itself is a disaster. The ultimate tourist trap: I don’t think there are many local people living here, but every street is a line up of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops, massage parlours and minimarkets, catering to all the tourists is town. Many of the buildings aren’t finished yet, and there is the constant noise of construction, all around the village. An entire infrastructure to provide access to the magical Inca temple, Machu Picchu, which is another 20-minute bus ride away.
It rained all night, but the next morning at 6 am – we had chosen to be early, so we would have enough time before the hordes of one-day trippers arrived – it had just stopped. In front of the bus stop a long line has already formed; we are obviously not the only ones with the smart idea to be early. Yet, we manage to board a bus not too long afterwards, only to be confronted with even longer queues at the entrance of Machu Picchu. Oh, and it had started raining again. It was miserable: hundreds of people with plastic ponchos and umbrellas, slowly filing through the entrance, and then even slower filing up the mountain, on the narrow stairs. Tour groups of 20, whose guide is giving an explanation, so they block the stairs for the duration, nobody able to pass. At the first viewing platform – there are many – the selfie crowd has assembled for a never-ending series of pictures of themselves, in front of the ruins. They haven’t even looked at the ruins yet, they only look at their telephone, or the boyfriend’s, meanwhile adopting the silliest postures. How else are you going to make a point at your Instagram account?
We decide to hike a bit further, away from the crowds, first to an Inca bridge half an hour away, and then to something called the Sun Gate, an hour uphill. The rewarding views never materialise, everything around us is thickly covered in clouds. The theory was that, after a few hours, the rain would have stopped and the clouds would have dissolved, and indeed, by the time we got back to the main site, the weather had cleared somewhat, and the views got better. The crowds had gotten thicker, too. Had I mentioned already, this is tourist country? And now is the low season.
For the next few hours we wander through the main site of Machu Picchu, strictly following the one way system. Whenever we lose our bearings, we just follow the selfie sticks. Or the groups, each with their own flag, and some even with matching ponchos. The site has been restored in places, of course, but not disturbingly so. And it is quite a unique site, of course, if only because of its remote location high in the mountains. We come across a couple of temples, several quarters that look residential, and spacious grass courts in between. Every construction is supported by a stack of steep terraces, incredibly steep. Very impressive, actually, given that they are still in place, some 500 years after their construction.
The theory that the sun would break through didn’t work. Instead it started raining again, well before we had fully dried up from the morning rain. We didn’t have ponchos, of course. Neither water-proof shoes. Miserable. We made for the exit, where we – having abandoned the plan to walk all the way down – joined the queue, once more, for the bus.
Don’t get me wrong, Machu Picchu is a fabulous place, and with better weather we would have enjoyed it even more. But perhaps it is a little overrated? Compared to Angor Wat in Cambodia, for instance, or Tikal in Guatemala? Or maybe our expectations were just too high. What doesn’t help is the shameless over-exploitation of the place. It starts with ridiculously expensive train tickets – we got them for a bargain, but they are standard 140 US$ return -, and then you haven’t paid anything else yet. Our entry ticket for the site was some 70 US$ per person. Officially, we have four hours, then we have to leave, but it is difficult to see how this system is being enforced. Our ticket has been stamped, and checked very many times, but there is no entry time, except the time we have booked for. And four hours is somewhat unrealistic, too, as our walks to further away locations and back add to a minimum of three hours, already. The one-way system is great of course, you would hate to encounter a tour group that goes the other way, but there are several ways, not just one, and you easily miss an important part of the complex by unwittingly taking a shortcut. And the system is rigidly being enforced, with guards whistling everybody back who dares going against the prescribed walking direction (well, in fact I managed to convince one of the guards to let me through, but only because I am such a charming, or more likely, insisting, person). And that 20-minute bus ride up the mountain? A cool 12 US$, one way. I call that robbery, certainly compared to the usual cost of public transport in Peru. But obviously, I am wrong. The tourists keep on coming, every year more, from all over the world, and they don’t seem to complain. Machu Picchu ratings are, invariably, high. It must just be us.