The magic of Machu Picchu (and how we travelled there in style)
The day was already perfect by 9:30 in the morning. At that point, we’d already had a glass of champagne, watched Peruvian entertainers perform colourful dances on the platform and been seated in an elegant berth at a linen-clad table for two, decorated with a fresh red rose, sparkling wine glasses and a leather-bound brunch menu.
As our train pulled out from the station, the landscape slowly changed from lush fields dotted with sheep, donkeys and goats to the jagged purple mountains of the Andes. A slight mist hung over the tracks as we stood in the rear observation car, sipped a cappuccino and listened to a Peruvian band play songs from the Beatles and Clapton, intermingled with international melodies designed to appeal to the multicultural passengers.
Thursday morning aboard the Hiram Bingham express. Skip and I had decided to splurge on this unique experience as it sounded like an incredible way to experience a trip to Machu Picchu. We were right.
From the moment we arrived in the Poroy station (about 25 mins from Cusco), we were treated like royalty. A far cry from our usual $29 a night guesthouses and travelling across the country by local bus, but we loved every minute. There were dancers and performers on the platform, glasses of champagne (some mixed with Pisco, the heady local drink) served on silver platters and attendants to take each person to their table in the elegant train cars.
Once on board, we placed our order for brunch and were invited to the observatory car where we watched the railway track unfold beneath us while the band played and we chatted with some of our fellow passengers. We’d been a bit concerned about it being too stuffy or high-class for our liking but we were pleasantly surprised as everyone seemed down to earth, friendly and as excited as we were.
“You can’t take it with you so you might as well enjoy it while you can,”said Hugh, a retired Brit who plunged into the experience by donning a glittery lampshade-like Peruvian hat and waltzed with the entertainers on the platform. “There aren’t any pockets in a shroud.”
“Today is the highlight of our entire trip,” smiled his wife, and the Australian woman standing nearby confessed she and her friend started celebrating with a bottle of champagne for breakfast.
There were guests from Japan, Russia, India, England, America, Columbia, Australia and Germany in addition to native Peruvians. Some were going up and back in one day (as we were) and some were staying overnight in Machu Picchu.
For us, it was a bit of a Groundhog Day experience. Our first attempt on the Hiram Bingham train had ended abruptly the previous day when the engine broke down after about 15 minutes and we rolled back to Poroy. The plan was to ferry passengers to another train by bus, which would mean a late arrival and a shorter visit to Machu Picchu. We – and another couple, Juan and Neil – opted to come back the next day.
Instead of feeling cheated, we actually felt excited at the thought of doing it all again. And we now had our new friends, Juan and Neil, to share it with.
There aren’t many ways to get to this remote spot, located 2,430 metres (7,970 feet) above sea level. You either take the regular train, the Hiram Bingham train or hike the Incan trail which takes two, four or five days, depending where you start.
Every moment on the train was worth every penny. Whether it was spent sitting quietly in our seats observing the stunning views across the Sacred Valley and Andes mountains, feasting on smoked trout with quinoa and Parmesan-stuffed zucchini and corn cheesecake with berry coulis or singing along to Horchi Chornia and A Hard Day’s Night with the band.
It was all so wonderful that I almost forgot why we were there. That we’d come to see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: Machu Picchu.
After lunch, the train pulled into Aguas Calientes (the small town which serves as the entrance point to Machu Picchu) and we were escorted onto buses that took us up the 2,000 foot mountain. Up winding roads with vistas across majestic valleys. Along paths cut into the mountain so visitors could view this wonder of the world. Higher and higher, on the road to one of the world’s most legendary places.
As we meandered along the path, there was a sense of anticipation. A feeling that something special was about to happen.
My heart raced a little faster and I felt as though I was about to meet someone extraordinary. Up and up we went, sometimes teetering on the edge as we pulled over to let another vehicle pass. Then we turned a corner and caught a glimpse of the massive peak that has been shown so many times in photos, movies and books. It was a heart-stopping moment.
Being with the exclusive Hiram Bingham group meant we had more benefits to come. One was a private guide (Carlos) for six of us (Skip and me, Juan and Neil and a Russian couple). Another was free admission to the toilets which usually cost 30 cents! (“Just say Hiram Bingham and they’ll let you in,” Carlos told us). And yet one more was a lavish afternoon tea served in the Sanctuary at the foot of Machu Picchu.
The next three hours were spent exploring, experiencing and discovering the magic.
We learned how Machu Picchu was built around 1450 and that it was home to about 600 Incans (holy people and their help). We heard how it was one of the most sacred places in the country and that the residents evacuated the city around 1570 when the Spanish invaded Peru. This was an act of sacrifice: leave the city to protect it from being discovered and destroyed since the Spanish invaders were under strict orders to destroy all pagan structures and idolatry.
As a result, this treasure is now known as one of the world’s best known architectural sites and the only completely intact remaining Incan religious settlement: the last glimpse of an empire that used to be dotted with such complexes.
Evidence suggests the Incans chose this location due to the isolation and protection from the outside world. It is encircled by a river and a generous mountain-side spring provided water while Incan engineers expertly crafted a series of terraces to use gravity’s force to water the crops they grew. Historians speculate that, when the Spanish came close to discovering the Machu Picchu complex, the Incans took massive reserves of gold and silver (referred to as “teardrops from the sun”) as they abandoned their home.
In 1911, the America historian, Hiram Bingham, rediscovered Machu Picchu (which means “old mountain”) but it had actually been found earlier by a German businessman named Augusto Berns who didn’t care to preserve it.
In 2007, Machu Picchu was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World and the number of visitors is now restricted to 2,500 per day, all of whom pay $50 to enter.
As we ambled through the grounds – first overlooking it from the highest vantage point where every building, wall and stone was completely clear despite the afternoon mist, then among the temples and rooms of the city – the only annoyance came from handfuls of tourists who squealed and climbed on rocks to take photos.
Llamas ran wild across the lush verdant grass and fluffy chinchillas popped their heads from behind ancient rocks – all protected from harm in this peaceful spot.
There’s a mood about the place I just can’t explain. The mountain sends out a magnetism that drew me in and the stunning natural scenery radiates with a magical awe-inspiring vibration. It’s a place that has to be seen to be experienced.
It’s so special, in fact, that I made the ultimate sacrifice: I passed on afternoon tea. Instead I opted to have time alone among the ancient rocks and temples. Sitting quietly in a remote spot, watching the late afternoon sun cast shadows on the mountain, I felt blessed in being able to visit this incredible place.
And, as our train wound its way back through the Andes and the bar car exploded with music, laughter and Pisco Sours, I noticed a flash of lightning outside the window.
The rain, which had held off all day, now poured from the sky and the mountains were silhouetted against a backdrop of light as Nature gave us her majestic and dramatic finale to this perfect day.