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Full Circle

Day 189: Cuzco to Machu Picchu

Michael Palin - Full CircleThe mountains on either side of the train grow steeper and wilder now as the train moves with care along a twisting track and the Urubamba River begins to toss and tumble and accelerate alongside us. Aguas Calientes station, at which we disembark, comes as a surprise. Emerging from a dark and winding gorge, the train is suddenly surrounded by bright lights and bustle. The station is the High Street. On both sides of the railway line are souvenir and craft shops, cafés, restaurants and backpacker hotels. The reason for this sudden explosion of life is Machu Picchu. A bus service runs from here up to the lost city of the Incas, climbing through a series of hairpins around steep, wooded cliffs, their overhanging walls dotted with bromeliads, plants that can only grow on the bare rock because they take their nourishment from the air, not the soil. The winding dirt track is known as the Hiram Bingham Highway, after the American who 'discovered' Machu Picchu in 1911. It ends at a small, low-slung hotel in front of which the coaches that bring the day-tourists stop and unload. It is the only accommodation at the site itself. We are staying overnight, and arrive as the last of the coaches is leaving. It's a short walk to the ruins.

Machu Picchu is a world of dizzying verticals. Stone-built agricultural terraces and the skeletal walls of temples and houses cling to a narrow promontory around which the Urubamba River makes a tight loop, a thousand feet below. The sheer ridge of Cerro St Miguel looms to the east and the tree clad crag of Huayna Picchu - 'Young Peak'- is a towering sentinel at the north-west corner of the site. Many miles beyond, a great multitude of snow-clad summits circles the horizon.

The only intimation of a world outside is the presence, over distant peaks to the north-east, of trailing white cloud rising from the Amazon rain forest. I'm told that they call this land of green gorges, halfway between high dry altiplano and tropical rain forest, 'the eyebrow of the jungle'.

There is not much light left and by the time I am back in my room at the hotel the huge view has shrunk to silhouette. Swallows dart in and out of the eaves. The temperature plummets as the sun disappears. Open the window and peer out. If ever there were a place for peace and contemplation this, surely, is it.

Then the strains of the all-too-familiar music rise from the bar below. Night falls over Machu Picchu to the sound of Abba's 'Dancing Queen'.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Full Circle
  • Day: 189
  • Country/sea: Peru
  • Place: Machu Picchu
  • Book page no: 255

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