Vistadome from Machu
Picchu to Cuzco.
Photo: Mylene d'Auriol Stoessel. Machu Picchu Luxury Tours & Travel.
"... Great snow peaks looming
above the clouds more than two miles overhead; gigantic precipices
of many-colored granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above
the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking
contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious
vegetation, and the mysterious witchery of the jungle. One is
drawn irresistibly onward by ever-recurring surprises through
a deep, winding gorge, turning and twisting past overhanging
cliffs of incredible height."
-- Hiram Bingham, Lost
City of the Incas, 1948
By Stephen Light
This magnificent line, widely considered
to be one of the world's great train journeys, was built at the
beginning of the twentieth century to link the highlands of Cusco
with the Lower Urubamba Valley and the Amazon Basin beyond.
After leaving San Pedro station, the
train climbs quickly out of the imperial city along a series
of zig-zagging switchbacks, which carry it through a chaos of
alternately muddy and dusty streets between houses, which seem
to cling precariously to the hills surrounding Cusco's historic
The train emerges from this suburban
sprawl at El Arco, where a stone aqueduct once leap-frogged the
railway line and is met by the magnificent sight of undulating
green uplands unfolding towards the horizon, where they meet
on a clear day with the snow capped Vilcabamba mountains to the
After passing the small town of Poroy
and going through Cachimayo, the train continues its sinuous
descent to the plateau of Anta, a patchwork landscape of typical
Andean crops such as quinoa, corn, potatoes and beans. The Pampa
de Anta is reputed to have been the battleground upon which the
armies of the great warrior-statesman Pachacutec repelled the
invading Chanca tribe, thereby launching the Incas on their golden
age of imperial expansion.
Far to the left, just below the horizon,
the massive agricultural terraces of Jaquijahuana can be seen,
close to the village of Zurite. Sadly, these great terraces are
all that remain today of what was once a major Inca city, lost
forever during the first years after the Spanish conquest. Remarkably,
their fertile soils were transported from the village of Yucay
in the Sacred Valley, a place as renowned today as it was during
Inca times for its production of the finest quality corn.
Beyond the town of Huarocondo the great
plain narrows dramatically as the track enters a deep gorge carved
by the rushing Pomatales River down which the railway, too, is
funnelled until it meets the Urubamba River at Pachar.
The train now passes through extensive
areas of terracing dotted with the ruins of Inca fortresses.
Bisecting this are still-visible sections of an ancient, long-abandoned
highway adopted by the muleteers of the late 19th century, who
used it to travel between Cusco and the rubber plantations of
the Amazon lowlands.
Some five kilometres beyond Pachar,
is the village of Ollantaytambo. Here farmers, under the paternal
gaze of the sacred peaks of Wakay Willka (or, "The Tears
of God") and Alankoma, whose melt waters irrigate their
land, work with the same patience and skill that their ancestors
must have employed to shape and then move the huge blocks of
stone with which they built both their homes and the temples
in which they worshipped.
As the train leaves the station at Ollantaytambo
to begin the last part of its journey to Machu Picchu, the temple
complex known as The Fortress, dedicated sometime in the 15th
century to the many deities of the Inca pantheon, can be seen
to the right above the earthwork ramp once used to drag its monolithic
blocks up from the valley floor.
The railway now follows the river into
the Urubamba Gorge, as it tumbles helter-skelter between the
high walls of teeming vegetation that mark the beginning of the
cloud forest beyond Chillca (Km. 82). At Coriwaynachina, known
simply to the generations of hikers who have begun the Inca Trail
there as Km. 88, a fine staircase carved into the rock leads
to a series of ruined buildings where once, it is said, Inca
artisans took advantage of the constant wind that rises from
the valley floor to smelt gold.
Emerging from a short tunnel, a series
of beautiful agricultural terraces marks the ruins of Qente,
which in Quechua means hummingbird. In this fertile microclimate
fed by a nearby waterfall, giant hummingbirds are indeed a common
sight in the early morning and bright flowers bloom all year
Surrounded by tall ceibos and rocky
outcrops hung with orchids and bromeliads, the train passes Km.
104 at Chachabamba, from where the one-day trek to Machu Picchu
via the magnificent ruins of Wiñay Wayna begins.
Another three kilometres along the track
the Inca grain silos, or colcas, of Choquesuysuy may be glimpsed
above the river on the opposite bank to the hydroelectric dam,
whose generating plant some ten kilometres beyond Machu Picchu,
was destroyed in 1998 by the same enormous landslide that swept
away great swathes of the 79 kilometre-long railway line that
once ran to the coffee-growing jungle town of Quillabamba.
At Km. 110, just two kilometres from
Machu Picchu, the train arrives at Aguas Calientes. Surrounded
by the high, green mountains that cradle the famous lost city
as well as myriad other Inca remains, this small town, which
is well-known for its thermal baths, has blossomed into a popular
overnight destination for travellers to Machu Picchu, for whom
it offers a wide range of reasonably-priced places both to eat
and to stay.
© 2013 Inka's Empire Corporation, Machu Picchu Luxury Tours. All rights reserved.