Much as I may complain about the outrageous prices, the privitazation, and monopolization of the railroad to Aguas Calientes, I have to admit it is a stunning trip.
The train ride out of Cusco is a bit long but provides nice views of the city...several times...since the train has to navigate several switchbacks which require it to back up over a section of track to catch the point where the tracks switch, travel for a while backwards and then repeat the process to go forward again.
The train goes along a river that starts out just a small stream but grows into a full fledged river with white water and an occasional cascade. The valley is filled with farms and we saw lots of corn as well as a field of wheat (with a row of cows from the neighboring field with their heads stuck into the plants grazing). There were lots of sheep, donkeys and pigs.
At one point the train had to screech to a halt as a cow decided to graze on the tracks. A worried farmer came running but the cow was fine and eventually meandered down joining the other cows in the next field. The mountains that create the valley are steep and sharp. Initially they were dry and we could see red rock like in Utah, beneath the dusty green fuzz of plant life.
We got occasional glimpses of the glacier covered peak of Salkantay, as well as some other snow capped mountains. Nestled in the hills were occasional stone ruins.
The train stopped in Ollantaytambo where the sellers were all around the train trying to make some money.
As we got closer to Aguas Calientes, the mountains got greener and more lush. High on the mountain cliffs, green bromeliad looking plants covered whole sections of the rock with gravity defying green spikey leaves.
The train pulled into Aguas Calientes. The location is beautiful, with rushing rivers and steep cloud forest covered mountains. Unfortunately, the town is rather ugly. As we pulled into the station, I could see a dense mass of concrete block buildings glaring out from the beautiful forest. I think the only reason Aguas Calientes exists is to house, feed, and sell souvenirs to the hoards of tourists that pass through it going to Machu Picchu. It is a shame since the location is so beautiful.
Rowshan and I, after a relatively expensive (but good for the area and tasty) meal at the Hare Krishna restaurant, we walked down the road toward Machu Picchu. We planned to get up really early the next day to beat the bus to the ruins so we wanted to get an idea of the distance. The afternoon clouds were settling on the mountain tops so we weren't sure we'd actually be able to see any sign of Machu Picchu. But the road was peaceful and the forest is beautiful and mysterious with the ghostly clouds drifting by.
I've decided I really love cloud forests. I guess that is what the rainforests in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest are even though they are very different from the Peruvian cloud forests. Both are lush, damp and green yet lack the heat of the jungle. Hidden by huge mountains, the cloud forests seem more mysterious and quiet than the hot boisterous jungles. There are birds but not the overwhelming cacophony of insects and bird sounds that we heard in the jungle. The rivers are cold and clean but the mountains dominate. The cascades and tropical flowers reminded me of Hawaii. The whole area seemed like similar in various ways to places I've been but at the same time completely strange and different.
As we turned a corner, we noticed the clouds were higher and we could see the top of one of the mountains. Some of the gray stone walls of Machu Picchu were visible. It was a tantalizing vision: a mystical city high above us, which any minute could disappear behind the clouds.
We decided to hike up the mountain across from it, Putucuse. The path ascended quickly on rock steps. At one point it provided a great view of the town attempting to burst out of the valley with its multipying buildings. Then we reached the ladder: a stretch of the path that went about 125 feet straight up a rock face on a sturdy wooden ladder.
We headed up. As we reached what we thought was the top, we could see where another ladder climbed upward. I'm not sure how high it was because it started to pour. Climbing up when the wood was dry was one thing but we didn[t feel like braving the high ascent on slippery wooden ladder rungs. We headed back down. The clouds had moved lower so we wouldn't have been able to see much anyway.