PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL: Our train follows the Urubamba River from Ollantaytambo to the end of the track in Aguas Calientes, directly beneath Machu Picchu. Between Pisac and Ollantaytombo the Urubamba River and its broad banks are gracious and hospitable. Its waters fall slowly, in 35 miles, just 640 feet or about 18.3 feet per mile. Its surface is almost always smooth, fish are plentiful, the livin' is easy. Between Ollantaytambo and Aguas Calientes, a distance of 18 miles, Rio Urubamba falls 2,970 feet or 165 feet every mile. It is always churning.
As the river cuts its way deep into the mountains it winds like a snake and the canyon gets ever narrower. A couple of miles out of Ollantaytambo a foot bridge is suspended over the foaming river. Those who go by foot will cross the bridge and climb out of the canyon to follow the old Inca Trail over the mountains and past ancient fortresses and sanctuaries that have for centuries populated this wilderness where massifs collide. Those following the trail from here will require at least 4 days.
Until the track was laid in the 1920s, passage up the valley was strenuous, the swirling river, perilous. Seven winding miles further down the gorge the vegetation starts to change; temperatures are warmer. The river and train track have dropped 1000 feet; this is the edge of the jungle. Before Bingham, this was a trek only for the most rugged of missionaries; adventurers eyed it only as a prospect.
Further on, the serpentine river slides by the ruins of Choquesuysuy. Nearby at Chachabamba is another access point to the Inca Trail. Those who climb over the mountain from here can be at Machu Picchu in six hours. The train will be in Aguas Calientes in a dozen minutes.
We have wound our way into the center of a knot. We are in a region where the river rages, and the mountains rise almost vertically around it, and we feel as if when the train finally stops, it does so because it can penetrate no further. Aguas Calientes is a dense cluster of rickety-looking, mud block buildings, piled 3 or 4 stories high and crammed in where two more rivers tumble from gorges into the Urubamba chasm.
The town lies within spitting distance of Machu Picchu so long as one spits from Machu Picchu, several thousand feet above us. Buses carry tourists up and (more terrifyingly) down the tortuous, "Hiram Bingham Highway," comprised of 14 narrow, dirt switchbacks up the cliff wall to Machu Picchu. When Hiram Bingham got here, there was no "highway."
Trains, buses, rushing water, and the constant movement of tourists make Aguas Calientes feel as if it is choked with traffic, this town, deep in a knot of mountains where no road reaches.