Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Urubamba River, Machu Picchu and Cusco Peru

The rainy season is in full swing in the Peruvian Highlands but our visit to Machu Picchu only saw scattered precipitation. Take a look at the rails, the river and the ruins.

Peru Rail is one of the most efficient rail systems in the world and the trains depart the stations with Swiss precision. It is only a 26 mile trip in 90 minutes from Ollantaytambo to the foot of Machu Picchu at Aguas Calientes. But it is an exciting ride.

A resistant granite pluton forces the previously tranquil Urubamba River into a narrow gorge some 2,500 feet deep. The once peaceful river is then turned into a frothy, runoff-swollen maelstrom. Note the high river terrace at the top of the photo - a testament to how fast this river is cutting downward.

High desert cactus gives way within about two miles to much tropical vegetation as the river races downstream toward the great Amazon River.

A view of a swollen side stream in the village of Aguas Calientes, the jumping off point for the ride uphill to the ruins.

Junction of the side stream with the Urubamba.

Telephoto show from the same vantage. The river is about 300 feet wide and is dropping at an incredible gradient in the village.

The river rose an incredible amount during our stay at the ruins and the three pictures here and below were taken one day after the ones above.

I've never heard of anyone running the river here - the drop is just too steep, the rocks too big and the hydraulics too strong. It is very impressive!

This is what rivers do when they encounter very hard rocks - they take a bit longer to remove their obstacles.

With the river madness far below and after 13 grueling switchbacks up a mountain slope, we arrive at the site of Machu Picchu. Numerous clouds danced among the incredible peaks. If you would like to see pictures of Machu Picchu in brilliant sunshine, look at my posting from November, 2014 here and especially here.

The restored buildings near the entrance to the site with a backdrop of dense tropical clouds.

I love seeing this place in all of its many moods. I would hate to be camping however, on a day such as this and was glad that our Smithsonian trip allowed us to stay at the Sanctuary Lodge right on the site.

The Spanish never found Machu Picchu and thus it was never looted nor destroyed. The site is much how the Inca left it during the 16th century.

Terraces are a big part of Inca sites and were a way to "tame" the mountain slopes for agriculture. The terraces were first filled with large rocks, then gravel and then topsoil. This was done to control flooding and to hold water in the terraces.

Somewhere, 2,500 feet done there, is the twisting canyon of the Urubamba River.

Highland girl and baby llama interacts with one of our guests on the way to Cusco.

Coming into the city of Cusco.

This is the heart of the colonial city. Note the small cloud cover over the central Plaza de Armas on the left of the valley floor.

This is a photo on the Plaza de Armas of the St. Joseph Church.

Street scene in Cusco.

The Saphi River has been placed underground in Cusco due to the many floods that have run through here.

The impressive ruins of Sacsayhuaman are located on a hill overlooking Cusco.

These huge blocks were quarried locally and are composed of marine limestone. They represent deposition before the Andes were uplifted.

The rounded corners are especially impressive!

The famous rock slide here was formed when the limestone was being uplifted and was "scraped" to create grooves. It is so smooth it reflects light. It's off to the Galapagos now!


  1. Never tire of seeing your bog posts. Thank you!

  2. Love to arm chair travel with you Wayne! Great photos. 😀

  3. Amazing stuff Wayne.

    You mentioned the rate of cut of the river into the terraced soft floor of the valley. What rate of erosion do you suggest and what is the formation of the natural terrace?

    Also, with the speed of the river at Aguas Calientes, do you have any thoughts on why the rocks and boulders appear to be so fresh, and not rounded or worn down? The upper Urubamba seems to be a very young river valley to my untrained eye.

    Kind regards, Craig.

  4. Nice Wayne,

    Any thoughts that the valley may have once been underwater; a great lake like Titicaca. This seems to me the only explanation for a city even being built there, to be honest, and how they managed to get huge rocks in place. Thanks Craig.


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