The trip to Machu Picchu was pretty amazing. I hate to say you can’t understand the place until you go, but I don’t think you can. I looked it up online before going, and thought it looked interesting and everything, but standing at the site exceeded expectations for sure. It was just grander and more majestic than I thought it would be. Most of the web sites focus on the ruins, which pictures really can’t do justice, but the 360 degree views are brilliant. I’m getting ahead of myself, but when I think about the trip I can’t help but first remember the wonderment of being at the site.
The tour I was on was Machu Picchu by car. It’s one of those 15 passenger vans actually. The ride is about 8 hours, though we made a couple quick touristy stops along the way. I was told to be ready at 7:30am, and was the second pickup of the morning. Two brothers from Spain (we would refer to them as los hermanos) were already aboard the van, and I think I greeted them in English because I remember getting the “I don’t really understand you but assume you said good morning” smile/nod/muffled response. Ok, 2 people down that don’t speak English, should be about 10 more people though, so I held on to hope that I would be able to communicate effectively with someone, since the ride was fairly long. Next stop a few more passengers get on the bus, whilst speaking Spanish, also from Spain. A few minutes later some more people get on, turns out they are with the same group. Seven teachers from Spain, two brothers from Spain, me. At least I knew my Spanish skills would get a good workout, which is good since we speak English all day at Karikuy. But I also realized chances of fellow fluent English speakers was dwindling when we pulled up to the next spot, and another couple of people got on the bus and took the seats open next to me. They were quiet talking amongst themselves, but I heard an accent of some sort. Luckily that’s a lead in to the “Hi, where are you from” greeting, and the response was in English, as they were from England. I enjoy meeting people from all over the globe, but it was a bit of a relief to have the common language aboard for the journey. I think they were glad as well, since their Spanish was even less well off than mine. We made one more stop and filled in the front seats next to the driver, though I wasn’t paying attention at the time to who got on. Turned out to be a nice couple from Naples, FL, though English was a second language to both as the lady was Dominican and her husband I think was French…not exactly sure on that one. At any rate, we had our passengers and off we went.
A couple hours into the drive we stopped at the little town of Ollantaytambo, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. They had a town plaza where we happened upon a ritual ceremony or maybe just a staged festival of sorts for us tourists, but they were in full costume attire, lots of color. There are some old ruins up on the hills too, but we didn’t stop long enough to hike up the hills for a closer look. Next, it was on to the mountain passes. Car is also the cheapest way to get there (yes shocking that I would land on that option) but if you have the time to spare it really isn’t bad at all. Like I said, it’s a bit of a long drive, but the scenery really is amazing, and in my opinion worth it. The road is full of turns and narrow, maybe not for the timid, however I was surprised at the smooth ride. I should have known better, as about halfway there the paved section ends and the gravel begins. I wouldn’t let the road deter you though, take some motion sickness pills if needed, but its really not that bad. The rock slides, road deterioration, and oncoming vehicles do provide added excitement to the trip.
We stopped in another little town called Santa Teresa for lunch and picked up our guide, along with a couple locals catching a lift down the road. I think it’s pretty common for this to happen in Latin America, as I witnessed it in Costa Rica too. We then made it to a hydroelectric station, where we caught a train for the last half hour ride to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of the trail leading up to Machu Picchu. The group split up a little bit to different hostals, as it turns out some people had a different tour package but just used the same van. I was in the same hostal as the 7 teachers from Spain, not too far up the hill from the plaza area. It was a pretty nice one, basic room but good shower and a little market in the lobby. Every row of the bus sort of kept to themselves on the way there, so it gave me a chance to get to know the Spaniards a little better, and one of them knew some basic English (a couple others knew a few words but not much) and they found I knew a little Spanish, so the communication barriers were lessened a bit. After dropping off my bag, I walked around the town a little bit (it is basically all hostals, restaurants, and shops) and stopped in an Internet cafe to check in with Julio about more hostal options back in Cusco after my poor experience recounted in the Cusco blog, and of course send my mother an early Mother’s Day greeting from one of the world’s wonders.
Dinner rolled around and we all met at a restaurant along with a 50’s aged Canadian couple that had already been to Machu Picchu but decided to stay another day and go again. They were traveling South America, and had planned to do so for a year, but said they were thinking of heading back after only 3 ½ months. The lady, Susan, mentioned she wasn’t quite prepared for the poverty levels down here. They were thinking about heading to Costa Rica though, so I was able to give them some tips about that. After dinner we got a quick briefing of the next day. For those walking up to the site, it was recommended to leave at 4:30, with the first buses leaving about an hour after that, and we were to meet up with our guide at 7am. I liked the mini challenge of the walk, but my right leg was randomly a little sore, so I was thinking the $7 bus ride might be worth it. Back at the hostal, the Spaniards all inform me they are walking, and urged me to make the hike with them. Which to do?
4:30am and I’m in the lobby ready to go. It wasn’t just the fact that a little pride was on the line, not to mention US/Spain foreign relations (I couldn’t be the rude American not wanting to associate, right?), but in the end I decided it might be a one time opportunity and going by foot would really add to the experience. Los hermanos decided to hike too. We waited a little bit as a few of the gals took a little longer to get ready, but were soon off. For some reason I thought the trail started right near where we were, but it took about 10-15 minutes just to get there. Tried taking a picture of the group at the base, but the futile flash of my camera was easily consumed by the surrounding darkness. Sure, starting our 2000 ft climb to the over 8,000 ft elevated city, up the somewhat crudely constructed stairway in these conditions might sound dangerous, but really what’s the worst that could happen? Oh yeah, falling down the sheer face of a mountain….Luckily one of los hermanos had a little flashlight, so that helped a little. I just stared down at the feet in front of me and tried to imitate on a slight delay to avoid any lemming like activities.
Shortly into the hike, I was already sweating and went to take off my jacket, and my sunglasses fell off where I clipped them to my backpack. The flashlight was ahead of me, so I took out my camera and looked for minute, but to no avail, too dark. The dollar store shades that began the journey with me back in Indianapolis were lost. My sunglasses legacy continues. After about 20 minutes though, the sun started to come out, so the way became a little less dangerous at least. The only big danger left was getting light headed as your body tries to compensate for the exertion and inhale more oxygen than is available at rising altitudes, and losing balance. Not even a quarter of the way we passed a lady sitting down, complaining to her guide (some make the trip with the group) that nobody informed her how difficult it was and wanting to go back down. I don’t know how someone doesn’t get the fact that climbing a mountain might be a little taxing, but oh well. Every now and then you cross the road that the buses take, so you have some places to rest up and watch the wusses ride by as you drip with sweat and suck wind. It is tough, especially if you want to make good time, but pretty gratifying once you reach the top.
Entering the site in the early morning, it is typically still wrapped in morning clouds, adding to the mystic qualities (no pun intended, though once again taken). We had a little time to spend before the tour started, so we took we the long way across to the meeting site, up toward a better viewing point, but the mist was a bit too intense yet to see through. Ideally they would start the tour earlier since you walk from spot to spot anyway, and leave more time later when the visibility is better, but oh well. The tour began by the Huayna Picchu line (they only allow 400 people a day to hike up that portion to preserve the trail, so if you want to do it head that way to sign up early) and a couple of restored thatch roof huts that served as living quarters. About 25% of the site was restored, so the majority has withstood the test of time. Some interesting facts along the way, as a story is always better when you’re standing where it happened. The only bad thing is the tour ran a little long, and the guide scheduled it for 7 instead of 6 like the itinerary said, so we didn’t have as much time to explore as I would have liked since we had to take one of the earlier trains back to the hydro station to be able to drive back to Cusco by 9:30pm. There’s definitely a sense of wonderment and awe not only at the ruins, but also the stunning vistas surrounding them. The mountains were their natural protectors, and reason the site remained secret for so long. There are a few llamas at the site too serving as grounds keepers, and I made friends with one to practice up on my animal skills for Bolivia. I doubt I have the words to really describe being there, and I don’t think even photos grant due justice, all I can do is show a couple shots and recommend taking the trip yourself!
Sadly the time took a cue from the oxygen level, and dissipated quickly. At 11 we began hiking back down (the girls took the bus) which is definitely easier than than the way up. Apparently there’s some truth to that whole gravity theory. I also had another agenda… finding the sunglasses. Yes, they only cost a dollar, but it’s the principal, and I can proudly report success! It was a perfect way to cap off the journey. The trip was not yet over though, as after getting back down we realized the guide never told us where to meet, so we headed over to the train station and luckily he was in line so we got him our passports and tickets for the soon leaving train. The car ride back is on the same road that gets you there, the views are still great, but by the time the sun started to set I was pretty wiped out, alert enough for one last shot though:
Overall it was a great trip, maybe one day I will get to return and see the extra sights that I didn’t have time for. For now, I’m hoping my legs forgive me in time for the possible trip to mountains of Huaraz being planned for this weekend…