Machu Picchu

Friday, May 07, 2010

There are four main ways to get to Machu Picchu from the Inca capital of Cuzco. The first is the world-famous Inca Trail which winds its way past several other Inca ruins over the course of five days, arriving into Machu Picchu through the sun gate at dawn on the fifth day. It is expensive, booked months in advance, and probably worth the hassle and expense but I wouldn’t know. The Inca trail and Machu Picchu had been closed for several months due to flooding which had cost a lot of pre-booked people to lose their money and it was all speculation as to the date things would be reopened. The rest are ‘alternative’ treks that don’t have the severe limiting of the Inca trail. We considered the Salkantay trek which takes you five days through the mountains to Aguas Calientes but we had just done a four-day trek in the mountains of Huaraz. That left the Jungle Trek as an option, which starts with a downhill bike ride and spends three days walking to Aguas. But the more we researched (and here I have to give Virgilio credit because he did almost all the legwork) the more we discovered that we could do the same route as the Jungle Trek on our own for $50 less and in one day instead of three. With some reluctance we embarked on that path at 7 AM.

Our taxi driver didn’t know exactly where the bus station was to Santa Maria, our first stop in a day of travel to Aguas but we managed to get there in time to get our 7:30 bus (20 soles). And then sit on it and wait 40 minutes for it to leave. The bus was so slow and behind schedule that even the locals, who must surely be used to Peru-time and the lateness of everything, were starting to yell at the bus driver. A bus that should have taken 4-5 hours took 7, bringing us into Santa Maria at around 2:00. We passed what would have been our Jungle Trek group on the bus, biking along the roads and making their way down. From Santa Maria we rather quickly caught a collectivo where Ty and I had to take turns putting a shoulder out to fit in the back for 10 soles and about 2 hours to Santa Theresa. We passed the Jungle Trekker on their second day walking along the road since the trail had been washed out and looking miserable. The road was dusty and full of sharp rocks not to mention waterfalls to ford and I began to worry about the tires. Sure enough, we picked up a flat which, to look at the bright side, gave us a chance to stretch shoulders and legs. It also allowed us to discover that our current tire only had three bolts and watch in horror as our driver snapped off a second bolt leaving only two on the same side remaining.

The flat tire lost us about 15-20 minutes and the spare was at best wishful thinking but it made the last three kilometres or so to Santa Theresa with us. From there we were quickly herded onto another collectivo, late as we were, to try to catch the last train into Aguas. This one cost us 4 soles more and took us about 15 minutes to get to the end of the road – a road that used to run all the way but had collapsed into the river. The solution was to scramble down towards the river and jump in a basket (1 sole each) that cable-crosses the water. We were at the other side about 4:15 and the last train to Aguas left from a point 30 minutes away at 4:30-4:45. We literally ran up the hill, running so hard with backpacks that my side would be sore for days, and in spite of it all, arrived at the small tent-town after ten hours of traveling ten minutes too late. The only option now was to walk along the train tracks two more hours to Aguas and so that’s what we did after a short regroup. We crossed a bridge precariously hopping railroad ties and getting about halfway before I discovered a walkway on one side of it. It got dark and the headlamps went on and we arrived finally in Aguas at about 8 PM, hungry and tired. The first thing we did was bought our 126 soles admission into Machu Picchu for the next morning then went to Hostal Mirador (20 soles/night), grabbed a cheap dinner we were almost too tired to eat for 10 soles more, and went to sleep.

We come now to what is often the highlight of a trip to South America: the day we visited Machu Picchu. It came early; I woke up at 3:45 AM and got the others up. We were out the door and walking in the darkness by 4:10 AM, making our way back down the river to the bridge crossing for Machu Picchu. There were a surprising number of people that had already started and I couldn’t help but wonder how many more were still ahead as we passed group after group. There are 400 spots available to climb Huaya Picchu, a neighbouring peak with views down at Machu Picchu; 200 at 7 AM and 200 at 10 AM. I did have to stop for a break twice as I couldn’t keep up Virgilio’s pace but aside from Ty (who had fallen behind to have a snack) nobody passed me. Soon there appeared to be light and after maybe a couple thousand stairs I arrived at a hotel where a handful of people seemed to be taking a break on a bench and applauded as I burst from the trees. I took two deep breaths, scanning the faces in the darkness to see if Virgilio and Ty were waiting then asked which way the trail went from there. It was then that they waved at me from their seats and announced we were at the top. It took me about 45 minutes to do the two hour climb and Virgilio and Ty perhaps 40. In spite or perhaps as a result of all the people we’d passed on the trail, we were 12th in line to enter Machu Picchu and about an hour early.

They passed out tickets for the 7 AM or 10 AM climb and we of course had our choice. A local recommended the 10:00 because of the heavy cloud cover and I accepted his expert advice (although I liked the idea of getting some scattering cloud in my photos from above, it wasn’t worth the risk) and at 6 AM we entered. The whole of the ruins were covered in a heavy white blanket but the sun was up there somewhere and within minutes patches of clarity began to momentarily unveil parts of Machu Picchu as the three of us rushed to find some nice photos with nobody in them before the hundreds of people that had lined up behind us (some took busses, others walked later or slower) began flooding the site. It never ended up feeling too crowded aside from a few choice places but I digress. If you are ever to visit this magical place (and you really must) then there is nothing better that I have seen than Machu Picchu in the morning. To try to put into words the feeling as bits of clear sky reveal the incredible mountains above, below, and all around the ruins and strands of fog wisp across parts of the ruins hiding this and exposing that as though you were watching the very earth perform an ancient dance of seduction is simply not possible. To try to photograph Machu Picchu is madness. I am, it seems, quite mad.

After wandering around the ruins on our own for a couple hours, we went back to the entrance and managed to negotiate a guide for 60 soles (20 each) in Spanish as it was cheaper that way and our “Spanish” guide seemed to have English the equal of the more expensive “English” guides anyway. Plus we had Virgilio to translate if anything got really confusing. His name was Juan and he was great, leading us up to the famous viewpoint from the Warden’s House, into the Temple of the Condor (and the Condor’s stomach), around the ancient aqueduct system, and all the way to the other side of the ruins. He explained the Inca solar calendar (damaged irreparably during the filming of a beer commercial some years back), the importance of 3, the compass with points to true and magnetic north, the alignment of windows, rocks, and other elements to correspond with the stars, solstices, zeniths, equinoxes, more. Then we set off to the top of Huayan Picchu, or at least I did while Ty and Virgilio took a lunch break. I wanted to get up as soon as possible while the sun was still in a decent position for photos.

Again I made it up in good time though Ty and Virgilio weren’t that far behind all things considered. We sat there looking down at Machu Picchu and I felt that we were too high to really have a great view or photos from above but we took lots anyway and I wound up taking photos for a bunch of other people somehow. I had my lunch while we sat at the top and chatted with two beautiful Mexican sisters (Porque tu hablas mal, Dean?) and then we started back down. The three of us went up the smaller peak and Ty shared some of his remaining water with Virgilio and I, who had run out and were parched in the midday sun. It had been a long two days and we were tired but we did a walk out to the Inca Bridge which wasn’t worth it for the bridge itself but was incredible as you can still see the old trail that wound VERY precariously along the cliff of the surrounding mountains. We were going to take a bus back down from the ruins but instead of 7 soles it was $7 so we walked (after I spent far too much on an ice drink to help my huge thirst) back down the way we’d come up and were back in town 10 hours after setting out that morning, at about 2 PM. After lunch and a well-earned beer I went to check on train tickets while Ty and Virgilio went on the internet and bought myself a ticket out for $34 the next morning. It was that or go back the long way we’d come and probably take two days doing so. Or so I thought.

Virgilio had meanwhile discovered another route that allows you to walk along other train tracks to Ollontaytambo where you catch a bus back to Cuzco for 7-10 soles. It was a 28km walk but it was free and he and Ty took decided to set out at 5:30 AM the next morning on that path while I had already committed to the train. I didn’t mind too much in spite of the expense as I love trains and I had to get photos for Grandpa anyway. We all went to the hot springs which were disappointingly tepid and filled with obnoxious travellers from a country I won’t name who would sit on the stairs and get annoyed when you tried to get by to come in or exit. The best part was jumping in the cold pool then the ‘hot’ one. Still it helped and did feel good on sore legs and muscles. We were supposed to meet a couple Argentinian girls for dinner but they never did show which was just as well as we were basically falling asleep on our plates. I woke up the next morning to find Ty and Virgilio long gone and enjoyed leisurely getting ready for the 9 AM train. I went down and was surprised to see the rail car had sky windows as well and that I had two seats to myself. The train ride out was great and I just leaned back and watched the scenery rolling by for two hours, occasionally stretching my legs and feeling sorry for Ty and Virgilio on their adventure.

The train can’t get all the way to Cuzco or even Ollontaytambo because of the flooding (they’re working to fix it) so you get to a certain point and then are shepherded into waiting minibuses to get to Ollontaytambo and a bus to Cuzco. I got back to Cuzco and decided that since there were no witnesses I’d grab a burger from McDonalds. I’m always disappointed but it’s so hard to find even decent burgers here that I had been craving it and went anyway. I met up with Ty and Virgilio after that and we totalled up our adventure. The Jungle Trek costs $175 and without the train we had spent $94 ($128 with the train) including meals, admission, guide, hostels, etc. and had a much more adventurous time getting there especially. I know there are people out there who think you’ve cheated if you don’t do some sort of trek into Machu Picchu but unless you’re on the Inca Trail it really is just another walk (and in the case of the Jungle Trek, a pretty poor one mostly along roads) so we were all very happy with our choice and recommend it to other travellers that may undertake this route. We went for a cheap menu meal, said goodbye to Virgilio, and then Ty and I went to the bus station to set off for a night bus to Arequipa and another trek into Colca Canyon. No rest for the weary traveller. Yet.

Machu Picchu Photos

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