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Published: January 14th 2007
Carreterra del Muerte
This photo isn't scary enough. By far.
- Machu Picchu, meaning "Old Peak" in Quechua, located about 70 km from Cusco, is thought to have been built around 1440 ad.
- Machu Picchu spreads in total over 5 square miles, with over 3000 stone steps linking the various levels.
- Machu Picchu remained unknown to the modern world until 1911, when Hiram Bingham "discovered" the ruins (there are records of numerous others visiting the place during the modern era, including a graffito carved into the base of the Temple of the Sun from 1909. Also, Bingham wasn't just wandering the tall, pointy mountains in this region by himself, for kicks - he was looking for Inca ruins, and was led to this site by the locals, to whom it was well known).
- Machu Picchu is the Number One Tourist Attraction in South America - something like 450,000 people visit each year.
Machu Picchu is the place people have been asking me if I've been to yet since I first arrived in Peru. And I can now finally say Yes, I have, I have become one of the first 450,000 of 2007. And it 'tweren't easy.
The tourism industry surrounding Machu Picchu is monopolistic. There is only one
That Argentian fellow is not taking things Nearly seriously enough.
easy way to get to the site - on the special Tourist Train from Cusco. This train, which runs along the same track as a local train, costs 10x as much - and tourists are not permitted on the local train. Upon arrival at Aguas Calientes (the town which sits at the base of Machu Picchu (the mountain, not the site!), you may then allow yourself to be herded on up in fancy tourist buses, and herded on in.
The alternative route, that employed by most backpackers, is to hike the ancient road known as the Inca Trail. This is a 3 day guided hike, which can only be undertaken as part of an official tour group, at a cost of approximately $300. It is not allowed to walk
on this road without supervision.
Now, I'm aware there are good reasons for precautions. Yes, hundreds of thousands of tourists trampling their way through ancient sites are bound to have a seriously damaging impact, and strict measures are necessary to blah, blah, blah. My curmudgeonly reaction is due to the lack of viable alternatives to the corporate-supplied "adventure".
There exists, as far as I have been able to tell, one alternative
- pretty much the only way
into Aguas Calientes except on the train. I learned of it in the advice book at the first hostel I stayed in in Cusco, and was later to hear of it from bunches of other travelers.
Our tale begins Day 1, 5 am, when I took a cab to a local bus station to catch the bus to Santa Maria. This place smelled more like urine than anywhere I have yet been in Perú (and it should be noted that many, many public places smell like urine in Perú). From there began the most terrifying ride of my life.
There is a road in Bolivia known as the Death Road - apparently more people die on this road annually than any other in the world.
It cannot be worse than the road from Cusco to Quillabamba.
From Ollyantaytambo, the road utilizes a serious of hairpin turns to go up and up and up. It then crosses the Andes on a pass, before employing yet more daring road construction to go down and down and down.
At the top, we spent about 1-2 hours completely surrounded by clouds. I fell asleep, and awoke, I
think, because I sensed that the bus had stopped moving. The first thing I noticed was the face of the woman next to me. She was sat bolt upright, and her expression was frozen in horror towards the front of the bus. I followed her gaze - to the low stone wall pressed up against the front of the bus, and the abyss beyond. It was then that some people began calling "Bajamos, bajamos!" over and over. This means "we're going down!" (The most interesting part about this is that no one was screaming in terror, they were informing
the driver of this fact - the way you would if he had missed a stop, say.)
Well, sounds a bit anticlimactic, but the driver slowly backed up, and we began the downward portion of the ride. Which I spent chanting mantras. Todo bien.
Day 1, 2pm I arrived at Santa Maria - a patch of dusty buildings on a large dusty lot in the high jungle. Life on the main plaza seems to center around a strip of market stands, each containing one old woman and an inordinate number of mangos. I was immediately informed by a little girl that
there is only one collectivo to the next stop on my journey, and that leaves at 4 am. Whoops.
Got a room, and went for a walk to while away the afternoon. Headed in the general direction of the raging Urubamba river, over an old metal bridge, and through an apparently mostly abandoned one road town (one little boy and a scraggly chicken). On the other side of this town, I moved aside for an old sky blue pickup (even the fencing on the back was painted sky blue) to pass. From the back waved the little girl from the bus stop. Next thing I know, they're pulling over, and I'm clambering up, though they were headed away from Santa Maria. I am incapable of passing up chances to ride in the backs of trucks.
We wound up at a crossroads, of a sort. Whence originate, apparently, a majority of the aforementioned mangos. There were approximately 6000 (I asked) piled on banana leaves at the side of the road. And yes, they gather that many every day (I asked). So we began loading them into the back of the blue truck. (Ok, I loaded them into baskets, then nearly gave myself a hernia lifting a basket. The women here are so strong, doing so much of the physical labor. It's incredible.) I took the two little girls for a walk, and they made me get them oranges from a tree. As evening fell, the woods positively shouted with bird noise - I've never heard anything like it. It was a lovely afternoon.
Day 2, 5 am. Was awoken by a banging on the door - the guy who was driving the pickup the night before, you see, also drives the collectivo to Santa Teresa! So he had sent someone to pick up myself and the 6 other travellers who had arrived later the night before. When we got to the collectivo, it became quite clear just how many kids know about this back way... the van was almost all travelers!
The collectivo ride was like a miniature version of the bus the day before - rivers crossing the road, no guardrails, passing trucks on one-lane ruts, etc.
At Santa Teresa I joined up with the group of 6 from the hostel the night before. They, it was explained, had a slightly even more remote route planned. So first we trooped off to the local hot springs. Afterwards back to Santa Teresa for lunch, then across the raging river in a basket attached to a wire. (See photos - these are actually from the way back, when it was pouring rain - because the ponchos really add to the dramatic effect, wouldn't you agree?)
From here it was supposed to be only a 4 hour walk to Aguas Calientes. Upon reflection, I believe this estimate did not take into account altitude, broiling midday sun, or an insufficient amount of food. It took us 8 hours.
Day 3, 4 am. Prodded awake by the two Swiss girls with whom I was sharing a room, we began the trek up the mountain to the site itself in pitch dark. This walk consisted of steps, steps, and more steps. See the ziggyzaggy road in the photo? The steps carve a straight line up through those zig zags. It took me about 2 1/2 hours.
And then, at the top, the very large woman in reception (of that type of large, uncaring woman generally found in jobs which require constant interface with the public the world over) would not sell us tickets unless we had exact change.
This almost started a small riot, as several of the South Americans present decided that the only way to deal with this was to collectively storm the gates. Unfortunately, we were rebuffed (I don't think anyone was really willing to be kicked out before entering, and at the first mention of policia our revolution sort of lost its wind...)
After this incident, I decided to share my inside information: there are back ways in. I think this is being done with increasing frequency, as I've met 5 people in the last few weeks who have pulled it off. So, with my group and the mysterious addition of a barefoot man with dreads down to his behind, we struck off into the woods (UP into the woods!).
All was going well until about halfway up, when we lost the trail. And so, the barefoot Ecuadorian forged a path, leading us on with the music of his pan flute. Trust in this stranger eventually led to a vertical climb through intense undergrowth, using grass to pull ourselves up. (Hence, the title of this blog.)
We made it in. And emerged, actually, above the site, right where the vista seen in that most famous of pictures is taken from. So that was my first glimpse - and it was breathtaking.
However, we weren't as lucky as we sound - when we encountered another from our group inside, one of the Swiss girls started telling the story. In Spanish. With a guard standing behind her. Ah, whoops yet again.
Several of us, however, simply walked away, and enjoyed a full day at the site. I will hear no admonishing.
The next morning came the trip in reverse, with the addition of several Porteños with stylish mullets, another ride in the back of a truck (this one in the pouring rain), and the collectivo (a van) stuffed with 24 people.
I said goodbye to my travel partners and made it back to my hostel-home after 12 hours travelling.
End Adventure: Machu Picchu.
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