The way from Machu Picchu - barricaded roads, hiking along railway tracks and meeting Moses, our guardian angel

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October 1st 2009
Published: October 4th 2009
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Machu Picchu - constructed around 1462, at the height of the Inca EmpireMachu Picchu - constructed around 1462, at the height of the Inca EmpireMachu Picchu - constructed around 1462, at the height of the Inca Empire

This is the view from the Watchmans tower, taken after we'd just climbed Huayna Picchu, the peak in the background that towers over the site
The small friendly town of Ollantaytambo was easily my favourite stop along the Sacred Valley, with its impressive Inca fortress, stunning views and grid like Inca town planning it was a fascinating place to spend a day. The Inca Emperor Pachacuti built a town and ceremonial centre here when he conquered the region in the mid-15th century and the rebellion leader Manco Inca later retreated here in 1536 after his defeat by the Spanish at Sacsayhuaman. Francisco Pizarro's younger brother Hernando followed with his troops, determined to capture the rebel leader, but at Ollantaytambo they met fierce resistance; the Inca's forces showered them with arrows, spears and rocks before flooding the plains below the stronghold making it difficult for the Spanish horses to manoeuvre. Hernando ordered a hasty retreat and Ollantaytambo became the only place to have resisted attacks from the Spanish, at least for a while - the Spanish soon returned with reinforcements.

We had a fun day here, breakfasting at the amazing Hearts Cafe , run by an elderly English lady called Sonia Newhouse who rather than retiring to an easy life set up an NGO to help local women - when she isn't out on projects she's in the cafe working which is where we found her. Venturing away from the touristy main square we discovered the quiet old area of town where channels carry water along narrow cobbled streets lined with stone houses. However we spent most time clambering around the fortress, climbing to the top of 17 massive stepped terraces to reach the Temple of Ten Niches with its stunning views down to the river below and across the valley to storehouses sitting high on the slopes opposite. The use of terraces allowed the Incas to farm otherwise unusable terrain and take advantage of the different ecological zones created by the variations in altitude. Crop surpluses were stored in specially designed storehouses deliberately located high above the town where the high higher altitude meant greater wind and lower temperatures that would help to preserve the crops and delay the onset of decay.

Soon it was time leave and we headed to the station for our train to Agua Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu. At over $30USD for just a few hours it isn't a great bargain but with no roads to Agua Calientes unless you trek, which wasn't an option for us after Shirley’s knees died on the Colca Canyon hike, it's the only way to get there... well, there is one other option but...... Our journey followed the course of the gushing Urubamba river through stunning valley scenery with clouds hanging moodily low over the top of the surrounding peaks and locals approaching whenever we stopped (which was often) to try and sell us some beautiful flowers.

It was getting dark by the time we pulled in and as we disembarked onto a busy platform Shirley realised she'd lost her passport! Except she hadn't lost it, she'd just changed the 'special secret hiding place', but we didn't know that at the time and so with everyone else heading for the exit we pushed our way back on and started a frantic search. Initially the staff were helpful but then they needed to move the train and fairly hustled Shirley off, which was when she rediscovered the new hiding place! The whole passport trauma might explain our next dippy lapse of judgement. With my pale skin, zillion freckles and short sometimes brown/sometimes red hair there's no chance I'll ever be mistaken for a South American. Shirley however, being shorter with long dark hair and darker skin was often mistaken for a 'local', provided she didn't speak too much :0) We'd found this a useful bargaining tool and here proved no exception as she haggled the room rate in a nice hotel down to almost half the asking price - ensuite, hot water, satellite TV, breakfast included.... heaven after a long day! Accommodation in Agua Calientes is expensive which made this an absolute bargain so of course we said.... 'No'. We ended up round the corner in a room that was a fraction of the cost but came minus TV, with dubious sheets, temperamental 'warm' water and uncomfortable beds to keep us awake thinking about what could have been!

It was still dark when we left our flea pit the next morning, walking along ghostly quiet streets to arrive at the bus stop @5am only to discover over 100 people already waiting!! Fortunately a whole caravan of buses arrived shortly before the first one was due to leave @ 5.30am so we didn't wait too long, but seriously! There had been another option of course, leaving even earlier to walk up, but as what promised to be a 2hr walk was essentially a series of short cuts between the zig zags of the road we splashed out $7 and took the bus instead. At the entrance to Machu Picchu we joined another queue - I was already spotting a theme here - and we slowly shuffled forward knowing we still had two hurdles to face, the 'bag' police who seemed almost arbitrarily (perhaps it was the wrong colour??) to decide that a bag was too big and insisted the owner pay to put it in the baggage room instead, and the walking stick police. With me contorting myself to make my rucksack look as small as possible and Shirley doing her best to hide her walking sticks we reached the front - the bag passed the test thanks largely to the guy in front being targeted, and the walking sticks initiated a small 'discussion', but with Shirley insisting she couldn't walk without them we were in!! And so began a mad dash to join the next queue!

With injury stopping us from doing a multi-day trek I was keen for us to at least climb Huayna Picchu. Towering some 350m above Machu Picchu only 400 people a day are allowed up in two batches of 200, hence the rush to queue again! Shirley however wasn't so keen, especially once she realised we weren't climbing the smaller hill directly in front of us but the bigger one behind! Soon it was our time, she didn't back out and we set off up the steep zig zagging path, stopping for breaks and chatting to all sorts of random people along the way. At the top sit temples and terraces built by the Inca and views to make the climb worth it - snow capped peaks in the distance, Machu Picchu laid out before us and steep valley walls leading down to the Urubamba River snaking its way far below.

Back at the main site a well deserved break was in order so we headed to the Watchmans hut to get 'that photo' with the Inca city sprawling out below and Huayna Picchu towering behind. The Incas started building Machu Picchu @ AD 1430 but abandoned they city just 100 years later at the time of the Spanish conquest. Lost to the encroaching jungle its inaccessibility meant it escaped the looting and destruction inflicted on so many pre-Colombian sites. Indeed it remained largely unknown to the outside world until 1911 when it was brought to international attention by the American historian Hiram Bingham, although evidence suggests he wasn't the first non-Peruvian to know about the site. On the steep hillsides surrounding their city the Inca's built massive terraces to grow crops and throughout the city they built water fountains all interconnected by channels and water-drains to form an irrigation system.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring by ourselves but returned to the main entrance with the aim of haggling a good price for a tour. And sure enough the first guide we spoke to offered to take us round for half of what it had been in the morning! Better still with most groups now gone we pretty much had the place to ourselves, plus a few llamas that were making the most of the peace to come chomp on the grass. Our guide was a spritely grandma who fairly skipped ahead of us mountain goat style as we struggled with yet another set of Inca steps - for a nation of short people why did they make their steps so steep?! Something to do with having to suffer to get closer to God I guess.

We started at 3 sites dedicated to Inti, the sun god: Intihuatana (a sacred rock known as the 'hitching-post of the sun'), the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. Like Inca religious buildings we'd seen elsewhere the latter two were all polished dry-stone walls, individual blocks fitting perfectly together. The Inca constructed these buildings without mortar which allows stones to move slightly and resettle without the walls collapsing, a feature that makes them more resistant to earthquakes. Other details like trapezoid shaped doors and windows and walls that tilt inward also stopped collapse in an earthquake. Not all buildings were so well built though and walking around the site it became obvious that master stone mason skills were reserved for buildings of religious importance and the nobility; normal people lived in simple dwellings constructed using mortar and without any of the earthquake protecting features.

After an amazing day but with dusk approaching and not much liking the thought of walking back to Agua Calientes we left to catch the last bus. Except, what was this?!?! A poster by the entrance informed us that, thanks to a strike announced for the next day, all trains out of Agua Calientes were cancelled!!! Now this was bad news for several reasons - I knew from experience that strikes meant roads would be barricaded and buses cancelled, strikes never lasted for just one day, oh and Shirley had a flight to catch in 3 days time! Back in town we came face to face with the source of our troubles, indigenous people from the jungle protesting about proposed water charges. Whilst we had sympathy for their cause the risk that Shirley might miss her flight had us dashing straight for the railway station only to be told that there was absolutely no room left on the last train out. It seemed we were stuck.

Over a dinner into which we'd somehow managed to bargain all sorts of freebies (garlic bread, cocktails, anything else madam???) we discussed options, but really there was only one - start walking! So @6am the next day we left town for the old railway line. Now walking along a railway line sounds easy enough (well, it's going to be fairly flat isn't it!) but seriously arghhhh - between slippery wooden sleepers and trying to keep to the outside edges, thereby avoiding the dangerous middle zone where toilets might have let out their contents, it was slow going, especially when we hit rivers and faced the added challenge of not slipping in for a swim. Some 3 hours later we reached Hydroelectrica, the end of the line, and hitched a lift in the back of a truck to the nearest town. Santa Teresa seemed a nice little place but with a minivan leaving soon (South American 'soon' that is) for Santa Maria, the next town where we hoped to get a bus to Cuzco, we didn't have time to explore. Each time we met an oncoming vehicle both drivers stopped to check if the way ahead was clear and eventually we reached Santa Maria to find that yes there was a bus to Cuzco.... just not till 8pm. grrrr. Now 11am and with absolutely nothing to do here we did briefly contemplate whether heading back to nicer Santa Teresa was complete madness, but in the end we tried to make the most of things, picking one of the local cafes for lunch where we were joined by Moses, a Peruvian guy who was also stranded, currently working as a waiter in Cuzco but dreamed of becoming a comedian.

Just as our food arrived the French guys we'd hitched with from Hydroelectrica rushed in - a truck had pulled up that was going to try and make it through the barricades, they were hitching a lift and did we want to join them??? Now bouncing around in the back of an open truck for half an hour had been fun enough but the idea of being blasted by the sun for 7 hours on a bone jarring ride wasn't so appealing, especially if we got caught by the protesters and booted off in the middle of nowhere. So we wished them good luck and took the soft option - finished our lunch whilst Moses went off to buy tickets for the promised bus then, with the idea of sitting by the roadside for 8 hours not appealing, went round to his guest house and got a room for the day at local’s price!

Eventually 7.30pm came around and we headed back to main road to wait for our bus. However as we approached we noticed the other gringo's had disappeared - things weren't looking good and seemed to get worse when we were told that the 8pm bus had been and gone... at 7pm! Arghhhhhh. Moses did some quick talking and we established that actually it wasn't the 8pm bus but another random one which the others had gotten. As for the 8pm bus, well, it'd be along at some point during the night.

Two, three, four buses came through, each stopped, but none was ours. Moses ran off to buy us all some bananas from a passing truck, the few restaurants that had been open gradually closed, boarding up their windows so that soon the only light came from a street light with a really irritating flicker. And so on a dark night in the truck stop that is Santa Maria we stood pondering why it was that, with no sign of rain any time soon, the only other two people about maintained a vigil underneath the only tree on the street!?! Our bus finally turned up @11pm and the three of us pushed our way on for a bumpy 7 hours back to Cuzco but when we arrived and the lights went on we found Moses already gone so never got to thank him for all his help.

Next up, giant sandcastles, lots of gold and the way north.

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4th October 2009

Brave ladies!
Whew! What a trek! I admire your guts and especially Shirley's going all that trekking with bad knees. Been there and done that not once but 3 times and it sure isn't easy. Yout pictures are amazing- very interesting angles and views. Thanks.Carolyn
5th October 2009

Great blog!!
Really enjoyed looking at your fantastic photos. It brings back some good memories for us. Thank you :). Your pictures are a cut above the rest.

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