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Published: July 29th 2006
Me on top of WaynaPicchu
8,000 feet above sea level!
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—Something lost in the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!” --Rudyard Kipling, “The Explorer”
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve updated my blog largely because until this past week, life in Peru has been fairly uninspiring and routine—until I went to Cusco and Machu Picchu.
Heading to Cusco—the Inca Capital
I headed to Cusco, the closest large city to Machu Picchu with some American friends here in Lima who also wanted to explore Peru’s most well-known ruins and tourist spot. At over 10,000 feet above sea level, my first concern even before heading to Cusco was whether I’d handle the altitude well and not get a bad case of altitude sickness, or “soroche,” as it is called in Spanish. I remember being in Bogota (which is at about 8,000 feet) that I felt tired and out of breath, particularly when I walked around so I figured Cusco would be worse.
I had a plan to combat altitude sickness, namely getting on anti-altitude sickness pills prior to leaving and taking them during my time in Cusco and Machu Picchu. I also read that I should
rest for a full day after arriving, eat little and drink nothing alcoholic. This regimen worked well as I never got sick and was only a little short of breath on a few occasions—mainly when climbing up a steep mountain—more about this later. I did notice that the hotel we stayed at in Cusco has an oxygen tank in the lobby and every hotel in the city offered free supplies of coca tea, apparently a very good natural defense against altitude sickness.
Cusco is a short one-hour flight east and south of Lima in the middle of the Andean mountain range. When flying in you seeing nothing but tall mountains, many of them snow-capped. As you get close to the airport, this small city with terracotta-looking roof tops suddenly appears, enclosed completely by the mountains.
On arrival in the airport, you notice two things immediately, compared to Lima: bright sunshine with incredibly blue skies, and the thin air. It is also cooler in Cusco, given its altitude but surprisingly, not really cold, perhaps in the mid 60s.
We stayed at a very nice hotel right off the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square, formed
by two churches, old colonial-style buildings, and like most Peruvian cities, a well-manicured square in the center with benches, pools, gardens and monuments.
Cusco, established in the mid-15th century, is puma-shaped and claimed to mirror the Milky Way—the city was considered the most beautiful and successful one in all of South America in its heyday, primarily until Peru’s capital was established in Lima. Spanish invaders originally wanted to destroy the city and build their own city in its place but they quickly realized it would take considerable effort to tear it down and build their own city. Instead, the Spaniards built their own structures on top of, in front of, and next to, Inca structures.
The Incas were incredible builders, in fact, some would say much better than the Spanish and this proved to be true when a major earthquake hit Cusco in 1650. The original Inca buildings withstood the earthquake while the Spanish-made structures toppled over.
The trip to Machu Picchu
“Getting there is half the fun” is certainly a relevant statement for our trip from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is actually about 100km north/northwest of Cusco, with the Inca ruins themselves situated
about 8km from the small but pleasant town of Aguas Calientes (“Warm Waters). There are essentially four options for getting to Aguas Calientes: take a bus (too bumpy!), drive (no way!), hike (yea, right!) or take a train—not a bad idea.
Due to earthquakes and rough terrain, Peru doesn’t have much of a train system but it does offer rail service between Cusco and Aguas Calientes. There are four types of rail service offered to Machu Picchu/Aguas Calientes. One is the local train, not available to foreigners and another is the backpackers train. A more upscale option includes the “Vistadome” train and most luxurious option is the “Hiram Bigham” train (Bigham was a Yale professor who in 1911 discovered Machu Picchu hidden under the growth of the jungle). The Hiram Bigham train offers “Orient Express” type service complete with a dining car and top chef’s on staff while the Vistadome train offers fairly comfortable seats, large windows, domes in the ceilings and free snacks and beverages. We opted for the Vistadome train.
The train left Cusco at 6am for the 4-hour trek to Aguas Calientes. Even leaving Cusco was interesting. To get out of the city and make
it up into the valley between the many mountains we’d eventually encounter, the train makes about four “switchbacks,” going forward for a bit, then back for a bit, crossing onto another track, before finally hitting a straightaway into the valley leading towards Aguas Calientes.
The trip through the valley was spectacular to say the least. Filled with Andean, snow-capped mountains, large valleys with farmland of potatoes and other unknown produce, we marveled at this postcard-perfect scenery. I could hardly believe I was there!
Reaching Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu
We arrived in Aguas Calientes just fine around 10am and quickly dropped our bags off at the hotel. We wanted to spend as much time at Machu Picchu as possible. The ruins are about 8km or 2000 feet up a windy road from Aguas Calientes. Being Peru’s most famous tourist attraction, the local authorities certainly had a good system in place for getting tourists to Machu Picchu—and having them pay for the privilege. There was an office in town for purchasing tickets to the site (about $22), and then just down the road was the bus station for catching a ride ($12) up to the ruins. Yes, I’m
sure both the entrance feet and bus ticket are overpriced but it was well worth the money.
Obviously, Machu Picchu is huge given that there was virtually non-stop bus service to the ruins throughout the day. As soon as one bus was filled, another one would be right behind it, waiting to take tourists up the mountain. These were fairly nice mini-buses, not quite what I expected but pretty comfortable given the road is a dirt one.
As soon as you reach the site of the ruins, you are almost disappointed in a sense because the outside of the ruins looks like a typical tourist trap with some cheap restaurants, souvenir stands, and more tourists than I’d like to imagine. I immediately became concerned that the ruins would be overrun with tourists and it would be a less-enjoyable experience than I had hoped for.
What I learned later on is that the bulk of the tourists visit the ruins between 11am and 2pm, most of them day-trippers from Cusco. They arrive in Aguas Calientes, like us, at 10am but need to be back in town by 3pm to catch their train back to Cusco. We decided to
stay overnight in Aguas Caliente and I’m so glad we did. Before 11am and after 2pm, the ruins became fairly deserted. Sure, there were tourists but the ruins are so large, you weren’t bumping into other tourists as I did on my first trip there, and viewing the ruins from a hill above them, you could hardly tell anyone was there.
After passing through the obligatory ticket counter, you walk a short path to an intersection, and from there, you can either take the “long route” to the ruins which essentially goes up a steep hill to a viewing area above the ruins, or take the shorter route, which brings you in through one of the Inca’s ceremonial entrances. As many of my friends would expect, I chose the short route. The hill Machu Picchu is situated on is about 2000 feet above Aquas Caliente and it cannot be viewed from below or even when you are right next to it, which was rather smart of the Incas.
When I walked through the ceremonial entrance to the Machu Picchu, I was truly blown away. First, I could not believe how large the actual ruins were with many different
areas serving many different purposes. Second, I was amazed at how in-tact the ruins were—you could almost envision where the Incas worked, lived, and worshipped. And lastly, I was surprised at how well-kept the site was. Beautifully landscaped grassy areas and well-thought-out footpaths for tourists ensured the site would remain in good shape. I did learn later on that UNESCO almost pulled Machu Picchu’s “World Heritage” status several years ago due to mismanagement, but apparently all of that has been fixed.
I walked around the ruins a bit but soon headed to the back of the ruins high above to get a better view. The view from several hundred feet above Machu Picchu near one of the guard towers and terraced barriers they built was spectacular. You can get a view of the entire site as well as “WaynaPicchu,” a mountain some 6,000 feet above which sits at the far north end of Machu Picchu, and I assume was a look-out post. In fact, the Incas built some structures at the top of WaynaPicchu as well.
As the day dragged on, the day-trippers disappeared as quickly as they came and I found myself sitting alone (almost) watching the
Kids enjoying the camera
In Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu)
sun set on Machu Picchu. It was interesting to watch the sun’s rays fade behind the mountains that surround Machu Picchu. Still not nearly having my fill of Machu Picchu, the guards starting blowing their whistles, signaling it was time to leave.
Sunrise and a hike
The entire evening after my first view of Machu Picchu, I just could not get it out of my mind. I’ve been fortunate to have been to many countries in the world and have seen many ruins of all types, but this had to be the most incredible, no spectacular, site I’ve even seen. I cannot imagine I’ll ever top this, until the next morning.
Luckily, the local tourism authorities realize that Machu Picchu at sunrise is something not to be missed, and fortunately, the first buses head there at 5:30am. So, on the second day, we made sure we were on the first bus and at our perch above the ruins, near the guard tower, to watch the sun overtake the ruins. If the first day was incredible, the second day was MIND-BLOWING, and not just for the sunset (as I’ll explain soon).
I guess at high altitudes with
mountains all around, it takes some time for the sun to come up over the ruins but we got to watch the entire show. Slowly but surely, dark mountain ranges around the ruins became illuminated and eventually WayanPicchu’s summit lit up revealing its Inca structures at the top. Later, streaks of light filtered in through the mountains and eventually bathed the entire ruins in sunlight. I’ve never seen a sunrise like this and perhaps never will. After three days of getting up very early, I was tired but the adrenalin was pumping.
Climbing WaynaPicchu, #143
All the guidebooks said that to get a terrific view of Machu Picchu and the entire area surrounding it, one must climb WaynaPicchu, about 6,000 feet above Machu Picchu. As many people know, I’m more of an “indoors kind of guy,” but after much debate between me and two of my friends, we decided to try it. We’d go as high as we could, and if we ran out of steam, we could turn around and head back down. I probably wouldn’t have tried this on my own, but with friends, we’d all share in this slightly dangerous trek up the mountain.
There is a small gate at the base of WaynaPicchu and the guard makes you sign a book and provide your passport number and home country. They also only let 400 people a day climb the mountain and none are allowed to start the trek after 1pm. I was number 143 on the list of hikers that day. I wrote my number on my hand with a pen just in case they had to identify my remains! This would be interesting.
The guidebook also mentioned that the trek up 6,000 feet is not as bad as it looks and that the many stone steps the Incas put in are not as steep as they look and anyone of average shape and health could make it. I decided I was pretty average and decided to do it. This was a terrific decision I would later learn.
As you hike up WaynaPicchu, one definitely starts feeling the altitude a bit. Breathing becomes labored, and that combined with the strain of getting the most incredible “stair-master” workout on the Inca’s steep and small rock steps, makes it a difficult hike for a guy like me (I moved aside many times as
kids passed us on the way up!).
The book told us it would take about one hour to make it to the top of the mountain. We left at 10am and ended up at the top, in reasonably good shape, at 11:30am. I cannot recall the last time I was on the TOP of a mountain. As I looked around, I noticed I was about at the same level as the other mountains around me, and below was an incredible view of Machu Picchu—far below, that is. If I couldn’t believe I was actually at Machu Picchu the day before, I certainly couldn’t believe I was on the top of a mountain more than 8,000 feet high, sitting on a rock looking at mountains all around me. INCREDIBLE!!! I cannot imagine doing anything in my life more exhilarating, incredible, spectacular, stupendous, or mind-blowing ever again!
I have over 400 pictures of my trip to Cusco and Machu Picchu on my photo website:
Last thoughts on Peru
If there is anyway you can get to Peru, I highly recommend it. For me, it is one of the most incredible countries on earth. There’s the vibrant city
of Lima with much to offer and then there is the northern city of Trujillo with its colonial buildings and pre-Inca ruins. The “white city” of Arequipa with the incredible volcano “Misti” near it and towering mountains and valleys offers days and days of adventure. Then there is the area around Ica and Nazca with incredible “Nazca lines” drawn into the desert. There’s also Iquitos, with the Amazon river running wildly through it.
The people are friendly, the food is terrific, and the country’s natural beauty is stupendous! I’ll be back again for sure!
Unless I go somewhere else interesting, this will be my last blog from South America. After I head home on August 15, this blog will revert back to my life in Costa Rica, so look for another entry later in August from the tropical paradise I now call “home!”
Thanks for reading! And thanks for all of your wonderful comments and emails!
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