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Published: March 26th 2014
Today is the day! We get to explore Machu Picchu!
I wake up to my alarm at 2:30am in the morning. Michael is growling. He couldn't really sleep as he has been affected the most by the altitude in Cusco. Cusco is 11,200 feet above sea level. It does make it difficult to breath and I find myself taking deeper breaths than normal in order to get enough oxygen. Cusco is higher than Machu Picchu, which is about 8,800 feet at Huayna Picchu's peak - so hopefully he will feel better there. Michael takes an Advil PM and a pill for altitude sickness - hopefully he'll be able to sleep in the car.
Our driver is waiting for us at 3:00 am. We have to leave this early because there is a strike on the road between Cusco and Machu Picchu. It's a scheduled strike between 6am and 6pm, so we're leaving in the middle of the night in order to get through before all the commotion starts. Our driver's name is Manuel and he's charging us 210 sols for a round trip drive to the train station in Ollantaytambo. From Ollantaytambo we will take the Peru
Rail train to Machu Picchu station. The price would probably be cheaper if there wasn’t a strike going on, but this is the best that we could get.
The roads are cobblestone, so I was not able to sleep. I fade in and out the entire 2 hour drive. Around half way, around 4:00 am, we come up to a line of about 20 men in the street with stones piled blocking the roadway. The men are banging their open hands on the car. Manuel rolls down his window and starts politely talking to them in Spanish, telling them that they are early and that the strike isn't until 6 am. He drives the car at the stones and then hits the breaks. He then begins to yell for them to move the stones and they reluctantly do. Thank goodness we had an assertive driver. Later in the day, we met someone that drove up to the road block and their driver decided to give in and drive the far way around. They didn't get to Ollantaytambo in time for their train and therefore didn’t have as much time at Machu Picchu.
I said 'Gracias, gracias,
muchas gracias' to our driver and fade back to sleep.
Soon enough we arrive in Ollantaytambo. Our train isn't until 6:30 am and it's about 5:00 am when we arrive. Manuel suggests that we take a nap in the car and without hesitation we both agree. We fall asleep instantly. Soon we awake to a knock on our window - it's time to board our train. Manuel escorts us to the platform and says good-bye. We'll see him again at 9pm for the trip back to Cusco.
We booked the vistadome train to Machu Picchu. The train has windows in the ceiling so that we can see panoramic views of the Peruvian countryside. Michael and I were assigned the very last two seats on the train. The back of the train has a giant window so I brag to him that we have the best seats as we can see everything we've passed without obstruction. Not long after the train leaves, our seat quality is confirmed as 3 people with cameras walk back and stand in the aisle next in our row taking pictures.
The countryside is GORGEOUS. I've never seen more beautiful terrain.
Mountains cascade across lush green fields. The Urabamba river rushes past the train tracks. The Urabama river runs east and eventually gushes into the Amazon River in eastern Peru. Michael comments that the rapids have to be greater than category 5, as he's rafted on category 5 before. I can't imagine anyone rafting these - the water rapidly hits large boulders and the current circles about.
We arrive in Machu Picchu in an hour and a half. It's a small town that clearly relies on tourism. Nearly everything is in English first and Spanish second.
We buy tickets for the bus up to the ruins. There is a giant sign warning tourists that nudity will not be tolerated, dated March 2014. This makes me laugh since friends of mine sent me this article right before we left: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/03/20/travel/naked-tourists-machu-picchu-peru/index.html
. We're able to immediately board the bus. A good friend of ours made this trip before and warned us that the bus ride up the Machu Picchu mountain was one of the scariest she's ever had. The bus zig zags up a steep mountain. It's a bumpy ride, but I think Costa Rica's roads are still worse.
The bus stops and we make our way through security. Technically you're not supposed to bring food into the Machu Picchu site, however we've packed two lunch bags in the hope that no one checks our bags. Lucky no one did.
We walk through the gates and immediately stop at the first terrace. WOW. It's incredible to see this relatively massive (about 22,000 residents) ancient city with the views of the colorful Andean Mountains in the background in every direction. The number of stones littering the city is awe-inspiring considering how high up we are and the fact that the Inca's did not have technology for metal tools or wheelbarrows. All of the stones were carried up the steep mountain using pulleys and rollers. A nice couple agrees to exchange taking pictures so that Michael and I can get a shot together and we can take a picture of them together.
We dressed in layers and were still in our sweatshirts. It didn't take long before I shed the layers in favor of a tank top. We applied 70 SPF sunscreen and continued on our way.
We bought tickets to hike Huayna
Picchu, which is the giant mountain in the background of most Machu Picchu pictures. They only allow 400 people a day (200 people at 7 am and 200 people at 10 am), so we had to book our tickets ahead of time online. After exploring for a short while, it's almost 10 am and we make our way over to the entrance to Wayna Picchu, which includes both peaks beyond the ruins. We're only interested in the larger of the two though, Huayna Picchu.
We wait in line for about 15 minutes. Then we get to the entrance desk where they inspect our tickets, passports and log our name, age and time into their ledger. Then we sign away any liability for injuries or death, etc. (One of my favorite things to do, of course) Next we walk through the gate and look up at the Huayna Picchu mountain. Wow - it's so steep that it's hard to believe that we can reach the summit. Michael makes a comment that he's glad his altitude sickness has subsided. I'm glad too; otherwise I'd be making this trek by myself.
We start up the mountain which is supposed
to take about an hour to summit. There is a clear path worn from the tourist run every day. The first half is relatively easy as the path is wide and the stairs are large. As we get past the midway point, the stairs begin to narrow and the path becomes much steeper. I play basketball three days a week and run three miles at the gym the remaining four days a week, yet my legs were beginning to burn. I've never had to do this many step ups before in my life. The hardest sections have a rope that you can latch onto in order to support yourself. The scariest parts are when there are people coming down the mountain and you have to figure out who's going to have to take the outside of the lane. Nearly every step on the path has a cliff off the side. If you fell, you would inevitably fall to your death. It's a long, long way down. I asked a guard if there are many deaths during the Huayna Picchu hike and he said that there's usually no more than one a year. Many people injure themselves though. Just last week
a woman fell and was paralyzed. Lovely.
We're now about 2/3rds of the way up and the trees have began to dissipate. We can look out and see the Machu Picchu ruins. Wow - it's incredible. And Wow - we're really high! We arrive at the first landing and there are about 10 people taking photos on a ledge with their feet dangling down. At first I think they're nuts, and then I decide that I can't not have that same photo after climbing all the way up here. A gay couple from San Francisco agree to trade taking photos of each other. The one guy is afraid of heights and is up here because he's partner really wanted to make this trek. You can see the fear in his eyes as he takes his cliff photo, making sure that his partner has to sit on the far side. That must be love.
After a five minute breather, we continue on our way. The path has now become stone stairs that were clearly built by the Incans. Huayna Picchu had religious temples built on it in order to worship the gods. We arrive at a tunnel
and I laugh at the prospect of Michael having to climb through this narrow passage. He's 6'8" and hits his head on doorways. A 3 foot space is not going to be easy for him. He takes his hat and backpack off in anticipation for the hardship. I scrape through on two feet. He decides that crawling is his best option. It rained last night and the floor of the tunnel is nothing but mud. Poor guy.
One we get through the tunnel to our right is 'the death stairs'. We'd watched the following youtube video before we left and just gasped at these stairs. Again, we can't make this climb without doing it all. We toss our bags up and then climb the 3 stairs on each level. Once we're on the top, the view is amazing!! I take a panoramic photo from this spot. Then we open up our lunches and eat in silence just enjoying the view. We sat there for about a half hour just taking it all in.
Just as we're packing up we hear a whistle. Up above a guard is waving us away motioning that we shouldn't be where
we are. we're leaving anyways so we make our way back down. There was nothing there to indicate that we're not supposed to be there, so we think that maybe it was because we were eating food that he was upset. I know you're not supposed to have food inside Machu Picchu. I think we would have starved if we didn't though. They don't sell food inside the ruin area.
We climb back down and then make our way up a set of about 5 stories worth of steep stairs. There is another outlook at the top. I think the best part is that we can hear the people at the summit. Almost there! We climb through another tunnel that isn't as narrow as the first and then up a wooden ladder that was placed at the top for convince. At the top of the ladder are a bunch of boulders. The boulders litter the summit of the mountain and create plenty of space for everyone to take photos or relax and enjoy the view. Standing on one of the rocks, I just circled around about a dozen times taking in the 360 degree view of the Andean
Mountains. It's just so beautiful. After the thrill of reaching the top hits us, we start the realize the number of bugs hovering around. There are so many and it starts to make us feel uncomfortable so we climb down from the boulders and follow the signs for our decent.
The Wayna Picchu complex closes at 2 pm each day. Therefore, if we hadn't spent so much time taking in the view on our way up, we would have had time for the Moon Temple hike (the temple doesn't have anything to do with the moon though - the name comes from its shape).The temple is built into a cave. If I had to do it all again, I wouldn't have rushed myself to get to it though. The view was deserving of some extra time in order to let it all soak in.
We stop and sit at the buildings along the ridge at the top of Huayna Picchu. I can't imagine making the climb we just did with rocks this size in our hands. How did they do it?
The decent is the same as the assent. And luckily, it's late enough
That's Huayna Picchu in the background. The peak right beyond the ruins. I still can't believe we climbed that steep side on the left.
that no one is climbing the stairs anymore so we never had to share the path. We stop a few more times on our way down in order to take it the beauty. There are so many butterflies and orchids around Machu Picchu. They really add to the beauty. This one butterfly is white with electric blue on the wings near the body. It makes it look like the butterfly is lite up as it flutters its wings. It's beautiful. There are also monarch butterflies and some black and blue ones. They are attaching the hot pink orchids that are budding all along the trek.
By the time we reach the bottom, my legs are shaking and I'm feeling dehydrated despite the 2.5 liters of water Michael and I inhaled during the trek. We sign out and buy more water. We finish it right away.
We take a few minutes to rest. It's now about 1:30 pm. It's time for us to give the ruins our attention.
I read a book on Machu Picchu before we came, so we decline all of the offers for tour guides. The book I read was "Machu Picchu:
The history and mystery of the ancient Incan city" by Jesse Harasta. I always try and read a book on a place before I go - it helps me appreciate it more. I tell Michael that I'll be his tour guide. He laughs as if he already knew - he's used to me by now.
Machu Picchu was commissioned by the emperor of the Incan Empire (Pachacuti) and was completed between 1430 and 1450 AD. Only the 'choosen' ones within the Incan empire were invited to Machu Picchu. Similar to those that built the pyramids of Egypt, the workers who built Machu Picchu were not slaves. They were citizens who were paying their taxes in labor rather than coin. The homes on Machu Picchu are built in order of social importance. Water is run down the terrain - the cleanest, freshest water for the royals, then the priests, then the aristocrats and finally the workers. The size and quality of the homes follows a similar hierarchy.
What makes Machu Picchu even more incredible, as I mentioned, is that the city was not built using common technologies such as the wheel, metal tools, mortar, etc. The stones
were shaped perfectly by rubbing sand on them and interlocked without any adhesive. The Incans did not have architecture expertise to build arches or ceilings either. All arches were made by using a large, flat stone and ceilings were thatched.
We make our way through the ancient city just stopping to stare out the elongated windows in each of the buildings. The walls of homes are not straight. This is because the city was built taking the terrain and landscape into consideration and not just the typical perpendicular fashion. Walls were built where the foundation was most solid. Similarly the windows are wider at the base and smaller at the top in order to give the structure the most stability.
My friend recommended to me that the best thing you can do inside Machu Picchu is to find a good lookout spot and just sit there and take it all in. There's a lot of truth to that, and if you go I really encourage you to do that. Michael and I sat just staring and appreciating the place for a good hour and a half. If it wasn't for the heat of the sun, we
could have stayed all day.
While we were sitting there we overheard a guide talking about the fault lines that the Andean mountains sit on. The Machu Picchu mountain and the surrounding Andes are all growing still. This is causing many problems for those that are preserving the Incan city. We did see a few walls that were partially falling - I really hope that an earthquake doesn't destroy this remarkable city. It really is a world wonder.
After we're decidedly tired and hungry, we start making our way to the exit. Along the way, Michael makes some friends with the resident llamas. They literally start to follow him around - maybe it’s his height that attracts them? We don't have any food anymore.
As we exit there is a table to our right with an ink pad and a stamp. Another tourist is stamping his passport, so we decide to do the same.
Once at the bottom, we get some dinner at the Tree House Restaurant. The restaurant is ranked #1 on tripadvisor and we're really surprised not to see anyone else there. Maybe it's having a slow day because of
the strike? It's happy hour (2 for 1 drinks), so we order a pair of Pisco Sours. Pisco Sours are a national specialty in Peru. Our waiter explains that they contain Pisco liquor, key lime, syrup and egg white. The Pisco takes 2 months to prepare. They are meant to be drunk rather quickly before the foam from the egg white dissipates (not like a shot though). They were so good and dangerous, as you can barely taste the alcohol in them. Rests assure, they are strong.
We also order their special, causita acevichada, which is a potato and ceviche fusion appetizer. It might be one of the tastiest things I have ever had in my entire life. I even contemplate ordering a second serving, but decide against it as we have cuy coming as our entree. Cuy is guinea pig. It's boiled and then pasta fried in salt and pepper. Michael gives me the sad face when it arrives, guilting me by making comments that this is a pet, “poor thing”. Call me cold, but I'm all for trying all local cuisine. We're instructed that its okay for us to eat with our hands, as that is
from Huayna Picchu
the way Peruivans eat cuy. Don't need to tell me twice - we dig in. It tastes like no other meat I've had before. I can only best describe it as a much sweet version of the dark meat of a turkey. It is delicious and we don't have any trouble finishing our meal. We opt for the Passion Fruit pie as dessert, as our waiter recommends it as 'the best'! Passion fruit is incredibly sweet and so is the pie, so I'm grateful that Michael and I decided to split a slice. It is delicious though - he wasn't kidding.
Even though there were no other customers, our dinner at Tree House Restaurant was one of the most memorable of the entire trip. The food was incredible, the service was helpful and the prices were very reasonable considering we're in a tourist town.
After dinner we walk around Machu Picchu town. We grab some local Cusquena beers at a street vendor along our walk. We're not used to walking publicly with alcoholic beverages, as there are open container laws in the USA. It's refreshing to feel a little rebellious, even if it is legal.
from Huayna Picchu
Soon enough it's time to grab the train home. We make our way through the market, where about 50 vendors are attempting to sell overpriced souvenirs, to the train station. We make our way back to our hotel is Cusco in what feels like a blink of the eye. We literally slept the entire way, too tired to realize the cobblestone streets and speed bumps along the way.
This was one of the best days of my entire life.
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