May 7, 2013 by jiejie768
The morning of Monday, April 8, came early (big surprise). But we hopped out of bed with a spring in our step as our 6:10 a.m. train would carry our traveling trio to Machu Picchu. It was the second time in four months that Meg and I would visit the Lost City of the Incas, and we were just as excited as the first time. It was to be Mom’s first trip and was the main event of the non-Ayacucho portion of her visit.
During our first visit to Machu Picchu — with Meg’s family in December — we learned a few things that we thought would improve the experience this time around. Namely, we opted not to stay in the skeezy tourist trap that is Aguas Calientes. Aguas sits at the base of the mountain that is home to Machu Picchu, and we had stayed there the night before and after our visit to the ruins in December. It was not a place in which I hoped to spend any more time.
On the other hand, a train delay on that holiday trip had cut short our time in the town of Ollantaytambo, a two-hour train ride from Aguas, but did provide enough of a taste to know that I wanted to see more of it. Thus, this time around, we booked two nights in an Ollanta hotel and took an early morning train to Aguas to catch the 20-minute bus to the ruins.
We would then spend all day at Machu Picchu before hopping on a 6:30 p.m. bus back to Ollanta and spend the night far away from the seediness of Aguas Calientes. As a bonus, we would have all day (or as much of it as we wanted) on Tuesday to explore Ollantaytambo and visit the impressive Inca ruins in that town before returning to Cusco via colectivo taxi-bus (we’ll get to that story in the next post).
Daylight was just peaking over the Andes Mountains as we arrived at the train station amid a crowd of eager travelers. We overpaid for a tiny cup of coffee (though, at 5:40 a.m, it’s hard to say that any price is overpaying for the only available cup of coffee) and waited for the train. The train that runs from Cusco to Aguas Calientes (via Ollantaytambo) is run by a company called Peru Rail and is essentially the only railway in all of Peru; ironically, it is actually run by a British company — named Orient Express, no less — not Peruvians.
The train was a comfortable way to travel (especially since our quartet of seats included GeGe’s purchased but unused seat) and we enjoyed the view of the Andes Mountains and surging Urubamba River on our way to our destination.
We arrived in Aguas Calientes (also called Machu Picchu Village) at about 8 in the morning and grabbed some fruit and a bus in short order. The trip from Aguas to the ruins is not long, but it does feature an elevation change of about 2,000 feet (from abut 5,500 to 7,500 feet) on a dirt road that is basically 12 switchbacks carved into the side of a mountain. We arrived at the park, visited the restroom (there are no bathrooms inside the gates) and were officially inside the Lost City by 8:25 a.m.
When we came with Meg’s family, we had attempted to get tickets to climb Wayna Picchu, the iconic peak that rises behind the ruins in the traditional “postcard view” of Machu Picchu. The difficulties of planning a trip for 10 people living in 3 different countries, the busy Christmas season, and the daily limit of only 400 entries derailed this goal.
I was frustrated at the time, but by this point I was glad because it gave us something to do at Machu Picchu that we had not already experienced.
With only three of us going this time, and Mom turning all planning duties over to us, it was easy to secure entry well in advance. We were set to enter Wayna Picchu between 10-11 a.m. with the second group of 200 that day. As it turned out, it was a blessing in disguise because at least three members of Meg’s family would have struggled mightily with the often treacherous ascent and equally tricky descent to and from Wayna Picchu’s peak.
With our entry time for Wayna Picchu still an hour and a half away, however, we had a little time to explore in the early morning mist. So we decided we’d take Mom up the backside of the entrance and essentially have her first glimpse of the ruins come from the postcard perspective (we had entered via different route on our previous visit and didn’t see the postcard view until just before leaving). As I’ve said before on this blog, standing in Machu Picchu and taking in that famous view was the central goal around which Meg’s and my entire adventure was built. It was great to be back there, and particularly special to share it with my mom, who, obviously, had never been there before.
I’m lucky (as is Meg) to have very supportive parents, but even at 28, I still feel an innate need to demonstrate and prove my motivations to my mom. Being able to show her Machu Picchu, combined with her visit to the Kids at the Crossroads program in Ayacucho the week before, was a particularly gratifying experience for me. Certainly she has been supportive and proud of this whole endeavor of ours from the get-go, but being able to show it to her first hand was still important to me.
After spending several minutes taking in the view and snapping an absurd amount of photos, we checked our watches and noticed it was nearing 10. (SIDE NOTE: I took a grand total of 983 pictures that day, and I narrowed it down to 85 to put on the blog. Obviously, most of these will be in slideshow form as this post will not be long enough to include them all among the text. I apologize that they tend to be a bit repetitive, but it’s really hard for me to eliminate pictures of Machu Picchu, as I love them all.)
As Wayna Picchu promised to be at least a two-hour experience, and the sun was starting to break through the clouds, we decided to head to the entrance for a bathroom break. At this point, Mom changed from jeans to the more hiking-friendly yoga pants (Meg, who lives in yoga pants these days, made that decision in November and hasn’t wavered since). We also consolidated our water bottles and snacks into a single backpack and checked the other one near the entrance. Along the way, we stopped at the passport stamp station so we could all obtain proof of our visit.
Auxiliary tasks taken care of, we re-entered the park and crossed from the entrance to the far side, where the entrance to the Wayna Picchu hike sits. We signed in (visitors 278, 279 and 280 for the day), sun-screened up and got ready to go. During our time at the guardhouse (postcard view) Mom and Meg had wavered in their commitment to climbing the daunting peak, but I was obstinate.
Meg especially seemed as if she may sit it out, but I did a fair share of pouting at grumbling in order to shame her into doing it. As usual, my infantile display of petulance did the trick (why do you think I go to it so often, Meg?) and all three of us were set for the hike.
The “hike” is really more like climbing a bunch of stairs. When we came in December, Meg and I were among the members of our group who did the 90-minute hike from Aguas Calientes to the park entrance (also A LOT of stairs), and this hike was comparable. I would say the hike from Aguas is more physically exhausting, but the hike up (and especially down) Wayna Picchu is more death-defying. There are several spots where you are skirting ledges that appear to drop off into nothing. Strangely, I was the least perturbed by this. Generally, I have an aversion to heights, but for some reason I was able to simply enjoy the experience and ignore the relative dangers. Meg, on the other hand, was a bit shell-shocked.
She later admitted to enjoying it, but for much of our time, especially on the ruins at the top of the peak, she was backed up against the wall and refused to get anywhere near the edge. Rarely did a ledge actually drop off into nothing. Usually, there was another ledge about 5 to 7 feet below the edge, but unless you right on the brink, this “safety net” was not visible and all you saw was 3,000-plus foot plunge into the Urubamba River. (Meg’s note: I maintain that I am not afraid of heights, but I don’t like ledges.)
Adding to the the excitement was the fact that many of the stairs were about half as wide as our feet were long, and generally about knee-height (Meg again: Who were these Incas anyway? Their body-type — tiny feet, super long legs, apparently — does not exist in today’s world). Basically, it seemed very easy to slip and tumble from top to bottom at a speed not recommended by most orthopedic professionals. All told, the climb from entrance to peak took about 75 minutes. A very sweaty 75 minutes that found me wishing deeply that I had worn shorts instead of jeans. The last 10 percent or so of the climb features the Wayna Picchu Ruins.
The structure was basically a look-out (think the crow’s nest of Machu Picchu) where the Incas could spot any incoming threat and relay information to the leaders back in the main part of Machu Picchu. That said, if you’ve ever been to Machu Picchu, you’d know how ridiculous the idea of someone trying to attack it would be, I can’t imagine a more naturally protected fortress existing anywhere. (For the record, Machu Picchu was most likely not a fortress, but a spiritual center and “college” for the training of Inca priests).
The views from the top are pretty amazing, though tough to capture on camera (not that I didn’t try). Machu Picchu is but a small part of the overall scene and you can see the Machu Picchu Mountain (behind the city of Machu Picchu from this perspective).
The main ruins of MP are about 1,000 feet below you, and another 2,000 feet down the mountain is the Urubamba River. The road which brought us to Machu Picchu also is visible with its dizzying series of switchbacks. In every other direction is nothing but mountains and cloud forest broken up by plunging valleys diving to the river basin. It’s a pretty amazing display of Mother Nature’s hold on the Andes Mountains.
The stone structures of the famed Lost City of the Incas, which are huge and impressive as you walk through Machu Picchu, shrink to look like a tiny model and you wonder how in the world anybody ever rediscovered this place after the Incas left it.
After spending another 30-45 minutes exploring the ruins at the top, posing for photos at the peak and with a sign marking our accomplishment, we begin our descent. The first 10 percent of the descent is the most treacherous. The part of the mountain that features buildings basically has one exit stairway that is straight down, slick and has tiny stairs (as mentioned above) with nothing to hold on to. Once we returned to the hiking path (read: stairs … lots of stairs) it was pretty mild, though long and exhausting.
Along the way, we were shooed along by a few park employees, as everyone was supposed to be through the exit by 1 p.m. We reached the entrance/exit hut at 1:16 p.m. and signed out. We had spent just shy of three hours climbing, exploring and descending the peak, and we were beat. Below is a photo gallery featuring additional photos from our hike up and down Wayna Picchu.
Meg, and probably Mom, wanted to head back to the entrance and grab lunch at the cafeteria just outside the park. I also was hungry, but feared that if we left our resolve to return would fade, and I was not eager to leave knowing that this may be my last chance to see this place. Logic won out, however, and we decided to grab a bite to eat. We walked toward the exit, at the opposite end of the city, through the residential structures. This path provides a pretty impressive view of the massive terrace structure that leads up to the guardhouse from which one can see the postcard view. It also took us to the Temple of the Condor, which features an stone altar for sacrifices that forms an image of a condor — one of three animals the Incas held sacred along with the serpent and the puma.
Lunch turned out to be a great idea for two reasons. First, getting a meal into our bodies re-energized us for the second half of our day (since our train wasn’t until 6:30, and Aguas Calientes is awful — I can’t emphasize that enough — we obviously were going to stay at Machu Picchu almost right up to the 5 p.m. closing). The second benefit came as a result of my policy of wearing Seattle-centric clothing whenever visiting tourist sites (in this case a Mariners hat and a green Seattle T-Shirt) so as to stand out to any fellow travelers from the Pacific Northwest.
This strategy paid off when we sat down and the young man across from us asked “Hey, are you from Seattle?” Indeed we are, and, we learned in short order, so was he. Stefan graduated from Garfield High School and was attending college in Maine. He was presently on a year-long hiatus traveling around South America. The bigger coincidence, however, came when we told him our story, and that we were living in Ayacucho. At this news, his eyes grew large and he indicated to his traveling partner, Kiki.
It turns out Kiki, who is a Dutch child psychologist who had met Stefan while traveling, would be moving to Ayacucho that very week to start a six-month job with a Dutch NGO in our beloved Huamanga. We told Kiki about where we work, exchanged e-mails and told her to get in touch us with us so we could grab a drink and show her around town. Within days of returning to Ayacucho, Meg heard from Kiki (I was in the States at the time), and we’ve now introduced her to GeGe. Kiki, who is pretty busy with her own group, is hoping to have time to lend her expertise as a psychologist to Kids at the Crossroads from time to time. Small world.
After lunch, we had about two-three hours to kill and spent most of it at the guardhouse drinking in the postcard view and enjoying a spectacular day: sunny, bright blue skies and 65-70 degrees. As we wandered through the park that afternoon, we decided that this was the time of day to visit Machu Picchu. Both times we’d come, we arrived early in the day, as is the custom for most visitors. The Peruvian government strictly regulates the number of people that enter the ruins each day, so it’s never super crowded, but by about 2 p.m., most of the people clear out, and it really felt like we had the park to ourselves.
Meg and I decided that if we ever return, we’d try and arrive at noon or so, and miss the morning rush. In addition to being almost deserted, the afternoon sunlight provided spectacular lighting in which to take photos.
Certainly, if you’re climbing Wayna Picchu, you must arrive early as 11 a.m. is the latest you can start your hike. Also, there is a mystic, almost magical, feel to being there early in the morning when the clouds are wrapped around the mountains.
But, for my money (and it’s not cheap to get there), the best time to be there is in the early afternoon. That said, there is no bad time to visit. Many times in life, something that you’ve built up to Bucket List Status can disappoint, but not this one. Even on the second visit, it was spectacular and as I edited the photos to put on the blog, I wondered if I’d ever get to see it in person again. Hopefully, but if not, I’m glad I had the second visit to really cement it in my memory.
After collecting our second backpack from the bag check at 4:30, we caught a bus back to Aguas and waited for our train. We were spent. It was, as we’d predicted, a great day that started early, featured more than its fair share of exercise, and was ending late. But it was the good-tired of a day well spent. We spent about an hour resting in Aguas Calientes, which can actually be pretty picturesque if you avoid the seedy restauranteurs trying to lure you into their establishment before collapsing into our seats for the train ride Ollantaytambo.
During the (very shaky) train ride back to Ollanta, Meg and I forced Mom to play Liverpool Rummy (Meg’s family’s favorite game, and one that requires at least three people to be fun) against her will. During the game, Meg got a glimpse of where my (not so) occasional outbursts of foul language and frustration come from, as Mom, though not doing as badly as she thought, became very upset during a couple of hands. Nonetheless, the game ended peacefully (unlike I’m apt to do from time to time, Mom never threw her cards at Meg) and we returned in one piece. We grabbed a pizza dinner and headed to bed by 9:30 or so. The next day would feature a visit to the Ollantaytambo ruins Meg and I had missed in December and a return to Cusco. Below is a gallery of about 30 photos that didn’t make it into the main part of the blog.
Catch up on all our adventures with Mom: