Machu Picchu, Peru
Well I thought I was ready for my first glimpse of Machu Picchu, but quite frankly nothing prepared me for the jaw dropping sight of the most famous of famous Inca ruins. I got up at the fabulous hour of 4:30 a.m. to jump on the 6:10 a.m. train from Ollyantaytambo to Aguas Caliente to meet my guide David. On the train, I sat beside a really nice couple and their daughter who were from Spain. (They helped me out when I spilled some of my latte all over my pants, which were, fortunately, waterproofed.)
When I arrived in AC, David was waiting for me. We bought my bus tickets and admission tickets for MP, dropped my stuff off at Hostel Presidente and headed out for the bus. It was decided that we would head first to the Inca Bridge (about a hour or so hike and then come back and explore the MP ruins. I planned to spend my second day (Saturday) at MP hiking to the Sun Gate at sunrise and then spend the rest of my time Saturday just taking it all in. The first thing I noticed when we passed through the MP entrance is a set of stairs straight up. Um the guide books never said anything about jumping on a stairmaster to get to MP. This omission turned out to be a huge oversight. Let me just say this right now, I consider myself in O.K. shape. However, this mother #&ck%ng path kicked my ass. Up and up and up and up and up. Finally after losing my breath more times than I can count in the thin air, there it was. This dazzling, magnificent, architectural wonder that had been hidden from the world until the 20th century. I cannot even begin to describe how marvelous and amazing that first glimpse was for me. I think I must have said “oh my God” about ten times. And I want to emphasize that exclamation was in no way an exaggeration.
Once I got over my initial reaction, David managed to drag me on to the Inca Bridge trail, which is believed to be the bridge that connects the completed Inca trail with a portion of the trail that was a “work in progress”. To say that the hike was rough doesn’t really do it justice. We walked up rocks stairs and more rock stairs and still more rock stairs. We rested. Then yep more rock stairs and still more rock stairs then a rock path uphill. The walk took us along the side of a mountain and many times, perilously close to the edge. However, the view, the scenery and the plant life (including lilies, bromide and bamboo) made it worth the trek. We finally reached a crest and the trail evened out and we coasted the rest of the way to the gate. Once we reached the Inca Gate, I realized it was worth a little pain. To see the stone work and architectural design that went into the construction is magnificent.
After the obligatory pictures we headed back to the main MP sight. The hike was a very quick, easy walk back and as we stood on the top of the hillside looking down on the site I suddenly saw a herd of “something” grazing in the middle of MP. “Uh David are those llamas?” “Yes. They are the grass cutters for Machu Picchu”. “Oh My God. I must have a picture taken with one.” David looked at me like I was nuts. Here I was standing in the middle of one of the greatest architectural wonders of the world and I was telling him that my priority was a picture with a llama. I immediately explained that a dear friend of mine was a llama fan and her nickname was the Tali Llama. I promised her that I would make it my mission to have my picture taken with a llama in Peru. David told me it would not be a problem and later in the day when we were down on the grassy area we would get it done.
David and I than headed off to look at the specific structures of MP. We saw the Sun Temple which was constructed so that the sun would strike the partial Inca cross perfectly on June 21 (summer solstice) to create the full cross. We moved on to the Intihuatana, which is a Quechua (Incan language) word meaning hitching post of the sun. This structure consisted of a large carved circular stone that was used by the Incas to determine the seasons (ie the return of the sun and the summer solstice – a most sacred day in the Inca calendar). The Intihuantana was in perfect condition until a few years ago when the Peruvian government let some jackass make a beer commercial on the stone and a bottle was dropped breaking off a small piece of the sacred stone in the name of commercialism/capitalism. (Just proves there are jackasses everywhere.)
So as we walked down from Intihuantana, I spotted the llamas and realized we are going to walk right past them. “David can we try and take a picture with the llamas now?” David noded and I literally skipped ahead giddy with the thought that Tali was going to be so excited about this picture. Well walked across the grass and came upon the first two llamas and it is meant to be… one llama stopped grazing, lifted its head and walked right over to me. David snapped two quick pictures and its “That’s it. Thank you. We’re Done.” Picture magic.
We then took in the Sacred Rock which has been carved to mirror the mountain in the distance known as Yanantin. After a brief rest (and a granola bar) we went down below to look at the Temple of the Condor, the Temple of the Virgins and the Royal Tomb (thought to have at one time held the remains of the 9th Inca King Pachacuti also known as Pachacutec) as well as some of the commoner residences and work areas. At this point, David and I had seen virtually all of the buildings at MP and were rather exhausted. We had hiked around for about 5 hours nonstop so we decided to call it a day and head back to AC. We had just enough time to grab a bite to eat (and my first taste of Peruvian beer, Cusquena – made mostly of barley and mmm mmm good), before David had to catch the train back to Cusco. I was going to spend Saturday on my own hiking to the Sun Gate and hanging out before I met back up with David in Ollyantaytambo for an afternoon drive through the Sacred Valley. David had promised to provide me with my first taste of homemade chicha corn beer. Not sure if I should be excited or scared.
So a little bit about the town of Aguas Caliente, which is where everyone stays for the night when you are spending more than one day seeing MP. Picture a town that is 100% tourist driven that doesn’t really give a rat’s ass about the tourists, has open stalls everywhere selling five and dime trinkets, but going through the motions, and has numerous bars and restaurants begging for your business, but never getting around to serving you. Throw in the Wham’s Greatest Hits over a loudspeaker outside a bar and a pan flute version of I Did it My Way over another loudspeaker outside yet another bar and you have AC. And about that never getting served stuff. It’s true. Once you sit down you never, ever get served. That’s right …. I went to three restaurants last night (Friday) and outside each place it was “Señorita Señorita” beckoning me in. I’d sit down. I’d get a menu. And … I’d never get served. Not once. FINE … all you people of AC I will take my money and save it. Screw all of you. I went and bought a pot of coca tea and some cheese and crackers at the little market for a total of 9 soles (roughly $3) and called it good. I would have spent about 40 soles on meal and tip. But nooooo. ****** me off! (I don’t think it was the single female traveling by herself thing either … I saw other people leaving because of the lack of service. And obviously I will not be doing any travel endorsements for AC any time soon.)
So I headed off to bed at the lovely hour of 9:00 p.m. (on a Friday night!) because it was going to be an early morning for me again since I wanted to be on one of the first buses to MP, which starting leaving at 5:30 a.m. I set my alarm for 4:00 a.m. and when I arrived at the MP bus station at 5:00 a.m. there was already a long line. One of the big attractions at MP is to climb Huayna Picchu (the pointed peak that sits in the backdrop of the ruins.) There are only 400 tickets a day given out so there is a real fight to get those tickets by the backpacker set. Anyway, I made it on bus #6 and arrived at the MP gates just as the MP gates were opening at 6:00 a.m. (It is about a 1/2 hour drive up hill to MP.) Ironically, I arrived early enough to be offered a ticket to climb Huayna Picchu. I declined. I know my limits. Besides, I had my sights set on the Sun Gate and wanted to get there before the sun was too high in the sky.
So I climbed the stairs of death to MP and entered the site. And once at the site, I realized there was harldly anyone there (maybe 100 people). It was awesome. No people talking. No tour groups. It was so worth waking up at 4 a.m. for this quiet time at MP. Then I turned to my left and looked at the huge ascent ahead of me to the Sun Gate. I must be freaking nuts to do this … but I really wanted to say I climbed to the Sun Gate (maybe it validates that after all I’ve been through health wise, I’m still here to do things like this … I don’t know ). Anyway, off I set. It was much, much harder than I thought it would be. Not only straight up hill for an hour with hundreds of stone stairs, but the pathways were made of uneven stone so you really had to watch your step. As I was heading up, a lot of the backpackers who had hiked to MP on the 2 and 4 day treks were just coming down the hill (the Sun Gate is their last stop before they walk into MP). As I got closer to the top, it became steeper and narrower. Just as I rounded the corner and made it to the Sun Gate, the sun actually came out. Perfect (although at this point my feet were burning so much all I wanted to do was sit down). When I got to the top there were three other people there (Germans), and I said to the gal “I feel like I should do the Rocky dance.” She didn’t laugh. Either she didn’t understand, or she wasn’t a fan of Rocky. (I guess there’s a third possibility and that would be that she just thought I was an idiot.) Anyway, after a brief rest and a chance to admire the surreal view, I asked this Aussie (who arrived after me) to take my picture, and then it was time to head back before the sun became too hot. As luck would have it, the Aussie was heading back down too so he and I kept each other company on the trek back to MP (which was a walk around the block compared to the climb up). The Aussie and I solved all the world’s problems by the time we reached MP and agreed that Pink Floyd should have never have been permitted to tour without Roger Waters and that Queen ruled.
I spent the next couple hours sitting in various spots around the upper perimeter of MP just staring down at the ruins. It really is so amazing to see this wonder. I really just wanted to burn the vision into my memory. Then, suddenly it was 10:00 a.m. and time to catch my train to Ollyantaytambo. I had already been at the MP site for 4 hours. I took one last look at MP before heading down the stairs. A few tears welled in my eyes. I would likely never see this place again, but I was also one of the lucky ones who actually came, saw and experienced (can’t say I conquered) the glorious mystique of Machu Picchu.