Machu Piccu

2009 March 12
tags: ,
by Levi

Up bright and early thanks to a knock on our door. We quickly packed our last things and brought the bags we weren’t taking to Machu Picchu down to the lobby to be stored. We asked the guy at the desk if he could call us a cab, but he insisted we’d just need to stand outside and we could hail one. We waited for about 10 minutes, during which time we saw numerous cabs, and one guy who came out after us and purposely moved to the corner ahead of us to snag a cab out of turn as it were, before we caught one to take us to the station, for a whole dollar (a 10 minute cab ride!).

At San Pedro Train Station, there were about a dozen people in front of us in line to get their tickets, most presumably like us with a reservation. Nonetheless, we waited a half hour for the line to move excruciatingly slowly, the old Canadian in front of us taking nearly 10 minutes himself, and asking me to translate when he couldn’t understand what the teller was saying. We finally got our tickets and moved to the waiting area, which had a cafeteria. My Dad had a sandwich and coffee, and I excitedly ordered a Mate de Coca, which is a tea made with coca leaves, the best of which (like what I had) is made loose without tea bags. It was surprisingly tasty stuff.

Our seats on the train were reserved, with mine next to Joe’s. We headed out nearly on time, made it about a mile, stopped, and turned around. After going all the way back to the station, we started down a different track, stopped, and turned around again. After an obligatory comment about how the train must work like one of those toy windup cars you drag backwards a bunch of times before letting it go, we started off on a third set of tracks and made it out of Cuzco. I promptly passed out, waking up only long enough to notice there was an awesome rapids following the train line, the ride was extremely bumpy, and sleeping on the train was horribly uncomfortable and would definitely lead to a bad crink in my neck. Then I went back to sleep and didn’t really wake up until Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of Machu Picchu that’s unreachable by any road.

Off the train we were surrounded by people holding signs for numerous people important enough to have people waiting for them and hotels in the area. Then we found out the town of Aguas Calientes was kind enough to build a large artisan market between the train station and the town, and forces you to walk through a torrent of salespeople and tons of shops before stumbling across an exit to the city, if you can call it such, proper. Aguas Calientes was catering to the international tourist, with nearly every sign in English, usually translated terribly, and made nearly entirely of hotels, internet cafes, restaurants, and stores selling the sort of things only tourists would buy. We walked into the first hotel we came across, found it cheap and acceptable, and took it. Still being early, we popped into an Internet Cafe with nice computers, a horrid internet connection, and tasty capuccino. Afterwards, we headed to the stream-fed hot baths for which Aguas Calientes was named, talked to some tourists, and relaxed. Dinner was disappointing burgers at disappointingly non-Peruvian prices.

In the research I’d done about Machu Picchu online before we got there, it was suggested to get up crazy early and catch the first bus (5:30 AM) from Aguas Calientes to the ruins to catch the sunrise over the mountains. We decided that sleep was overrated so we’d give this a try. We bought our bus and entry tickets the day we arrived ($14 roundtrip and $38 respectively per set… oof!) and arranged to be rudely awoken early in the morning. Once again we packed our bags so we could leave behind our larger backpacks and just take a day bag to the ruins. Once again we got to bed early. And once again, there was an obtrusive knock, this time at 4:45 AM.

We dumped our stuff and were amazed to find the town alive, with other’s realizing this deciding that the right course of action was to run to the bus stop, which was clearly lunacy. The line at the bus stop was around 50 people deep when we arrived just minutes after 5 AM, and the locals who knew the routine were out and about, selling coffee, coca tea (had another!), coffee cake, sandwiches, water bottles, and ponchos. When clocks reached the magic hour of 5:30 AM, an army of buses caravaned in and the mob surged to board them, with no respect for the order of the lines. We got onto the second bus in line and began up the series of switchbacks that leads to the ruins.

The bus hauled up the side of the mountain, coming inches from the edge, the rocky mountainside, and hikers crazy enough to be climbing the road instead of paying for the bus. From our experience watching buses driving in Latin America, this was business as usual, but from a new perspective. We reached the top and piled into a foggy line for the enterance, where they arbitrarily told people with certain bags that they were too big and they’d need to check their baggage. We passed through without incidence.

The park itself? Rocked. Amazing. Incredible. Understandably a global destination. When we first came in, the place was completely inundated with fog, and not knowing if it would be like that all day, we climbed to nearly every high vista – panting constantly thanks to the high altitude – and took the obligatory pictures, mostly of fogged in ruins.

Foggy Ruins

Foggy Ruins

As we worked our way to the opposite side of the ruins from the enterance, we came across the enterance to the infamous Mount Waynapicchu, the iconic mountain behind nearly every picture of Machu Picchu and on which the ruins stretch all the way to the top. I’d learned from reading online is limited to 400 climbers a day, and that it usually fills up quickly. Because of that, I was amazed they weren’t nearly at the daily limit despite it being nearly two hours from when the park opened, so we signed the register and entered the semi-restricted area and headed for Waynapicchu.

Mount Waynapicchu from within the ruins proper

Mount Waynapicchu from within the ruins proper

The fog began to lift as we climbed up and up, over a completely inconcievable staircase made of stones piled on ledges with sheer drops thousands of feet, and footholds carved into massive solid rocks. We had to take frequent breaks as the temperature rose and our lungs struggled for air. The fog got stuck in eddies of wind pouring around the dramatic landscape and swirled and churned over the shrinking ruins, laid out gloriously under us.

They probably wouldn't let you climb Incan Stairs in the states

They probably wouldn't let you climb Incan Stairs in the states

I made it to the top just a few minutes before Joe, and we hung out on top watching the fog swirl, obfuscating our view of the ruins, and climbing through the numerous incredible points and peaks, taking photos that don’t turn out in any fair way and trying to catch our breath and the ungodly height. To help, we smoked a couple cuban cigars I’d brought in my day bag.

A mostly fogless view of Machu Picchu from the top of Mount Waynapicchu

A mostly fogless view of Machu Picchu from the top of Mount Waynapicchu

The mountainside around Waynapicchu

The mountainside around Waynapicchu

As we came down off the mountain, things started to clear up, but of course we were far too worn already to consider the half-hour+ long climb back to the top. Instead I climbed the shorter mountain at the base of Waynapicchu while Joe sat out. By the time we made it back to the standard area, the fog was nearly a think of the past, at least in the ruins themselves. Of course, at this point, we were both worn out, it was blazing hot, and we’d run out of water. Joe decided to call it quits, and I began the arduous process of retracing the most painful steps of the day in the beating sun to shoot the same pictures without the fog. Along the way, I met some awesome alpacas.

Fuzzy baby alpaca

Fuzzy baby alpaca

Big curious alpaca

Big curious alpaca

The cliche Machu Picch photo

The cliche Machu Picch photo

We weren't the only ones out getting some pictures

We weren't the only ones out getting some pictures

Worn out from a day of hiking at high altitude, on the way back to the exit to meet up again with Joe I passed a sign for Intipunku. Not having any idea what that was, I decided it’d be silly to come all the way to Machu Picchu without checking it out, despite really not feeling like doing any more walking. The path to Intipunku was entirely cobblestone, slowly arcing up and around a mountain on the opposite side of Waynapicchu from the ruins. I followed the path, out of breath and sweating like a Peruvian pig, for well over a mile, finding myself higher even than the peak of  Waynapicchu over the ruins, but the path seemed to never end, and I eventually turned around and came back.

Notice the ruins just barely in the photo on the right

Notice the ruins just barely in the photo on the right

Another spectacular view of the ruins

Another spectacular view of the ruins

I met up again with my Dad, amazed at how late it had gotten (I spent about 9 hours at the ruins), and caught a bus back down the mountain. We grabbed our stuff and another terrible excuse for a pizza (what is it with South American’s and pizza? It’s everywhere but never good!), and made our way back through the artisan mall to the train station. This time I actually watched the scenery go by and talked to a young Canadian journalist temporarily covering Latin America on a grant, until the sun went down. Back in Cuzco, the station was overrun with cabs, and we managed to talk them down to a ride back to our hotel for only slightly over a dollar. By then the city was mostly shut down for the evening, and when I asked the receptionist woman what to do about dinner, she suggested delivery chicken, and even did the ordering for us, exactly what a couple worn out, sleep deprived adventurers needed.

Side note: the place we had our last lunch in Aguas Calientes had the most amazing translations for its menu, some of which can be blurrily read here.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2009 March 12
    Dan permalink

    I visited Machu Picchu about 5 years ago and took the same train from Cuzco, I too thought the train was returning to the station when it started backing up but it turned out the track has several switchbacks to allow access to/from the main line. Unfortunately I had film problems with my camera so I have no pictures. I don’t know if your plans include Nazca but you should really stop there and take a plane ride to view the drawings in the desert.