Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Machu Picchu

View from the Inca Trail checkpoint
We got up at 3:20, had a fast breakfast, and made our way to the exit checkpoint from the Inca Trail, where we waited about 40 minutes for the officials to arrive. 
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It was a cloudy morning, but quite pretty.  We were all excited to finally see Machu Picchu after our four days of pilgrimage and anticipation.  Not to mention that Machu Picchu meant the end of sleeping bags and the resumption of a regular shower schedule.  The journey had been challenging, interesting, beautiful and even brutal. But we were ready to see what was at the end of the trail.
The previous night, our last on the trail, our guide mentioned that the correct pronunciation is Machu Peek’chu, not Machu Peachoo. The double ”c” indicates a syllabic stop. It’s very brief, but once he mentioned it, we could hear it when he asked one of our chaskis to pronounce the name. Apparently the Quechua word that’s pronounced ‘peachoo’ is slang for the male genitals, and he said it’s not uncommon to catch the locals chuckling softly at all the tourists talking about “old willy” instead of “old mountain.” If nothing else, it made it easy for us to remember where the double c fell in the two words.

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Once we cleared the checkpoint, Lana took off at a brisk pace, and we reached the Sun Gate in about 40 minutes. While we weren’t trying to race anyone in other groups, the excitement of what was on the other side of the hike got the better of us (especially Lana) and anytime someone ahead stopped to take a photo or tie their shoe, we moved past them and hurried on. Once we arrived at the sun gate we were disappointed to find that we were completely in the clouds. We could barely see our shoes through it, let alone of Machu Picchu. As we walked down the wider path to the guard house, we could see the surrounding mountains towering over us above the cloud layer.  Our guide had us take a seat along the wall on the trail, and advised us to be patient—the postcard view would come into focus. We waited there for the clouds to clear, and we could see glimpses of different parts of Machu Picchu.  Lana is not the most patient person at the best of times, and she was anxious for the view she felt she’d earned in blood, sweat, and yes, a few tears.  David, however, was patient as always, enjoying the beautiful views of the surrounding mountains as they appeared and disappeared in and out of the clouds.

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Wait for it…
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Wait for it…20121110_062422_310HS_IMG_2280
Here it comes…
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Any minute now…
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Get your camera ready…
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Finally, the clouds parted completely, and we could see our destination.  We made it.

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Even Mr. Bee made it with us!  Of course he was dead weight in Lana’s backpack, but he helped pad her fall so I guess he earned it too.

After we got to Machu Picchu we headed down to the entrance to collect our fellow hikers who had gone back down the mountain after the first day.  We had time to store our bags, grab a drink and clean up a little bit in the bathrooms.  Then, after reunions and refreshments, we went back into the park for a two hour tour with our guide.  This was not our favorite part of the trip, as it felt more like a lecture than a tour, and it seemed as if our guide gave speeches about what he knew. When Lana tried to ask him about something—what looked to be a grinding stone—he sort of shrugged her off.  Not quite the same experience we’d had on the trail.  After a tour of the general areas, we were free to explore on our own.  The group was meeting down in the town, Aguas Calientes, for lunch and eventually everyone else would ride the train back to Ollyantaytambo that night.  After four days to get there, it takes less than 2 hours on the train.

We had opted to stay overnight in Aguas Calientes, however, and spend the next day at Machu Picchu and climb the peak behind it, which is known as Huayna Picchu (which means new mountain, or if your pronounce it wrong, “New Willy”).  Given the fact that we were tired, stinky, and hot (the sun had come out eventually, and in force), we chose to curtail our visit and headed down the mountain by bus early, around noon.  Plus, we knew there was a shower with our names on it down in Aguas Calientes (hot shower in a town called Hot Water, yes). And that had more attraction to us at that moment.   Before leaving for the day, we got our passports stamped (the upper stamp is the one we got when we passed the first checkpoint, at the beginning of the Inca Trail).  It may be campy, but we felt like we earned those stamps as much as any of the others.
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The shower was glorious. I’m pretty sure choirs of angels sang.  Using an actual toilet (with a seat! and a lid!) was pretty nice too.  We spent the afternoon having lunch with our fellow hikers, mainly just sitting around getting to know each other a bit better and enjoying the camaraderie of a group of people with whom we shared something pretty special.  We walked to the train station with them to say goodbye, and also to change our train tickets for the next day, as we planned on coming back earlier than they were.  We were able to get them changed to a Vistadome train leaving around 1:30, which meant not only would we see the river valley in the day time, we’d see it in style.

The next morning, we took the bus up to Machu Picchu, which is how most of the 2500 people who can visit in a day arrive; it felt a bit odd after having arrived on foot the day before, but it didn’t feel like cheating.  Just very different.  We explored the areas we’d skipped previously; it was still early, so there were  a lot fewer people, which was great.  The site is much larger than either of us expected, from reading about it.  The aqueduct system that routes fresh spring water throughout the city still works, and it was neat to see running water popping up in unexpected places.  At 10, we started the hike up Huayna Picchu, which is 360 meters or 1200 feet higher than Machu Picchu.  Some sections were about as steep as a ladder, with stone steps.
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Up was a little tricky, and down was fairly exciting. 
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However, the view of Machu Picchu is stunning, and the ruins on Huayna are pretty amazing on their own.

Eventually, we headed back to town, caught our train, and enjoyed a scenic ride through the sacred valley.  We also got an unexpected dance and fashion show, as one of the train conductors first changed into a colorful, traditional dancing costume, and cavorted up and down the aisle, and then all three took turns changing into different alpaca wool garments (conveniently for sale), and walked the aisle as if it were a fashion runway.  It may have been the oddest thing we saw in Peru, and the bar was not low. 

The train ride was beautiful though, and when we got to Ollantaytambo, we were pondering taking a taxi back to Cusco or trying to figure out the next bus when we came upon a couple of guides who had taken the train with us, who were also getting a taxi back to Cusco.  They asked us if we wanted to share, and it ended up being a really good deal, about 12 soles each.  All told it ended up being a two hour $8 ride through some beautiful landscapes.  And we got the inside scoop on the various tour companies in Cusco—their practices, their treatment of the chaskis, and why none of the tour companies are owned by Peruvians—basically for the same reason you can take such an inexpensive taxi ride.
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We’d like to say something prosaic here about how the trip changed us, but we’re still thinking about that. We know a little more about ourselves than we did when we started.  I think we’ve evaluated our needs and we’re not interested in being that far from a bathroom anytime soon.  We know that we can do whatever we have to, and even enjoy it along the way (sometimes).  We know that (and this bears capitalizing) We Are Not Campers.  This was a pretty special reason to camp, and we decided to do it despite our reservations.  Seeing Machu Picchu is a trip of a lifetime, and just the train trip and day or two spent on the mountain are totally worth it.  But hiking the trail was a very different experience.  There are so many things you see that you would never see otherwise, whether that’s a soccer game played at 3800 meters, or the most delicate orchid hiding in the cloud-forest, or even a train of mules picking their way carefully down a set of stone steps.  Hidden lakes, Inca ruins, a plant that makes boys abstinent, trout caught from the stream an hour ago and cooked for your dinner.

If you’re thinking about a trip, or dreaming about it on your “someday” bucket list, we would tell you to go to Machu Picchu. Go however you can, whenever you can.  But if you have the time and inclination, you should hike the Inca Trail. If we can do it, then maybe we can inspire you to do it someday too!