Thursday, November 10, 2016

Peru 3 - Machu Picchu and Cusco

After three days and nights in the Sacred Valley, we were all excited to move on. We took a morning train to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu. The train ride was a couple of hours long and the scenery was beautiful. We rode along a river for most of the way, in a lush green valley. The coolest thing was seeing parts of the Inca Trail. This is a 26-mile trail that people can hike; it takes four days because of altitude issues and rough terrain. Sherpas/porters carry your bags and set up camp. My dream is to hike the Inca Trail someday. You’re all invited.
Fun fact: there is an Inca Trail marathon and the record is held by a porter who ran it in 3 hours and 23 minutes.

Once the train arrives in Aguas Calientes, we catch a bus to Machu Picchu. It’s a 20-minute ride with hairpin turns and steep drop-offs. Only buses travel this road. It’s too narrow to pass, so when we meet another bus, the drivers exchange some sort of signal and then one backs up until it reaches a wider spot. Backing up in a bus with a steep cliff right beside you takes some getting used to. The drivers seem like they know what they’re doing, which is a big relief. I’d hate to be on the training bus.
To review: we have taken a cab (from our house), a plane (from Winnipeg to Cusco), a bus (to the train station), a train, and finally another bus, all to reach our ultimate destination - Machu Picchu. And it was Worth It! No picture, no video, nothing, prepared me for the reality. It was so amazing and surreal to actually be standing on the grounds of the Inca citadel. It was built around 1450, abandoned about 100 years later as a result of the Spanish Conquest, and rediscovered in 1911 by an American explorer named Hiram Bingham. The local people knew of its existence all along and actually showed him where it was, but he gets the credit. I could go on, but I’ll move along. If you’re interested, you can read more here:
First glimpse of the ruins

There she is, in all her glory. (On day 2, Dale and I climbed that tall mountain.)

So there we were in our breath-taking surroundings, climbing around and admiring the views from every angle. Part of the group climbed to the top of the ruins while the others stayed lower down. Both groups got a good guided tour of the history and meaning behind some of the structures.
Following are many pictures of Machu Picchu. It was hard to resist snapping a photo at every new level we climbed to and every different angle.

We had lunch at a restaurant up there, then took the bus back down to Aguas Calientes. From the bus stop, it was only two short blocks to our hotel, yet we managed to lose two people. That’s a long story but thankfully it ended well.  The hotel was so unique; part of it was outside and part of it was inside and it wasn’t always obvious which was which.  Here’s a link to a little video of the hotel, town and Machu Picchu.

I would have liked to spend more time exploring the town but by the time we had checked in, enjoyed happy hour and ate dinner, we went to bed in preparation for an early trip back up to Machu Picchu. Six of us had signed up for an extra hike to Huayna Picchu, the mountain behind Machu Picchu. They only allow 400 people per day to do this hike (200 in the morning, 200 in the afternoon), so you have to make reservations months in advance. So the next morning we were at the bus stop by 6 a.m., along with many others who also thought they’d beat the rush. We stood in line for at least 30 minutes but finally we were on our way up the mountain. The weather was perfect - sunny and warm and so, so beautiful.

Once we got up to Machu Picchu and headed to the spot where our hike began, the crowd had thinned out. Everyone has to sign in so they can keep track of who’s up there. There were six of us from our group that went together. The hike has the reputation for being super dangerous, however, according to this article, there are actually not that many people who have died there. The potential is certainly there; one misstep and it would all be over.

Side note: less than two months before we were there, a German tourist plunged to his death at Machu Picchu after losing his balance when taking selfies.

It was a steep climb. You hike 1000 feet in 1.2 miles. It’s actually not as hard as it looks or sounds. The stairs are uneven and rough, it’s super narrow, and you have to stop regularly to catch your breath because of the altitude, but slow and steady wins the race. Well, that’s untrue: our guide bragged that in his younger days, he ran up in 11 minutes. It took us about 1.5 hours. Occasionally, there was a cable to hang on to, but sometimes you had to climb up with your hands and feet, like a ladder.

The views were even more incredible than I expected. In the picture below, you can see the winding road that the bus takes up the mountain (on the left) with the ruins waaaaay below us. I wish I could adequately express the feeling of being up there. Not to be dramatic or anything, but it's kind of a sacred experience. I almost get choked up thinking of it. And I never get choked up. It's something I'll never forget and hope to do again some day.

The atmosphere at the top was pretty cool. Everyone was sort of euphoric and amazed and we were all like members of a cool mountain-climbing club. For once, there was no one selling souvenirs or water or snacks and there were only a couple of park rangers on the whole mountain. It really felt like we were discovering something new. Well, us and the 200 other people in our time slot.

I was gripping the rock pretty tightly - very freaky

At the top, we saw a sign pointing to a hike to some caves. One couple decided to just head down, but us remaining four decided to keep going. We are obviously not experienced hikers and climbers and were ill-informed; I thought we were going to the Moon Temple, which our guide had mentioned. Instead we descended steeply for half an hour straight on unmarked trails. The caves were cool, but then we had to go back up. That’s when one of the guys started struggling a bit. We had several anxious moments wondering what we would do if he collapsed. There was no cell service, our water supply was waning and there was no one else around; we saw literally one other couple the whole time. I was really hoping that sign-in system worked. But we all kept going and had a happy surprise when our trail eventually met up with the main trail going back down. We thought we had to climb all the way back up to the top and take a trail down from there, so we were very relieved.

Goodbye beautiful Machu Picchu
It was almost four hours by the time we got back to Machu Picchu. We were super tired and hungry and had just enough time for a quick meal before meeting everyone back at the hotel, then heading to the train station.
The town of Aguas Calientes
At the train station as we were about to board our train, one guy couldn’t find his train ticket. He had just had it minutes before, but now it was nowhere to be found. As he was emptying his pockets and digging through his backpack, Dale flagged down a train station employee and got a new ticket issued. It was more frantic than it sounds, but yet again, it all worked out.
And then we could relax and exhale on the 3.5 hour train ride to Cusco. There was some onboard entertainment as well as a fashion show and some shopping opportunities. That’s a smart move, taking advantage of a captive audience who can’t go anywhere. It worked.

crazy dancing guy
Again, our hotel was a very welcome sight after a long, tiring day. We didn’t even have the energy to go for dinner so Dale went to the store and bought some Pringles and chocolate bars, which we ate in bed. Life is good.
We spent one full day in Cusco, visiting a market, touring a couple of cathedrals, and seeing some more Inca sites.
San Pedro Market. (photo cred to one of our travelers)

This statue sits at the top of a hill overlooking Cusco and is aptly named "White Jesus."

Wilson, one of our beloved guides

On our last night of the tour (not counting the optional Amazon extension), we went to a dinner show at Don Antonio's. The food was excellent and very plentiful. Don't let the "chicken" label fool you; this dish was actually "Cuy," better known as guinea pig. Mmm.

After dinner, we were treated to a very entertaining show. One guy in our group got pulled up to dance and Dale and I were laughing at him and feeling such relief it wasn't us. At that instant, Dale also got pulled onto the stage. That's Dale's worst nightmare but he actually did very well and didn't embarrass himself too much.

And that was the end of the main portion of our trip. I accompanied about half the group for an extra few days in the Amazon while Dale and the rest of the group headed home. I took this from the bus as our group headed to the airport. I like to think they were all jealous.



Anonymous said...

oh. gosh.

I. Can't. Even.


What I really need to know: is the guy who got lost before the flight left Canada, nearly collapsed on the trail, and lost his train that the same guy? I think I might kill him if I were you.


someone said...

hahahaha Sheri-Lee!

Looks like an absolutely amazing trip, Ellen!

I want to know if you ate the guinea pig. I actually shuddered just typing that.

xo Sio