(Check out a smattering of my Machu Picchu photos here.)
4:30. In the morning. When it’s still dark, and of course cool and raining hard in Cusco. That was the time we had to rise up out of a warm bed to meet the taxi, to get to the PeruRail “bus”, to take us to the train station 2 hours way in Ollantaytambo, to catch our train for Aguas Caliente, to catch the bus to Machu Picchu the next day. As dubious as I was, it all worked quite nicely. A bonus feature of the rain was that all the bus windows fogged up immediately, including the driver’s, so we didn’t have to see how close to the road’s edge we got as we dodged car, taxi, pedestrian, dog, pothole and other real or imagined obstacles. A bonus, because as we crested the mountain out of Cusco, and began our speedy descent into Chinchero and the Sacred Valley, one foot past the unbarriered road’s edge was a drop of – eh, maybe a few hundred feet. Certainly negotiable by a veteran Peruvian on foot, or even on a mototaxi, but my bet was that our VW mini bus with 25 people crammed inside wouldn’t end up in quite the same space. I was convinced WE would end up in the same place, because – as previously mentioned – vehicles in Peru are NOT designed for anyone over 5’8”. I was crammed into my seat firmly, no seat belt required. Once inserted, I was going to need the jaws of life to get me out.
Off to Machu Picchu!
We made it to Ollantaytambo in good time, and found a beautiful little train station that reminded me of rural train stations in Switzerland. Neat outside tables, an efficient café, colorful trains, and on all sides, close in, towering mountains capped in low hanging clouds. PeruRail had, for $71, provided us reserved seating in the Vistadome carriages, which were very nicely appointed and had skylights running throughout. The ONLY downside was, again, my stature. The headrests designed to support the reclining heads of the typical 5’8” person, hit directly on my shoulderblades, causing me to lean forward and appear much more interested in the stranger from Calgary sitting directly across from me than I actually was. Nevertheless, the slow gentle 2 hour ride from
Ollantaytambo to Aqua Caliente, along the Urubambo river was beautiful and relaxing. The Urubambo this time of year, is especially full and was, at points, raging. One veteran of Class 5 rafting trips said it was more powerful and violent than any he’d seen. Brown, roiling, frothy, incessant, the Urubamba waters eventually end up in the Amazon a thousand or so miles to the east, in Brazil.
We arrived in Aguas Caliente on time, which surprised me due to the general lack of interest in anything in Peru being “on time”, and were met at the station gate by a man with a sign with our names, representing our hotel. He asked us if we were going to Machu Pichu that day (it was about 11am) or tomorrow. When we replied “tomorrow,” he reached behind and deep into the crowd of greeters and pulled out a little boy to the front, about 8 years old, wearing a red shirt and a shy look, and barked amidst the noise of the train station, “This is Ricardo, he’ll lead you to your hotel!” And with that Ricardo shot off across the bridge and into the labyrinthine streets of Aguas Caliente. We began the chase and after about 10 minutes of climbing wet streets and ducking store awnings (again, 5’8” is the key design heuristic in this country), he turned into the lobby of our hotel, stopped at the desk, and finally looked at us. Still didn’t say a word, but what was there to talk about? Once he was convinced we knew what he knew, that we were home, he took off. I was able to snag him and slip a tip in his hand, and he smiled for the first time. Whether or not he was going to tell his dad (I presume) about this “propina” or not, I have no idea. Probably. Families, here, work hard together to make ends meet.
Our hotel was fine. Nothing terribly fancy, but clean, warm and safe. They even had a spa offering massages, which I indulged in ($25 for an “Incan Massage”). We…wait a minute…I haven’t introduced my travel companions.
Anne Katherine and Peter On Train
Peter is a retired engineer from Chicago, taking some time to enjoy Peru as a volunteer. He also didn’t read the part in the travel book about height, is about the same as me, and so also has cramped knees, and a damaged head. Ann Katherine, (“AK”) is from Tennessee who managed to graduate from Univ Georgia a semester early and is spending a bit of her “earned time off for good behavior” volunteering here in Peru. She’s less than 5’8” and so didn’t suffer as much as we did. An interesting trio we made, but it worked and I’m fortunate to have met them.
(An aside: traveling the world alone as a volunteer means you WILL meet lots of new people from different parts of the world. There are many things we all share in common, being a self selected group, but a key ingredient is that we all want to explore with friends. And new friends are easy to make as a volunteer. I highly recommend it.)
The day we arrived in Aguas Caliente was Peter’s birthday, so after unpacking we headed out into the downpour, and found a wonderful restaurant, randomly, for lunch and a little cumpleaños celebration. We were early, at 12 noon, and had the whole place to ourselves, except for the live band that serenaded us with traditional Andes music. I’m not sure if amplifiers are traditional, but they had a couple anyway. I had alpaca for lunch. Peter got a nice rendition of Happy Birthday from the staff, and we left a happy bunch. Back out into the deluge.
The rest of the day we just sort of hung around. We COULD have soaked in the thermal hot springs, but reports of the hottest of the springs being about 75 degrees and the color being somewhat…..brown, caused that activity to drop down the rankings, replaced by the Inca Massage and more eating. Which we did. And then we went to sleep early.
5:30am, At The Bus
The next morning, another 4:30am wake up call. It was dark. It was early. It was raining harder on the metal roof of the hotel than I can recall ever hearing. And yet…we wanted to climb up Wayna Picchu, the tall mountain overlooking Machu Pichhu. Here’s the problem. The park service only allows 400 people per day to climb Wayna Picchu, and they start stamping tickets at 6:00am. To be assured of an opportunity to climb W.P. you need to get up early. Some people will get up at 3:00am and walk to the park to arrive by 5:00am. We elected NOT to do that and take our chances on the next approach – a 5:30am bus ride that would get us there by 6:00am. We took a risk that coming during the off season, when it was cold and raining, would give us an edge. But we didn’t know how close we were cutting it. After considering the options, (“can we leave later?”, “is it really worth it to climb this blasted mountain?”, “won’t it be slippery and treacherous if we go?”), at 5:00am in the hotel lobby, we decide to go for it. Washington, our guide, didn’t look terribly enthusiastic, but he fulfilled his professional obligation and we all four headed out in the dark, rain immediately soaking us and our ponchos (for reasons only fate can describe, I ended up representing the New York Mets with my poncho that day). We hurried down the eerily lit slippery empty streets of Aguas Caliente and arrived to find a long line of similarly deluded tourists, waiting for the buses to fill up and take off. We felt good about our decision, we were wet, but we had committed and we were in line at a good time to make it in the Top 400. We were going to do it!
But as with many things that seem to be going so well, they were, in fact, not. Washington: “So everyone has their tickets to Machu Picchu, yes?”
Dave: “uh, tickets?”
The looks on their faces, in the pitch black, drenched and getting more drenched, with recent memories of a warm bed fresh in their mind, and the only reason for getting up so early slipping from their grasp because of me, was indeed a Kodak moment. I didn’t have time to take their pictures, as I shoved my bag over to Washington and RAN, yes friends and family Dave RAN the half mile uphill back to the hotel where I had left my ticket in my checked luggage (a yellow plastic “Mega” bag). And then I RAN back, sliding half the way on smooth wet stones – but without really falling down…much – and pulled up to the gang breathing hard like a fat man running after an ice cream truck (?). We boarded and I sat in my seat, heart pounding, sweat soaking me as wet underneath as the rain soaked me on top. I was…..awake, as awake as I can recall ever being. And my friends were cautiously compassionate. It was possible we could still get on the list.
The Classic View
The 29 minute bus ride up the mountain was uneventful, other than the occasional game of chicken our driver would play with other return bus drivers coming down the mountain on the narrow road, but we arrived without incident. And we GOT the magic stamp to climb Huayan Picchu!!!! And then, we were IN Machu Picchu.
I’m pretty sure every superlative has been used about Machu Picchu by the National Geographic and IMAX people, and I don’t want to be hackneyed, but seeing it for the first time was simply breathtaking. I’m going to describe, in another blog entry, my experience of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu, but I will say here that it was WAY more astonishing than I had expected.
Our Guide, Washington
Washington took us 3 around, explained what we were looking at, and gave us a little history too. Our ponchos blew around, we got wet, and we didn’t care. I had brought wine as an offering to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth) on the advice of Ezekiel, the local spiritual advisor from last weekend’s San Pedro Ceremony, and Washington, I think, was moved that we gringos had gone to the trouble. He took us to a place called the “Wishing Place”, a stone inside a cave under the Temple of the Sun, where we each poured a portion of wine on the stone, offering it to Pacha Mama, and made a wish. After each made a wish, we drank from the bottle to share with Pacha Mama. I say I “think” he appreciated the gesture, because he paused a moment in reflection before his wish, and gave me a quiet nod, which was different enough from his normal raffish demeanor, that I took to mean gratitude. (The other option for an offering, besides wine, was the blood of a goat or llama. I had neither, so I went for the wine.)
As we wandered through M.P. the sheer sophistication of the place overwhelmed me. 500 or more years ago this was built, and the Incans were knowledgeable about and skilled in such diverse areas as agriculture, hydraulics, geology, construction, urban planning, masonry, transportation and logistics, animal husbandry, astronomy, physics, geology, time and seasons, textiles and weaving…the list goes on. While they didn’t, as a rule, write much down, as a business professor I can’t help but marvel at the leadership, management, specialization, organizational learning, communication, coordination, bricolage….just everything needed to build and sustain a community over decades, if not longer. Again, I don’t want to be clichéd, and be TOO naïve, but the brilliance that the Incans demonstrated in building Machu Picchu just astonishes me. They designed and built stone walls, with no modern simulation tools, that have survived the many earthquakes that have hit this region over the past 500 years. We STILL build buildings that fall down. [water troughs)]
My Meditation Spot
Oh, and then go ahead and toss into that a deep appreciation for real estate. The geography around Machu Picchu is easily the most beautiful and awesome that I have ever seen. The Swiss Alps are up there too, but the density of the beauty at Machu Picchu is what gets me. Everywhere I looked, there was a view that could stand on its own as magical.
Well. Words are insufficient to describe Machu Picchu. But I CAN use words to describe what I did after marveling at M.P.
Next up…My Ascent of Wayna Picchu!