Monday September 2, 2013
*You’ll have to excuse some of the photos in today’s post. There aren’t as many breathtaking photos as I wanted to include or that this place deserves, a lot of these pictures focus on a practical purpose to show our experience there more than the beauty. But those pretty photos do have a time and place, so stay tuned tomorrow for Picturesque Machu Picchu. (Now up, click here to view!)
If you’ve never been to Machu Picchu before, there’s a fair amount of planning and organizing that goes into it. Tickets need to be purchased and they need to be done in advance. Find yourself at the top of this mountain without a ticket in your hand, and you’ll be told to turn around and go back home (or just back to town, really) because tickets aren’t sold at the entrance. Only 2,000 people a day are allowed to enter the sacred grounds, and if you want to climb the neighboring mountains of Huayna Picchu or Wayna Picchu, which we definitely did, you’d better secure those tickets weeks in advance because only 200 people a day are allowed to make that climb. So there we were, still back at Matt’s mom’s house in Michigan, frustratingly trying to get our tickets booked and subsequently getting turned down because we didn’t have Verified by Visa. After a few days and a few phone calls, everything was taken care of and the date we originally wanted to visit was pushed back to four days later because we didn’t book quick enough. That’s seriously how quickly they go.
Our whole schedule in Peru up to this point has been planned around these tickets; what cities we could visit, how long we could stay in them. In short, you don’t just drive up to the sun gate and say, “I wanna get in”. So after booking plane tickets, bus tickets, and now train tickets, we were finally ready to go to Machu Picchu.
Since our climb up Huayna Picchu was scheduled to let us into the entrance of that area between 7 and 8 am, we had set the alarm for 5:30, making sure to pack our bags before we left the hostel since we’d still be at Macchu Picchu when checkout time came and wouldn’t be able to come back to pack after. Eating the tradition free breakfast that most of these hostels offer of bread, jam, and tea, we stuck a liter of water and a couple of granola bars into my messenger bag and set off to take one final bus up the zig-zag road to the entrance. Matt had wanted to do that walk as well, possibly even just to save the $40 in those bus tickets, but I warned that by straining ourselves on that walk/climb up, we’d have no energy left for the mountain. If we hadn’t purchased our bus tickets the night before because he didn’t know about the hiking trail at the time, I doubt he would have listened to my reasoning. He usually doesn’t.
Stepping off the bus at the top we already were running behind at 6:45, and had no idea where the entrance to Huayna Picchu was. Handing over our tickets and passports while passing through a turnstiles like we were entering Disneyworld, we started quickly scrambling up random steps, trying to follow the signs for where we needed to go, until we were greeted with this.
Did your jaw just drop?, because mine just did. Not only as we saw it, but as I was going back through my photos to post this as well. Imagine how it looked in person. I was awestruck. But only for a minute, because we were still running behind schedule and I was going to be damned if I missed my hike up the mountain. Stopping other early risers that were there with their tour guides, we got directions to where we needed to be and joined a line of about 50 people ahead of us. Looks like we weren’t going to miss our climb after all.
One of the things we noticed as we were waiting in line was how hot it was already getting now that the sun was coming up. Almost every person we had talked to that had been here already spout on about overcast skies, mist, rain, and even snow. We thought we’d be freezing our asses off, and dressed appropriately for that. Matt was in jeans and a long sleeve shirt, and I had layered with running pants and a lightweight hoodie. Something else also occurred to me after we were given our pass and started making our way up Huayna Picchu. “Uh oh”, I glanced at Matt, “I think I forgot to put on deodorant today”. “What do you mean?”, he gawked at me. “How could you forget to put on deodorant?” I replied that we were in a rush that morning, it had been in the bottom of his bag (we keep all our toiletries together), and ooops, I must have slipped my mind as we were rushing out the door. He stared at me with some slight disgust and made sure to put a few more feet between us, as well as keep me downwind of him. I couldn’t be any worse than those people that just hiked the Inca Trail though, right? They must be going on three days now without showers.
The groups of people that had been slightly spaced out as we began this trek now all crammed together as our path turned from wide dirt trails into steep stone steps. When the sign at the beginning listed the difficulty of this hike as ‘medium’, they were lying. It was frickin’ hard. Higher and higher we climbed at 45 degree angles, although honestly, it could have been steeper, because it felt like we were going almost vertical. Add that to the altitude of straining ourselves at over 7,000 ft, and I’m glad we spent at least two days in Cusco acclimatizing ourselves. It almost became a challenge, for me at least, to not stop. When people ahead of us would get to a small patch of dirt and stand to the side huffing and puffing while they tried not to lose consciousness, I trekked right past them with a smile and a nod, since the extra energy it would take to actually say hello would probably put me right there next to them. Each person we passed felt like a small triumph, especially since in my lack of an exercise world, I don’t think I could run a mile if you pointed a gun at me right now.
After more steps than I cared to count, we made it up to a viewing area with only one need to stop and take a breath. The request was actually from Matt, but I was happy to have a minute of deep breathing forced upon me. Being able to stand for a few minutes without the pressure to keep moving, I’m surprised my legs didn’t give out from under me. By now they were feeling a little like Jell-o and I had to wonder what the rest of the day was going to be like if I was already feeling this weak at 8:00 in the morning. Realizing we needed to really slow ourselves down, we let ourselves sit and rest for awhile while taking in the spectacular views. Matt must have grasped what a special occasion it was to be here because he even suggested multiple times that we get our photo taken together. The same guy that I can usually only get photos of him walking away because he refuses to pose for them. I know, I’m just as shocked as you are.
From there it was only farther up. Not quite as hard with the steep stairs we had just come from, but something that was, um, a little more interesting. To continue further up the mountain, we had to climb through a cave. And not just any cave, but one where the entrance and exit were just big enough to squeeze one person through at a time, but only if they were crouched down and basically crawling. Inside was actually quite spacious, at least compared to the opening, and I believe that rituals used to take place in there. The exit was a little more fun as it was almost vertical and felt like you were going through a rock tube. It is definitely not a spot for those with claustrophobia, and I think there have since been other ways built around it.
From there it was just a few steps up a cricketey wooden ladder, scaling up a few boulders, and we were at the very top! The views were nothing short of majestic, and we enjoyed it in seclusion with the 20 other people that were scaling boulders next to us, shimmying, jumping, and crab crawling from one place to the next. While this spot does afford some beautiful views, actual solitude does not come with it. Nor does the ability to sit and enjoy those views before you for hours on end, because the person behind you wants your spot too. We did allot ourselves 2-3 minutes on one of the highest perchable places, had another photo taken, and then inched our way across and down the boulders to make room for others.
Now it was time for the even harder part. Getting back down. Those steep steps that we had huffed and puffed to get to the top of, now looked like a vertical death trap on the way back down. I can see why they advise against climbing here during wet weather. One slip on the slick rock and you would be a goner. Even with the wire handrail at my side, I didn’t trust myself, or my biceps really, to let the one hand on there be all that kept me from tumbling into the valley below. Following in the footsteps, literally, of the people in front of us, we took their lead and faced ourselves backwards while slowly climbing down, using both our hands and feet as we scaled down it like a ladder.
To the bottom left, you can see the stairs and people climbing down them.
Here’s another view of them from a photo that Matt’s mom found online.
Once we got to the bottom I had no idea how my legs were supporting the weight of my body since with each step we had taken down, they’d shiver and wobble below me. It was almost like when I did cross-country back in high school, how my legs would go numb after the first mile and a half and I couldn’t even tell I was running anymore. Which is probably why, as our other hiking companions were crawling their way back into the ruins of Machu Picchu, we decided to take on Wayna Picchu as well. Or whatever the smaller mountain there is called. The signs here are so utterly confusing that we gave up trying to figure out which mountain was which five minutes after we got here. It was still worth the taxing climb since this mountain is much less popular, and you are rewarded with beautiful views from the top in actual solitude. If you ever find yourself here with a packed picnic, I suggest this is where you eat it.
Decending this smaller mountain and getting back to the ruins, we realized what a mistake we’d made about not pacing ourselves, not packing a lunch, and definitely not bringing enough water. The 1 liter we were sharing between the two of us was now just about empty, and we still had a lot of ground to cover in the hot sun. Following the exit signs as we left the mountains, we had no idea which was the best way to tour the ruins or if there was one spot to start that was better than the other. For a little while we had our Peru guidebook in our hands and we leafed through the pages and tried to make sense of the map. When that didn’t work, we tried to fall in behind tour groups that were already in place. Big surprise of the day, even with all the gringo tourist there, the only thing we could overhear was Spanish. I think I caught a whiff of German, and maybe even a little Polish, but absolutely no English.
You may be asking why we didn’t just spring the few dollars for a tour of our own. We’ve heard they’re very informative and well with the money, but truth be told, by that point I don’t think we had the energy to trudge around for the next 2-3 hours while getting a full breakdown of the place. I don’t think our bodies could handled it. I don’t think our brains could have handled it. At this point we were just happy to do a little wandering on our own. In the areas we could tell held high importance, we stood around for a tour group to come by and I would do my best to pick up on a few words and translate them to Matt. Not the most informative way to see Machu Picchu, but we still felt fortunate just to be standing there at all.
I’m pretty sure this translated to ‘Pit of Death’.
It was a very large compound, and we’d aimlessly amble up and down and left and….OMG, they have llamas!! Excuse me one moment, I’ll be right back.
Where was I? Oh, right. So we had no real destination, but would just walk through the paths, take random turns, sometimes backtrack, but mostly just tried to see absolutely everything there was before our hearts gave out and we died of heat stroke. Which if you remember my last post from Cusco, yes, I can die happy now.
Back on the bus I asked Matt how he felt now about shelling out money for those tickets instead of walking up and down like he had originally wanted. Face still flushed and panting he replied “Best $40 I ever spent”. Don’t worry, even though I was right on this, he still won’t listen to me in the future.
Heads resting on our seats as we gazed out the window where the ruins fell slowly out of view, we took to talking about how incredibly lucky we were to be able to come here and how it was worth every penny, including that overpriced train we were about to hop back on. When Matt asked me what I’d remember most about Machu Picchu, I came back that I couldn’t quite choose between the sunrise over the mountains when we first walked in, or the view from the top of Huayna Picchu, or even the llamas I was able to hunt down and pet. When I reversed the question to him, he responded “That my wife forgot to wear deodorant”. Well, at least he’ll remember something.