Saturday, August 9, 2014

Machu Picchu (off the bucket list)

Who hasn't seen pictures of the legendary Machu Picchu and instantly said “I want to go there some day; I want to see it with my own eyes”?  For us, that day – etched in bold letters in the calendar of our lives – will forever be June 24, 2014.

The idea has been there for a while, but it materialized as I wanted to make the most of this two-week South American escapade we embarked upon.  A $600 LAN ticket covering 6 flights on the itinerary Rio [blog link here] - São Paulo - Buenos Aires [link here] - Lima - Cusco - Lima - Guayaquil even made that easy on the budget.  What’s not easy, however, are the logistics required to turn this trip into reality.  It is a difficult place to get to.  Sure, one can take the easy route, call a travel agent with dates and just show up [which is technically what my travel companions have done, me being their “travel agent”] but where is the fun in that?  For me, half the fun in going anywhere is the planning process; it makes you learn so much about the place without even realizing it… 

That, plus I’m a bit of a control freak!

Now, then…

If you’re interested in the “how”, skip towards the bottom of this post; I’m not going to bore everyone else with those details.

For everyone else, here’s the “what”:

As your plane descend over the Andes I hope you asked for a window seat, as you wouldn't want to miss the breathtaking scenery unfolding once you get under the blanket of clouds.  The jagged edges look frightening as the valley opens up below and all I could think of was how determined the Spaniards had to be (or how hungry for gold and riches) to come this far inland, over the tallest mountains outside of Asia, to destroy the Inca civilization…  One surely takes to philosophizing (is that a word?) about the sheer willpower and determination of Man to discover and conquer things, when one actually realizes how small one is in the face of nature; how microscopically minuscule one actually IS in the grand scheme of things… yet, despite that diminutive size, how much has Man been able to shape and transform over the years this world we live in… Changed permanently (or temporarily) for good or bad…

Contemplation minute over as the landing gear touches ground and jolts us from the seats.

The “International” Cusco airport is small, but it has apparently grown with the tourist influx over the last few years (to the tune of about 2 million visitors a year).  You’re immediately reminded you’re in a tourist destination, as an Inca-costumed fellow invites you to the first photo opp.  Might as well get used to it while you’re here…

Speaking of getting used to, one thing that will surely take a couple days to get used to is the altitude.  Cusco is 11,200 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level, after all, something that your body will immediately alert you of.  Drink plenty of water, as your body dehydrates a lot faster at altitude, take it easy at first, and feel free to use some altitude sickness medication (Diamox seems to be popular).  Alternatively, coca tea and muña tea are the more natural choices (although the coca tea may leave some traces in the urine for a few days… good to know, in case your company does random drug tests).  We didn't use it (wink-wink) but I've seen people chew coca leaves to counter the effects of altitude.  Apparently they work… although I certainly can’t confirm… nor deny…

Cusco was in full celebratory mood and decked out for the occasion.  June 24 – the winter solstice – marks the festival of Inti Raymi [Festival of the Sun] which is one of the most important dates on the Inca calendar [pardon the cacophony]. The reenactment of the Inca winter solstice ceremony takes place at the Sacsayhuamán archaeological site (one of the main tourist attractions in town).  Everyone was in traditional garb (beautiful, by the way) but what struck me was the multitude of rainbow [“gay”] flags that adorned some of the building and that most people carried.  I was a bit confused (thinking that we stumbled upon a major gay pride parade) until the driver mentioned that it is the actual Cusco flag; something the locals take great pride in and (being a predominantly strict catholic population) don’t really appreciate the gay/lesbian references.  But it’s easy to confuse the two, since the only difference is an extra dark blue line on the bottom…

Local "crayola"
In the end, this festival turned out to be a blessing in disguise, since most people stayed in Cusco, therefore Machu Picchu was not as busy!  And we still caught a brief glimpse of it when we came back in town the next evening…

On the way to the Ollanta train station we made a quick stop at a local village (Chinchero) to get a bit of taste of how the Inca lived a couple hundred years ago.  In this particular center (pics below) they claim to still live like that.  We got a demo on how they turn alpaca wool into yarn and use natural ingredients to color it (yes, blue corn does give you a blue color) and bought a few souvenirs.

Ollantaytambo is about as far as a car can take you.  From there, it’s another hour-and-forty-five minutes by train to Aguas Calientes.  The Urubamba valley here is only wide enough for a road or a railway, but not both.

G'nite, campers!
The Machupicchu Pueblo (or Aguas Calientes) is the last stop where tourists typically spend the night before climbing up the next day.  Don’t expect too much comfort (although there are enough nice places if you want to spend more) since all you need is a place to sleep.  The village is all tightly packed in on either side of the river, and we actually had to wait for the train to leave the station in order to get to the hostel, just on the other side of the tracks.  Literally, the place was no more than 3 yards from the tracks!  Luckily, this was the last train, and as this is terminus point, no other trains passed through (although around 1 am there was a small locomotive maneuver that shook up the entire place making me think an earthquake was upon us).  

First thing in the morning (must have been around 6) we lined up for the bus, and 25 minutes later we were up at the park’s gate.  Aguas Calientes is at 6,700 feet, Machu Picchu at almost 8,000, which means the 3.7 miles road that separate the two is VERY steep.  You can also walk up, but it takes about an hour and a half and you’ll be already spent by the time you get there… Unless you’re 20-something!

As you enter the site, no amount of previous photos or video footage prepares you for what you’re about to experience.  You’ll be in awe from the first glimpse, everywhere you turn, until you leave and take one last look over your shoulder to make sure that something will stay etched on the retina forever.

Good morning, sun!
7:20 am

It’s Majestic.  Surreal.  Breathtaking.  Mystical.  Pinching one’s arm does help in trying to convince one that it’s not a dream, but it doesn't do the job all the way!  And as the sun peeks over the mountains to the East, it brightens up the place bringing it to life.  Once here, you understand that any picture – no matter how good – can only show you a small piece of this amazingly breathtaking puzzle.  And yet, I find myself posting some of these pictures and video links (Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu), knowing full well that they’ll show you about 10% of what you would experience in person.

Huayna Picchu peak
We quickly made our way to the North end of the site, where a select 400 people (200 at 7 am, another 200 at 10) are allowed to climb up Huayna Picchu; the mountain peak you see in the background of all Machu Picchu pictures, which used to serve as a place of solitude for the high priests and the local virgins.
The actual climb is simply indescribable.  It starts misleadingly flat as you cross over, but it gets increasingly steeper and steeper as you approach the top.  The actual pinnacle is nothing but a haphazardly random clutter of boulders that can severely punish the smallest of missteps.  There are very few safety rails or ropes to speak of, and despite all that, apparently they've only had one fatality over the last couple years.  Clearly, it’s not for everyone.  You have to be in shape and unafraid of heights, but the rewards are extraordinary.  If the Machu Picchu site below is a solid ten, this would be a twenty!  Coming all the way here without making this trek is like only half-experiencing this world wonder.

Brother[in law]-ly love!
"a little" steep ;-) ...60 degrees or so

The round trip takes a good two hours and it’s about 1,000 feet vertical from the starting point.  It already start warming up as you descend (seems like the sun is so much stronger at this altitude) so make sure you bring water, sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.

Back down, we met our local guide Walter (paid $20 each) and spent the next 3-4 hours learning tons of details around how this place got to be, the engineering and architectural feats that involved bringing water up to these levels, or shaping each individual rock to interlock milimetrically without any mortar (especially without iron tools; they only had bronze and copper).  

But aside from the marvels of perfect stonemasonry, which is still visible, he talked at large about the sun-worshiping spirituality of this culture, their traditions and beliefs.  He talked about their reverence towards animals and the three symbols omnipresent in the area: the snake (underworld), the puma (the world of men) and the condor (upper world).  Walter had some good stories about each corner of this amazing site, and frankly, I would definitely recommend a guide.  Otherwise, you’ll be staring at a bunch of rocks that won’t have much meaning beyond the obvious.

With another item off the bucket list, we made our way back down to Aguas Calientes, grabbed some souvenirs and enjoyed a quick lunch on a balcony above the river while a local folk group serenaded us with a beautiful rendition of El Condor Pasa.  Alpaca meat tastes pretty good (not resembling sheep, or goat, as I presumed), but I resisted the urge to try Guinea Pig [a national staple in Peru and something most restaurants offer] because I don’t think I could have set foot in another pet store after that…

The return train ride to Poroy offered the opportunity to enjoy the valley during sunlight, as the train slowly snaked its way around the river.  Absolutely stunning.  And wild!

Back in Cusco, we caught the last moments of the Festival of the Sun.  By now, the town was beginning to clear out, and we crashed early as we had a 5:50 am flight back to Lima!  I do need to note that we spent the night at one of the most amazing Marriott hotels I ever encountered (and believe me, I've slept in my fair share of their properties to date: 748 and counting)

the Marriott's inner courtyard

The two days in Peru – half of which was spent travelling to the site – were a quick blur.  This has actually helped me “relive” the experience.  And goosebumps are back as I’m typing this.    I’m glad we took plenty of pictures that remind me of the 10% and help “trigger” the other 90% in my mind’s eye!   I think an extra day or two would have allowed us to enjoy it at a more leisurely pace, but that rarely happens when you travel with me!

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The “How”:

Book entrance tickets in advance:

I opted for the Machu Picchu + Huayna Picchu package (this one allows for a total of 400 people per day; 200 at 7 am and another 200 at 10 am).  We chose the first group, but be aware... the climb (and descent) is very steep with little "protection".  Take water with you if you decide to do it.  Sunscreen and a hat goes without saying.

I had a lot of trouble with the website (English site does not work very well).  Had to use the Spanish (with Google translate side-by-side), and even then had problems processing the card.  I ended up using their support service (they had to do something on their end in order to let the payment go through; Jose Chang [] was my contact in making that transaction go through; his name came up in all the online forums where people had similar problems).  Be advised, the process is very cumbersome; you fill out an online form that gets you a confirmation, then use that confirmation to process payment.  Alternatively, also sells tickets, but they charge a premium (I paid $55.46 for my package, they charge $71).  Either way, make sure you have the paper ticket with you.  And passport.

Once you get to Cusco, expect to pay about $25 from the airport to the hotel (a few of the hotels may have their own shuttles)

In Cusco, we stayed at the JW Marriott.  I used points.  There are other decent hotels in Cusco, but I had points, so Marriott was convenient for me.  Excellent property, btw.  Diana (concierge/front desk) was very nice and accommodating.  She hooked us up with Antonio (phone # 974 343113) who drove us around while we were there [fairly decent prices and very nice/clean minivan; I think it was $25 for Airport transfer, then $80 to take us from Cusco to the train station in Ollantaytambo (almost 2 hrs away)

Here's Diana’s info: Diana Chuquichampi | Guest Service Agent | JW Marriott Hotel Cusco | Esquina de la Calle Ruinas 432 y San Agustín –Cusco | Perú | Phone (5184) 582200 | Fax (5184) 582201 | e-mail: |

For the train ride over I booked round-trip tickets in advance at

The departure options are either Ollantaytambo or Poroy, based on what your schedule looks like.  Poroy is closer to Cusco (only about 30 mins by car) but departures for Machu Picchu are only in the morning.  Olantaytambo is further out, but they have more options in terms of departure times (later in the day, too)

We took the train (7 pm or so) from Ollanta (Antonio drove us there), arrived in Aguas Caliente around 8:45-ish, stayed at La Payacha (wasn't much, but it was very close, and we left most of the luggage at the front desk, picking it up on the way back); I also booked this hostel online ahead of time.

You also need a bus ticket (that you buy in Aguas Caliente or in Cusco) preferably the day before.  We bought it that evening from the bus station that’s just near the bridge. It's $19 round trip (bus ride to the entrance of the park takes about 20-25 mins)

Go early in the morning to avoid the crowds and the heat.  Take your passport with you.  Can't go in without it (plus, at the exit, you can self-stamp with a "Machu-Picchu visa" as a nice souvenir)

Huayana Picchu is at the other end of the site (takes a few minutes to get there from the entrance in the morning)

Antonio recommended a local guide (Walter) who charged us $80 (4 people) for about 3-4 hrs.  It was very informative.  Well worth it.

Left the park around 12:30 or 1 and grabbed lunch and some souvenirs in town.  It was getting VERY hot up there.  Sun is strong at 2,430 meters (7,970 ft).  Get a hat and plenty of sunscreen, or long sleeves (our guide was wearing gloves!)

Took the train back towards Cusco that afternoon (I think it was 3:20 or so), arrived in Poroy around 7, where Antonio was waiting for us ($35 to take us back to the hotel)