by Maureen Zupan '72, P'09
This is the reason we came to Peru: to see Machu Picchu, one of the Wonders of the World. Today is the day. Everything we've been doing this week has been leading up to this day. Scott planned this trip so we would be ready for this day. He made sure we spent time adjusting to higher altitudes so that by the time we got to this day we would be acclimated to high altitudes and not miss the day because of altitude sickness. He arranged for us to visit historic sites so we learned the history of the Incan Empire. He led us on increasingly arduous treks so Machu Picchu wouldn't overwhelm our muscles. Today is the day; we are ready!
We got up early, leaving behind our lovely hotel and most of our luggage (we were only allowed to bring one suitcase, weighing no more than 11 pounds) to walk (downhill, thank goodness) to the Ollantaytambo train station. Even at that hour, we were met by vendors eager to sell hats, backpacks, water, walking sticks, insect repellent, sunscreen: all the things we would need for a trek to Machu Picchu. Carol and I bought backpacks, supposedly made of alpaca (likely they weren't), lined, with several pockets. They cost 20 soles each: about $8.
We were in the first car of a four car train. Scott said it's the best train accommodations he's had in South America; he likes traveling with us! We had nice leather seats, two attendants in our car to help with luggage and provide food service (yes, breakfast was served!). A moment of worry: the attendants couldn't close the door to our train car. After three maintenance people worked on it, we were on our way. We were served breakfast and a beverage, in wicker baskets with compartments for a small roll with ham and cheese, two cookies, and our beverage of choice.
Aguas Calientes is our destination. It will be our "base camp" for visiting Machu Picchu. It is actually at a lower altitude than Ollantaytambo. We know that because Bill (Susan's husband) has a GPS system that tracks altitude. We have been as high as 12,000 feet in Cusco…went down to 8000 feet in Ollantaytambo…and now are going down to 6500 feet to Aguas Calientes, but will be going back uphill to 7700 feet when we visit Machu Picchu.
We watched the landscape change during the train ride, from a dry desert eco system to a rain forest. It was a gentle ride, with some stops for the conductor to explain what we were seeing, and to allow us to take pictures. Next to us a river roared, often with boiling rapids. Peruvian flute music played in the background.
Aguas Calientes means "hot springs" in Spanish, and is popular for its natural pools. It is also known as Machu Picchu Pueblo, since it is the last town for visitors on their way to the ruins. When we arrived, porters from our hotel (El Mapi) were there to take what luggage we had brought; we walked across a small bridge into the town, and we got on the bus to Machu Picchu.
And what a bus ride it was! Eighteen switchbacks up the mountain, all done in about 20 minutes, mostly on a dirt road…sudden encounters with buses coming the other way…higher and higher we went. I kept saying to myself, "these drivers do this all the time, so the ride MUST be safe!" As we got off the bus, Dave said to the driver "Nice ride, although I was a little worried when you were text messaging". While I don't think the driver understood what he said, we all got a good laugh…and no, the driver was NOT texting during the ride.
At the gates of Machu Picchu, we were told to use the bathrooms, because there were none inside the gates. We each gave one sole (about 35 cents) to the attendant who gave us a handwritten receipt. At the entrance gate, we had to show our passports, with the information added into a computer tracking system. For some reason (we think it's because she looked like she was up to no good), the guards wouldn't let Kate bring her walking stick into the site! The rest of us were allowed to.
Our guide, Fabricio, awaited us. He told us he was an archeologist and the president of the tour guides. He also said to us "I'm your tour guide, but I'm also your new friend." He led us through the ruins for about three hours. I have to start by telling you that any words I'm about to use to describe what Fabricio showed us do not in any way come close to the experience of actually seeing Machu Picchu in person. Words just don't measure up. Yes, it looks like what you see in pictures, but a picture leaves out the impact of the expansiveness and the 360 degree panorama everywhere you look as you sit and contemplate in serenity all that is around you. It can only be understood seeing it in person.
We saw the Sacred Plaza, the Temple of the Sun (which has an altar that is aligned with the mountains in the distance), the Temple of the Condor (with a stone with a condor carved into it), the Royal Tomb, houses in the Common District (some that were originally two stories), terraces for agriculture, the remains of the quarry where the Incas prepared the stones for the various buildings, the Temple of the Three Windows, and many other buildings.
The Temple of the Three Windows has three trapezoidal shaped windows looking out over the community (the shape held up better in earthquakes) and a stone carving in front that Fabricio told us was often misunderstood. He said that it was long thought that sun shining on the stone created a shadow of a cross, but given that there would have been a roof on the building in Incan times, the theory was clearly wrong. Just a few minutes after commenting on how many guidebooks still promulgate the story, we heard a guide tell HER group the (wrong) story.
After our tour we had lunch. There were limited options. Many of us opted for the buffet that was $33 (US) per person. That was by far the most that any meal cost so far (by double), but it included lots of great food…and a clean bathroom. That alone was worth the price!
After lunch, we went off in small groups in different directions for the remainder of the afternoon. Some people went to the hotel to rest, planning to visit Machu Picchu again the next day; some people tackled the various trails that range from easy (although we found out NOTHING is "easy"…just "easier" than other trails!) to difficult and long. Special congratulations to Karen for making the trek so soon after knee replacement surgery.
Kate and I tackled the (supposedly) easy trail to the Incan Bridge. At the start we asked a group of young college women who were on their way back if it was worth the trip. "No, it was some old logs," they told us. The next person we asked said the trail itself was amazing. We should have realized what was ahead when we saw one man drenched in sweat on his way back. We kept on. The views WERE spectacular, but the path there was increasingly difficult: what started as five foot wide paths through the forest became (near the end) a two foot wide path with a cliff down (WAY down) on our right side and a cliff up the left side. There was a rock climbing rope attached to the left side cliff that we had to cling to as we inched along the path. And yes, at the end there were some old logs forming a bridge. Thank goodness for walking sticks!
I had been planning to climb Huayna Picchu with several other people, which is actually the mountain you see in the iconic Machu Picchu pictures. When we saw how steep and arduous it looked, most of us decided not to try it. On top of that, there is the problem of limited access to the climb. Only 400 people are allowed to do it each day, so you need to get on one of the first buses in the morning (5:30 am) to get a ticket at Machu Picchu the next day. I was ready for an easy day instead.
We were the last ones to leave the park, along with Scott and Lesley. At the gate, we were able to get our passports stamped, saying we had been in Machu Picchu. This time the bus took us through the same switchbacks, but downhill. Aguas Calientes is a very small town, and our hotel was only a couple of blocks from the bus stop…The El Mapi Hotel is a sleek, modern hotel…with all kinds of amenities that we haven't had the rest of the week. Unlimited hot showers!! Down comforters!! A hair dryer!! The only problem for "roomie" Kate and me: we were on the third floor (but because of "half" floors, it was more like the fifth floor)…so MORE climbing!
Dinner was at Indio Feliz restaurant, within a block of the hotel. It is a colorful Peruvian restaurant with great food and amazing ways to present it. For example, I had spaghetti (yes, but it was their version of it). I received one large plate with linguini on it and another big plate carrying smaller plates of mushrooms, red sauce, pesto, cheese, and hot peppers. The idea was that I could mix and match whatever I want to in essence create my sauce myself. All of the meals that people had were similarly presented. Scott said he specifically picked the restaurant for us.
Carol offered a toast to Scott, for all the work he had done making this trip so wonderful, and we embarrassed him by singing "For He's A Jolly Good Fellow". I suspect we also annoyed the other diners.
And so the day ended. It was a long day, but a magical memorable one. As I said, my description couldn't possibly do it justice. I feel privileged to have been able to visit Machu Picchu.