by Maureen Zupan '72, P'09
Some people started the day early: Sue and Bill caught one of the early buses (around 5:30am) to be two of the 400 people who would be allowed to climb Huayna Picchu, the mountain seen in most of the iconic pictures of Machu Picchu. Scott, Joe and Erin climbed Machu Picchu itself. Neither climb is easy, and they take 3-4 hours to complete the roundtrip: imagine hundreds of steep uneven stone steps to climb and then to descend! They all reported that the views from the top of each mountain were breath-taking and that the arduous climb was worth it.
Dave, Nancy, Carol, Gordon, Beth and Ken all tackled the trail to the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu, which was the original entrance to Machu Picchu hundreds of years ago. The trail is technically not quite as arduous as the trails up Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu, but it is far from easy! From that location, Carol took a spectacular picture of Machu Picchu from high above the ruins.
And yes, some of us decided to take it easy. Karen and John toured the town of Aguas Calientes, the base camp for Machu Picchu. It is quite a small town, which clearly is highly dependent on the tourists that visit Machu Picchu. It has narrow stone streets, a lovely square, and lots of small shops selling supposedly authentic Peruvian crafts. The "alpaca" felt like polyester (which given the prices must have been!), and the 18 carat gold was a bit suspect. There were also quite a few hostels catering to young people; it's not surprising that the area attracts people able to better tackle its challenges! There is a small square with a Catholic church. All of the images one would see in such a church were represented in this church as Incas with darker skin and traditional clothing.
Mara, Joanne, Lesley, Deb, Kate and I decided to take what we THOUGHT would be a leisurely walk to visit the botanical gardens. We got on the bus to Machu Picchu, getting off right before it began the climb up the switchbacks. Then we continued on foot to the Gardens. There is no other way to get there! We walked by the town's dump, with the workers eyeing us with curiosity (probably wondering why the heck we were out that way). We had been told to follow the railroad tracks, which in turn follow the twists and turns of the Urubamba River. A few minutes into our walk we met a man who lives in the town, but who is a US citizen. His father owns a hotel in town called "Gringo Bill's," and he helps manage it. He was there with several federal ecological workers to look for plants to bring into town as part of a project of further beautifying Aguas Calientes. He gave us more specific instructions: keep following the train tracks until we see a small house on the left. Pay the entrance fee to the woman who lives there (five soles, about $2) and she will walk us to the gate to unlock it to let us in. As we walked along the tracks (crossing back and forth across the tracks as the path (or what there WAS of a path) took us, we several times heard the train giving the warning whistle that it was on its way, and we moved as far from the tracks as we could (a few feet!).
After about 45 minutes, we found the house, signed the guest book, paid our five soles fee and were taken to the gate. We covered ourselves with more sunblock and lots of bug spray, and started up the path. A dog joined us and seemingly acted as our protector. He barked at the few people we encountered along the way, and waited patiently for us as we slowly climbed the path through the park.
It was like being in the jungle! Unfortunately, few flowers were blooming, but we had heard there were waterfalls ahead, so we pressed on anyway. We talked to two young guys that were coming back from the waterfalls. One was wearing a Florida Gators hat, and told us he was a medical resident in Gainesville. He took a video of us saying hello to the Gators' Athletic Director Jeremy Foley, who is a Hobart grad, promising to tell Jeremy about the group of women he came upon in the Peruvian jungle.
The 90 minute walk out of the park and back to Aguas Calientes, without the benefit of a bus ride for part of it, was long and hot, with too much uphill walking. Again, a couple of trains passed, as we moved as far from the tracks as we could. A man taking pictures was often slightly ahead of us, but sometimes behind us. He didn't seem to even notice we were nearby. At one point, as we passed him when he stopped to take pictures, he finally acknowledged our presence by turning to Kate and saying VERY slowly and very loudly, "WHAT……DAY……IS……IT?" as if talking slowly and loudly to us would help us to understand him. She replied "Thursday," he turned away, and that ended any further conversation.
As we got close to town, we saw some men washing clothes in the river and drying them on the docks. Unlike the man taking pictures, they were friendly and waved and yelled out "Hola!" as we walked by.
We arrived back in Aguas Calientes desperate for showers, but we had checked out of our rooms earlier in the day. The hotel was booked for the night, so even our earnest appeals to rent a room for an hour so we could all take showers were to no avail. The hotel gave us towels, and we washed up in the bathroom. It was better than nothing, and allowed us to get rid of some of the bug spray that we had layered on our skin and clothing several times during our walk.
Late in the afternoon, it was time to head back to Ollantaytambo via train, to catch our bus to Cusco. We were all looking forward to the same sort of refined train trip we'd had the morning before. It was not to be had. The train was overbooked, and many people were lugging suitcases MUCH bigger than the 10kg limit. Joanne commented that it was like the Long Island Railroad at rush hour; and was very concerned that the luggage and people in the aisles were going to prevent the food cart from appearing. The attendants struggled to get it all sorted out, moving suitcases and people among the various cars, and eventually everyone had seats…and the food cart appeared. This time we had some sort of vegetable lasagna, a brownie and a drink, all in white ceramic plates that were collected when we were done. The ride itself was also not as much fun because the sun had set, and the darkness prevented us from enjoying the spectacular views again.
When we arrived in Ollantaytambo, we walked up the hill to the hotel in which we had left the remainder of our luggage, gathered everything up, and got on our bus for the ride to Cusco. We'd been worried about doing that ride in the dark, given the hairpin turns with no guardrails or street lights, but it actually seemed better to NOT be able to see what the driver was encountering!
After 90 minutes we were in the outskirts of Cusco, which is in a valley surrounded by hills. At night, those hills were sprinkled with lights. On one hill top a crucifix was brightly lit, marking the highest spot in the area….over 12,000 feet. All Scott's work of getting us ready for the high altitude of Cusco was about to be tested!
Scott had picked out some of his favorite restaurants for this part of the trip, so at 10 p.m. we were having dinner at Chi Cha, across the square from our hotel, another in the Casa Andina chain. Chi Cha is one of acclaimed chef Gaston Acurio's restaurants in Peru. It was a bright, lively restaurant, full to capacity even at that hour (late for us Americans, prime time for the residents of Cusco). It was Deb's birthday, so two of the waiters led us in "Happy Birthday" as they presented her with a slice of cake with her "Feliz Cumpleanos Deb" written in chocolate on the plate.
We were all tired by the time we walked across the square to our hotel!