|Traditional Peruvian woman and child|
|Me and Emily enjoying Coca tea|
|A woman in traditional Inca clothing and a baby llama!|
|Dolls for sale at a market stall|
From Cuzco, we left on a bus for Ollantaytambo (try saying that five times fast!) to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the base camp for seeing Machu Picchu. The drive was breathtaking. From Cuzco we started our winding descent among green vertical hills lined with terraces, cows, sheep and the occasional llama. We followed the river valley which eventually led to Machu Picchu, located at about 8,000 feet. The snow-capped serrated peaks of the Andes were visible in the distance, yet the sun and a warm breeze coming in the windows made this feel surreal. On the way, we stopped for chicha, a fermented drink made from corn (also made in Nicaragua) that is mildly alcoholic. When we arrived in Ollantaytambo, which was a few thousand feet lower than Cuzco, my friends instantly started to feel better; headaches lessened and breathing became more regular.
|Emily, Alana, me and Ena on the drive|
|The view we had of the Andes on the drive|
Aguas Calientes is a town built on tourism – it serves little more than as the starting and ending point for visitors to ascent Machu Picchu, and afterwards to relax in the hot springs and grab some pizza or Chinese food (the restaurants all advertised these gringo favorites). After settling in to our hostel, we set our alarms for 3:30 AM and packed our bags with snacks, rain jackets, drinking water and our cameras. We slept fitfully, afraid of over-sleeping the alarm. Our hostel started serving a light breakfast at 4 AM (they’re used to travelers who get up early to arrive at Machu Picchu first). Still groggy from sleep, we walked briskly in the pitch darkness about 20 minutes to the gate leading up the vertical mountain to the Machu Picchu ruins. We had forgotten a flashlight and were a little intimidated by the dark shadows of the surrounding mountains and the rushing river noises. Weren’t there also wild cats in this area?? At the entrance gate we found other travelers already waiting who were also planning on doing the hike up the mountain (the first buses up the mountain start at 5:30, so a few motivated, in-shape tourists like to hike up instead, leaving at 5). At 5 AM the gates opened and we sped off in a crazed rush towards the peak like the beginning of a race.
|Me on the hike up|
|Mountains in the early fog|
It was daylight by then, but the clouds were thick and the wind was strong. Visibility was extremely low. We raced into Machu Picchu, but were slightly disappointed when we realized that we couldn’t see much more than 50 feet in front of us. Mount Waynapicchu was covered in clouds and we couldn’t even make out the ruins. Ena and Emily became separated from Alana and me. We felt disoriented by the fog – we studied the map and tried to figure out where to go. Then it started to rain, hard. There were few places to take cover, but Alana and I took refuge in a cave that was part of the ruins for a bit. I found a plastic bag tucked in a corner that the maintenance staff uses for trash and made it into a makeshift poncho. Alana’s guidebook on the ruins turned into a wet pulp and our rain jackets became soaked.
|Alana and me hiding out from the rain in a cave. We got a few weird looks from passing tourists - |
we think they were jealous of our spot!
We wandered the ancient city for hours – it was very well-kept and preserved. We had surprising freedom and could walk virtually anywhere unattended and unobserved – since it was so early there were relatively few tourists present. I’ve even heard of people who get naked at Machu Picchu to take a memorable photograph… We chose not to hire a guide, but in hindsight it would have been beneficial. We did however talk to one of the Machu Picchu caretakers for quite a while – he showed us the Condor temple/prison area and the King’s palace (complete with his own urinal). The Incas had made an intricate water system that ran throughout the city providing irrigation and disposing of waste which still worked! The terraced land at the entrance to the city was also still in good condition. Workers wandered the grounds throughout the day collecting trash (Yes, apparently even at Machu Picchu, one of the world’s greatest wonders, people still throw trash on the ground).
I was blown away at the way the Incas had made the stone walls before modern machinery. Immense rocks weighing many tons had been cut in straight lines and fit together exactly without mortar.
|The water/irrigation system|
|The Temple of the Sun|
|The astronomical observatory - these circles of water served as reflecting pools for the night sky.|
|Terraced farming area (and llamas)|
We opted to take a bus down the mountain since we were so worn out (it was worth those $7!) and we went straight to the hot springs that gives the town of Aguas Calientes its name. They were located right beside the rushing river. Most travelers come to the hot springs after a long day hiking around Machu Picchu, and we were glad we did too. The warmish to mildly-hot water soothed our muscles and brought us back to life again.
For dinner, we walked up and down the hilly streets of Aguas Calientes, being harassed by hostesses who stood outside restaurants and called to us, grabbed our hands, and offered us free drinks if we’d pick their restaurant. The nice thing about this is that you can negotiate your price, and the restaurant we finally decided on gave us a good deal. Alana, Emily, and Ena ordered Alpaca meat (they were going to get guinea pig, the traditional Peruvian delicacy, but it was too expensive), and I ordered a stuffed pepper made with rice and potatoes. The traditional ají chile sauce was included and I fell in love with it. In Nicaragua, the principal spice used in food is salt, and the only condiments are very sweet ketchup and mayonnaise. I was impressed by Peruvian food and their use of spices – it revived my taste buds.
We ended our trip with another night in Cuzco and by going out dancing at a discotheque (once again we were harassed by the workers of the clubs who grabbed our arms and tried to charm us with free drinks). We were up until the wee hours (amazing considering what a busy four days we had had).
|Cuzco plaza at dusk|