I went to Machu Picchu.
Really, though, I did a lot more than that. I joined five of my friends from Spanish school on a four-day adventure over land, water, and air to Machu Picchu from Sunday morning October 9th to Wednesday night October 12th. It was a blast!
Day 1, Sunday the 9th: Biking and White Water Rafting
We met up at the Plaza de Armas and boarded a small bus with a bunch of other people (13 or 14 of us in total) for a four-hour drive up into the mountains. At some high pass we donned, quite futilely, our waterproof outerwear (an enormous, yellow poncho for me) and stepped out into the frigid, drizzling rain and mist. Adorned with motorcycle helmets, kneepads, shin pads, elbow pads, arm pads, and bright orange, reflective vests, we hopped on our mostly functional mountain bikes and coasted and braked our way down the switchbacks of the road for two hours. Near the end the rain warmed up and lessened while the road simultaneously turned to mud, which splattered our entire bodies. After biking over some half-paved road near the end to be speckled in tar, we finally arrived at our lunch destination where we spent at least 45 minutes dumping the water out of our shoes and attempting to rinse the dirt out of our clothes before eating a late lunch of chaufa (rice, veggies, chicken, and eggs all mixed together and very tasty).
After lunch we were bussed an hour past tropical, somewhat jungley scenery to our hostel in Santa Maria. We tossed our backpacks on our beds, changed back into our wet clothes, and jumped into a beat-up van to go white water rafting. The six of us, two random German ladies, and our guide fit perfectly into a reasonably reputable-looking raft. We rode the class 1 to 3+ rapids of grey river water for two hours, during smooth water taking in the gorgeous mountains and luscious fruit trees rising up on either side of us.
We were driven back to the hostel in the dark in time for a delicious supper of soup and lomo saltado (stir fried beef, tomatoes, and onions with rice and French fries) at 7:15. I took a lovely, warm shower, played Capitalist for a bit, and collapsed into bed by 10:30.
Day 2, Monday the 10th: Hiking
Arose at 6:15 and in time for a breakfast of a roll with jelly and a thick crepe stuffed with a banana and drizzled in honey at 6:30. In shorts and t-shirts with our backpacks on our backs, we squeezed into the back of a pickup truck and held onto the bars that crisscrossed around us for a 20-minute ride outside of town.
I groaned inwardly as soon as I spotted our path plowing up into the hilly mountain (mountainous hill?) at a 40° angle. My calves began to ache as soon as I took my first steps uphill. I immediately wished I had left my two extra sweaters at home. As it turned out, however, hiking was not too miserable. We never ascended for more than 45 minutes at a time, and though those 45 minutes were usually unpleasantly hot, sweaty, painful, and exhausting, we always had some seats onto which to throw our aching bodies for five or ten minutes. Several of our rest areas were houses of local farmers, one of which owned a monkey and two, cute Chihuahua-sized raccoon/rat/guinea pig/chinchilla/opossum-like mammals. We passed coca plants and fruit trees and plants of every variety. I got called “the Steve Irwin of trees” for happening to be able to identify various fruit trees and plants (thank you Mother and two years living in Uganda!). Emerging from the forest, we hiked up and down an undulating, rather narrow Incan trail on the side of the steep mountains. The views of the valley below and mountains around us were stunning!
Back in the jungley forest once again, we stopped to eat a lunch of bread with some fantastic guacamole, soup, and spaghetti with marinara sauce. Before and after lunch we relaxed on some benches and in a few hammocks outside the eating area.
After lunch we descended from the hilly area to the pebbly riverside and walked on comfortably flat ground for three hours beside the rushing river. We crossed the river in a metal basket suspended from a cable, hiked up and down hill again, and found ourselves at some hot springs. We eagerly paid the S/5 to enter, quickly changed into our swimsuits, and soaked in the lovely, hot water for an hour before pulling our sweaty clothes and shoes back on and hiking 50 minutes to our hostel in the town of Santa Teresa. We relaxed for an hour before eating a supper of soup, rice, tough beef, and gravy around 7:00 at a nearby restaurant. I played a game of Uno, with to the strangest Uno rules I have ever encountered, with some of the people from our ever-growing tour group (our numbers had swelled to 20 people by this point). From 8:30 ‘til quite late (11:30 for me, later for everyone else), we hung out and listened to a loud band playing salsa and other music to celebrate the town’s 54th year of existence.
Day 3, Tuesday the 11th: Ziplining and Hiking
No one bothered to get up until around 7:50, despite having to be at breakfast at the restaurant at 8:00. I, at least, was not more than three or so minutes late. Breakfast was bread and jelly and another thick crepe with banana and, this time, mousse-y chocolate sauce.
Most of us opted to fork over an extra $25 to go ziplining during the first half of the day. We were driven 15 minutes to the base camp area of what was, according to Lonely Planet Peru, Peru’s only and South America’s highest zipline. Awesome! After harnessing up and receiving a helmet and leather gloves, we hiked 25 minutes up to our first cable. From there we crossed two valleys on six different ziplines totaling 2500 meters in length. One was long enough to take videos/pictures, and on another we were permitted to hang upside down. The two or so hours we spent waiting for our turns or soaring over the valley at dizzying heights in the bright sun and warm breeze flew by in an exciting cascade of breathtaking views and dangling feet. I loved every second of it!
In theory we were to be driven to our lunch destination to meet the people who had hiked during the morning to eat and then amble the final the three hours to Aguas Calientes at the base of Machu Picchu. However, I suppose it was a bit too much to expect a trip without some sort of unexpected something or other. We drove 15 minutes before coming to a roadblock; the road had collapsed and was being reconstructed. We had to walk. Our guide claimed that it would take us 45 minutes to reach lunch. It took an hour and a half. By the time we arrived at the restaurant place, I was rather annoyed. One might even say I was angry. I was hungry and the walk in the hot, hot sun had taken twice as long as our guide had said it would. I strongly dislike being told underestimates for time. Oh well. Once I got some food in my stomach I felt better. Lunch was delicious! We downed soup with quinoa, veggies, and potatoes followed by rice, beans and lentils, onions, tomatoes, and fried chicken and three tiny balls of ice cream at the end. No one had expected dessert!
Our three-hour walk after lunch followed the train tracks nearly the whole way to Aguas Calientes. We enjoyed the train tracks; we walked on the ties and wobbled our way down the metal part. It gave us something else to do other than walk on the flat path. However, the last 30 minutes or so were quite painful. Everyone’s legs were tired and our feet hurt. I know I was not the only one who was extremely happy to see our hostel in Aguas Calientes, where we arrived around 6. We took glorious hot showers and changed into clean (or just less sweaty) clothes before supper.
For dinner we actually had a fair amount of choices for both courses and for the beverage. I had half of a plain avocado with salt, spaghetti with meat sauce, and banana “juice,” more like banana puree. After supper and a discussion of the next day’s plan, we headed back to the hostel where I went straight to bed by 9:30 after packing my backpack.
Day 4, Wednesday the 12th: Hiking to, around, above Machu Picchu and Going Home
Our guide knocked loudly on all the doors at 4:15 to make sure we were awake. I put on my sweaty clothes once again, grabbed my stuff, and joined the group in the lobby. Leaving two plastic bags full of clothes I would not need and would pick up later, I followed the trail of people out the door at 4:30.
It was pitch black outside. My feet hurt. I could not imagine hiking way up the mountainside to reach Machu Picchu. We walked through some drizzle down the road outside of town, across a bridge, and started climbing cruel, stone steps between the switchbacks of the road. It was supposed to take 45 minutes. It took an hour and a half. But, this time, that did not bother me. I never believed it would take 45 minutes. There was no way. It was an odd hike; we were all miserably sore and tired but somehow excited to reach the top and Machu Picchu. We moaned about our feet and how much farther we had to go. We stopped every switchback. We laughed. We kept hiking up. At long last we emerged from the misty forest into the entrance area from which we could see nothing of Machu Picchu, just bathrooms, restaurants, and picnic tables. We found a mostly dry table and ate our packed breakfasts of a cheese sandwich, banana, four oreo-like cookies, and a box of peach juice (though I only ate the former two and some trail mix I had made and brought from Cusco). We waited.
Now, I must admit that at this point that I was a bit anxious. In fact, I had that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had reason to believe that I would not be able to get in to Machu Picchu. I had not brought my passport. All I had was a copy. No one had informed me that I needed my passport. Why should I? I was already in the country. Thankfully, one of the guys from our group had done the same thing, so if I could not get in, he probably could not either. Potential misery does love potential company.
While we were waiting for our guide to finish some phone call he was making, I paid my S/1 and made use of the bathroom facilities, as there were none inside the actual ruins of Machu Picchu. I exited the bathroom and looked up to find our group. They were past the entrance checkpoint. All of them; including the guy who only had his passport copy! I felt somewhat hopeful for the first time in 30 minutes. I strode up to the entrance and unabashedly handed my ticket and copy of my passport to the official, as if there was nothing at all amiss. She did not even blink. She stamped my ticket, glanced at my passport copy, and waved me through. I was SO incredibly relieved! I have not felt so triumphant since I found out I got a good grade on my research paper last January! Praise God!
We ascended a few stairs and ramps before getting our first glimpse of the famous ruins. But we could not see much. Clouds and mist hung over everything. We stood in a group by some ancient houses next to farming terraces and listened as our guide explained various historical bits and pieces. Gradually, the clouds lifted from the ruins beyond and below us and as the light grew, we could see more and more. It was quite dramatic, like the lifting of a curtain on a stage. For three hours we wandered around behind our guide like half-interested puppies, not always paying attention to his words but poking our heads in here and there to find something for ourselves. Half the time we zoned out of what he was explaining and took pictures or gazed at the buildings and mountains beyond. By the time he finished giving us the tour, around 10:00, we had learned quite a bit, despite our lack of concentration on occasion, and were right at the base of the mountain, Wayna Picchu, that rises up in the background of typical Machu Picchu pictures.
Only the six of us out of the larger tour group had tickets to Wayna Picchu. Summoning the last shreds of our resolve, we got in line for the hike. And waited for 35 minutes. Eventually we did begin to hike. Happily for me, one of the guys in our group had brought a giant water bottle with him and nothing in which to carry it. I had been carrying it in my backpack as we toured Machu Picchu, but told him I had no desire to schlep it up Wayna Picchu. He preferred to carry my whole backpack with his water bottle in it than carry the water bottle itself. So, I was backpackless! I felt light, free, buoyant! Or at least I felt liberated until we started up the practically vertical steps. We made it almost all the way up in 45 minutes or so and then decided to sit down and snack on whatever food we had left on the flat top of some ruins. ‘Twas wonderful! After resting for 20 minutes, we scrambled the rest of the way up to the bouldery top of Wayna Picchu. We were nearly at a level with the clouds, and Machu Picchu looked like just a light green and grey swath against the darker forest green of the mountains. After 20 minutes at the top, we headed back down, albeit rather slowly since one guy, who had had a stomach bug before we left on Sunday, felt and looked awful.
By 1:45 we were back outside the gate and our sick comrade had found the medic area. I and one guy reentered Machu Picchu to take a few more pictures before making our way slowly and very painfully back down to Aguas Calientes. One guy stayed and hiked around for a few more hours. The sick person acquired some medicine and took the bus down to the town.
After retrieving our train tickets and extra belongings we found the closest one of the hundreds of touristy restaurants and ate a S/15 meal of avocado, lomo saltado, and fruit juice.
We all made it to the train station one way or another by the appointed time of 6:15, boarded, and were moving down the tracks precisely on time at 6:45. Most people slept. I journaled. Our bus, still with the bikes on top, met us at the end of our 1 ½-hour train ride and drove us back to Cusco. We sleepily parted ways and took our respective taxis home. I collapsed into bed by 10:15, exhausted but happy.