Monday, May 7, 2018

Machu Picchu: my third of the Seven Wonders

On 4/29/18, my bucket list got a little lighter. 

After speaking for a week at an international school in Lima, I visited Machu Picchu, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (and the third I've had the privilege to see, the other two being the Colosseum in 1993 and the Taj Mahal in 2015).

It earns that distinction.

A trip to Machu Picchu starts with a stop in Cusco (once the capital of the Inca Empire) followed by a stone-skip in the much smaller town Aguas Calientes (also called Machupicchu, one word). Think of them as base camps 1 and 2.

Moodily nestled in a cloud forest between highlands and jungle, Machu Picchu is lower in elevation than Cusco (and higher than Aguas Calientes). Some people develop altitude sickness in Cusco, symptoms of which can include headache and nausea.

So going from Cusco to Machu Picchu can alleviate that discomfort—due not only to elevation but also elation.

Glimpses of Cusco:

 Chewing coca leaves (yes, coca as in cocaine)
allegedly helps alleviate altitude sickness symptoms.

 So does drinking coca tea, 
offered for free in many hotels.

For me, the highlight of Cucso was the large stone Incan 
fortress/complex Sacsayhuamán. 

Getting to Machu Picchu, step by step (though not as many steps as hiking there on the Inca Trail):

  • 1 hour, 20 minute flight from Lima to Cusco
  • 2-hour private bus to Ollantaytambo
  • 2-hour Inca Rail train to Aguas Calientes 
  • 20-minute bus to the gate of Machu Picchu

That last leg is mundane on the surface but exhilarating as you are so close to entering one of the most legendary locales in human history.

I did all but the flight in one day, meaning about eight hours of travel for three hours of tourism. But again, as I keep saying: Machu Picchu. Mucho worth it.

My timeline:

  • 3:30 am—alarm went off after an altitude-impacted night of half-sleep: dry mouth, cold-like congestion, mildly feverish; all that remained as I set out was head pressure (not quite a headache)
  • 4 am—picked up at hotel by rep from the travel agency, but he did not have one key item he was supposed to: my train ticket (note: when I entered the dimly lit hotel lobby, two hotel staff member who were sleeping on the vinyl couches awoke with a start); though I was not told why, I was driven to another hotel where lots of people were waiting and where, after at least 20 minutes of bumbling, the travel agency rep managed to produce the train ticket 
  • 4:50 am—private bus with about 20 others to Ollantaytambo; sure enough, as our altitude decreased, my head pressure dissipated 
  • 7:20 am—Inca Rail to Aguas Calientes
  • 9 am—arrived at Aguas Calientes; I felt like I'd already traveled a full day and it was only the start of work according to the traditional schedule 
  • 10 am—after tooling around the tiny town (which is mostly tourist restaurants selling pizza but also has several discos and even a soccer field), I took the bus to Machu Picchu
  • 11 am—met my guide Anibal and entered Machu Picchu; his best line of the day: "Welcome to my office" (perhaps you've had a tour guide somewhere who's said the same)
  • 12:50 pm—after exploring from one end to another, we began to hike the portion of the Inca Trail that leads to the Sun Gate; I'd been told it would take 45 minutes one way so we hauled (because I could not miss my train back) and made it in 25
  • 2 pm—after hiking back down, we left Machu Picchu
  • 4:12 pm—train back to bus back to Cusco
  • 8:30 pm—I arrived in Cusco, but to the departure hotel from that morning; apparently the travel agency forgot to provide a ride for that last step (10 minute drive to my hotel); luckily, other travel agency people who were there (I don't know exactly who they were) kindly drove me

 Catching the train in Ollantaytambo.

 I don't know if the "mystic experience" refers to 
the train ride or to the small meal included.

 Aguas Calientes is essentially one angled street.

 Though small and somewhat claustrophic, 
Aguas Calientes is home to a proper soccer field 
that took me by surprise when I stumbled upon it.

 The central plaza displays what appears to be the 
gay pride flag but is actually the flag of Cusco. 
(Thank you to those who corrected me.)
Some theorize this pattern also appeared on an Incan flag,
though others say that is unlikely.

 Follow the train tracks just a bit and the town simply ends.


One of the buses that leave every few minutes to/from
Machu Picchu. Looked like this one was about to back 
up right into the river...

Up until somewhat recently, only morning tours were offered. Due to demand, they added an afternoon option ("secondo turno"). That's what I chose for several reasons:

  • rain/fog are more likely in the morning (and the sun rises behind a mountain)
  • best light for photos is around 4 pm (though it turns out I was not able to stay that late)
  • crowd thins after 3 pm (ditto)
  • it's the only way a day trip from Cusco is possible

Total steps for the day: 18,000. Though I exceeded my 10,000-a-day goal, I thought it'd be more. (Plus each step to and from the Sun Gate should count as two.)

The expansive citadel of Machu Picchu was—staggeringly—built and abandoned within about 100 years (mid-1400s to mid-1500s). This is even more incomprehensible given how many stone structures are there and how painstakingly they were built—without mortar (more than 400 years later, you cannot fit a thin blade between the bricks). Incan construction has survived earthquakes better than more modern techniques. All of the rock used was quarried on site.

Animals you might see at Machu Picchu include llamas, monkeys, and hummingbirds. Animals I saw included llamas. That's it. Oh, and butterflies.

I asked Anibal why most of the AC cafés offered pizza, which isn't Peruvian and certainly isn't Incan. He said because it's easy and quick to make. I suggested he start a place called "Machu Pizza." I think he's considering it.

Glorious glimpses of Machu Picchu:

 Hiram Bingham was the American explorer who
(re)discovered Machu Picchu in 1911 
and publicized it to the world.

 In the 1980s, a luxury ($1,900/night when I looked)
hotel was built just outside Machu Picchu.

 Round this corner and...

 ...first glimpse of Machu Picchu.

 Temple of the Sun, a centerpiece of Machu Picchu and
the only structure there with rounded walls.

 Room of the Three Windows, 
another religiously significant highlight. 

 See that small white line of stone on the grass right of center?
Once there was a larger stone there, but when the King of Spain
requested to land his helicopter on that spot in 1978, it was removed. 
As if the Spanish hadn't already done enough
damage to the Incas!

 To give a sense of the depth/steepness.

 To give a deeper sense of the depth. 
Note the river far below.

 Llamas and alpacas graze and roam the site.

 Spot the resting tourist.

 Take this stretch of the Inca Trail from Machu Picchu
to the Sun Gate, a majestic and astronomically pivotal site 
on the crest of that mountain in the distance.

 Except for my clothes, this scene could have
been 500 years ago.

 A view of Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate.

 A view of me at the Sun Gate.

 Thanks again, Anibal!

 You can get a free Machu Picchu stamp in your passport.

And a free Machu Picchu stamp on your spirit.


Cobernicus said...

Fabulous travelogue, which brought back many memories. Cuzco remains one of my favorite cities. One small point, the rainbow flag you see everywhere is NOT, as our pointed out repeatedly, a gay pride flag. It is the official city flag of Cuzco, and has also been adopted by the pan-Andean people as theirs. It even flies over the Cathedral in Cuzco.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Thanks! Corrected!