Saturday, October 9, 2010

Machu Picchu: WOW

Machu Picchu: The most famous site in South America?
Yes, and for good reason, I’d say.

Starting with my arrival in Cusco, it’s easy to see how this nearby city has thrived as a starting-point for departures to Machu Picchu. Yes, it has that “touristy” feel, which sometimes takes away the authenticity of foreign travel. Didn’t matter to me though, as the restaurants, hotels, and service all make Cusco a delight to visit. Sometimes a proper city is a nice change from hustling by motorcycle through the barren Andes Mountains where fuel, food, and occasionally-needed help are scarce.

Every type of hiking, biking, flying, or riding adventure is offered through local travel companies, but my focus in this area was definitely Machu Picchu.

After shopping around, I bought a bus-train-bus-hotel package from Cusco to Machu Picchu that included some touring of The Sacred Valley and its ruins and towns along the way. We spent about an hour in the Pisac ruins and were set to see Ollantaytambo as well, but election-day in Peru caused some delays of course, and I missed that part.

From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes by train is quite a ride though. Make sure you take this during daylight hours, as it feels like you’re saying goodbye to the rest of the world and sneaking off to a completely secret destination that, despite all its perceived fame, has still not been officially announced to the world.

Winding down through the picture-perfect “Sacred Valley,” everyone’s cameras were chattering as we tried to grab shots of the amazing surroundings. I had considered doing the 3-day hike on the Inca Trail instead of taking the train, but for a handful of reasons decided against it this time. (One of those reasons being that it gives me a perfect excuse to return to this beautiful area of Peru.) The motorcycle ride to Ollantaytambo was an option, but this time I decided to join the bulk of the tourists.

Because only 400 people per day are allowed to hike to the top of Wayna-Picchu (see arrow in photo below), and there are only a handful of buses that depart at 5:30 in the morning to ascend from Aguas Calientes to the base of Machu Picchu, we were advised to be in line at 3:30am. As it turned out, we probably would have been okay at 5:30, but as there’s no predictability to the numbers from day to day, playing it safe and early was just fine with me. I had a Red Bull with me.

It’s an amazing feeling to finally arrive at the site of Machu Picchu with the sun just starting to trickle across the ruins, having routinely seen photographs of this place since 4th grade history class. Despite the thin air and having slept so little, I seemed to have limitless energy available stepping within eyesight of “The Lost City of the Incas.”

(Below, I enjoyed my couple of days in the area with Paul and Annabelle Williams from London, here for a 2-week journey through Peru.)

Having a professional & local tour guide like our “Cosmo” to lead us was definitely worth the small investment. Not only for the information you might not pickup in a book or on your own, but it was also nice to sense the pride he conveyed in presenting one of the New 7 Wonders of the World in his home country. (One memorable point he made was that the Incas held high appreciation for the Andean Condor indigenous to the area, and either by coincidence or design, do you see the shape of the condor in mountains the picture below?)

Our tour ended where the hike to the top of Wayna Picchu begins, having been on our feet for about 7 hours already at that point. I’m not going to say it’s the most difficult 1 hour hike you’ll ever do, but was it steep, narrow, and dangerous? Absolutely.

Again I was surprised by the amount of responsibility South American tourism places in the hands of the tourists themselves, seeing the how hike to the top of Wayna Picchu is a non-stop climb along a tiny ledge with under-sized footsteps and rocks to support you the whole way. For about the entire 2nd half of this hike, you’ll use your hands for support to keep yourself from slipping, which could lead to a fall where you literally end up skipping off the side of the mountain like a flat stone off of water. No guard rails. No waivers to sign before you start. Just your own intuition as to whether or not you should be doing it. I love it!

(Above, literally on my belly at this point, the only way to the top includes a couple of small caves. This one so narrow that my shoulders were touching both sides. Below: Paul emerges from the same cave.)

(Above, this is what I mean by "dangerous." Almost at the top of Wayna Picchu, here's a portion of the trail. About a half-shoe width of a ledge, and if you slip to the left, you'll slide down the wall and probably bounce off that small ledge if you can't stop yourself. Then 6-8 seconds later you'll be at the bottom of the valley.)
(Overhead view of Machu Picchu from the top of Wayna Picchu. Apparently the shape of a condor can be seen in the layout of the ruins also, but I admittedly struggle to see it.)

As much as I tried to recreate the atmosphere with the camera, “you have to be there” rings true when I think about the layers of mountains and scenery surrounding the site of Machu Picchu. The uniquely shaped mountain peaks in the backdrop reminded me of the rows of teeth you might find in the mouth of a shark. Then add the famous ruins that Hiram Bingham introduced to the world in 1911, the stories of his journeys to find The Lost City of the Incas, and your own personal adventure to arrive there, and it all combines for an unforgettable moment in life.