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Posted by Tim on Jul 23, 2005
The Lost City of Machu Picchu

We awoke in the city of Cuzco at 4:30am, dressed, and packed a few things. At just before five, there was a knock on our door from the adorable, motherly woman who runs our hotel. Our cab had arrived. (The Inca Trail was booked through September, so we were taking the train to Machu Picchu.)

We were playing it safe. The train station was only about a twenty-minute walk from our hotel, but for a large portion of the tourists in Peru who are robbed, it happens on the early morning walk to the Machu Picchu train station. Taking no chances, we had arranged ourselves a cab. We spent almost as long haggling over the price as we spent being driven to the station. The station, for its part, was safe, friendly, and had perhaps the most spotlessly clean public restrooms in South America.

Promptly at 5:45am, our train began boarding. 30 minutes later, we were off. Our plan was to overnight in the town of Aguas Calientes, and see Machu Picchu twice on consecutive days. We were also keeping our room in Cuzco (it was cheap enough, and it would be nice to have a "home" to come back to): in fact, we'd told our landlady that we'd be back that evening. No reason for anyone to know we'd be out of our room for 36 hours, we figured. She probably wouldn't even notice that we didn't get in that night.

The 4-hour trainride was spectacularly beautiful. We snaked up and down steep mountains, "switching back" (reversing directions) repeatedly. For a good portion of the trip, we followed the Urubamba River, where we had gone white-water rafting just the day before.

We arrived at Aguas Calientes just after 10am.

Aguas Calientes: Gateway to Machu Picchu

First of all, let's get the name out of the way. Aguas Calientes is Spanish for "hot water", referring to the nearby thermal baths. This name predates the discovery of nearby Machu Picchu, back when a good hot soak was the only reason you'd want to visit the place. The town is now busily trying to get people to call it "Machupicchu Pueblo", and the bus ticket from there to Machu Picchu chastises people for "mistakenly calling it Aguas Calientes". The fact remains, though, that AC is the name by which nearly everyone knows the place, so its the name I'm using here.

Aguas Calientes is a tourist trap, but a disarmingly beautiful one. The whole town is basically built alongside the railroad tracks (the only way to get there, other than the Inca trail). When the train drops you off, you first have to run a gauntlet of shops and market stalls, but somehow it isn't annoying, and you find yourself seriously considering buying a crimson poncho, or a giant beetle mounted under glass. The whole place is surrounded by towering green mountains, and the Urubamba River gurgles alongside it. We loved it.

We walked into the very first hotel we came to, booked ourselves a room, and threw down our bags. Then we grabbed a bite to eat and caught the next bus up the mountain to Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu, Day 1

Machu Picchu had, of course, been one of the anchors of our trip from day one. We wanted to see Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We wanted to take a balloon ride over the fairy chimneys in Cappadocia, Turkey. We wanted to tour the Galapagos Islands. And we wanted to behold the lost city of the Incas, glorious Machu Picchu.

It did not disappoint. The place is massive. I clearly remember that being my overwhelming impression of the place. I had just never realized how big it was. Because we had arrived at about 12:30pm, it was at its busiest: but even containing as many people as it did, it was so big that it was easy to slip away to some quiet, unnoticed corner for a little private exploration.

We wandered at will, ignoring our map and the occasional signs denoting marked paths, just following our whims at every corner and staircase. Every view was breathtaking, every direction we turned presented a photo opportunity.

In the end, we ended with the part that most people begin with: The Hut of the Caretaker of the Funerary Stone.

Probably every photo you've ever seen of Machu Picchu has been taken from this spot. Looking down at the ancient city spread before us, we both remarked on how unreal it felt, how exactly like the pictures it looked. I remember wishing that they didn't put this spot at the beginning of the tours: this should be the last thing people see, the climax of a visit to Machu Picchu.

There was a herd of feisty llamas grazing on the hilltop behind us (Incan lawn-mowers), so we kept one eye on our backs as we sat on the grass to watch the sun set on the Sacred Valley. At this point, the park was nearly deserted, and we rested our heads on one another's shoulders, took thousands of photos, and just sat for over an hour drinking everything in. Eventually, after sunset, a polite security guard came though and asked us to leave.

Machu Picchu, Day 2

Before dawn the next morning, we checked out of our hotel and caught the first bus back up the mountain. Our plan was to sprint back up to the Hut and get the same pictures at sunrise that we'd taken at sunset.

The fog had other ideas, though.

A thick cloud had settled over the mountain top that morning, all but obscuring the ancient city from us. We felt so bad for the other people alongside us, who were seeing it for perhaps the only time, and counted ourselves lucky to have seen it in its glory the night before. For us, the fog wasn't a bad thing at all, allowing us to see the city in two totally different ways. For those just finishing the four-day Inca Trail that morning, though (including our good friends David and Sarah), it was probably just gutting. (The fog did lift eventually, and fortunately David and Sarah stayed around long enough to see the city in all its glory.)

A note about the advice given by nearly every guide book, by the way... You will be told the best way to see Machu Picchu away from the crowds of tourists is to go first thing in the morning. Nonsense. Everyone is told that, so everyone goes first thing in the morning. The place is far less crowded in the evening. There were probably ten or twenty times as many people there our second morning as were there that first evening.

For our second day, we'd set ourselves a mission: Wayna Picchu.

Climbing Wayna Picchu

In the classic Machu Picchu photo, there is a large mountain in the background. It is in large part this mountain, called Wayna Picchu (some sources spell it "Huayna Picchu"), that lends such an air of magic to the place. We had decided to climb this peak.

The climb isn't technically challenging: you don't need to be a mountaineer to attempt it. You do need to be in pretty good shape though, as many warnings at the bottom of the mountain attest. It takes about an hour or so of continuous climbing at altitude to reach the summit, but those that make it are rewarded with a a view of the lost city seldom seen in photographs.

Near the summit of the mountain, we had to crawl through a small, claustrophic cave to continue. I strongly feel they need to add a word to the warnings at the bottom of the mountain: You must be fit, healty, and small to attempt this trail. I barely squeezed through, and I have to think some of the people who attempt the summit have to turn back at that point.

The top of Wayna Picchu is an ancient complex of Incan guardhouses, the kind of thing that lawyers in the US would never allow people to clambor about on. Staircases at times consisted of rocks sticking out of the side of walls like a ladder, with nothing to hold onto and nothing but a kilometer of empty space below you. Other staircases were hundreds of meters long, at a steep 45° angle, only a foot or two wide, and made up of steps so narrow that you had to stand on them sideways.

We had ourselves a little picnic of doritos and water in one of the stone buildings at the top of Wayna Picchu, looking down at the Sacred Valley below us. The fog had cleared by now, and the views were spectacular. I'd still be up there, I think, if we didn't have a train to catch.

We took the bus one last time down that windy, mountain road to Aguas Calientes, and made our way to the train station. Our train left at 3:45pm, and (a bit longer for the return journey) arrived back in Cuzco at 8:30pm or so. We had dinner afterwards with two English girls named Hazel and Katie, who had happened to wind up sitting across from us on the train going both directions.

That's about all there is to tell about Machu Picchu. Except for one last thing.


The next morning, we were woken at 6:30am by a knocking on our door. It was the daughter of the woman who ran the hotel, and in my half-asleep state I didn't understand anything she was saying (my Spanish doesn't kick in until the second cup of coffee). It wasn't until that afternoon, talking to the girl's mother, that all became clear.

We, it seemed, had caused a bit of a panic.

When you not come back, the old woman told us, I am very worried. "What if they get sick," I ask. "What if something happen to them?" I want to call police, to tell them you in trouble, but my son tell me to calm down. He tell me to wait for two days.

We are shocked. We hadn't expected the hotel to even notice we didn't come back the night before, much less for her to worry about whether we were all right. A little emarrassed and more than a little touched, we apologise to her. We tell her that we had gotten so caught up in the beauty of Machu Picchu that we decided to stay another night.

She waves off our apoligies, smiling at us. Of course, of course, she says. But that is why this morning I send my daughter to check your room. She tell me you there. I am so happy this morning!

She beams at us. I've never known any hotel to have such concern for their guests.

You all alone here in Peru. Except for me. This is your home in Cuzco, and I am your family here. Who will worry for you if not me?

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July 23, 2005 at 2:09pm
That first shot is like a fairy tale. Simply amazing.

How sweet of the lady at the hotel…

One of these I must get myself to Peru, experience this beauty and maybe buy one of those beetles mounted in glass. :P

July 23, 2005 at 4:15pm
I feel so ineloquent when responding to your incredible posts… but you both know that I very, very much enjoy them and treasure them. I can only imagine what it was like to walk among those ruins. One of my favorite memories of my stay in Mexico was walking around the ruins of the temples at Teotihuac
July 23, 2005 at 4:22pm
Moms are the best.
How high can you climb into the heavens around there and still be huimbled by the beginings of humanity!
July 23, 2005 at 8:07pm
"Stunned and awed silence" doesn't translate well to comment.:)
July 23, 2005 at 9:51pm
Yet again you make me jealous.

Wonderful. Both the city and the landlady.

July 24, 2005 at 6:22am
Oh I left my "Johnney Well on"…nice post Tick boy…oh Braulio Munoz is in Peru right now maybe you will see him, He will be the guy who looks like he lives in Peru…
July 24, 2005 at 9:18pm
Ok I might be pregnant but the last bit about the lovely woman being your family in Peru made me cry. *sniff*

That is the sweetest thing I've heard in awhile.

July 31, 2005 at 4:22pm
i missed this posting getting ready to go to tn. i'm here again till at least monday. sounds like you had a motherly hostess lookling out for both of you ,which means i don't have to be quite as worry as i have been be safe have fun love from all woof meow chirp and binkies
August 2, 2005 at 8:30pm
Ooh, good that you got two such differing views of it! One beautiful clear one and one magical mysterious foggy one. Lovely! Amazing!

What a wonderful woman. I'm glad to hear you're finding family like that! :) It's good to have people looking after you.

Leigh Ann Schafer
August 3, 2005 at 8:39am
Jess your trip sounds wonderful! The pics are amazing. Be safe and take care!

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