South America Diary: Day 15

Friday, 29 April, 2011. 15:51. PeruRail Explorer Suite from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo

Queue for buses to Machu PicchuAt 04:15 my watch alarm went off. We like to double the wake-up alarms to be sure. We packed our bags and went down for breakfast just after 04:30, still with no wake-up phone call. The breakfast was still being prepared, so we sat for a few minutes until the guy motioned us to eat. There were sweetish breads, ham, cheese, butter, jam, and the guy came to take egg orders in Spanish. There was no cereal. We ordered fried eggs each and received one each, sunny-side down. M. had saved half her bread roll to have it on, but I’d eaten mine already.

Queue to enter Machu Picchu, rearSome others drifted down to eat, and we quickly learned that nobody had got their wake-up calls. We told Ale, and she raced upstairs to check on everyone, then had some heated Spanish with the reception lady, who appeared in her pyjamas. However, we still managed to assemble everyone by just a couple of minutes after 05:00. Jian was the last to join us, as he was in his room watching the royal wedding (Prince William and Kate Middleton) live on TV from England!

We left to walk down the hill to the bus stop for the buses to Machu Picchu. We joined a queue in the pre-dawn darkness, which already contained several hundred people ahead of us. Buses were lined up along the street and more kept arriving and turning around to join the back of the queue of buses. The street was barely wide enough for them to do a three-point turn without falling into the adjacent river, and the footpath barely existed, so the buses blinked their lights to get queuing people out of the way as they turned.

Queue to enter Machu PicchuAs we waited, the street light nearest us blew. All the others up and down the street were still on. This let us see the stars, with Scorpius setting over the mountain to the west that hid Machu Picchu far above. The thin crescent moon rose slowly over another mountain to the east, horns pointing upwards as it preceded the sun. Vendors with baskets of water, snacks, and even promising hot coffee scouted up and down the queue looking for customers. We saw some of the royal wedding on TVs in cafes by the street.

The first bus left at 05:30 and people filed on to them one at a time, each bus leaving as it filled up. More buses kept coming and even though we were 400 or 500 people back in the queue, there was no danger of the buses running out before we got on one. Eventually we’d worked our way down and climbed aboard a bus, Ale showing the ticket inspector tickets for all of us.

Machu Picchu from the Inca TrailThe bus took off down a dirt road alongside the Urabamba River, the driver flying along in the early morning light as it was close to 06:00 by now and the sky was bright, although the sun still had to climb above the mountains all around us. The road ran along the right bank of the river for a kilometre or two, then turned across a bridge and into the Machu Picchu National Park site.

From there, the bus began climbing a series of steep switchbacks, in many places only wide enough for a single bus, but in other spots there was meagre passing room for buses coming the other way. On the downhill side there were no safety barriers, and often and almost sheer drop down a crumbly surface to the river below. The driver took this road at a crazy speed. Later I commented to Jian that I was amazed that the buses didn’t have seatbelts. He said it would make no difference if the bus fell off the road anyway!

Machu Picchu MorningAfter climbing maybe 300 metres up the mountainside, the bus arrived at the entrance to the city site itself. Here there was a disorderly queue of all the people who’d got buses before us, waiting to get through the entry turnstiles. This was a slow process as they checked tickets and passports carefully. Signs at the entrance stated strict rules regarding the site: no smoking, no littering, no eating any food, no walking sticks except for elderly and infirm people, no backpacks larger than 20 litres capacity. The only toilets were outside the entry gates, which meant that if you had to go while inside, you had to exit first and then re-enter. The queue was a mess, with people milling about at random, and new arrivals simply walking up near the front and barging in wherever they pleased. We started together as a group, but by the time Ale reached the turnstiles, there were 20 or 30 other people before us.

Spot the LlamasWe assembled on the far side of the turnstiles to meet our local guide, Willington. He showed us around Machu Picchu for the next couple of hours, taking us over most of the different areas and providing lots of great explanation and information. We saw the steep terraces on the north-east side of the mountain – for agriculture, as they faced the morning sun. Then there were houses and temples, distinguishable by the quality of the workmanship of the stone walls. Willington showed us the Temple of the Sun, which was obviously much more carefully built than any of the buildings around it, with the stones cut and fitted together with mind-boggling precision, with no mortar nor any gaps to fill with it. The nearby houses could also be divided by workmanship into three groups: noble houses, less important houses, and servants’ quarters. The masonry skill fell off by detectable amounts between each class, with the latter being only loosely fitted stones filled with a mortar of chalk and saliva from some animal (I can’t remember – probably llamas), up to several centimetres thick in places.

Machu Picchu lizardThe buildings generally had walls that sloped gently, giving them a trapezoidal cross section, thicker at the bottom than the top. There were niches in the insides of the buildings for use as shelf space. These were also trapezoidal. Willington explained that the shape was more stable than rectangular when earthquakes struck. He also showed how large stones were usually separated by smaller stones, giving them some flexibility of movement, so they wouldn’t crack in earthquakes. Then he showed us an example where two larger stones adjoined, and a large crack had appeared in one.

I asked Willington if the stones had been brought to Machu Picchu, and he answered no, they were quarried on the site, on top of the mountain. He in fact led us to the quarry area, where large boulders were scattered across a sloping area. He explained that they only used stones that had naturally come loose from the mountain, because it would have been sacrilegious to cut stone from the mountain. Then we moved on to the central plaza area and a spot with another temple with a large sacrificial altar stone. Near here was the Temple of Three Windows, so named for the three trapezoidal windows through which we could see the mountains in the distance and the valley far below. A Willington had pointed out earlier, the houses didn’t have windows, for security reasons, but presumably temples could.

IntihuatanaNext we went to the astronomical observatory, on top of a small pyramid-like structure. This was a high spot that had a good view of the city and had a large stone sundial, called the Intihuatana stone, at its centre. This was shaped with edges pointing in the four cardinal directions and also towards four important nearby mountains. The narrow lump of stone projecting from the top cast a shadow that fell on to a flat stone on one side in the shape of a guinea pig. On the summer solstice, the rising sun casts a small triangle of light formed by the sundial and an opposite wall, precisely on the eye of the guinea pig. As we were listening to Willington’s explanations, a couple of other people came up and approached the sundial stone. They both looked in awe, and on a signal they held their hands out, palms forward to the Intihuatana stone, coming within a centimetre or so of touching it, but without doing so. They stood there like that for several seconds, closing their eyes and presumably feeling some sort of cosmic mystic energy or something coming from the stone. We all thought it was hilarious.

Down the other side of the observatory, we came to a flat area where several llamas were grazing, which inspired a flurry of camera activity amongst the group. We then moved through an industrial area, with granaries and workshops and so forth.

Temple of the Sun and Urabamba RiverThe final building we saw was the Temple of the Condor, within which a stone inlaid in the floor provided the beak, head, and body of the condor, and two immense blocks of natural stone behind it provided spreading wings, creating the shape of a condor swooping for an attack. We walked through a crack in one of the wing rocks, a narrow passage for which I had to duck down and take off my camera backpack to squeeze through.

That ended our guided tour and we passed an envelope around to collect tips for Willington, who had been an excellent guide. He’d mentioned that we were having perfect weather for seeing Machu Picchu. When it’s foggy or rainy, you can barely see ten metres, he said. Just four days ago it had been raining heavily and he’d done two tours soaked through to the skin. He said he’d take the hot sunshine over that any day.

The classic viewThe sun was indeed hot, but we were careful to stay covered and sunscreened to avoid sunburn. Most of us rested in a shady spot near where the tour ended, but Ale and Andrew headed off quickly to climb to the top of Machu Picchu mountain, a climb Ale said would take three hours up and down. It would have been nice to do this, but the climb was very steep in places and I couldn’t easily handle much more than the climb I did at Ollantaytambo. Instead, we chose to walk up to the Sun Gate, partway up the flank of the mountain, in a pass adjoining a smaller subsidiary peak.

The Sun Gate is the first point on the Inca Trail from which you can see Machu Picchu, and is situated such that the sunrise on a specific day of the year passes through the gate to land on one of the temples. The Gate is considerably higher than all of the buildings in Machu Picchu, and is reached by an uphill path about two or three kilometres long. To get there, we had to walk up the main staircase between the agricultural and residential districts, towards the guardhouse which commanded the highest point in the city. We passed out through the main city gate, a massive stone lintel doorway through which all traffic into and out of the city would have passed in Inca times. From there, we followed the path upwards, traversing the side of Machu Picchu mountain.

Andean mistThe path was not too steep, but was formed of roughly laid stones so you had to watch every step, and most of it was fully exposed to the hot morning sun. We took rest spots in small patches of shade formed by vegetation. It was hot and tiring work at the altitude. We figured the no eating rule was to prevent people littering or dropping food scraps, so snuck some sustenance in the form of chocolate coated peanuts and crackers. We had to get to the Sun Gate and back before 13:30, to give us enough time for the bus ride back to Aguas Calientes in time for our train.

Town planningAbout two-thirds of the way to the Sun Gate was a sort of gatehouse, where several people were resting in the shade provided by the walls and taking photos of the city now far below. We also stopped briefly, then continued on the final slog. We passed several people coming back and asked one pair how much farther, and they said “not much at all, it’s just a bit further up and around a corner and you’ll be there”. It turned out their estimation must have been based on the much easier task of walking down than up, because it was still a fair way and we turned three or four corners before finally getting within sight of our goal. Along the way, we passed a llama grazing peacefully on the vegetation next to the path. It was grazing on this by standing in the only suitable spot: on the path itself. We had to actually squeeze our way around it.

Eventually we reached a corner and turned around the edge of the mountain to see a steep set of steps leading up to the Sun Gate, which we could now see for the first time. Coming down the steps were a man and a boy of about four years old. The buy was struggling with the steps, but the only help the man gave was holding his hand. As we watched, the buy started crying and yelling, “You took me up here! Why did you take me up here?!” We let them pass us, the buy bawling his eyes out.

Rama Llama Ding DongA few minutes later, we were at the Sun Gate, enjoying both the view and the shade afforded by the walls of the gate building. A dozen or so other people were there, resting, milling around, or taking photos. And what a thing to take photos of! This is the point of view for the classic shots of Machu Picchu that everyone has seen. We were higher than Huayna Picchu mountain on the far side of the city, and so could look down on both, with the Urabamba Valley surrounding it all on three sides and more majestic mountains of the Andes marching into the distance, topped by tufts of cloud that clung to the highest peaks. It was simply gorgeous and well worth the hard work to get there.

Us at Machu PicchuOf course, we posed for some photos, asking someone in Spanish who turned out to speak fluent English, to take them for us. By now the time was 11:30, so we didn’t stay too long, wanting to make sure we had plenty of time to make our train back to Ollantaytambo. The walk down was of course much easier, with less stopping to catch our breaths. It also clouded over a bit, providing some relief from the hot sun. And we started drinking more water, knowing we were on our way out to a toilet, instead of away from the nearest one.

We reached the llama again and tried once more for a decent photo, but it was difficult with the angle and the fact that its back side was facing the path. Back at the city, we turned off the trail we’d taken up near the first buildings, where another path labelled “Salida/Exit” joined. This turned out to be the track that people taking the recommended “long” walking tour use to enter the site. It led down many steps and switchbacks, and we kept passing puffed people coming up the other way. Soon we were back at the entrance turnstiles, where we saw Pan sitting. She said she was waiting for Jian, and that several of the others had already left on buses back to Aguas Calientes. The time was about 12:35, so it had taken us a bit over an hour to walk down from the Sun Gate.

Dark CusqueñaWe joined the short queue for a bus down and got on the second one with a stack of empty ones queued up and leaving as soon as they were full. On the trip down, I had a window seat, so tried to take some photos out the window when there was a good view down the precipitous drop. But this driver was, if anything, even more of a demon than the one coming up, and I’m not sure how they turned out with all the rattling and shaking.

Back at Aguas Calientes, we had time for a drink and M. felt like some coffee, so we went back to Indio Feliz and got a table there. It was much quieter at lunch time than dinner, not so surprisingly. M. got a cappuccino, and I ordered a Cusqueña Negra dark beer, produced by Cusqueña in Cusco. It was good, cold, and refreshing after the hard, hot morning. M. said the coffee was good, though a bit milky. As we began our drinks, the waitress brought over two baskets of complimentary chips, hot and obviously freshly made thin slices of potato, fried until crispy, and with a hint of fluffy potato in the middle, seasoned with salt and herbs. They were delicious.

Complimentary chipsAfter this refreshment, we walked up the hill to our hotel, where our day packs were being stored. We saw Ale about five metres ahead of us, walking up the hill, but we were unable to catch up, or even keep up as she powered along and we struggled with the altitude and exhaustion. We reached the hotel about five minutes before the meeting time of 14:00, to find almost everyone already there. Laura was missing; Kim explained that she was waiting on some take-away food orders from a hotel down the street and would be bringing them soon, hopefully. Ale decided to leave and walk us down the street towards the other hotel to hopefully meet Laura coming up the other way.

We got to an intersection where we needed to take a different route with no sign of Laura, so Ale prepared to go find her when suddenly Laura came running up the slope carrying some large paper bags. Together again, we proceeded to the railway station, where we entered and then had to wait in the waiting room for about twenty minutes. The take-aways were hot sandwiches, which came with chips and some other stuff packed in foil trays. They looked pretty good – all we’d have to eat was snacks between the early breakfast and arriving back in Cusco about 19:00 tonight.

Machu Picchu - CuscoThe train arrived and people poured out, then we had to queue up to get on. We were in carriage B, with Pan and Jian, but all the others were in C. This time we got seats facing forwards, and again on the scenic side of the train. Facing us was an older couple, also from Sydney. They had just done another Intrepid tour which included hiking the Inca Trail, ending up at Machu Picchu today. From their description, it sounded like the Trail included some pretty hairy up- and downhill sections. On the train, I was feeling very tired and worn out by the day, the early start, hot and strenuous activity, and lack of decent food.

We pulled into Ollantaytambo a bit before 17:00. After reassembling off the train and stopping for a toilet break for those who wanted one, we boarded a bus for the drive back to Cusco. It seemed everyone was worn out, since people seemed quiet and subdued. Leaving Ollantaytambo was tricky, as apparently there was a blockage somewhere up ahead of a queue of dozens of tourist buses of various sizes. Ale said there was a narrow bit where we had to wait for traffic going the other way. We stayed motionless for maybe ten minutes before traffic in our direction began flowing. Then we were on the road to Urabamba, which we’d come in on a couple of days before.

Red flagAt Urabamba, we took the turn across a bridge over the river and on to the direct road to Cusco that we hadn’t been on yet. This road climbed up a series of switchbacks until we were looking down into the Urabamba Valley from a plateau maybe 500 metres above it. The view from this altiplano was spectacular, as we could see over the small dry mountains near the valley to the vast snow-capped peaks of the high Andes beyond. We saw the glaciers Veronica and Chichon, and some others as well. We saw a moderate sized lake and passed through the town of Chinchero as the sun set and the sky darkened. Our driver was determined to get us to Cusco quickly, overtaking several slower vehicles on the way, without worrying about paltry details like no overtaking zones.

The road climbed to 3750 metres before reaching the outskirts of Cusco and then descending into the city. We reached the Mama Sara Hotel at 18:45, and went to our rooms to shower and freshen up before a dinner meeting at 19:45. We asked Ale for a recommendation for a simple dinner and she gave us directions to Tunupa, on the Main Square.

Sacred Valley train tripShowered and freshened, we met Andrew, Kim, Laura, Jian, and Olivia at 19:45. We led the way to Tunupa, but they were full. They said they had one seat available on the balcony if we wanted it. So we wandered off, following Andrew a block or two to a place where he said there were some decent looking restaurants. But the place we ended up at looked a bit fancy and didn’t have much of a vegetarian selection, so we excused ourselves from the group and went across the square to The Muse, where Ale had taken us to lunch on our first day in Cusco. M. had a vegetable soup and I had a chicken soup and spinach salad. The salad was mostly chopped apple, with candied walnuts, tomato, orange pieces, on a bed of spinach leaves. It was very good.

Following dinner, we walked back to the hotel to try to get a decent night’s sleep. On the way back we stopped at Tunupa to book a table for two for tomorrow. The guy at the door invited us in to sit in a foyer area while he checked, which took a very long time. Finally he said we could have a table and asked for 50 soles to take a reservation. After some questioning, I confirmed this was a deposit, not a fee, and handed the cash over. The guy said he’d get us a receipt (I was about to ask for one) and vanished again for several minutes. While waiting, a woman lit up a cigarette in the foyer and I had to get out of there. I found the guy and said we didn’t want the reservation, because people were smoking in the restaurant. He looked shocked and said, “Where?” I pointed at the smoking woman and the guy said, “Oh, she’s just leaving,” like the foyer didn’t count or something. I insisted we didn’t want the reservation, and the guy apologised and handed back my money. What a weird experience all round!

The tour officially ends at 09:30 tomorrow, but everyone wanted a sleep in, so Ale has organised a meeting for 10:00.

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