How I tackled the famous Inca site, Machu Picchu.
Traveling from Cusco in the middle of the night to exhaust ourselves climbing Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, a truly incredible experience.
There are a number of ways to see Machu Picchu. You can book a tour of the Inca Trail, or other such extended, slightly expensive treks for the experience of walking through the Sacred Valley all the way up to village atop the green, round mountain. You can stay the night in the town before Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes, and arise with the sun for an early morning, two hour hike up to the city and surrounding mountains. Or you can do what Laura and I did, which has its pros and cons.
Some other travelers assured me as I bought my ticket for Machu Picchu online and a week in advance (good idea to do this because Machu Picchu and her sister/his brother? Huayna Picchu only allow a certain amount of tourists per day to walk their even steps and stones. Something about preserving the site….) that Machu Picchu takes all day, and that I wouldn’t be able to find a train back to Cusco that night, and should plan to sleep in Aguas. So we decided, like so many others, to leave Cusco very early in the morning and arrive in Aguas Calientes at around 8 in the morning to begin our ascension then.
Rather than take the train straight from Cusco to Aguas, which would have cost around $75 each way, we booked a couple of round trip tickets from Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. The red-lipsticked PeruRail associate suggested that it would be cheaper to take a $3 colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, which leave regularly beginning at 2 am, and take the train from there, all together around $55. So we saved like $40. Woop!
Our alarm clocks went off around 3 am, and we gathered our things silently in the dark, already dressed in what we’d wear for the next 20 hours. We booked a 5:20 train out of “Olla-whatever,” as I had been calling it, so we knew we’d need to be on a collective mini van by 4 am to make the hour long journey.
After a short cab ride to the colectivo meeting point, we were immediately accosted at our taxi window by at least ten men and one woman, all beseeching us to join their van. I picked the guy with the most honest face, and struggled to follow him to his van, the woman blocking my path in a sad attempt to change my mind. Unfortunately, we were the first two in this particular mini van, and we watched, mostly horrified, slightly amused, and incredibly impatient, as our driver sprinted with the herd to other new taxis pulling up to stake their claim into the latest tourist.
The road through the Sacred Valley was bumpy and winding and filled with the most annoying, loud, upbeat Peruvian music it has ever been my displeasure to listen to for an extended period of time. Not even my earplugs combined with light humming to myself could drown it out. We got to the picturesque town of Olla-whatever, that most tourists (including us) overlook, just in time to make our train. We spent another two hours rocking steadily along the Urubamba River and under earthy, brown mountains that appeared wise and judgmental as the full clouds hugged them. The PeruRail trains are covered in skylights (that would prove to be my undoing on the way back due to a migraine and an odd musical fashion show), and the rising sun shone through beautifully while we were served muffins and coca tea and a recording of a perky white woman happily informed us passengers that, “Families living in the community grow corn, potatoes and various vegetables.” It felt like a ride at Epcot.
We arrived at the lovely tourist town of Aguas Calientes at around 8 in the morning and walked uphill along a river to our hostel, SuperTramp, which I wouldn’t recommend (slow wifi, dirty bathrooms, no hot water, no kitchen, bitchy cook). By the time we got settled and caffeinated, it was 9:30, and we didn’t want to waste time climbing the mountain up to Machu, which would have taken two hours. Also, lezzbehonest, we were pretty pooped from waking up at 3 am. The bus up cost about $10 and took 30 minutes, and soon we were being accosted by more Peruvians, this time tour guides exclaiming that it would be impossible to visit the site without a guide. I very much doubted this because I had read a book on Machu Picchu prior, but my friend Laura was keen to learn, and I agreed to translate the tour for her, an offer I regretted five minutes in, my tired mind struggling to grasp Spanish so early.
Our guide, a small, flat woman with nice skin, explained that when people today talk about Inca culture, they don’t know that they are technically referring to the fourteen trend setting kings who are the only true Incas, the most well known being Tupac Amaru, the last Inca who died fighting for independence from the Spanish conquistadores, and Pachacutec, the ninth Inca king who transformed the Kingdom of Cusco into an empire and was the architect for Machu Picchu. Apparently, the village in the clouds was the only part of the Inca Empire that escaped destruction by the Spanish conquistadores, who tried to follow the Inca soldiers who fled up the mountains from Cusco by following the Urubamba River, and therefore missed Machu Picchu, which was abandoned only 100 years after its creation.
As many people know, American historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu and published his findings in 1911, and now the city is an UNESCO world heritage site.
While on our tour, we also learned about things like the length of the Inca Empire (1438-1533 when the Spanish invaded) and how those who lived in the city created even step-like spaces in the mountain so they could domesticate potatoes, plantains, and chocolate.
I mostly just wandered and took pictures and wished I didn’t bother spending 20 soles to translate things I already knew, but alas, the sun was shining and the views were spectacular.
After the tour, we snacked on some nuts and warm cheese sandwiches that we made the night before and hustled over to Huayna Picchu (Waynu Picchu? one is Quechua and one is Spanish….IDK), innocently unaware of the challenge that awaited us. Once Laura caught wind of other exhausted tourists just ending their climb up the mountain, she gave me a look like, “Fuck off.” I knew then that I needed to be the wind beneath her wings, although I’m sure a big part of her wanted me to tell her to wait it out at the bottom.
The hardest part of the ascent, in my opinion, was the stairs. The hour and 15 minute climb seemed much longer with every steep step. We zigzagged up the mountain, stopping at every corner for a breather and a sip of water, which we ran out of halfway up. Climbers on their descent squeezed by us on the narrow trails, trying not to tumble while they assured us that it was worth the trouble once we made it to the top. I believed them, especially after climbing Cotopaxi in Ecuador, which was more difficult because the altitude was much higher. This just felt like a perpetual stair master.
The view of Machu Picchu, the surrounding green mountains, and the glittering Urubamba River below were absolutely breathtaking. I was happy for the challenge of the climb, especially when the payoff was so magnificent.
The way down was possibly more exhausting than the way up. We were out of water, the sun was high in the sky, and our legs felt like jello. Parts of the climb were so steep that we had to actually sit on the steps and “bum-shuffle,” as Laura called it, down.
By the time we made it to the bottom, we were so depleted and dehydrated, the only thing that could rouse us from sitting breaks was a constant reminder to each other that we needed water. A breeze felt like the sweetest kiss.
“I feel like any children I bear will feel the effects of that,” said Laura. We laughed spastically, our diaphragms unable to support the oxygen intake for a proper giggle.
After chugging the most expensive water I’ve ever bought in my life, we decided to rest our weary legs and take the bus back into town rather than climb down Machu. Some people may call us lazy for not climbing the mountain up or down. They would be right.
by Rebecca Bellan