Machu Picchu

Monday, September 22, 2008

Day 9: Machu Picchu

For the most part, I am going to back off and let the videos do the talking.

After waiting in a line of hundreds down in Aguas Calientes at 5 am-ish, we snagged a spot on the 5th bus headed up the long switch-backing road to the entrance. Once there, it felt like a mob scene. Hundreds of people packed into a very tight space, all trying to be the first into Machu Picchu when it opened.

The sun began to rise, the opened the gates, and off we if chasing the white rabbit of unspoiled views first thing in the morning.

Janet shows off my fleece, which will only grow larger as our trip goes on. On more than one occasion, I am forced to pull my entire body inside it, huddling for warmth in the fetal position.

It was easy to let your gaze wander off into the surrounding mountain peaks, and down long ancient corridors, so I don't have much to say about Edgar #1's tour. I immediately knew I wouldn't retain anything he said, so I instead spent my time memorizing the experience.

A small number of stamps (400) are given away each day for the side hike to Wayna Picchu, which I did on my own. The rest of the group had already left (yes, they spent around 2 hours at Machu Picchu, and then headed back down early to wait for their afternoon trains), and Janet was not excited to make it a 4th consecutive day of strenuous hiking.

I practically ran up the steep trail, hoping for a nice workout, and wanting to return to Janet in record time, who would spend this time pining and writing love poetry in my absence. Look for her upcoming memoir So I Married a Billy Goat.

Near the top, the path leads you through a narrow corridor of rocks:

Here is my monologue from the top...I'll let the views speak for themselves. The giant city of Machu Picchu looks tiny from the top.

The trail was steep. Seemed more dangerous coming down...

For the most part, there were hoardes of people spread out around the grounds. Still, it is large enough that I was able to sneak this serene panorama in the middle of the day.

One final shot, the Machu Picchu money angle that you'll recognize if you have seen pictures of it before.

The long opening act for Machu Picchu

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Day 8: Lares -> Aguas Calientes

Today was a simple 2 hour hike downhill to the hot springs in Lares, and a relaxing end to the hiking portion of the trip.

A few noteworth items about the hot springs:
  • Each pool was a different temperature
  • There were private rooms, which sat empty until you paid for them. Sadly this was bad marketing, as the baths looked pretty disgusting when empty.
  • Shortly before taking this photo, one of our guides discreetly peed in the corner of the lawn, 20 feet from a free bathroom. He didn't realize I could see him from my perch on the other side of the river.
  • We accidentally spent most of our time in what appeared to be the unofficial make-out pool.
  • The changing rooms had no curtains. Since there was no door in the entryway, people bathing could just look in and see you naked, seemingly defeating the whole purpose.

The building anticipation of tomorrow's early morning visit to Machu Picchu made the rest of the day drag a little, or rather, perhaps everything just took longer than Edgar had indicated (he has a habit of doing that). We left Lares on our mini-coach bus, winding along the only dirt road out of town. Many of us on the left side of the bus, Janet especially, had a hard time looking out the window without peering down the steep mountainside just inches (and no guardrail) away from the bus. Closing the curtain put that sight out of mind.

The trip was incredibly scenic, most of which was climing the winding road up one side of the deep open valley, and then over the pass and back down the other side. Every few miles there would be a tiny mud brick house, surrounded by hilly farmland and boulders, with snowcapped peaks in all directions. It was a full hour and a half before we saw another car on this one lane road.

We arrived at a "local bar" to a bevy of tasty snacks which would ultimately lead to our snacking downfall. All over the country you can find what we started calling chicha, because we could never remember the second part (chichasala?). Basically, it's like giant kettle corn, but a little less sugary. Buy the end of the trip, we were buying in bulk.

The bar did have some cute inhabitants:

Our next stop was the ancient city of Ollantaytambo. I won't bore you with the historical details, but they can be found here. The coolest thing about this tiny little town was the streets. Each was cuter than the last, narrow, with high stone walls, many of which were still original.

The central plaza downtown had these really neat trees with bell-like white flowers hanging down. I'd never seen them before:

With enough time to sit down and order a tasty pancake, that's just what we did, at a cute lonely place upstairs whose ambience was ruined by the blaring TV (which I shut off as soon as the other table had cleared out and the owner stepped into the kitchen). We told him: "Solemente tenemos viente minutos" (we only have 20 minutes), to which he replied, "Viente? Puedo hacerlo en dos" (20? I can do it in 2!).

To make a long story short, 18 minutes (and several urgings) later he brought out the pancakes (one for each of us, even though we ordered only one), giving us two minutes to eat before our bus was leaving for the train to Machu Picchu. We ended up scarfing down one and politely demanding some method of taking the other with us, so we cut it up and put it in a plastic bag and he gave us his worst metal fork. (The fork accompanied us until the second to last day of our trip, where it was confiscated by airport security). We made it to the bus on time, but surprisingly, no one else on the trip wanted to take a few bites of my pancake in a bag?

After an uneventful train ride in the dark with a bunch of rowdy highschoolers, we arrived at Aguas Calientes. This is a tiny little tourist town that exists mostly as a place to stay before you visit Machu Picchu. But it was hard to get a good sense of it at midnight. This little guy was having a blast though, sliding down the steep streets on a flattened plastic bottle.

Despite having to ask for directions 4 or 5 times, Edgar #1 eventually found our hotel. Basically you walk through town until you get to the railroad crossing, then walk along the tracks, past six consecutive pizzarias (no, I am not exagerating), until there is nothing left. There on your left: El Continental.

The check-in process was smooth, except for the part where the guy told us he needed to make copies of our passports, and then left the building. He came up to our room 10 minutes later and dropped them off. Phew.

After devouring one of the local granola bars (which are like ours except without all the goeyness and sugar to hold it together, meaning by the end of it you are basically covered in what looks like birdseed), we went to sleep, eager to meet the group at 5:45am and avoid the crowds.

Photos from the Lares Trek, Day 2

Monday, September 8, 2008

(click through to see larger versions)

The Lares Trail: Peru's Energizer Bunny

Friday, September 5, 2008

Day 7: Lares Trek - Part 2

After lunch, we sat with a local woman who showed us how she cooks potatoes in llama dung, virtually the only source of fuel up in the mountians. I know it's been a while since you've seen a waterfall video on this site, so I'll end the tortuous wait:

As we continued down the narrowing valley, we passed several farms. The children would see us coming and sprint all the way across the farm just to stand at the side of the trail, watching us curiously. And if I haven't already mentioned, Peruvian children are SO well behaved. You never saw one whining or being scolded in public, a common occurrence in the states.

Fooled by the Spanish phrases they had learned to parrot back to travelers, we would wave and attempt to chat with them, not realizing they only spoke Quetchua.

After hours of downhill, the trail began to climb slowly upward as it clung to the increasingly steep mountainside. It seemed an inappropriate route for humans, generally only the width of your feet at a standstill. Rounding the corner, the trail steepened as we headed up into the next valley.

Here we saw another trekking group in the distance - the only other "outsiders" we would encounter on the trail. No one was excited to be heading back uphill, and we finally rested at a small lake. Surrounded by scattered tiny boulders, with the clouds hanging low above us, we voted on whether or not to continue over the pass, or camp here and wait until morning. Although everyone was nearly exhausted, we agreed that it would be better to get it out of the way now, shortening tomorrows hike considerably, and allowing more time at the hot springs.

However, we might have changed our minds if we knew exactly what we were in for. The next 45 minutes were straight upwards, the steepest part of the entire trip. To make matters worse, we had caught up to the other group, whose 30 or so members continually slowed us down in one way or another. Halfway up, the thin air was too much and John needed to be carried up the rest of the way on horseback.

We finally reached the summit, all of us now ahead of the other group, let out a quick celebratory group cheer, and headed quickly down the other side. Totally engulfed amongst the clouds, there was nothing to see anyway, and we wanted to reach camp before darkness set in.

Care to know the difference between llamas and alpacas? Observe:

The trip down was much longer than expected (for no reason other than Edgar #1 liked to over and under exaggerate our expected hiking times), almost 2 hours, and arrived at the campsite ten minutes after switching on our headlamps.

There was a raging debate as to how far we traveled that day, but Edgar #1 insisted 30km, almost 19 miles! There along the stream running down the valley, it was easy to relax knowing tomorrow was all downhill, and the hot springs awaited us.

Above the Clouds: Over a 14,000+ foot pass

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Day 7 - Lares Trek - Part 1

I woke up a new man, having seemingly recovered fully from the altitude sickness. This was a good thing because the day started with a grueling 3000+ foot ascent over the highest pass of the trip. But not before waking up to a cold, cold morning:

Shortly after starting the hike, two more people ditched carrying their bags (the mules didn't seem to mind). Only two remained out of nine. We hiked amongst fields of stone, and along steep ledges. The clouds constantly obscuring the sense of altitude, and scale. The thinning air told a different story.

It was hard to imagine anything surviving up here, but lo an behold, we saw a glimpse of a wild chinchilla!

About 3/4 of the way up, we took a breather.

Then literally two minutes later, as if sensing our presence, the clouds cleared out almost entirely, revealing even more spectacular views.

The rapidly changing weather conditions at these altitudes created some strange, and beautiful sights:

From there, the top came quickly. Feeling so much better, I was able to go on ahead of everyone else, and experience the first few views alone.

The sudden view of one of the few remaining glaciers in the area was a pleasant treat. In the distance, you could see the Andes getting smaller, trailing off, and a layer of thick, fluffy clouds hovering over the distant Amazon jungle.

We spent a little time talking about how the pass was used for sacrifices, a rare occurrence in the Incan/Quechua culture, but not unheard of. Had it not been windy enough to almost knock you off your feet (and nippy to boot!), I would have gladly stayed to enjoy the views for hours.

The way down was, of course, significantly easier. Because we were no longer in the clouds, there were grander views that continued to amaze.

Then, minor tragedy strikes when Janet sits down for a rest!

The trail skirted down around a beautiful lake at the bottom of a glacial valley, and we lunched next to a tiny village at its base.

And yes, as mentioned, as compared to every hiking trip I've ever been on, we were pretty darn spoiled.

Guide to riding the bus in Peru & Bolivia

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

We didn't know it at the time, but our first luxury bus experience in Peru would spoil us for the rest of our 5 week trip. It provided all the things expected of a coach bus in America:

  • It left on time
  • It did not randomly let passengers on or off in the middle of nowhere
  • It went from point A to point B without unnecessary layovers
  • It had a functioning bathroom
    Not only did it meet all of the seemingly standard criteria listed above above, it went above and beyond the call of duty by:
    • Providing a snack
    • Offering blankets to cold passengers, with complimentary tuck-in service!
    • Tagging and securing luggage
    • Showing a movie appropriate for all ages
    • Showcasing the rare, fold-down legrest
    From that point forward, we never quite knew what we would get. And tragically, the bar had been set way, WAY too high.

    In Peru and Bolivia, where most people do not own a car, the main method of transportation is via bus. In fact, it is not uncommon to look out the window at a sea of vehicles and not see a single car. Crowded mini-buses and taxis dominate the city streets.

    Between cities, there are coach buses of varying price, quality, and comfort. Unfortunately, the relationship between the three is spotty at best, if not completely random. Be prepared. It can't hurt to ask the relevant questions at each ticket counter as you decide which of the ten different bus companies serving your destination you will entrust your happiness to for the next 12 hours.

    But, it can't help much either.

    In these countries, where people are generally known for their friendliness, honesty, and kindness, it can be downright soul-crushing to find out after several hours of bouncing along uneven, dirt roads that the handle to the bathroom door has been removed. Intentionally. Again. Despite assurances to the contrary.

    Eventually you realize that some buses don't even pretend to have bathrooms.

    Having to clean the bathroom, it would seem, just doesn't contribute enough to the bottom line. Nor does providing heat, even when nighttime temperatures drop well below freezing. The locals understand this, and embark carrying winter coats, hats, and wool blankets. Balled up, shivering in the fetal position, with all four limbs pulled into my only fleece, I couldn't help but wonder about all the potential revenue they were losing. I would have paid dearly to rent even one of those cheap airline blankets.

    The first time it happened, I told myself it was an especially cold night. The second time? Just the particulars of the terrain we had driven though. But the third? I cursed my optimism and bought a nondescript gray wool blanket, which I begrudgingly crammed into the top of my already full backpack for the remainder of my time in Bolivia.

    If there were a manual entitled "The ins and outs of busing in Peru and Bolivia", it would give advice like:
    • Remember not to spend your last 30 cents until after paying the required departure tax
    • Save an additional 30 cents: you will need it for the surprise bathroom break 6 hours from now
    • If the bus stops for a layover, do not leave your seat unless you can have someone save it for you
    • If an old lady sits on your armrest, deal with it. She isn't going anywhere
    • If a man stands up in the aisle and speaks for more than 10 seconds, do not bother paying attention. Crank up your iPod, he'll be blathering on about God for at least another 15 minutes
    • Only tourists sit in the front row of the upper deck. The panoramic windows don't provide protection from the cold. Besides, if the views aren't blocked by the giant lettering on the front of the bus, they will probably ice over shortly after sunset.
    • "To be safe, the bus travels slower at night" is code for: "We will be making a two hour layover in a town of three thousand people at 1 am for no apparent reason"
    And the list goes on.

    Buses however, are the great equalizer. It may be one of the few times you find yourself side-by-side with the locals, having paid the same price for the privelege. I can only imagine this happens because, unlike places like Machu Picchu, there is an unbelievable amount of duplicate services shoulder to shoulder with one another.

    In the U.S., your choice is essentially limited to a few different time slots. Pick one, and off you go. Greyhound awaits. Try walking into a bus station where thirty different people from twenty different bus companies are all yelling "Puno, Puno, Puno, Puno" in your direction.

    Eventually, you will get used to the long, bumpy nights on an unpaved road for seven straight hours. Eventually, the dust billowing off an identical bus, traveling the identical route, on the exact same time schedule won't annoy you. Bus already full and stopping to pick people up on the side of the road to stand in the aisle next to you for several hours? No worries, this is how you travel now. You may even be able to convince yourself that the younger passengers aren't paying attention to that movie about terrorism, capture, torture, and worse.

    But this is how it's done here. If you want to jolt yourself out of the daily lifestyle, travel in comfort, style and speed on a plane. But if you want to be a local, see the country from ground level, go easy on your wallet, and test your patience (and bladder), take a bus.

    I'd lend you my wool blanket, but it's in the closet, awaiting my first houseguest of the winter who dares to ask: "What was your honeymoon like?"