Yeah, I know this is really late. The Venn diagram showing internet and our computer did not have a lot of overlap while we were in Ecuador. I actually wrote this post on January 4.
After our harrowing night in the Santiago airport, we enjoyed a bit of luxury on our business class flights, the only ones we could get, up to Cusco. The greatest pleasure came when we were served 18 year old Flor de Caña on our second flight, only the second time I’ve ever had the very fancy version of my favorite rum.
We spent the rest of the day and the next mostly trying to take it easy and not get soroche, altitude sickness, and get ready for our trip to Machu Picchu. And watching cute kittens gambol about on the rooftop outside our window overlooking the city.
The thing about Machu Picchu is it’s quite complicated. You can only get there by train (or taking a bus to the hydroelectric dam down river and walking two hours along the train tracks); you have to get tickets ahead of time, which you can reserve online but must pay for in person, and there is a limit per day; you are technically only allowed 5 kilos of luggage on most of the trains. This last item sent us for a bit of a loop, but when we showed up at the Porroy train station with just day packs, it was clear this was in the “oh, we didn’t really mean that” category of regulations (my second least favorite kind after ones that cause major inconvenience and have no benefits).
The train ride on the Vistadome was quite lovely. It covers just under 100 km in about 3.5 hours, so it is certainly a leisurely ride. The first part passes through towns, and villages, and lots of fields and pastures with potatoes, corn, fava beans and farmers. The second part follows the Urubamba river, also known as the Vilcanote, more closely as it carves its way from the highlands down into the upper reaches of the Amazon jungle. We arrived, to my excitement, to a representative from our hostel with my name on a card, and, to my dismay, to a card for another Brett. The first time in my life I show up to a station to be greeted with a sign, and some other Brett is stealing my thunder!
Aguas Calientes, the town from which one can reach Machu Picchu exists purely to serve tourists coming to the ruins. I didn’t find it abhorent, as many do, but there’s nothing particularly desirable about it except for the incredible power of the Urubamba roaring through the town. It is one of the more intense natural phenomena I’ve seen, inspiring a certain amount of awe mixed with a healthy fear. That afternoon we took a walk along the river to check out our more major hike for the next day.
We awoke the next morning at 4:15, got a bit of breakfast and were out the doors of our hostel right around 5 for the hike from the town up to the ruins. As we hiked (or more precisely, climbed the stairs) up the mountainside from the river to the ruins day was breaking over the tops of the incredibly steep peaks all around us.
We arrived with about an hour and a half before meeting with our tour, so we took some time to wander a bit and take in the beautiful scenery. If the Incas had built a shack at the site of Machu Picchu it would not be nearly so worthwhile to visit, but it would nonetheless be impressive. The fact that they built a beautiful small city up there is incredible.
Our tour guide, Hamilton, gave us a great overview of Inca civilization and took us through all the main areas, showing us how the stone walls were constructed, and all of the astonomical design elements that were used to track the seasons. We happened to be there on the summer solstice, but unfortunately, most of the buildings are designed for sunrise, which happens before the site is even open.
We had hoped to climb Wayna Picchu, that incredibly steep mountain in the background of all the pictures, but in the time since our book was written, Wayna Piccho became part of the online reservation system and by the time we realized this, all the spots were taken. So we had chosen to climb Machu Picchu mountain, taller but not as strenuous, instead. The climb was brutal. Coming on top of our climb up from the town, we arrived at the top of the mountain totally exhausted. And completely enrobed in dense fog. We couldn’t see a thing. While this was definitely a bummer, there was something magical about being up there cut off from the world. And it probably made the climb down a bit less scary not to have to see how far we would fall if we slipped.
When we made it back down to the ruins it had begun to rain a bit. We spent another little while sitting under cover gazing out over the nearly deserted ruins, and then opted for the bus back to town.
We had much of the next day in Aguas Calientes before our train back. We spent the first part of the day on a hike to Mandor. This place came recommended by the guy at our hostel, but was neither in our guidebook, nor the full guidebook to Peru we found at the hostel. It is a garden area with a path that leads in the primary jungle to views of two waterfalls. One of the things I didn’t understand about Aguas Calientes before arriving is that it is in the jungle. Not the deep, sweltering jungle, but the start of it. This was a great way to get a taste of the rainforrest without taking a whole separate excursion.
To get to Mandor, we walked along the road towards the ruins, but just before the bridge took a right at a fork in the road, which took us up to the train tracks. We hiked along the train tracks for about two and a quarter kilometers. Just past a turn-around for the trains is the site for Mandor. In addition to the gardens (entrance for 10 soles), there is a hostel with beds for 15 soles per night and a little restaurant where you can eat if you give them an hour’s notice. Our timing wasn’t good for eating lunch there, but if we go back to Machu Picchu, we’d love to stay there. (You can catch the train to Mandor, we were told, if you get a ticket toward the hydroelectic dam and just ask to be let off at Mandor, but you have to walk back to town). We both really enjoyed our hike there, in the gardens and back, and we saw a cuy gigante (giant guinea pig), some neat birds and butterflies, and some really interesting snails. By the time we got back to Aguas Calientes we were soaked and spent the rest of the afternoon between two cafes trying to warm up. Then we took a tired train ride back to Cusco.
The next day we visited Pisac, one of the nearby towns in the Sacred Valley, for their traditional Sunday market. We caught the one hour bus for 2.5 soles (a dollar) that took us over the hills and then along a steep canyon side down into the Sacred Valley. We spent a few hours wandering around the town and the market and eating lunch, including a visit to an outdoor bakery that had a little “guinea pig palace”. We bought a couple of woven items and generally enjoyed seeing all that was on offer, and then caught the bus back to Cusco.