We start out leisurely enough, relaxing in our room and looking out the window at the low, misty clouds rising up the mountain side. The view could not be better and pictures can only capture part of the grandeur this incredible view evokes. The gray sky above adds to the mountains’ mystery.
We’re soaking it all in when the phone rings: We are late to breakfast downstairs. It’s 8:10am and they want to know if we’re coming down to eat - breakfast normally ends at 8:00. Oops. We rush downstairs to a buffet with fresh fruit, cereal, yogurt, juices, tiny ham & cheese empanadas and strong, bitter coffee. Perfect!
After check out, we give the front desk clerk our bags to store for the day. Then we’re off. We quickly stop at the two stores next door to pick up a lovely sterling ring with a rainbow of opaque stones resembling the Incan flag and sun hats for all.
Every guide books says we need hats for sun, coats for rain and insect repellent for sand flies. Fully prepared with all items in our pack, we arrive at the bus stop and hop on board.
Since we walked part of the gravel bus trail yesterday, we recognize the spot where we saw the butterfly house when we pass it. Before you know it, we’re heading up the first incline, switchback and hairpin turn on our way up the side of the huge cliff. I worry that Kai will feel sick again on this bus, but he seems fine. Every time we take a turn, he shouts, “Switchback!” Our ride lasts almost 30 minutes and the road appears to be one lane only until, suddenly, we are face to face with an oncoming bus. Since we’re in the right-hand lane, we ease closer to the edge and let the other bus whisk past, just inches from our window. Nerve wracking for sure.
Soon we are at the top. It’s mid morning and the sun comes out. We store our coats and souvenirs in the lockers and pay 1 Sol (about 35 cents) to use the restroom. Our guide Mario will meet us at the front entrance in about 20 minutes so we decide to head in for a quick preview. More buses are arriving and people are everywhere. Once we’re inside the gate, we stop at a counter to mark our passports with the Machu Picchu stamp and today’s date.
As we venture down the first set of stairs for the day, we see a stunning drop along side us. Immediately, I feel a fear of heights and try to get the kids and myself to hug the rock wall on our left as we descend the steps. Kate and Kai don’t understand why they can’t run, jump and horse around like usual. We impress upon them the importance of staying close to us and never going near a dangerous ledge - we all want to leave together, in one piece, today!
Our guide Mario is running a tad late. Once his bus reaches the top, we find that we’re part of a tour group which includes four other Americans. The two men joining us are pals in their 30’s who have done extensive hiking around Machu Picchu before coming up today. The women are a mother-daughter duo and the first thing the mother whispers to her daughter is a story about a friend’s friend who went hiking somewhere, fell down a cliff and died. Great! I decide to distance myself from Ms. Glass-Is-Half-Empty.
As we take in our first sweeping look at Machu Picchu, Mario begins with the layout of the site, explaining that the area where we’re standing is the agricultural half of the complex. This explains the long narrow terraces where a few llamas peacefully graze. Kate and Kai point out more llamas they see on the terraces. Mario says ten llamas were brought here from Cusco some time ago and now 15 llamas climb these slopes.
Construction started in 1450 and lasted about 50 years. The site is unfinished and no one knows why the city was abandoned about 30 years before the Spanish arrived. Despite the defeat of native peoples in Cusco and across the region, the Spanish conquistadors never found Machu Picchu.
Mario points out a pass off to the right on the mountain behind us and we see the Incan Trail. The pass itself is named Intipunko or Sun Gate. People hike this three or four day-long trail from Ollantaytambo, where we first boarded the PeruRail train. The pass joins the Machu Picchu site at the caretaker’s hut high above us. Off to the left from where we stand is the residential portion of the site.
Corridors connect the higher stone walls where the dwellings stood, although they are missing their thatched roofs. Approximately four to five people lived in each house. But not just any five persons because Machu Picchu was a city for royalty and religious elite in Incan society. The section of the city closest to the sky is the ceremonial area with the temples, royal palace and the House of the High Priest.
Far below us on the valley floor are the white rapids of the Rio Urubamba and an old PeruRail station with coaches in a siding along the track. Despite the stunning architecture around us, Kai is focused on the train. I should not be surprised.
Machu Picchu means “Old Mountain.” The tall peaks surrounding us also have Incan names like the mountain directly across the valley from us called Putucusi. To the left and behind the residential section are two more peaks - one small and one tall. The small one is named Wayna Picchu and the tall one is called Huayna Picchu or “Young Mountain.” These are the two peaks seen behind the classic photo view of Machu Picchu.
Mario says that work continues to uncover and restore even more of the city. If we heard correctly, Mario also says that the part of the city which is visible now represents about 30% of the whole area. The terraces we see extend all the way down the mountain to the river. The city is laid out in the shape of a bird but the kind of bird could be a hummingbird or a condor. It’s too early to tell.
We continue on our tour, walking across the terraces into the residential side and then into the Temple of the Sun, the only building in the city with rounded corners. Below the temple is a triangular cave with holes for graves, known as the royal tomb. We follow stairs along an irrigation system with ceremonial pools down the slope. Then we enter the Temple of the Condor. Two large natural rocks are set together like bird’s wings and the bird head is carved into stone on the floor between the wings.
Suddenly, there’s sound overhead. We look up to see a remote-controlled helicopter flying around. The kids are excited and have a thousand questions about it. Another group nearby is talking about the team of scientists on the ground where the helicopter takes off. Seems they’re filming the site with the helicopter to make a 3-D map. All foot traffic was stopped until the helicopter landed.
As we ascend up more stairs, we enter a room with two small circular reflecting pools used to observe the stars. Now we cross the grassy central plaza, climb more stairs and enter the Sacred Plaza. We see the House of the High Priest, the Temple of the Three Windows and the principal temple, part of which is damaged due to ground settlement. Around the corner is the sacristy containing the two famous rocks with 32 corners each. Mario says this spot is a place of power and natural energy. From the back half of the city at this height, we see spectacular views of the mountains and valleys all around us.
The last stop is Intihuatana, an area where the Incans used stone and a sundial type instrument to predict solstices and seasonal patterns. At this peak, I feel quite certain that this is the highest I want to go. Now the tour is complete and we are free to explore on our own. We go back to the central plaza where Kurt, Kate and Kai contemplate a climb to the caretaker’s hut. While they go up, I am content to stay put. I watch a llama mama and baby grazing and spot a large lizard darting in and out of holes in a rock wall.
Kurt, Kate and Kai reach the top of the site at the caretaker’s hut and see the picture-postcard view of the entire city. When they come through a corridor on the way down, I can hear their voices clearly. They disappear beyond a wall and then take a while to come down. Turns out they spotted a large rodent which resembles a rabbit with a squirrel’s tail and a chipmunk-type stripe down its back. It’s called a viscacha.
Our train departs Aguas Calientes around 4:45pm so we’ve get on the bus to come down the mountain. What an afternoon we have had. Unbelievable! We collect our bags at the hotel, go to the train station and quickly discover that our train is delayed by about three hours. Ugh.
We turn right around and luckily, the hotel lets us hang our in the lobby for the next few hours. I type some on the computer and Kurt takes the kids on a quick hike. At dinner we try the local special - guinea pig - which one of the tour guides urged all visitors to sample. Clearly, this is not our best decision of the day. The whole animal is charred and presented on a plate (including the head). It looks deep fried and is nearly impossible to slice with a knife. I cannot stomach it. Kurt and Kai try it after Kurt manages to pry tiny bits of meat off the bone. It’s taking Kurt too long to eat this dish. I remind him we have a train to catch and to quit playing with his food.
Since the restaurant is 1/2 block from the train station, we hurry into the crowded station. When we are finally on board, we hear that there was a rock slide somewhere along the track earlier in the day. Apparently the rock slide has blocked one of the tracks so that trains must wait for one another to pass. Our train ride which should take about 3 hours takes 4 long hours. The good news is that Kurt and Kate are seated at the “fun table” where they meet Colin and Freddy, two college grads who were in the mood for a rousing game of Go Fish. They were so loud that Kai left his seat with me for the kid table.
We all give up and go to sleep around 9:00pm.
We arrive in Poroy, which is a short drive from Cusco, at 12 midnight and thankfully, the tour driver, Gregorio, is there holding a sign which reads, “Studt, Hurt.” We quickly hop in the car to get out of the cold. He drives us to our old hostel where we pick up our big bags. Then we hunt to find the new hostel we had reserved for tonight.
The chase is on because Gregorio isn’t exactly sure where to find our new hostel. We have two sleepy children in the car, and after he calls his dispatcher for directions, we pull in backwards onto a steeply narrow, cobblestone street and get out of the car. The street dead ends into a pedestrian walkway with a loud club at the top of the hill. Kurt and Gregorio hike in about 5 alleyways to find the hostel. All is barred and locked in the doorway. Kurt knocks and after 3-5 minutes, an irate man opens the door and yells at them in Spanish. Then he slams the door. So much for the advertised 24-hour service at the front desk.
Gregorio turns to Kurt, “Otro hotel?”
Kurt replies with a sigh, “Si.”
They come back to the car with the luggage. This is not a good sign. We load up and get the heck out of there. Gregorio inquires as to how much we would have paid at that hostel - about 55 Sol (about $20 US). Then Gregorio pulls off the rescue event of the year: Three blocks later, he stops at another place, Hostel Huaynapata. He rings the bell, the clerk arrives at the door and Gregorio inquires about a room then negotiates the price we would have paid at the other place. We try to bring everything up to our second floor room as quietly as possible.
Here’s the best part: Our room has a built-in space heater!! One giant California king-sized bed and one single bed occupy the room. We all pile into the king bed and pass out at about 01:30am.
Get ready for loads of pictures! Today is the day. This is the reason we came to Peru - to see Machu Picchu.