After my "experience" with the little plane in Nazca, I was ready to go. The previous day (Friday) I'd booked an overnight bus to Cuzco, Peru, which I boarded at 8:00 pm Saturday night. I was ready for a little sleep. We were treated to a Spanish-dubbed version of "Red Eye", which isn't a horrible show - the Spanish made it tough to watch, but I can sit through quite a lot if I can watch Rachel McAdams. Unfortunately, that turned out to be the best part of the ride.
About 2:30 in the morning I was stirred by a very cold, very wet sensation on my left shoulder (not something you want to wake up to on a bus ride in Peru). "What the..." I sat up quickly, felt my shoulder and looked around. After assuring myself no human was to blame for the disturbance, I searched for the source. The bus turned left, and two large drops hit my shoulder again. I looked up. It had started raining at some point in the night, and apparently the good makers of this fine bus decided sealing the little vent in the roof was something someone else took care of. Every left turn, three or four ice cold drops made a nice gentle arc for my shoulder. Sharp turns produced a splash to the chest or the face. Son of a... What could I do? The bus was full, and everyone including the "attendant" (and I use that term in the loosest sense possible), were asleep. With no recourse, I engaged my MacGyver instincts. I found a piece of plastic they wrapped the pillows in (to make it look like they were new) and draped it across my shoulder and chest, pinning it with my pen and a paper clip I had in my backpack. The result was far from fashionable, but was indeed functional. We turned left and the water made a little ‘smack' against the plastic. I allowed myself a little smile. I drifted back off to sleep, dreaming of a road with only right turns.
I woke up around 7:30 or so, and it was still raining. My makeshift poncho worked pretty well, and I'd collected a good little reservoir in the bottom of the plastic bag. We made a stop in a little town to allow some people off, at which time I promptly changed my seat. We rolled on for another six hours, the time filled by some of the strangest entertainment I've been subjected to. We started off with a dubbed version of "The Son of the Mask" (which I could make a good case for as the worst movie I've ever seen. I'm actually glad it was in Spanish), which nearly did me in. About a half hour later, the attendant walked the isles handing out bingo cards. Yes, really - bingo cards. The attendant barked out numbers over the bus's PA system for about 45 minutes. I didn't win (at least I don't think I did), but my Spanish number recognition improved substantially. For the last hour of the trip we were treated to a DVD collection of dubbed Walt Disney "Silly Symphonies" from the 1920's and 30's. "The Ugly Duckling", "Hiawatha", etc. "Bizarre" isn't the appropriate word, but...
As with most of my bus rides though, the rest of the trip was gorgeous - where the areas between Lima and Nazca were dusty, windswept plains and rolling mountains, we were now climbing up into jagged, forest-green peaks. White cottony clouds draped themselves around their tops, ghost-like arms reaching around and holding them. Much of the land was beautifully terraced for farming - dominated by tall green stalks of corn growing strong. All types of livestock roamed the side of the roads - cattle, sheep, goats and pigs. Most of them were bound by a rope tied around their horns or necks with the opposite end tied to a stake jammed into the ground, allowing the critters a 20-30 foot grazing area. We passed trickling water falls and crossed bridges over muddy mountain rivers. From time to time we'd swerve to the right or the left, dodging rocks that had fallen from the cliffs above during last night's rain. At one point we were passing through a small village when the bus jerked and came to a screeching halt. I looked up to see a bunch of animated people laughing and pointing in our general direction. A trio of horses had broken loose and was running wild in the streets. Why not?
We finally pulled into Cuzco around 1:30 or so. After finding a hostel to store my stuff, I met up with a very cool German couple I'd met in the bus station. Mark and Ana were from Heidelberg, Germany, both studying to become doctors. Ana had been to Cuzco and Machu Picchu the year before, and she offered to help Mark and I figure out our tickets. It turns out getting to Machu Picchu isn't the easiest thing in the world. From Cuzco, there are only two ways to get there: take the train, or start walking the Inca Trail, which takes 4 days. Based on my schedule of world travel, I didn't really have the time (or desire) to spend 4 days hiking and camping. The train it is. Now, even once you make this choice, you of course have multiple options, the easiest of which include shelling out a good chunk of change to go on an organized tour. We investigated that option first. After a quick discussion with the travel agency Ana used last time, we found out it would be roughly $150 USD to go with a guide on Tuesday. Now, being the "independent traveler" I am, I thought "150 bucks! - The hell with that, I'll figure it out myself. It can't be that hard. You buy some train tickets, get on it, and follow the crowd. And who needs a guide? I've got a guide book". Fortunately Mark was thinking the same thing (I knew he was cool). We agreed to wing it and purchase everything a la carte. I liked it. Germany and America united in rebuking the "gringo" tour operators and going out on our own.
Note 1: Being an "independent traveler" can at times be more of a pain in the arse than it really needs to be.
Note 2: You can't buy tickets to Machu Picchu on Sunday.
Turns out the trick is in the logistics. Tour operators are good at those. Me, not so much. Come to find out there are only 2 trains leaving every day to Machu Picchu from Cuzco. Since the office was closed today (Sunday), unless I wanted to get up at 4:30, hoof it over to the train station and hope they had an extra seat open (which I didn't), I'd have to wait another day. I resigned myself to the fact, and figured I'd spend Monday in Cuzco - check out the city, then hit Machu Picchu on Tuesday. I'd then select my next destination and keep moving. Sweet.
History says Cuzco was the seat of power for the Incan Empire at its height. It's a beautiful city - filled with charming backstreets paved with cobblestones and bricks. It reminded me a lot of Antigua, Guatemala - a charming town with narrow streets, beautiful plazas, imposing churches, and a bustling of people giving it life and personality. Around the city center, the majority of the buildings have a foundation built from walls built by the Incans themselves. It's quite easy to see where the old ends and the new begins. When done properly it was really quite beautiful. The stones had been carefully selected and carved and fitted together like puzzle pieces. I'd walk down block after block thinking about the effort involved in that stone, or in that one - finding the right size and general shape, moving it, dragging it to this location, using tools to carve and shape it, testing its fit with the rest of the structure, and finally setting it into place. Wall after wall, block after block, the stones were the foundation of the city before this city. I wondered what it looked like in the late 15th century.
It's now a tourist town. There are internet cafes and travel agencies everywhere, every restaurant has the word "pizza" on its sign, and there are more people trying to sell you things on the streets than any town I've been to so far. Near my hostel was a narrow street lined with just such establishments referred to now as "Gringo Alley". One walk through it was enough. Every restaurant's marketing plan is to get some obnoxious man or woman in the doorway with a menu, and have them yell at you and shove the menu in your face as you walk by. After a day in Cuzco, it pissed me off enough I would only consider eating in places which didn't do this, which left me few choices.
Still, the town is beautiful. I was glad to have been able to spend a day sightseeing and exploring. I had dinner at a place called "Norton Rat's", had a beer at "Rosie O'Grady's Irish Pub" and watched Mark and Ana take some salsa lessons before going to the bar to watch "Ray" on TV with the bartender who knew the lyrics to every song. It's strange what you'll find around the corner.
Tuesday morning came quickly. I was really excited about the trip though. As I'm sure I've mentioned, and will again at some point I'm sure, there are a few things on this trip I have to see. The Pyramids, Red Square, the Great Wall, the Taj Mahal, etc. Machu Picchu is on the list. I know it's sappy, but it was a great feeling knowing I was headed to see one of the wonders of the world. The train left at 6:15am, meaning I needed to be at the train station around 5:45 or so. As soon as I opened the door of the cab, I was attacked by a swarm of street vendors already up hawking their socks, painted boxes and masks. I waded through them to the train station lobby.
Somewhat shockingly, we left promptly at 6:15. I was in seat #16, a window seat on the right side of the train, facing forward. There wasn't much room - again, not built with 6'9' people in mind. The seats were arranged in pods of four, 2 by 2, facing each other. I noticed a guy talking to a pod in front of me, glancing back and forth between my knees and the seat facing me. Pretty sure he was supposed to sit opposite me, but after considering his options found another open seat.
The train was just seven cars long including the engine. It was painted a pleasant shade of blue with "PERURAIL" written in yellow on the sides. We were told to expect the ride to last about 4 hours from start to finish, with a couple stops in between. A long ride to be sure, but the scenery was amazing. The train snaked slowly through the mountains, trudging past small single-family farmland plots of pastureland and crops. Being a farm boy from Nebraska, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much corn was being raised. Every so often we'd pass a farm with a collapsed stone fence line, home to three or four undernourished cows and 8-10 sheep with mangled, dirty wool coats. The locals made the most of their land - we ambled past one little 200 ft x 75 ft. piece of sloped mud populated with two cows, two goats, three or four sheep, a momma and two piglets, a small army of chickens, an unsaddled horse, an old donkey and a mangy dog or two. It was Peru's version of Old McDonald's farm.
As we rattled on, a good-sized river appeared on my side of the train. It was probably 20-30 feet across and running pretty fast. The water was the color and consistency of chocolate milk. No clean rocky mountain streams to cool your beer here. Huge sharp mountains appeared on each side of the train, like arrowheads stuck in the ground pointing up. Most were tree-covered, but as we continued the peaks a little further back started to show some snow. We passed enormous sheer cliff faces, causing me to push my face against the window to try to see the top.
With about an hour left to go, the river we'd been following became more and more agitated and violent, like it was getting angry. At one point we crossed a bridge, putting the water on the left side of the train. We'd pass waterfalls from mountain streams and trudge over small brooks and creeks flowing into the main channel we were following, making it even stronger. Before long, it turned into a raging set of brown/white water more intense than anything I'd ever seen. It was really impressive. Water was foaming and thrashing, sprays reaching nearly as high as the train at times. Knowing nothing about white-water rafting, I wondered if it were even possible to navigate. I was pretty sure I wouldn't try it.
We finally arrived in Aguas Calientes, the last stop for the train, where we disembarked. I found Mark in the crowd and we went along with the flow, hoping everyone was heading in the right direction. We followed the group through a busy market, then crossed a bridge over the deafening raging water of the river. Once past the roar, I overheard a couple Americans talking about the water. They talked about having done a bunch of white water rafting in the states and other places - some class 4's and 5's. One of them said "and this one, they wouldn't even classify. Can't do it. You'd be dead."
Remember the "independent traveler" bit from before? This is where those damn "logistics" rear their nerdy heads again. Getting to Aguas Calientes is only 1/3 of the chore of getting to Machu Picchu. We had to pay $12 USD for a ticket to get on the bus, but couldn't get on. We still needed a park entrance pass, which we didn't have. We had to wind our way through the streets of Aguas Calientes to the "tourist center" where we had to pay an additional $40 USD for the pass. Good thing I had cash. Mark and I checked our guide books. Anything else? Ok. After getting all the proper crap, we got on a bus (of which there were many, and they were pretty nice - must be putting that $12 fee to good use) and started up. The road to Machu Picchu is a long, windy set of switchbacks taking almost 20 minutes to traverse. As we twisted and turned, the bus got precariously close to the edge. For those of you who've done it, it was like driving up Pike's Peak, but on dirt roads with no guide rails at a steeper incline.
The bus ended up stopping in front of a very large tourist reception center. Mark and I jumped off the bus and headed to the entrance where we showed them our $40 entrance pass. We were then asked if we'd like to vote for Machu Picchu as one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. This amused me as we hadn't even seen one block of stone yet. I deferred to the exit, knowing I'd probably end up doing it anyway.
We started along a little concrete path which meandered to the left around a huge mass of grass and rock. We turned the corner, and there it was. I won't waste many words trying to describe the initial feeling. It's like the first time you see the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. Words are inadequate to describe the moment. Gleaming grey-white blocks of stone shining in the morning sun against rich green grass. The mountains in the background were a dark blue-green slashing into a grey-white sky. It was truly one of the most humbling experiences of my life. It was what a "wonder of the world" should feel like. The entire mountain top had been terraced and converted into what can easily be called a small town. Certainly most have seen "the" picture of Machu Picchu with the mountain in the background and the ruins in the middle. Walking through the ruins, it's quickly apparent the picture doesn't do the site justice. It was much, much bigger than I'd thought. I was in awe. Not the over-used slang term of today. True awe.
Mark and I stood looking for a few minutes. We then set about our plan to cover as much as possible in the time allowed. It was about 11:00, and our train back in Aguas Calientes left for Cuzco at 4:00. The tall mountain in the back of the picture everyone has seen is actually called Huayna Picchu, and actually has a set of ruins atop it, supposedly offering a spectacular view of the ruins. We "kind of" followed a map to navigate our way through the ruins, but the place is huge and lay out like a maze - we hit dead ends a few times, but finally reached the gate. You actually have to sign in before passing through the gate. Apparently three or four people end up taking a header off the mountain a year and they like to have some record of it. Nice.
I'd read it takes about an hour to get up to the top. Mark said some Italian tri-athlete did it in 22 minutes. Mark said a lot of stuff. He was a talker. He's in his final year of medical school in Germany, training to be an ear, nose and throat surgeon. He talked about the German economy, about liquid bandages, about the European rail system, the problems with the U.S. Government, proper hydration, German medicine, U.S. medicine... lots of talking. I didn't mind so much for a couple reasons: 1) the hike was long and vertical, and I'm out of shape - it helped take my mind off of the fire inside my lungs, and 2) He was a really smart guy, and he knew what he was talking about in nearly every subject. It was a hell of a hike. It reminded me of the last 30 minutes on the way out of "the Hike through Hell" in Havasupai, Arizona, except this was in a really humid environment with uneven, wet stone steps. I'm definitely not in game-shape anymore, but when exerting one's self for the first time in a long time at altitude, it really sucks.
After about 65 minutes of torture, we reached the top (a set of ruins unto itself) - and it was worth every gallon of sweat. We were offered tremendous views of the Machu Picchu ruins (now behind us) which were almost tiny in the distance. It was a gorgeous sight. We spent a little while at the top, where we met a few fellow out-of shape hikers. However, knowing we had a limited amount of time, we headed back, the path being almost more treacherous on the way down. By the time we got back to the gate it was already 1:40. Accounting for the bus ride back down the mountain, and walking through the city to the train station, we didn't have a lot of time.
We spent the rest of our time walking the ruins. It was so impressive. It seemed like every angle, every view was worthy of a frame. As I did in Cuzco, while I walked the ruins I thought about the feat of engineering before me. How was this site selected? Who laid out the plan? Where did they get the rocks from? How long did it take? And what about the freakin mountain peak we just hiked? How'd they do that? It was fun to think about. A group of people in the 1500's built this place with their hands. They got the stones and carved them, terraced the land and planted it, moved their families here and lived. I have no idea how they did it - I'm not actually sure I really want to know.
We walked and walked. There's no way you can cover it all in the time we had - even a full day just in the ruins would be pushing it. We passed tour groups, groups of friends relaxing, individuals having Zen moments, and even some llamas who were as comfortable around tourists as city pigeons.
3:00 arrived all too soon - I took one final look back and we headed back to the tourist center. We caught the bus back down the mountain, soaked with sweat and dirty from a day of hiking. Mark and I navigated our way back to the train station with about 15 minutes to spare.
I saw a sign on the side of a building for "Inca Kola" - a Pepto-Bismol flavored soft drink the Peruvians are really proud of. I couldn't help but smile. I wonder what Huayna Capac would think of seeing this at the foot of Machu Picchu. I bought a cold Coke got in my seat. I was tired, but really, really happy. I'd experienced Machu Picchu. It's moments like these that make the trip worth all the crappy bus rides, all the bad food, all the small beds. It was a long 4 hours back to Cuzco. Who cares?