Thursday, June 30, 2011

On Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is certainly not the easiest to get to. Even if you get yourself to Cuzco, you still either trek your way across the mountains on the Inca Trail (3 days, $500+) or have to get a train/car to Aguas Callientes (3 hours, $100+), a hotel for the night ($10+), a bus to the site (30 minutes, $8), and the entrance ticket ($45).

It really does take a lot of time and money to get there.

It's also totally worth it.

We woke up just before the early morning train announced its arrival outside our window with a piercing whistle. Because you can't take food into Machu Picchu itself and the only restaurant at the site is outrageously overpriced ($13 bottle of water anyone?), we decided to get a solid breakfast in town before catching the bus up the mountain.

We went to the only open restaurant, placed our orders for pancakes, eggs, juice, and hot chocolate, and sat back to wait for our food. And waited, and waited, and waited. When it finally came, it really wasn't that great. Still, we were both grateful for it later in the day.

The bus ride up to Machu Picchu was 30 minutes of tight switchbacks with absolutely stellar views of mist-wrapped mountains. We made one last bathroom stop (there's no bathrooms inside), and climbed the stairs to the gate. Once we had Ciro and our little tour group put together, we had our tickets stamped and checked our bigger bags for the day.

Ciro led us up the winding path to the high point for our first views of Machu Picchu. I was pretty quick to like Ciro when he noticed I was out of breath about half-way up the stairs. He stopped and said to the four of us, "We will rest for a moment because you are on vacation and you should relax and enjoy your vacation. You should enjoy Macchu Picchu. Take a moment and open your heart and open your hands to Machu Picchu and take it in." Which was a very gracious way to give me the moment I needed.

Ciro showed us our first view of Machu Picchu, and it is stunning. I'll post some of the hundred or so photos I took on my iPhone sometime (but not tonight, it's getting late). It's one of those places you just have to see in person. Learning about the Incas from Ciro was fascinating, especially their mythology, their architecture, and their astronomy.

Ciro showed us a rock carved to indicate the cardinal directions. He pulled his digital camera many times on the tour to show us things like what the Temple of the Sun looks like at Summer Solstice or the snow-capped mountains that were covered in fog when we were there. This time he flipped through his pictures to one of an iPhone held against the rock and apologized for it being hard to see the phone's display. I suddenly realized what he was showing us, and I whipped out my iPhone and opened the compass app. Ciro was delighted that I had one, and took my phone to show us that the rock does indeed point due south.

Other groups gathered around my iPhone to see, and I swelled with pride that my iPhone had made Ciro so happy. Then Ciro asked if I had the "Star App". I figured out he meant Sky Walk, which I had just downloaded... to my iPad. Which was in the luggage storage outside. I told him no, sadly, and he looked so crushed that Jason laughed at how quickly I fell from glory.
After Jason and I reunited again and toured the parts of the site he had missed or we hadn't been, we picked a spot on one of the terraces, sat on the grass, and just looked around. It reminded me of when we sat on a bench in a park in Istanbul and just looked at the Hagia Sofia. There are some places that you can see in pictures or in movies, but it's just so much more breath-takingly stunning in person you can look at it for hours and still not be done. That terrace is one of my favorite places in the world now, and I was reluctant to go, despite the pressing needs of my bladder.

Oh, also? There were llamas:

On the train ride back to Ollantaytamb, I was wondering what I would do with myself for 90 minutes when I could't read and it was too dark to see out the windows. The announcement recording welcomed us back onboard and said, "We hope your trip to Machu Picchu was magical, and we want to make the magic continue."

I thought that the pasta salad they gave us as a snack was pretty magical, since that slow breakfast was a long time ago at that point, but shortly after the meal service ended, the bathroom door at the end of the car burst open and one of the stewards jumped out dressed like an Incan mythological creature:

And then the other stewards put on a fashion show. No, really, I kid you not:

Of course, they proceeded to pass out catalogues and try to sell the clothes, but they were so tongue-in-cheek about it and it was such a strange and silly way to wrap up an exhausting and powerful day, that we couldn't help but laugh at it.

Well, at least when it was over we did. At the time, Jason's expression was more like this:

We got back Cuzco just after 9:00, dusty, exhausted, and starving. So we treated ourselves to dinner at what was touted to be the best restaurant in town. Still feeling adventurous, we ordered an appetizer of guinea pig on polenta. I was not a fan of it, and in fact felt even more not great as the night went on. Jason claims that it couldn't possibly be the cuy, since he felt fine; however, rather than blaming the excellent-tasting calamari appetizer or my delicious prosciutto sandwich (or, for that matter, the hours of hiking without food or water followed by a bus ride, a train ride, and a van ride), I choose to blame the cuy.

(For the complete story, you really should read this as well.)

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