6:30 alarm so as not to start the day too late. After breakfast at the hotel, we put our bags in storage and catch a cab to the address where the minibuses wait to take passengers to Urubamba and Ollantaytambo.
As our cab turns onto the street in question, about ten men rush out in front of us and flag us down, shouting, “Urubamba 5 soles! Ollantaytambo 10!”
One man, more brazen than the rest, slams Julien’s door as he is trying to get out. Not a good way to get Julien to agree to take the guy’s minibus, let me tell you. Julien glares at him and shoves the door open again as he says, “Calm down, young man, or we aren’t going to be friends.” The guy is almost old enough to be Julien’s dad, but he backs down with a sullen look.
It feels a lot like Madagascar to have so many people trying to hustle us into their vans, trying to convince us to give them our business, but once we choose a van, the men back off and go back to flagging down passing cars. The minibus won’t leave until it’s full. We watch and root for our driver, happy to see he is jovial about his work, not overly pushy or belligerent.
Thirty minutes later, we pull out of the parking lot and head slowly through the streets, the driver’s assistant hanging out the open sliding door, trying to lure one or two more passengers into the bus.
No one bites. She slams the door and off we go to Ollantaytambo. The minibus climbs out of Cuzco, and the mountains and valleys open before us, showing us another, more pleasant, visage of Peru: red earth and green, green crops, plots of land going up vertiginous mountain faces, terraces here and there, eucalyptus trees swaying above it all. Rooting pigs, grazing cattle, donkeys. Only one llama.
An hour and a half later, we pull into Ollantaytambo, the Inca ruins towering over the village. We tip the driver two soles for his impromptu guide work. His eyes shine with surprise and pleasure, and he can’t stop calling us amigos and giving us advice we can’t quite understand.
We buy our train tickets to Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu village) and then go in search of lunch, finally settling on a mediocre tourist-trap style place just because all the other tourist traps look pretty sketchy on the hygiene front--we actually left one that looked like food poisoning waiting to happen.* Neither Julien nor I want to go another round with ol’ Montezuma and his Revenge. Who wouldn't want revenge if I ate "friend trout"?
By time we eat our lunch, afternoon gloom has settled over the ruins. It was a mistake to eat first and miss out on the clear morning. It is quite a hike to the top of the ruins, and we stop once or twice to get our breath, pleased to see Peruvian tourists doing the same. We feel a little less like sissies.
The views are spectacular and the stonework even more so. The Inca town must have been a sight at its heyday. It’s not hard to imagine backs bent, sowing seeds in the terraces, men grunting under a load of superbly-cut stone, the hammer of tools and orders as the massive blocks of the sun temple are set in place. We climb to smaller ruins at the top of the mountain to prepare ourselves for tomorrow’s ascension to Machu Picchu.
A look at our watch tells us it is time to hustle down to the station. Don’t want to miss our train**...
The ride is good because the clouds clear up as we are pulling out of the station. We travel along the river valley, impressive peaks towering over us on both sides, the highest ones, snowcapped. I chat with a young American couple, and Julien goes a few seats back to speak with a French couple who have just come up from Bolivia.
Our arrival in Aguas Calientes is not so smooth or pleasant. We aren’t in the same hostel as the group we are supposed to be meeting up with, we have a hassle finding our guide, when we do find him, he ignores us, not even telling us hello, leaving us to stew alone for an hour...the whole affair is very disorganized and leaves us fearing for the morrow. To top it off, Julien is served rotten fish. Not a very good end to what has been a great day.
I sleep poorly, afraid we are going to miss our 3:35 am alarm. I’m wide awake before it goes off, but I stay in bed, trying to rest up for the hike to Machu Picchu. When the alarm sounds, Julien and I bound out of bed and throw on our clothes. The hotel receptionist knocks on our door just as we are shouldering our bags to tell us that she has unlocked the door for us.
Aguas Calientes is quite and gray in the early morning hours, all the bright tourist traps and restaurants shuttered and barred; we don’t even hear music from the five or six discotheques that are supposed to exist in town. We are the first at the rendezvous point. A few minutes later our guide shows up. We tell him we are going to leave right away because I’ll have to hike slower due to my twisted ankle still paining me. He points us on the right path and goes back into the hostel to make sure the others are getting out of bed. Apparently, he had to nursemaid them a bit on the trek.
The town lights illuminate the low-lying clouds that enshroud the sheer mountains thrusting up from the Urubamba river. Finally, they fade behind us and our eyes adjust to the darkness. We follow the pale road to a neon-lit shrine that sits before two bridges. We take the one on the right for pedestrians and are just making our way up the first stairs when some members of our group pass us.
It is slow going for me, and Julien waits patiently as I have to catch my breath every 30 or 50 feet. Group after group passes us, but I don’t care. I’ll make it to the top, more slowly, yes, but I’ll make it. Machu Picchu must be earned to my mind, and I haven’t done much to deserve it just yet.
The dawn breaks, and we arrive at the top after climbing for an hour and fifty minutes, ten minutes before the gates open to let in the masses. There are over 200 people already waiting. The first bus arrives just after we do, and out spill the tourists not up to climbing and not adverse to spending $7 for a one-way ticket to the top.
The entrance is not what I expect. I thought we would arrive above the site, able to see the ruins spread out in terraced, plunging glory before us. Not so. We make our way through several checkpoints and take a largish path around a wall and some reconstructed houses before we glimpse Machu Picchu fighting to shrug off the morning fog.
Our guide herds us up some terraces and sits us down to give us an hour long lecture on what we will be seeing. It isn’t passionate, but it does give the clouds a chance to lift.
Julien and I spend the day there, not even leaving when the afternoon clouds come back, bringing a rain shower.
Going down the mountain is tricky--the steps are slick and uneven--but we make it in time to pick up our train tickets at the hostel. I could leave the visit there, but I did title this how to make a very tired Miquela, and sadly we aren’t magically whisked back to Cuzco.
The train ride back is good; I even doze a bit. But the disorganized adventures begin again once we get off in chilly, dark Ollantaytambo. The person who was supposed to be waiting for us (and three other girls) isn’t there. No one is holding a sign with our names on it like our guide promised. There are plenty of taxi drivers who try to sell us their services, but we already paid for our transportation back to Cuzco and we shouldn’t have to pay again.
Finally, a drivers says, “Your names aren’t right, but I’m supposed to be picking up five gringos and there are five of you. Come along.” In the meantime, his assistant is on the phone trying to figure out the mess so that they’ll be able to collect their pay.
The ride back to Cusco is bumpy and tight and four types of music are audible for the first 20 minutes. Slowly the noises quiet as people doze. We arrive in Cuzco without incident and are summarily dumped in a town square that has nothing to do with ANYTHING, not the tour office, not our hotels, nothing.
A man from the tour company is there, though. He pays the driver and offers no apologies for the mix up. We glare at him and leave without a goodbye, thankful that our hotel is within walking distance. The three other girls have to pay a taxi to take them back to their hotel, which our zoomed past, not letting them off because he had orders to deliver them downtown.
Next morning, alarm again at 5:30 so we don’t miss our flight to La Paz, Bolivia...
Yes, I am one tired Miq, but very happy still. Machu Picchu is worth every pain it took to see it.
* Sadly, frigg , I could not find “friend rice” on the menu, only “friend chicken.”
** Go with Inca Rail instead of PeruRail. IR is a locally-owned company, while PR is British and the profits go to England instead of staying in Peru. The IR trains are better and cheaper. IR says the ticket is $40, but if you moan nicely, they’ll tell you that they just happen to have a special that day for $30, one dollar cheaper than PR for a really, really great train.