This little bike trip we’re on can be pretty non-touristy. Almost anti-touristy. After about a year in Latin America, 90% of which we’ve spent in rural areas, we’ve started to feel at home eating at stalls in bustling markets, sleeping in pastures, fields and forests and shooting the breeze with shepherds and ranch hands met along lonely roads. It’s not that we go out of our way to avoid those landmarks and attractions for which our host countries are known; it’s just that while travelers who move with motors can blow through their top-ten lists within a couple of weeks, our method of motion makes the voyage more about the day-to-day rather than highlights and checkpoints.
We were a bit out of our element, therefore, when we plunged ourselves, bike-less, into the most touristy square mile on the South American continent: Machu Picchu. Happily so: it may be one of the most incredible things we’ve seen on our trip thus far.
We’d hoped to find a bike-able or hike-able route along the 80km from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the town that serves as access point to the ruins, but in the end we opted for the train for simplicity’s sake. The tourist train, that is, which, as non-Peruvians, is the only one on we’re allowed on. The one that plays pan flute music and serves coffee as it chugs along the tracks down into the Selva Alta, or high jungle, that envelops the region. It’s all part of the experience, and we kind of got a kick out of it.
Aguas Calientes (also simply called the town of Machu Picchu) is thoroughly gringofied. I’ve never seen such a heavy concentration of espresso machines. Despite Peru’s excellent export coffee, the rest of the country is wholly Nescafé (or “Monaco” instant). The train station opens onto a labyrinthine crafts market, one of the best we’ve seen in terms of choice and quality, though we didn’t inquire as to prices. From there, three pedestrian suspension bridges ford the rushing river (there are no cars in town!) and on the other bank are three square blocks packed with hotels, restaurants, bars, cafés, massage parlors and upscale shops.
Once you get to the access town, there are two options for getting up to the ruins. If you’re completely out of shape, there’s really only one: the 14$ buses that leave town regularly and crawl 25 minutes up the mountainside to the site’s entrance. However, if you want to be sure of seeing Wayna Picchu, a separate set of ruins perched a nearby peak, there’s a second option: a brutal one-hour, 400-vertical meter hike before dawn up flying stairs (see photos) and stone-hewn steps. This option requires that you sleep in Aguas Calientes the night before.
We opted for the early morning adventure route. The monument opens at 6, and buses loaded with tourists start rolling out of town at 5:30. The bridge to the access trail opens at 5 AM. Only 400 of the thousands of tourists who visit Machu Picchu every day are allowed up the mountain to Wayna Picchu. Basically, it’s a John Henry-ish race of hikers against buses. But we like races.
At 3:30 AM, we got the wake-up call we’d requested from the staff of Number One Hostel (there’s a Number Two Hostel right next door –tough choice). I’d barely slept. I’d felt like a kid on Christmas Eve crawling into bed a few scant hours earlier. We jumped into our clothes and wolfed down some bananas and bread, washing it down with cold coffee. By 4:15 we were out the door in the cool night, headlamps strapped to our foreheads, daypacks on our backs, grins stamped on our faces.
We got to the gate by 4:40 AM. Already dozens of people were waiting, and another 50 arrived before they unlocked the pedestrian bridge at ten to five. Lucie and I flew up the mountainside and made it to the top in about 40 minutes. We were among the first 25 people to the summit. The line-up was already hundreds long by the time the first bus rolled in. A guy came by with a clipboard and studied the still-panting and red-faced hikers at the head of the pack. He stamped and initialed our tickets and made a mark on his chart, not even bothering to ask whether or not we wanted to go up the mountain. He only wanted to know which group we wanted to be in: 7 or 10 AM.
We were among the first to enter the Lost City that morning. The place seemed to emanate silence. The mountains were enshrouded in swirling mist. We rose to the ancient guardhouse and were overwhelmed by a panoramic view of the city. We’d seen this iconic image countless times before, but the reality and the scale of it almost hurt. It was something utterly extraordinary to behold.
We started following the directions toward Wayna Picchu. We both assumed it couldn’t be seen from the city, and never for a moment considered that we were about to climb through the dense jungle and up the vertical cliff walls of the towering peak that lay directly ahead.
Okay, at this point I’ll stop describing the anticipation we felt as we scaled the narrow, centuries-old stone staircase up into the clouds, or the awe we experienced an hour later as we came upon a network of buildings that blended in perfectly with the rock face. That’s why we have cameras. Again, we were in the first group and had the site to ourselves. Also, being in the first group, we didn’t have to clamber around people on the way up. I’m slightly amazed that people don’t regularly fall to their deaths from this spectacular place. Words that come to mind are hairy, sketchy, hazardous. People were high-fiving each other after making it out safely. It was an adventure.
Machu Picchu was packed when we came back down. Honestly, though, I thought it would be a lot worse. We were free to explore as we wished, and the place is big enough that we were often on our own. There wasn’t anyone to tell us to keep moving, to stay on the path or to follow a certain route as I’d feared. We took full advantage of our freedom, crisscrossing through the ruins for hours, through their various urban, agricultural and religious areas. The precision of the stonework is beyond impressive, as is the sheer size of the stones used, many of which weigh several tons. Each stone was custom cut either to interlock with its neighbor or to blend in with the natural environment, and the walls of the more important structures were erected without using mortar.
The Conquistadores never saw this place. It is completely invulnerable to attack and cloaked until you’re directly upon it. One thing became clear to me as I wandered the Lost City: if not for the small pox epidemic that emptied the walls of Machu Picchu from within, Lucie and I would be learning Quechua, the official language of the Inca, instead of Spanish on this trip.
We were the last ones out the gate at closing time. Lucie needed two sticks to hobble back down the jungle trail to town, her cycling legs shot from the day’s hiking. We descended in a tropical downpour in the dark, headlamps on, shouting over the din of the rain. It was awesome. We had just enough time to dry our clothes by a fireplace and enjoy a beer before catching our train home to Cusco.
If you’re headed to Peru, well, believe the hype. They don’t go around designating World Wonders for nothing. Lucie and I joke that you can’t leave the country unless you can show proof at the border that you’ve visited Machu Picchu. And while we’ve missed a few sightseeing hotspots along the way, we’re happy this wasn’t one of them.
An another note, we were robbed in our apartment in Cusco yesterday, the day after we got back from our excursion. A polite, well-dressed, soft-spoken man came to the door posing as an electrician. We kept our eyes on him as he checked the box and the electric shower. I actually felt bad at the time, thinking “I’m treating this guy like a thief and he just wants to do his job.” While he had me flipping switches in the fuse box in the kitchen, he was rifling through Lucie’s money belt in the bathroom. Amazingly, he’d managed to pilfer it from the bedroom in the few seconds he was out of Lucie’s sight. He’d also grabbed Lucie’s wallet from the kitchen table.
I posted the sad news on Facebook an hour later. Apparently, we’re loved. A huge thanks to everyone who wrote with words of encouragement and support, and to the few who helped us recover our losses through Paypal donations. You really saved our asses, and we owe you one. Thanks to you, Pedaling South rides on!
Stay tuned for our massive Machu Picchu gallery, online first thing tomorrow morning.