This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Mucho Machu Picchu

For some practical information about visiting Machu Picchu follow this link to my previous post.

A Good Night's Sleep

Tired from our all day journey to get to Aguas Calientes (a.k.a Machu Picchu town) I easily fall asleep at nine in anticipation of our grand day at Machu Picchu tomorrow. At 12:45 a.m. I wake up because a concert  has started in the plaza near our hotel. Yes, they started a concert at around 12:30 a.m.! The worst part is that the singers are terrible. They would be booed off any mildly respectable karaoke stage. Getting back to sleep is impossible.

Now awake Mika decides to follow the 'if you can't beat em' join em'' philosophy and goes out to see what is happening on the plaza. I choose to stay in bed seething with anger. What type of town starts a concert at 12:30 a.m. on a Wednesday when the bulk of it's inhabitants have work and school or are tourists who want to get a good night's sleep before tackling Machu Picchu? Mika soon comes back reporting that there are about twenty-five concert goers, most of whom are drunk Peruvian men. There are no foreigners there. Talk about kicking a gift llama in the mouth. The music finally ends at 2:40 a.m.. I quickly fall back asleep only to be woken up again. This time by my alarm which has been set for 3:30 a.m. so that we can be on the first shift of people to arrive to the Machu Picchu entrance.
Silly us. We thought having a room overlooking the
 main plaza would be a good thing
We leave the hotel in the darkness of 4:15 a.m. passing people already lining up to get on the first bus at 5:30. We walk fifteen minutes out of the town to our own line of people waiting for the trail to Machu Picchu to open at 5:00 a.m.. This trail goes straight up the mountain crossing the winding bus road several times. It is narrow stone staircase and people usually walk ant-like single file up the 400 m (1312 ft.) to the entrance. There is a lot of huffing and puffing from winded tourists and very little talking. Stop for a rest and people will keep passing until you can find an opening to get back in line.

We arrive to the entrance at 5:45 a.m.. Many people are there ahead of us milling about waiting for the park to open. People are catching their breath, changing out of sweaty clothes and lining up for the bathrooms. We get our stamps for hiking the iconic Wayna Picchu mountain at ten in the morning. Then the buses start to roll in from town and the entrance area gets quite busy.
Waiting for the bathrooms to open early morning
To start our visit, instead of heading down immediately to the bulk of the ruins, we head up to have a view overlooking the site. We have all seen this famous image before of Machu Picchu and the mountain Wayna Picchu in the background. It is on postcards and in all the books (and on the top of this blog post), but to be there in person as the sun rises over the mountains and to watch as golden light begins to spread over the ancient city is absolutely stunning.

Whoever chose this place to build a city had an eye for perfection. It sits on top of a mountain surrounded all around by sacred peaks. In the distance are snow capped mountains and below is a river. There is a ready supply of granite rock which can be shaped into building blocks while the Inca terraced agriculture technology allowed them to grow more than enough crops all around the city.
The Inca rock quarry
Picture Picchu

I am not going to pretend here to know anything much about the ruins. So I am just going to do a photo walk through of our visit to Machu Picchu.

What I will tell you is that the Spanish conquistadors never made it to Machu Picchu. Otherwise, it probably would have been sacked and looted like the rest of the Inca civilization. "The Lost City of the Inkas" was rediscovered in 1911 by a North American guy. Well he gets credit for it. The truth is that he needed a kid, a local farmer's son, to lead him to the archaeological ruins.
Through the main gate to the Inca city
Agricultural terraces
A wall

Some buildings
Temple of the Sun
View of the Sacred Plaza and Machu Picchu mountain
 as seen from Intihuatana, the site's major shrine

Someone clever Incan carved this mountain diorama
The solstice based sundial
View of Machu Picchu and bus road from the top of Wayna Picchu
Walking down the steep, narrow steps of Wayna Picchu.
From here we can conclude that the Incas had small feet.
Walking back to the entrance
After climbing Wayna Picchu I return to the entrance to meet Mika who preferred rest over exertion. We head back to the Wayna Picchu entrance for about an hour (see A Machu Picchu Miracle below). By now it is mid-afternoon and we are really feeling the effects of little sleep, little food, strong sun and lots and lots of walking. We are too exhausted to tackle Machu Picchu mountain --which is unfortunate because everyone says that the views are spectacular. We do surprisingly, however, manage to have enough energy to hike up thirty minutes to the Sun gate which lies at the end of the Inca Trail.
A llama sharing our view from the Sun gate
The end of the Inca Trail
We head back down and find a perfect shaded spot to just sit and soak in our our final moments with the ancient stone city. It is 5:00 p.m.. All of tour groups have come and gone and now very few people are left milling about. It is peaceful, just how an ideal visit to Machu Picchu would be. Neither of us are ready to say goodbye quite yet, but we and the last few remaining tourists are finally ushered out by the workers ready to go home for the day.

Adios Machu Picchu

We are now completely out of snacks and water. I have been in the high-altitude sun all day, made three uphill hikes and have been awake since 3:30 a.m. on about three hours of sleep. My energy is totally spent. Out of near desperation I am ready to shell out money at the Machu Picchu cafeteria, but it is already closed. We then go to the restaurant of the $825-1000 per night hotel next to the entrance. The bartender tells us it is US $6 for a small bottle of coca cola or a water.

In this moment of truth, we learn that our principles far outweigh our need for proper hydration. Maybe in a rare instance in Japan or New York City I could see paying $6 for a coke. Last year I inexplicably paid $26 for a pot of tea in Tokyo. But Peru! Where the normal price is S 1.5 (US $0.55). No way. I will take my chances that I won't pass out on our walk back down. Or if I do, that Mika will have enough strength to go get help.

The Incas drink of choice
This time we are the only ones on the trail. The stone, knee-pounding steps seem never ending until at around sunset when we finally reach the bridge and gate back to town. Here there is a small restaurant offering cold "bien frio" bottled drinks for 4 soles. Still over-priced, this place is preying on people just like us in need of that emergency jolt of corn syrup. This is the best coca-cola I have ever had in my life.

Back in town we have a quick dinner, shower and then I immediately fall into ten hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep. Nestled all snug in my bed while visions of Machu Picchu dance in my head.
Mika, Machu Picchu and me

A Machu Picchu Miracle

This blog post seems to be getting quite long -- it's Machu Picchu after all -- and I thank those of you who have made it this far. So I will try to keep this next story short, which is hard for someone who has called himself a "rambler." Anyway, my camera backpack is getting up there in years, and lately the zippers have been opening up on their own -- especially when I have too much weight in the front pocket, like today. 

Finished with my descent of the mountain, Wayna Picchu and very near the trail entrance my bag unexpectedly opens dumping out my camera. Now if it just crashed to the ground that would not be so bad. But my camera hits the ground, bounces off the trail and tumbles down a steep slope about 4 meters (13 feet). It is hard to see it in all the vegetation.

This happens right in front of a group of other tourists. Everyone feels my pain. The ground looks precarious, so I decide the best thing is to go to the trail entrance and get help. The guy at the entrance tells me to come back at one o'clock when everyone has finished the hike. I meet up again with Mika, feeling slightly nauseous and already accepting that I will probably have to scrounge up US $800 for a new camera sometime this year.

We go back to the entrance and wait for the final hikers to return. Meanwhile, my camera and I have become minor celebrities amongst the Waynu Picchu climbing tourist crowd. Many people coming back have spotted it and are offering me their sympathy and camera retrieval advice. One guy's MacGuyver-esque suggestion to me is that I borrow some people's metal walking sticks, tape them together, hook the camera strap and reel in my camera. He even kindly gives me some electrical tape to complete the mission.

The worker grabs a rope and we go assess the situation. He puts Mika in charge of his official duty which is waiting at the entrance to make sure everyone signs out. Lucky Mika... how many foreign tourists can say they worked at Machu Picchu? The big (and a bit sketchy) plan is to first wait for his coworker to finish herding all the tourists off the mountain. Then one of us will go down with a flimsy rope tied around the waist while two others will pull him back up. The friend finally comes down. He quickly disregards the whole rope idea and jumps down to retrieve the camera in less than two minutes. Instead of coming right back he decides to inspect the damage himself by taking my photo while I am impatiently waiting above.

In the end, the only damage is a scratched lens cap and a few more grey hairs for me. Utterly relieved I give them both a fat tip and thank Pachamama for this true Machu Picchu miracle.
Dude, bring up the camera!

The International Rambler Travel Tip:

When visiting Machu Picchu give yourself plenty of time. We were there for eleven hours and did not see everything. Make sure to include time for just sitting and enjoying the majestic scenery before you. There is absolutely no need to rush.  

It boggles my mind that people spend so much time and money to get to Machu Picchu only to be hurried through the site by an impatient tour guide. Imagine if you will a tour group of retirees from, say, Belgium. They have been planning and saving for this trip for years. They fly about twelve hours from Europe to Lima, Peru and then take another short flight to get to Cuzco. From Cuzco they take an expensive, three hour train ride and a bus. And for what? To spend only two hours at Machu Picchu because their schedule demands they get back to Aguas Calientes for lunch or to catch a train back already?

So tour groupies, if you choose to be a sheep then be the black sheep. Insist to the agency that after the tour your guide will give you your own bus ticket so that you can leave Machu Picchu when you want. The best moments to find serenity at Machu Picchu are right after the opening and right before closing. Tour groups occupy the main areas in mass between 10am and 2pm.


  1. Ive just read your blog while lying in bed in Cusco, day before we are aiming to Macchu picchu.
    Thank you so much for sharing your experience! Your writing style, photos and the information you give makes us feel much more prepared and wise to start our visit to magestic Macchu Picchu.
    Many thanks,
    Jaana & John

    1. Jaana & John,
      Thanks for the kind words. I am glad the blog was helpful. Hope you have a wonderful trip!