Arrival at Machu Picchu
18.06.2010 - 19.06.2010 32 °F
We had to wake up at 3 AM the next morning to eat breakfast and get all the gear packed up. Apparently there is only one train a day back to town for the porters. It leaves at around 5AM. If they are not on it, they are stuck here for the night without food or shelter. All the trekkers then queued up for the locked gates to the park to open. Then it was off to the races. This was the last "gringo-killer" as there were still some steep stairs to climb. We had to use our headlights until the sun rose. The pace was swift. Inexplicably, many people thought they had to make a made dash to the Sun Gate (Intipunku) to see the sunrise over Machu Picchu. In reality, we had more than enough time. A leisurely stroll would have sufficed. The trail was narrow with the mountain to one side and a sheer cliff on the other. There was only enough room to walk single file. Of course there are always some impatient fools who had to pass everybody. I hugged the mountain side to let them by. I wasn't going to fall off a cliff just so they could be first.
When we finally reached the Sun Gate, we got our first view of Machu Picchu. The view was better than any photograph. We headed down the mountain path for a good view and waited. As Raul predicted, at 7:19, the sun came up over the mountains behind us and illuminated the Sun Temple. That was supposed to be the quintessential moment for the entire trek.
One thing that made me feel especially good about this trip was that it gave one of the porters an opportunity to see Machu Picchu for the first time. Since Sherri and I were staying at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, Raul arranged (for a few dollars more) for one of the porters to bring our packs with us to the hotel. Although this man has lugged bags up the mountain for almost ten years, he, like all other porters, always had to bypass the actual ruins themselves. Sadly, this is all too common for the poorer country people in the Sacred Valley. Although locals get a significant discount on the $45 entrance fee to Machu Picchu, they still often lack the sufficient funds or opportunities to see a crucial monument to their proud history. I could tell that, just like all of us, he was amazed at the magnificence of these ruins. We made our way down to the ruins and took our last group shot at the most photographed view of Machu Picchu. We donned our nice Llama Path T-shirts. The only colors Raul had were white, ugly yellow, uglier yellow, ugliest orange, and blue. Somehow I lucked out with the blue. Out of principle, Steve refused to wear the orange shirt.
Raul then gave us a two hour tour of the city. We took a million pictures. We viewed those who rode the train with disdain. (I’m sure they viewed our stench with disgust). Even while fighting sleep deprivation and fatigue, I was at an emotional high. After the toils of the last four days, I think the rest of our group was all ruined-out. We said our goodbyes to them as they departed for the bus to Aguas Calientes. Raul had to catch an afternoon train as he was scheduled to lead another group back on the trail the following day.
We checked into the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge, just adjacent to the entrance of the ruins. We had lunch there and it was packed! There was a huge line outside of people waiting to get seated. Since we were staying on the premises, one of the staff helped us find a recently vacated table. There was a large spread of food in the buffet, most of it being pretty good. For those of you wondering, the buffet is pricey for what you get (included in the price of our stay). However, if you factor in the time and money to take the bus down to Aguas Calientes to eat there, I don't think it’s a bad deal at all.
I wasn’t crazy about spending my children’s future inheritance at the Sanctuary Lodge. However, I agreed to stay there as a concession to Sherri for making her camp out for three nights. Once again she was able to get a significantly discounted rate on the internet, and the place is all inclusive for meals, minibar, and room service. Unfortunately we had just missed laundry service. Without any clean clothes left, we had to spend 45 minutes hand washing our clothes. So much for relaxing. The rooms were good but not five star quality. Their internet connection was slower than my old 2400 baud modem. Where the hotel really shines is service and, of course, location. Machu Picchu sparked our initial interest in traveling to Peru. It would have been criminal for us to have only breezed through there in 2 hours. If we had stayed at a less expensive hotel down in Aguas Calientes, I seriously doubt we would have had the energy to come back. As it were, we went back that same afternoon after showering and a short nap. That was the best part of our trek. Machu Picchu is way too crowded with tourists. You can’t take a photograph without someone in the background. That late in the afternoon, the crowds had thinned out significantly. We were able to explore the ruins on our own pace and take some better pictures. Luckily Sherri had read Ruth Wright’s “Machu Picchu Guidebook” (I was too lazy to get past the third page). She was able to point out the important buildings that weren’t covered on the tour. We posed with the domesticated llamas, snuck up on some chinchillas (I first thought they were mutant rabbits), and absorbed the magnificence of the city. While many people had to catch the last bus down to Aguas Calientes, we were able to linger a few extra minutes enjoying the indescribable serenity and beauty of Machu Picchu.
That night we had dinner at Tampu, the hotel’s restaurant. There was yet another Peruvian band playing. Although I’m a bit deaf thanks to my Ipod, I could tell that these guys had a really good, clear, crisp sound. The only problem was that they were blocking my view of the World Cup game on the television in the bar. As we have come to expect from an establishment of this caliber, the waiters were attentive and the food delicious. I went with the always reliably-good sea bass entrée (foam is so 2006). Of all the wonderful dishes on the menu, Sherri chose the disappointing chocolate fettucini (there was no chocolate taste). My trio of cheesecakes was a little too dense and dry for my liking. The best dish of all was the tree tomato dessert. It was perfectly moist and sweet with a rich sabayon sauce. Unfortunately, we never encountered this fruit again during the remainder of our travels. Although the meal was included in our stay, I still felt compelled to leave a tip consistent with the price of the meal. The irony is that I ended up tipping the waiters the same amount as I had done the porters. As I reflected upon that later, that just seemed wrong.
In all fairness, the staff at the Sanctuary Lodge was incredible. I called room service to get a diet coke. They brought three. That night, we were freaking out because we had no train ticket for the return trip to Cusco. We were on a tight schedule and had to catch a flight the next day. Raul had promised to have someone deliver it to the front desk of the hotel. By the time the last official automobile had made it up the mountain, there was still no ticket. The lady working the desk went the extra effort. She tried calling Llama Path but to no avail as the main office was clueless of the situation. She ended up calling her friend at Peru Rail who was able to find our reservations, reprint new tickets, and fax them to the hotel. Ironically, an hour later, Raul’s initial train ticket materialized. While it ended up being a moot point at the end, we were most appreciative of the front desk staff’s efforts.
We had planned on staying up late, ordering more desserts and chocolate sours from room service, and enjoying the crisp mountain air out on the patio. Instead we were so exhausted that we were comatose in our bed by 9 PM.
At 6 AM, I crawled out of bed and seconds later I was at Machu Picchu again. There was already a huge line of people waiting for the gates to open. I made my way over the Sun Temple and camped out next to a large stone known as the Intihuatana. Since it helped the Incan’s determine the time of year, it was the most important and sacred rock in the entire city. It has been said to radiate energy when touched. When I reached over the rope barriers and patted the Intihuatana, the only thing vibe I got was the sound of “no toque” from a nearby security guard.
Once again, the sun rose up over the opposing mountain. It first cast a beautiful glow on Winay Pichu. I’m sure it also made the hikers there really hot. As the sun’s rays descended on the Sun Temple, the asylum was unlocked. A large group stood behind the Intihuatana with their arms up entranced at the rising sun. One by one, they meditated next to the sacred rock. My favorite guy was dressed up in new age garb chanting in both English and Spanish that “Brothers and Sisters, we are all people of one family, nationalities are only illusions…” If only this would work in the Middle East. Too bad I was not there the next day which was the summer solstice. I’m sure the spectacle would have been even better.
After checking out of the hotel, we made our way to the Peru Rail station in Aguas Calientes for our 10:30 AM train. We proudly bought ourselves some “I Survived the Inca Trail” t-shirts. They are ugly and will likely never be worn. With the damage to the railroad tracks earlier in the year, the train went only as far as km 82 (the same place where we started the Inca Trail). We were then crowded on a small Peru Rail shuttle bus and transported to Ollantaytambo. In efficient fashion, a full size passenger bus took only the two of us back to Cusco. The whole trip took us 5-6 hours whereas it usually takes only about 3 hours when the train is in full service.
We dined at the popular Inka Grill for dinner. We started with the creole sampler. I was pleasantly surprised at how good the anticuchos (beef heart brochettes) were. Their tamales were the best we had during our stay in Peru. The rest of the food was just okay. I had a hearty alpaca steak with tacu tacu and Sherri had the aji de gallina. We spent the night in a different room at the Hotel Monasterio. No ghosts seen that night either.
Overall, we were both glad that we had done the Inca Trail. It made the Machu Picchu experience more immersive and special. I don't think we will be doing it again. It's just like the Japanese saying about climbing Mt. Fuji: you are a fool if you have never climbed it, but you are twice the fool if you have done it more than once.
I'm glad that we had gone with Llama Path. Despite the government regulations limiting the loads that a porter can carry, we saw way too many of them being exploited with overloaded packs. Some only had raggedy sandals. Most porters don't complain because they can make more money this way than farming and there are many others who would happily take their place. Llama Path takes good care of their employees making sure they have good wages, shoes, clothing, and health insurance. Raul did a great job taking care of our group. Just like a coach or trainer, he knew how to motivate us when we were struggling, but also took great care of those who were really sick. However, he does resemble some guy on Nickelodeon who works with the Animal Rescue Squad. We paid a little more than some other less reputable trekking companies. But, it was worth it to be able to sleep well at night.
Separated at birth?