This Is How You Get There
Monday, 8.29 3pm
Photo by Twig!
To get to Macchu Picchu, you have two options. You can go the Inca way (by foot) or you can take a bus, which is run on a crowd-control plan that puts Disney to shame. (Yes, I said it. Disney does NOT have these challenges.)
We left our hotel, duckings following our Julio duck, and took the damnedest path to the buses: Over the little pedestrian trestle bridge back into town. Quick left at the foot of the steps. Marvel at the earth-moving equipment pulling Volkswagon-sized boulders out of a river bed. Along a sidewalk that ended in crumbled brick and a sheer drop to the rocks far below. (“Yes,” said delightful Yeshira, our other tour guide, “we don’t like to bring people this way at night.” I guess.)
Down the hill. Cross the active train tracks. Down the hill, past dozens of stores attempting to lure in visitors. Across the bigger bridge. The line begins here and snakes up the hill; people waiting to get on the buses for Machu Picchu. The stores on THIS road are fucking BLISSED to have this line-up of people. While waiting our turn to board, Rusty bought a rain poncho and a big bottle of Gatorade.
Yeshi had explained about the dogs. There are no canine regulations in Peru. All dogs are let out of their homes for the day. They run where they please. (They don’t seem to fight, don’t form packs, don’t take down moose in the public square—or spectacle bears, rather.) At the end of the day, they go home, happy. Dogs are ignored or petted. No one growls at them, no one kicks at them, and the dogs don’t seem to beg. Mostly they are industrious, going somewhere important or keeping watch.
We stood in a fast-moving line as buses cycled through. Our wait was…maybe ten minutes? And there were HUNDREDS of people in line ahead of us. It was impressive. I took photos of the Machu Picchu Pueblo public street furniture, which was very nice; they’re benefiting from their proximity to one of Peru’s single most significant tourist draws.
Then, into a bus. Down through the town. Along the river. Across a bridge. Then the ground began to rise. We followed the contours of the mountain to our right; a curve to the right, then a more-or-less straightaway, followed by a curve to the right.
And then the tightest damned switchback known to man.
Rinse and repeat. Curve around the mountain, straightaway, curve again, tight switchback. THIRTEEN TIMES IN ALL. In my head, Gollum was chanting “Up, up, up, up, up, Precious!” On the mountainside, the occasional flight of stairs. Not government-mandated stairs in lackluster cement, no. These were stone stairs made before the first Europeans ever brought their smallpox-laden selves to the New World. Mostly the stairs were set flush with the earth, but sometimes they projected out, cantilevered far enough for a tough, strong foot to run up them.
On the other side, an increasingly astonishing view. We were so far down in the valley at the start of this climb that we couldn’t easily see the tops, but as we went up, we got an increasingly good view of the mountain across from us (which I now know is Huayna Picchu—“New Mountain,” as opposed to Machu Picchu or “Old Mountain.”). “That mountain looks absurd,” I said to Rusty. “If you were creating mountains, all the other gods would laugh at you and tell you that yours was far too steep, far too tall.” Rusty agreed.
As we went up, we saw terraced earth on the hillside, covered in green. Incan terraces?! Definitely. Along about switchback ten, we saw MASSIVE terraced hillside. These were faced in heavy grey stone. It didn’t look like farming land as much as an entire amphitheater on the side of the mountain and the stage had just broken away and plunged into the river far below. If the amphitheater was giant-sized. These were far more dramatic than the ones at the lower, more boring elevation. “I think we’re coming to something,” said Rusty, who’d had his young-adult cool mostly overcome by the experience.
The buses let out their masses on a plaza where visitors can use the only toilets available (two soles per person), buy more ponchos or water bottles, and get their tickets processed. “We’re going to do the upper tour in the morning,” said Yeshi. “Then we’ll have lunch here in the restaurant.” She gestured to the perfectly nice place behind her. “And then we’ll do the lower tour in the afternoon.”
Privately I thought it was a good idea to get to the highest point FIRST since I was guaranteed to be too tired to get there after lunch…and was I right? We stood in line for a while and admired the fact that the dogs of Machu Picchu take dead-to-the-world naps in the middle of thousands of people shuffling past. These are very calm dogs.
And I took photos of the plants. Not because I’m planty; I’m definitely not. But because they came in such dramatic colors and shapes; how could I not?!
Then we began The Climb.
I’ve been running up and down the stairs in my house for MONTHS now, at Barbara’s direction. (Barbara = astonishingly effective personal trainer = notable goddess in my personal pantheon.) What we did not figure on was that the Inca (ALL OF WHOM WERE SHORTER THAN ME) did not pay the slightest bit of attention to regularity.
One step would be four inches up; the next would be 18 inches up. The only thing that was consistent was that THERE WERE A LOT OF STAIRS. Up we went. And up. And up. We switchbacked as many times as the bus, only this time under my own power. Exhausting!
However, pausing to take in the view (and pant embarrassingly) was absolutely acceptable. “Take your time,” Julio chanted. (As did Yeshi and Sheila and Eddy.) “Take your time, drink some water, rest a minute to take a photo.” So I did. Eventually we reached the terracing level that led to the Inca trail to the Sun Gate (far beyond our sight and apparently closed at the moment). Walking along the terrace was FAR more fun than climbing stairs, and I was happy again!
I was so pleased I even asked Rusty to take my picture. For me, this is like posing for a snap at the top of Mount Everest!
We climbed just a little higher, and I got a photo of Rusty (who in this scenario has to represent the painfully young United States) talking with Yeshi, herself Qechuan (and a descendent of the Incan people; short and athletic.)
Everyone in Peru is short. Their toilets come up to mid-calf on me. When it comes time to sit down on one—or JEEZ stand up—I find I could wish for stronger knees…
The problem with photography on an iPhone is that there is just no good way to demonstrate depth. The river was SO far below us. The other mountains were across DEEP stretches of emptiness. I don’t have a photo that accurately represents the scale of this place; I just don’t. I tried panoramic shots, but they don’t really convey how incredible it is to be surrounded by all these towering peaks, with that river snaking its sacred way almost all the way around the foot of Huayna Picchu.
By the way, there are hikers on the little peak to the center, and on the peak of Huayna Picchu, to the right. With binoculars we could watch them climb up. I mean...damn!
I tried panoramic shots, but they don't really convey how incredible it is to be surrounded by all these towering peaks, with that river snaking its sacred way almost all the way around the foot of Huayna Picchu.
It's hard to capture MP in a photo. Still, we all tried. We took endless photos and felt as if we’d captured a bit of the grandeur of the place by clicking. Certainly it wasn’t a place that could be known in one visit. I suppose one would have to work there to really begin to feel blasé about the whole thing.
But EVERYONE took photos of the llamas; we couldn’t help it. Yeshi told us that they began with a dozen llamas at Machu Picchu in the 90s and now there are 25 of them, so things are going well. Slowly, but well. And the llamas we saw were drama queens; they liked to pose where the tourists would most admire them. Probably had a pool on whose photo would be taken the most.
Neither Twig, Rusty, nor I actually like to have our photos taken, but we were so overcome with the view that we succumbed. Yeshi took one photo of us, and I took an us-sie that might be my favorite photo of the day.
And here’s Yeshi, telling us wonderful stories about Machu Picchu.
Here’s a carousel of photos. As you look at them, consider the engineering that was needed here. They had bronze chisels, and worked with hematite, but they didn’t use iron or steel. They had no written language that anyone alive today can read. (They used “qipu”—knotted bundles of strings. There are some in museums, but so far no one has found a qipu Rosetta stone, so they’re entirely a mystery.) Yet they put together incredible constructions.
Here's a great photo of Rusty taking a great photo.
Here's a photo of Sir Rusty taking a great photo (through one of the windows; used in the carousel above). He was the perfect son all morning. He took care of me on all the steps without insulting me. He was funny and appreciative. He saw things in new ways. Twig and I were both delighted with him. And when he saw that I was panting, he took the backpack. (And then drank a lot of my water, but I was more than happy to share.) What a good boy.
Yeshi and Eddy were full of fascinating facts. The most up-to-date theory is that Machu Picchu was three things: A religious center (which is why multiple temple buildings have windows that cast a perfect shadow on the winter and summer solstice). A political center for the nobility. And a university for the study of astronomy, civil engineering, architecture, and more. And DAMN. That sounds right to me. Someone was obviously handing down knowledge
We finished the upper tour and made our way back to the surprisingly tasty buffet at the restaurant. (Maybe not so surprising; I believe in the line “Hunger is the best sauce!”) Toward the end of the meal, I told Rusty that if he wanted to skip the second half of the tour and go back to the hotel, he was welcome to. He hemmed and hawed; he didn’t want anyone to judge him…but he really wanted to go back. He was on the fence.
About ten minutes before we were supposed to saddle up and go back up, the skies opened up and it began to rain. “Oh, now I really want to go back,” he said. He told Julio he was going to leave after lunch and get himself home. Julio said Rusty wasn’t the only one going back, and he was going with the returners.
I togged out in my hat and raincoat, ready to go. Twig, who had a hat and a raincoat AND a poncho, said “I am ready! I just hope I don’t fall if those stairs are slippery.”
And that’s all it took. “Julio!” I called. “I’m going back, too!”
And then I felt an incredible sense of relief and joy. It’s true, I hadn’t walked the lower part of the Machu Picchu complex, and I hadn’t touched the sun rock to see if I could feel its woo-woo energy (hm; the suspicious and contemptuous will NEVER feel energy!), but the idea of NOT going out in the rain and NOT struggling up and down hugely uneven stairs, holding on to massive rock walls for balance—the idea of not soldiering on during the pouring (or perhaps misting) rain—the idea that no one would be watching nervously to see if I was going to fall completely over…AH! That sounded SO DAMNED GOOD!
Twig didn’t mind at all. She was ready to keep going, and lived up to our agreement that she’d go at her speed and I’d go at mine. So Rusty and I went down the mountain. Now it’s only 4pm, I’ve blogged exhaustively, and I’m free to lie in my pretty cloud rainforest room and read, or take a stroll through their orchid garden, or find a cup of hot tea.
I’m SO HAPPY to not be up on that huge mountain! I enjoyed the experience—as much as I thought I would and a LOT more. And I’m proud that I made it up even this simple ascent. I’m so glad I went. And so glad I came back!