October 24, 2010
My watch woke us up at four-friggen-thirty in the morning. Was that the sound of rain on the hostel roof? Dang. An hour later, Roz and I shuffled out of Hostel Joe’s onto the still dark streets of Aguas Calientes. Thankfully, the rain had stopped. A hundred people were already queued up along the wet sidewalk waiting for the buses to arrive. We bought our tickets and joined them. Judging by all the languages I heard, we were standing with people from all over the world. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, we were going to see one of the most incredible human achievements on the planet, the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu!(ROZ: If Trond was excited, I was BEYOND SUPER EXCITED! I’ve wanted to go to Machu Picchu since I first played a Spanish soldier in our high school production of “The Royal Hunt of the Sun”, Peter Shaffer’s brilliant play about the last Inca emperor Atahualpa’s tragic demise at the hands of Francisco Pizarro and his brutal soldiers. So yeah, I played one of the “bad” guys, but what can I say? Good female roles were hard to find even in 1976. Flash forward 34 years and incredibly I was on my way to see this magical place I had read and dreamed about for so long. It all seemed so surreal, watching the dawn break through the misty, grey sky, knowing I was on my way to Machu Picchu.)
Rain clouds still threatened our outing, but I was optimistic. I was even wearing my Ecuadorean “Panama” sun hat, which you’re not supposed to get wet. But just in case, I silently invoked the Inca gods to protect my baby.
And then, just like waiting for the #9 Warden bus in Scarborough on a Sunday night during a howling snow storm, 10 buses pulled up at the same time. With a few shouts of excitement, but mostly with sleep-deprived sighs, the sidewalk hordes boarded and we were on our way. Within twenty minutes of leaving Aguas Calientes, the bus began to climb a crazy switch-backed road that shot over a thousand feet up Machu Picchu mountain. It was getting light and I could make out the rich green fauna clinging to the sheer rock wall next to the bus. It reminded me that Machu Pichu was located in the transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon jungle and, at 8000 feet, was actually lower than Cuzco’s gasping 12,000 foot elevation. Would that be my last thought as we plunged over the railing-less other side of the road? Before I could answer, we reached the top and were stepping into the damp, cool air. We bought our tickets and passed through the main gate. And suddenly, we were speechless. (I don’t consider “Oh my Gawd! Oh my doG! WOW!” to be real speech.)
Spread out before us, nearly empty of people and engulfed in swirling mist, were the Inca ruins of “the Lost City” of Machu Picchu – a sprawling compound of stone buildings, tiered grass terraces and stunning views. Sitting atop a mountain ridge and overlooking the Urubamba River 1,500 feet below (on three sides!), this UNESCO World Heritage Site remained elusive to the Spanish conquistadors. Apart from a few indigenous Quechuas, nobody knew of Machu Picchu’s existence until American historian Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911 while being guided around by locals. Even today, archaeologists can only speculate as to its function, but who cared about “function” when all this beauty – natural and man-made – surrounded us. It truly was breathtaking!
Thrusting up next to the city is the mountain spear called Huayna Picchu (also known as Wayna Picchu, Quechua for “Young Peak”), which, via a ridiculously steep trail that threads its way to the top, allows visitors to see Machu Picchu from above. To reduce human impact on Huayna Picchu, access is restricted to 400 people a day, split into two shifts. We wanted to do the 7 a.m. climb so that meant we had to sign up as soon as the place opened – which is why we got up so darn early. As we quickly made our way through the city ruins to get to the Huayna Picchu sign-up sheet, we could hardly contain ourselves. This place was fabulous. As much as we wanted to spend more time looking around, we had a climb to survive first.
I’m not going to kid you: the climb up Huayna Picchu was hard! For eighty minutes, we climbed like drunken bastards. Sometimes the grade was steep. Sometimes it was really steep – so steep you had to hold on to ropes and chains to continue. Adding to the challenge were the narrow steps which were still wet from the previous night’s rain. But the truth is, we were both out of shape. Being on the road for over a year with limited physical activity had taken its toll on us. Also, I had been sick to my stomach the night before, so I was not at my best. But I put on my big-boy pants and carried on to the top with hardly a whimper. Upon reaching the top though, I put my little-boy pants back on and had a quick nap while Roz sat there gob-smacked, soaking in the incredible 360 degree view.
Waking from my catnap, I finally had a chance to take in the stunning views too – not only of the ruins, but also of the river below and the misty mountains around us. As if on cue, the clouds began to disperse and lo and behold, the entire city of Machu Picchu lay before us. SWEET!! We took some photos and started to head back down. Thanks to some Inca foresight, there was a separate trail heading down the steep top third of the mountain, so the foot traffic was one way. As we descended, we passed a young woman in tears, sitting and holding her knee. She must have tumbled and was now being comforted by friends as they waited for help. As we continued, a couple of first-aid attendants passed by us hauling a stretcher. I got butterflies in my stomach thinking about how they were going to get her down such a steep trail without ropes and climbing gear.
At the bottom of Huayna Picchu, we saw a pale, overweight man in his 40s being wheeled away on a stretcher. He didn’t look too good. Heart attack maybe? This place was starting to feel dangerous! I suggested to Roz that we take precautions by ingesting defensive beer and burgers. She concurred and we made a bee-line for the overpriced restaurant near the entrance.
After filling our bellies, we went for a walk and found a nice piece of green grass to rest our weary bodies upon. This time Roz napped as I just sat against a huge stone wall and took it all in. The entrance ticket called this place “Maravilla del Mundo” (Wonder of the World”), and for once, the hype was right. A half-hour later and feeling refreshed, we hiked 2 km up the famed Inca trail to Intipunku, Gateway of the Sun. The Inca trail is an amazing network of ancient “roads” that stretches across the former Inca empire, from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes. A few people suggested that we trek the sometimes gruelling trail that culminates at Machu Picchu, but we knew that if us fatties hiked for four days, then we’d have zero energy left to explore the ruins. In hindsight, we made the right choice, but I’d still love to hike one of those trails. (Gotta have some reason to come back.) Had we hiked, then our first view of Machu Picchu would have been here at Intipunku. I could only imagine how amazing it would be to finally see the the ruins after four days of hiking and anticipation. While Roz and I admired the vista, the sun finally broke through the clouds and lit up the city below us. It was beautiful. I adjusted my straw hat a little, thanked the mountain gods, and smiled.
Our spirits now invigorated by the sunshine, (ROZ: hmmm, maybe those Incas were on to something with all this sun worship!), we scampered back down the Inca trail to the city, giggling and jiggling like fat little school kids. Back at the ruins, we finally had a good explore. We wandered about gawking, pointing and never ceasing to be amazed at the stunning stone work. Take a bow Inca craftsmen – your rockwork rocks!
As the sun began to dip, we realized we were exhausted, so with weak smiles and weaker waves, we bid farewell to Machu Picchu. Back at Aguas Calientes we bumped into Dave, the Canadian helicopter pilot, and his awesome family for the third time in less than a month. (We first met in Huacachina.) They were visiting the ruins the next day, so we gave them the lowdown on how to best “do” Machu Picchu. After wishing them well, Roz and I ate a good dinner at the market, stumbled back to our beds at Hostel Joe’s, and fell fast asleep in no time.
It’s not often that you get to strike something off your bucket list, but when you do, that’s a good day. And when your hat stays dry in the process, that’s a great day!
END OF PART 36