Sunday, June 20, 2010

Machu Picchu, a dream come true

You could blame it on the altitude, or the loud noises coming through the window from the train yard, or just the fact that we were about to do something we´ve been dreaming and talking about for years and years, but we were both wide awake long before the alarm went off at 4am.  We were dressed and standing in line by 4:30am, behind about 75 people even more hard core than we were.  At 5:30 we boarded a bus which whisked us the eight or so kilometers up the mountainside to the front gate of Machu Picchu.

I can´t even describe how excited we were.  We stumbled up a stone staircase and onto the first sets of terraces.  We cleared a corner around a stone hut and suddenly there she was, looking just like in the classic photograph.  Ruins on a hill surrounding a wide green plaza (with llamas!), with the peak of Wayna Picchu looming in the background.  We were out of breath from the hike and the altitude, but just being here was enough to take your breath away.

Being so early was deliberate, though surprisingly isn´t for the sunrise.  With the high mountains all around, though it was light by 6am when the front gates opened, the sun doesn´t actually clear the mountain tops until well after 7, so most people make it for that.  But to hike the peak of Wayna Picchu, you have to be one of the first 400 people to request a ticket, and we didn´t want to miss it.  We got a ticket in the 10am slot (the first group goes at 7) which was perfect, giving us plenty of time to enjoy the sunrise and just look around for a while.  We hiked along a few of the Incan trails (there are eight leading to the site from various directions, cutting across the mountainsides around us) and saw a version of an Incan drawbridge on one.

The peak of Wayna Picchu, which is about 1200 feet higher than the ruins, looks deceptively steep, and although it is a steep climb up innumberable stairs, it wasn´t technically hard, just tiring.  Every so often you would turn around to get an amazing view of the ruins and would have to snap a few photos, but then you would get a little higher and have to take a few more.  At the peak is a bunch of huge boulders that everyone crowded onto to catch their breath and enjoy the spectacular scenery of the quick moving river flowing through the deep valley all around us.  It was hard to believe we had been hiking down there just the day before, it seemed so far away!

The hike took about an hour to the top, where most people turn back.  But gluttons for punishment, David and I continued down the backside to the Temple of the Moon, a small but very well made temple in a natural cave.  We scaled some steep and narrow passages along the cliff wall and down long wooden ladders to get there, all of which took a breathless 90 minutes.  By the time we finally made it back to the ruins proper, we were exhausted, and we still had over half of the ruins to explore!

From the photos you usually see of the ruins, it is hard to get a perspective of where you actually get to walk and what you get to see.  But really the only thing off limits is the grassy plazas.  We saw temples and baths and even a prison.  Several times when we sat still for a few moments, we would see the chinchillas hiding in the rocks, which look like a cross between a rabbit and a squirrel.  They were quite brave and let us get rather close to take photos, but once we crossed that invisible line they would dart away in a flash.  There were llamas roaming the grounds as well, including several little ones.  At one point a dog started barking, and every llama in the place pricked up their ears, and then rushed to the scene to see what was happening.  We happened to have a good view of the whole ruin at the time, and it was weird watching them converge from all corners on this poor dog.  Once they arrived the dog calmed down, and they just slowly wandered off again.  The llamas were tame of course, but it was still startling when you would be standing there minding your own business and suddenly there would be one right next to you pushing past along the trail.

Besides all the hiking and exploring, there was plenty of just sitting and taking it all in.  I ended up taking almost a full 2Gb of photos and video, many of the photos almost identical to others, but I just couldn´t stop myself.  When we were finally bone weary from all the steps and sunshine, we made the typically questionable decision to skip the $7 bus ride back to town and instead walked back.  We didn´t reach the hotel until 5pm, it was a very full day, but one that we will never, ever forget.

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