Sunday, April 29, 2007

Machu Picchu (Part II)


We were pretty thrilled with the first part of the day and were nearing the end of the most interesting ruins around noon when we started thinking about water. The guidebook says we can’t bring any food or drinks into the ruins, so we dutifully took these things out of our pack for the day. Theme of the day: unprepared. The sudden burning hot sun and Nic's thirst didn’t keep us from noticing, however, another really amazing ruin perched on top of the tall, pointy mountain you see in all the postcards.

The pointy mountain is called Huayna Picchu, or “Young Peak” or “Young Coca Leaf Wad,” and the Incas built a fortress on top of that one too. We didn’t even notice it until a tour guide started pointing it out to his group. As soon as we saw it though, we forgot about thirst and decided we had to go bag that peak.

There is an actual guard gate preventing people from going up the trail without signing your life away in a numbered log book (name, country, time of departure, time of reentry, etc), and there are really funny signs warning people away for being non-fit and technically able to climb steep trails. They make it sound like you are going to be scrambling up a 5.4 pitch of exposed rock! Nic and I started tearing up the trail, convinced our Cascade-honed rock-climbing abilities would prove more than adequate for a teensy little hike!

First, we climbed down into the saddle between the two peaks, then we got to start climbing up. Nic took his shirt off, shyly at first, and Ali turned her wool jersey up at the hems. Shy turned into carefree as the clouds burned off and the day began to get truly, Amazonly hot. Thankfully, the one thing we did remember to bring was sunscreen to cover our already peeling gringo bodies. Ali teased Nic a little about how thirsty he was, but pretty soon she too was thinking seriously about licking the dripping rocks to get moisture.


After leap-frogging up the trail with another trio of Seattleites for about an hour, we reached a cool rock tunnel. You have to go through this tiny little hole in the rock - practically on hands and knees. After climbing through this and the subsequent steep terraces, we were rewarded with spectacular views of the whole of Machu Picchu and the river valley way below us. (Rob, it reminded us of Ingalls, when we were thirsty and the lake was way below!) The elevation was around 8,600’ here (about 600 feet higher than Mt. St. Helens). Nic snapped a few quick pictures before his camera battery needed rest, and we both coveted some guy’s illegal 1.5 liter water bottle before high-tailing it back down the trail.

Despite our overarching desire to get back down to water and food, we suddenly discovered the steep part they’d tried to warn us about. The Incans had teeny feet! The stairs they’d built down the opposite side of the mountain top were probably about 5 inches deep, meaning we had to take each step sideways, one at a time, or risk tumbling hundreds of feet down the hillside. Ali rediscovered her fear of heights and got very territorial about where Nic put his feet (too close to her hands!) and we both marveled at the lack of handrails on these most dangerous spots. There were cables to hold onto in other places, but somehow not the steepest sections. We could only imagine that they’d been pulled off by earlier thirsty falling tourists. (Forget traffic fatalities, you should have seen the blood splashed down the steps from the unlucky tourists!)


We made it back down to the checkout station in record time, enjoyed a few really neat ruins on the way back out, faded in and out of consciousness due to heat exhaustion, and rushed to go buy the yummiest $3 Coke we’d both ever tasted at the exit of the area.

Instead of walking back down the trail again to the city, we opted for a luxurious tourist bus, which took forever to snake back down the 8 km of dirt trails in a highly exciting way – backing up and pulling over for other buses as we went by each other on these narrow little switchbacky roads.

We made it back to town in time to admire a few of the 6 million cats in Aguas Calientes, play with the restaurant owner’s 3 parrots, and enjoy a fantastic white cheese pizza and two huge bottles of the local beer. Note: the “negra” beer here is killer sweet! Oh, and we stocked up on snax for the train ride, because we weren't going to be stuck again without proper snax, watching all the other tourists munch on chocolate and chips and coke while all we had were cruddy old Clif Bars and water "sin gas!"

Nic was worrying about missing the train, so we sauntered on down about 3 minutes before we were supposed to board - and of course found the train to be late. We wandered around for a while, scoffing at all the tourist junk we saw, wondering why the train was so late, and feeling smug for being so obviously on time and first to the station.


As per the theme of the day, we never really started wondering why there weren’t any tourists around until we sat down on a bench and happened to accidentally spot a sign which said something about the tourist train leaving from ANOTHER TRAIN STATION!!! Thus ensued a hilarious, frantic, high-altitude, beer-logged, completely lost, gringo rush through the town and the maze-like market. We just made it to our train on the other side of the town when it started chugging off, perfectly on time, much to the disappointment of the Germans who’d set up camp in our empty seats.

The ride back was quiet, dark, and uneventful, except for the parts where our train was discovered to have “mechanical problems” and lurched to a halt about 6 different times. One of those times, the "tren local" behind us actually puffed up to about 30 feet distant and stopped on a dime. We were the last car on our train, so when they opened the back door of our car, we could hear the two crews have a discussion about a part that our train was apparently missing. Do you have ANY idea how bright train headlights are at night? Anyway, the tren local gave up some missing part it had that we needed more than it did, and we were off again – for a while, until we lurched to a stop again somewhere else. This went on and on for hours, but we eventually made it home to the Cuzco area, about 1-2 hours late.

This part of the train ride was pretty novel too, though. The steppes around Cuzco are pretty steep. The train gets up pretty high (11,600’) on its way into Cuzco, and it has to lose about 1,100’ in less than a mile. It does this by going forward and backward on connecting tracks that span the hillside, and there’s a guy that runs up and down the hill switching the tracks for us in the middle of the night. The train is thus stuck on the hillside for half an hour, and the guide book said to close your train windows, because this was when angry or drunk locals could throw trash at us. Nobody did, of course, but it was kind of eerie passing the same houses and dogs and people within 6 feet over and over again. One can see how they’d hate that train.

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