Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Machu Picchu & Cusco

It was finally time for Machu Picchu, the big ticket item of the family vacation... and when I say big ticket I don't just mean because it is sought after, well known, mysterious, and classified as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. I also mean a literal big ticket item, entrance going for $55 plus a round trip train ticket for $110 and bus tickets for $24, plus a night in a hotel in Aguas Calientes. Lets be real, Peru has really figured out how to milk this Machu Picchu thing!! Nevertheless, we were stoked on it!

We headed off with just our overnight packs towards Aguas Calientes, the town closest to Machu Picchu, only accessible via train or foot. We caught the Vistadome train out of the ruin filled town of Ollantaytambo and enjoyed the huge skylight windows, allowing us to soak in every bit of the scenic hour and a half long ride. In a way Aguas Calientes is a bit charming... there is a loud flowing stream heading straight through the middle of town, there are no cars, and the main street is situated on either side of the train tracks. On the other hand, it is chuck full of tourist, and an overwhelming amout of crappy restaurants with someone out front trying to lure you in. Lets just say that we fell for the lure, and ended up in a weird little restaurant on the main square, eating less than mediocre food for mediocre prices. Although the meal sucked, the family got a chance to experience what Chris and I do when tired and trying to find some grub in a new town in a foriegn country, without the use of wifi or tripadvisor to guide us... sometimes it turns out excellent, and sometimes it doesn't! And in the end you just pray you dont get sick from one of those crappy meals, especially when the bathrooms were on the sub par side of things and the next day is Machu Picchu day!!!

All aboard!
The views from the train

The main drag in Aguas Calientes
The crazy plan was to meet in the hotel lobby at 4:15am, dark and early, scarf down a quick breakfast before racing out to get in line for the bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu. We desperately wanted to beat the crowds and get on the first bus up the mountain... and to our surprise so did about 200 others! So, as we waited in a long line in the dark, we got more and more excited for the day ahead... hell, if this many people were here, it must be good!
Just as the sun began to light up the misty sky, we were on our way up the steep twenty minute ride of endless switchbacks, bringing us to the narrow ridge that the massive ruins are perched on. The entrance had only a few bus loads of people ahead of us, so we went straight for the iconic lookout point over Machu Picchu to see it au natural. And wouldn't you know, our early morning push came through for us, as the mystical fog lifted off the ruins, we looked out over Machu Picchu, not a single person had yet made it down into the ruins! Each day, up to 2,500 folks come and marvel over these ruins, but only a small lucky handful of those people see it like this! The early morning was worth it, because by 8am the crowds filled the picture with streams of people, flowing like blood through the arteries of the ancient city!
First glimpse
The sun is showing up, as are the crowds
As the crowds rolled in, we made arrangements for a guide to take us through the ruins. Elmer, a long time M.P. guide, led us around explaining who lived where, what the purpose of this and that were. Had we not had Elmer, we would have oohed and aahed, but had no idea what the actual purpose or meaning was. For example, some of the stone walls are perfect rectangular shapes and fit in next to each other so impressively tight that a credit card couldn't slide between them. This style was only in the living quarters or ceremonial buildings of society's top tier. Along with their aesthetically pleasing walls, this upper echelon of society had "bathrooms" and miniature canals flowing through or near their residence giving them first dibs at water access before it made its way downhill to the common folk. When the king made his visits from Cusco he had a comparatively massive living space even stocked with a harem of ladies, according to Elmer at least! The common people's areas still displayed impressive stone work, just in a more rugged way. Other stones were carved to match a mointain peak behind it and even an alter abstarctly formed into a huge condor. Construction of Machu Picchu finished somewhere in the 1470's, and after all the hard work, only retained a civilization for roughly one hundred years. It's believed that the population fled as the Spanish conquistadores began conquering the Andes. Seems like a whole lot of work for just a hundred years, jeeze!!
Looks like the cover of my Lonely Planet!

After the two hour tour, Elmer was off, and we quickly ducked for cover from the hot sun in one of the few covered areas of the park. Combine the early wake up call with the high altitude, strong sun, and hoards of people... We were getting pooped! We pulled out our lunch and refueled because seeing as how this is a visit none of us were likely to make again, we had to keep exploring... but not til after we exited the park to use the one and only bathroom available in all of Machu Picchu and seek out some hard to find, rip off water! What the heck?!?

The other side of MP
When we bought the tickets for MP, the iconic HuanyaPichu hike was already sold out. HuanyaPichu is the peak in the back of ruins, and they stricly only allow a small number of people up the steep skinny trail per day. We were, however, able to score tickets for Machu Picchu Mountain, the peak on the other side of the ruins which is much higher than HuanyaPichu anyway! Jordan, Felicia, Chris, and I headed off to conquer the mountain, just now looking up for the first time and realizing how high it really was!! The next hour and a half would be comprised of nothing but a rapid vertical climb on gigantic ancient Incan steps, the trail constantly getting steeper and more narrow as we skirted along a frighteningly vertical drop off.
Starting the steep climb
Always smiling! :)
Halfway there!

The heat and the altitude were intense, and they were closing the trail soon, so we kinda had to book it! Lucky for us there was always an excuse to stop for a quick breather because Machu Picchu was beginning to look smaller and smaller under us. We made it to the top just in time... the trail was closing and we were literally the last ones they allowed to keep going up! Whew, just in the nick of time to see a view of a lifetime over this beauty!! The summit, where Incan priests once performed rituals, towers at 10,000 feet above sea level, giving us unparalleled views of the famous Inca sanctuary (now 2,000 feet below us) and stunning panoramas of the surrounding endless mountains. It really puts into perspective how freaking far out and high up this place is... And all the sudden it seems very reasonable that the Spanish never found this gem!

Getting higher!

Looking tiny from 2,000ft above!
Fullfilled with the sights and ecstatic that the weather was so perfect, it was time to go... With only one last thing to conquer... The endless line for the bus back to Aguas Calientes!!! It has all the sudden begun to feel like we've just been at Busch Gardens all day! As if we hadn't had enough stairs for the day, Chris and I decided to take the 45 minutes of steep stairs down to get a big order for pizza in before the rest of the fam made it through the line and down on the bus. I'm not sure which was worst, standing in line for 45 minutes, or 45 minutes of more knee crunching stone steps, accompanied by thousands of tiny mosquitos! I suppose the wood fired pizza was worth it when we all chowed down just in time to battle it out with a couple hundred tourist again, this time to make it onto the train platform, where we would need to take matters into our own hands by opening up a side door for the crowds to pour through like a pack of rats behind us! It's going to feel so good to get back to home sweet home at Kuychi Rumi!!
The line for the bus
I had penciled a few flexi days into the vacation itinerary, and the family was ready to cash one in for an extra day in our comfy little house at Kuychi Rumi. And this day was just for hanging out, playing with our three favorite Peruvian doggies, napping, and cooking up heaps of delicious food. There was a seriously awesome grill area and bonfire pit on the property and we couldn't leave without getting some use out of it! So, we loaded up on booze and ate a big ol' BBQ with Johan and Julio. Dinner was followed by a late night around the bonfire with an awesome Peruvian family that was also staying at Kuychi Rumi. It was a night full of boisterous laughing, loud music, new friends, and probably a whole lot of misunderstood stories as we all attemped our best Spanglish throughout the night! We all learned something important that night... the more alcohol ingested, the less a language barrier matters... all you really need to know is "salud"!
We would miss our house, the vast beautiful gardens surrounding it, the delicious fresh breakfasts, the dogs, Johan's company and good stories, the warm eucalyptus fires and late night chats with Julio, and the overall comfort... But it was time to move on and see what else Peru had in store for us. Thanks Kuychi Rumi for such a wonderful stay!!!
As we made our way to Cusco, we quickly stopped at the very huge handicraft market of Pisac. This place was an endless maze of stalls, and I taught the family the Latin American market tradition of bartering as we meandered around. It is so unnatural for an American to barter this way when shopping, so it took some getting used to, but we left there with some stellar deals on nice Peruvian artisan stuff including a fluffy, soft alpaca fur blanket.
Yes, you can hold baby alpacas and llamas here!
Shop til ya drop girl!
Lovely laughing old woman
My moms has never looked this tall in her entire life
Chris and I had spent a couple days in Cusco already, and were ready to show the fam the city! We are not really fans of big cities, but this one is a rare exception! In lieu of some expensive options downtown, we had booked a few rooms in an old Spanish Conquistadore's home turned hacienda. At a tenth of the price, it was a 20 minute steep walk from city, but totally a unique little place off the beaten tourist path. The hacienda had a big open air tiled courtyard, a few cozy yet slightly musty lounge areas, and quite possibly the worst breakfast option of the trip... but, it had life and character and history, plus it was run by a super friendly young local guy who went out of his way to make us comfortable. What more could ya ask for for $20 a night?!? The first night we made the walk down the hill to get a quick glimpe of the city and grab some grub. We opted for a recommended "peruvian hamburger" place, doubting there would be anything Peruvian about it until we tried the alpaca meat burger... totally no longer an american food!
This is how you have to open the door
Cusco by night

Alpaca burger
We wandered the immaculate cobblestone streets of Cusco, gawking at the huge cathedrals and flower filled squares. We learned about cacao plants and sampled local chocolates at the Choco Museum. Found a delicious gourmet Peruvian lunch in a little bistro called Moreno, the number one ranked restaurant in Cusco. Immersed ourselves in everything coca related while chewing wads of the bitter leaf as we were walking around the Coca Museum. Shopped til we found my mom the most perfect alpaca poncho, 100% baby alpaca to be specific! In the afternoon when the one and only rain shower of the vacation passed over, we just ducked into a store on the main square to get out of the rain and ended up in the back of the store with cheap massages. The massages were soso, the most memorable thing from the massages was the background music of classic American songs covered by Peruvian Panflute bands! "Would you rather be a tortoise or a snail" by Simon & Garfunkel will always be "would you rather be a llama or a snail" to us now!!
Cusco by day
Main square
Seriously delish!!
Cathedral in main square
Inside one of the cathedrals
Roaming the cathedral
Chipmunk cheeks stuffed with coca leaves in the museum!
Cusco was wonderful, it embodied the most glamourous part of Peru, and it was a city anyone could fall in love with. But for us, one day was enough... It was time to hit the pavement, show the family a little bit of our overlanding life on the road
Saksaywaman ruins from a distance
Overlooking Cusco on our way out of town
Bye Cusco!