Day 6: The Wonders of Machu Picchu
“Fall out of bed and catch a fading star…fancy I woke up before my alarm. Rubbed my mind through my eyes, it’s the best I can do…”
I awoke in the pre-dawn gloom to the sweet sound of Jason Mraz crooning on my phone alarm. Sleep had been a fickle bedfellow last night; I’d been startled by the thunderous rattling of a train right next to our hostel, along with a few other jarring noises. Still, though drowsy, I felt more peaceful than I had on other mornings of the trip.
“And I know, I know, it’s gonna be a good day…Hello, hello, you beautiful thing…”
I reached for my phone and turned off the alarm. Perhaps today would be a good day. Perhaps we would actually be able to say hello to the beautiful Machu Picchu, if all went well. If only KP was here!
After getting ready, my friends and I met in the hostel’s dining area for a quick breakfast of hollow bread. We were getting pretty sick of bread by this point. Soon, we joined up with Roger and the rest of our trekking group to make our way to the bus stop, where Peruvian ladies were selling freshly made tomato-and-avocado sandwiches on croissants. We purchased some sandwiches for later before boarding our bus. I promptly dozed off.
When I opened my eyes again, we were pulling into the dropoff area near a big, fancy restaurant and the entrance to Machu Picchu. The bus ride had only been about 30 minutes, though filled with twists and turns up the dangerous mountain pass. We got out and joined the line for the entrance, passports and tickets in hand.
And then we were in!
The sun was just beginning to make its ascent over the silhouetted mountains of the Andes, inflaming the clouds to set the sky ablaze.
Because we had spent the night in Aguas Calientes, we were able to arrive at sunrise, when the grounds remained relatively empty of crowds. We had a few hours of near-isolation before swarms of people would rush in from Aguas Calientes, fresh off their morning trains from Ollantaytambo. Filled with anticipation, I followed the group down the path that led to the pristine relic of the past…
Our first view of Machu Picchu was breathtaking. Beneath the veil of silvery clouds, the ancient Incan city sprawled before us in tiers of stone and grass, nestled against the towering Wayna Picchu peak and other guardian mountains. It was a vision in green, a glimpse of history, an architectural marvel. We paused for a moment to drink in the magnificent sight before further exploration.
As we followed Roger down some stone steps, we passed a herd of friendly llamas. They must have grown very comfortable with tourists by now because these llamas were pros at posing for photos. In particular, they seemed to enjoy selfies with humans. Still, I didn’t want to get too close…llamas were notorious for spitting. My boyfriend had advised me to take the initiative and spit in a llama’s face first in order to assert my dominance…but either I’m not an alpha, or the threat of retaliation spit was just too tangible.
As we wandered down the grassy terraces that had once been used to grow crops, Roger explained the history behind Machu Picchu. In the 15th century, the site served as a royal estate for the Inca king, and included plazas and roofless dwellings for the Inca people, as well as special chambers for religious purposes.
All of the structures were built from cut and shaped stones fitted together like puzzle pieces, or from carved bedrock. How did the Inca manage to make stones out of huge boulders before the industrial era? One theory is that they used bronze tools or a sharp rock tool (Anthracite, was it? I don’t remember…) to create a hole through boulders, slipped a wooden pole through this hole, and added water to expand the wood until it cracked the boulder into smaller fragments that could then be shaped.
One big slab of rock in particular was known to have special powers and imbued those who touched it with magical energy. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to touch the rock. Apparently our natural body oils could create a sort of fungal cancer that compromised the integrity of the rock. So much for magical energy 😦
The religious buildings were used to perform rituals and ceremonies to honor the Incan gods, many of which represented different aspects of nature (the sun, moon, rain, etc.). Although the Incas mostly made offerings of food, animals, coca leaves, and other items, desperate times occasionally called for human sacrifices, typically virgin girls raised for this specific purpose. According to Roger, to help suppress attraction between these girls and handsome fellows, young men who were particularly good looking had their faces deformed (for example, a chunk of their nose might be cut off…ah, the price of beauty). In addition, any man (usually from another village) who even attempted to rape one of these special virgins would experience the King’s wrath…not only would this man be killed, but his family and village would also be massacred.
The King himself enjoyed the company of numerous concubines. He had hundreds of children, although only the children of his wife the Queen were royally legitimate. He also had hundreds of brothers and sisters. One day, a jealous brother who felt he had better claim to the throne acted out against the King…or so the story goes. As the King worked to expand his empire beyond what is now southern Peru, his treacherous brother conspired with the Spanish conquistadors to foil his plans. While this led to much damage in battle, thankfully the Spaniards never discovered Machu Picchu. If they had, they would have plundered and destroyed the sacred site, just as they had done with so many other temples and cities.
“The moral of the story is…stay away from Spaniards,” Roger said. “I am only joking! No, but really…”
Through some miracle, not only was Machu Picchu undiscovered by the Spaniards, but after it had been abandoned by the Incas it remained virtually untouched until American researcher Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911. The locals had known of the site for a long time, but it was not until Hiram “rediscovered” it and published his findings that Machu Picchu begin to emerge in the outside world as an incredible, culturally and historically significant treasure.
After Roger completed his tour of Machu Picchu, our trekking group was free to roam the site on our own. My friends and I made our way through the grounds, snapping numerous photos (including shots with KP’s bandana, since she was here in spirit). Some trekkers from a different group who had seen KP’s fall recognized SK and PS, and entangled them in a conversation to learn how KP was doing.
Once we continued on our way, we climbed up stone steps until we reached a little hut at a high point that offered a great view of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu. We took several pictures with this spectacular background before deciding to take pictures of ourselves jumping in the air in front of it – this pose was somewhat of a tradition for us.
However, the security guard didn’t seem too fond of our traditions. He kept scowling at us as, one by one, we leaped into the air several times, hoping for the camera to capture the perfect airborne moment. Finally, he indicated that we were not permitted to disturb the site in such a manner. By this point, PS, P2D2, and I had gotten decent pictures, but SK and RohZ hadn’t. So we tried to take their pictures while the guard was looking the other way. SK managed to get a stellar shot, but RohZ was still unsatisfied. We tried to move to another area that wasn’t as visible, but the suspicious guard still managed to keep us within his view.
“Quick, go distract him!” RohZ said. So P2D2 and PS went off to ask the guard some inane question while SK and I furiously snapped a series of photographs as his back was turned, hoping that RohZ would be content with at least one of them.
After we had secured our traditional midair shots, my friends and I exited the site for a bit to use the restrooms. Then we headed back inside to find a nice, green terrace where we could enjoy our sandwiches. Once our tummies were sated, it was time to take on Wayna Picchu.
While Macchu Picchu means “Old Mountain,” Wayna Picchu is translated as “Young Mountain.” Instead of a dirt trail, stone steps embedded in the mountainside led up to the peak 8,924 feet high, where one could enjoy the stunning view of Machu Picchu below. But were my friends and I ready for such a steep climb after the mishaps that had befallen us on our trek?
At the base of the mountain, we offered high-fives to those who had already reached the peak and were making their way back down. Since it was the fourth of July, we bonded a bit with the other Americans we ran into. “Yeah, America!!!” Ah, to be obnoxiously patriotic 🙂 .
Then the climb began. Luckily, the altitude was lower than it had been on the Salkantay trek, so sickness wasn’t an issue. But climbing the steps wasn’t easy. I definitely should’ve spent more time on the Stairmaster at the gym…
Every time we reached a small clearing that preceded the next flight of stairs, we stopped to catch our breath, hydrate, and let the impatient people behind us pass. Above us, more stone-clad grass terraces stretched up into the sky in tiers. Apparently, during the time of the Incas, Wayna Picchu had been the residence of the high priest. Every morning, the priest and his entourage would walk down the steps before dawn to herald the arrival of the new day…and every evening they would climb back up the mountain. Damn, these Incans must have had buns of steel!
Climbing was exhausting work. Sweat drenched the back of my tank top, and I could smell the earthy stench of everyone on the path, ourselves included. Each step became a struggle; my thighs were screaming. As we approached the platform before the highest peak, we switched on my portable speaker and began playing music from my Peru playlist to help motivate us. The first song that came on was Carmina Burana (Mozart techno mix), which I had included at P2D2’s request. It was a pretty epic soundtrack. The other hikers we ran into laughed appreciatively when they heard the dramatic harmonies that spurred us onward.
By the time we reached the platform, the song had shifted to the delightfully exuberant “Say Hey,” and our mood was soaring. We began dancing on the platform, and made the other hikers dance, too, if they wanted to pass. Smiles abounded as we danced thousands of feet high, surrounded by the gorgeous panorama of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains, swirly white clouds drifting above. If only KP had been with us, it would have been a perfect moment.
An Indian couple, who looked straight out of a Bollywood movie with their brightly colored outfits and charismatic faces, frolicked their way onto the platform and began dancing with us. We had seen them before at several points that day, and we would see them several more times before the end of our trip (in Aguas Calientes, in the bathrooms, in the airport) until RohZ found them again, back in the U.S., on his Facebook newsfeed. Apparently, they were friends of friends, and they lived in RohZ’s town. Go figure. It’s a small world, after all!
After the song and dance ended, we turned off the music so that we could properly appreciate the amazing view. Then, of course, it was time for more jumping pictures. A random hiker took a picture of us with our cameras…but then he took another on his own camera. “This one’s for me.”
Uh, yeah…that’s not creepy at all…
Finally, we charged ahead, crawling through tunnel space in a rocky cave before emerging on the other side to climb the last stretch of steps to the peak.
“Be careful, Trippy!” my friends kept warning me. They had nicknamed me Trippy due to my innate clumsiness. Such clumsiness could prove fatal at a height such as this, where a small stumble could send me toppling over the edge to my death…
But, barring a relatively harmless stumble (which nevertheless scared my friends, who immediately reached out to steady me), I was able to make my way to the top! It felt like a true accomplishment for me, especially since P2D2 was the only one of us who completed the Salkantay trek, and I hadn’t even made it to the lake.
After enjoying the view from the top for a bit, it was time to make our way down. Little did we know the descent would be far more treacherous than the climb. We had to take a separate set of stairs down the first leg of the descent before it converged with the same path we had used to climb up. That first set of stairs down was terrifying; on one side was the rocky mountain wall that offered little support, and on the other was…a sheer drop.
Even more alarming was the shrinking size of the steps. They seemed only a few feet wide, and only half the length of my foot! These Inca people must’ve been tiny…
“So, we’re making our way down Wayna Pichu,” I heard PS say. He was narrating for his camcorder, which was filming the descent. “SK has adopted the butt-down method of coming down the stairs, while P2D2 is crawling down backwards…”
I looked down in front of me. SK was indeed using the butt-down method, which involved sitting and scooting down each step. That seemed a lot safer than what I was doing (standing and tottering down in fear, clinging to the wall while contemplating the devastating drop on my other side), so I also adopted the butt-down method.
I looked up behind me. P2D2 was crawling down backwards on his hands and knees, and had to look over his shoulder to see where he was going! Now, that didn’t seem like a good idea at all… My friends and I called out to tell him so.
“I’m fine! It’s actually easier this way,” P2D2 said, unfazed, as he reached down with a foot to feel for the next step behind him.
I couldn’t see what RohZ was doing; I think he was still trying to walk down the stairs.
But, as I said, PS was filming. We could hear his narration, and began to fear that it was distracting him from this dangerous downward path.
“Put the camera away!” SK called to him. “Watch where you’re going!”
The rest of us shouted similar words of caution until PS finally put his camcorder away. “Ok, ok…”
“The ancient Inca people probably ran down these stairs like it was no big deal,” RohZ said as we inched our way down at a snail’s pace. “And if somebody happens to fall off the edge, it’s just like the equivalent of a traffic accident for us.”
Needless to say, it was a relief when we finally converged with the main stairway. Now out of immediate danger, I began to play music on the little speaker again. On the way down, we met an old man with a cane whom we had seen climbing earlier before he hurt his ankle. As we approached him, the song playing on my speaker (a modern rendition of Shake Senora by Pitbull and T-Pain) suddenly switched from its melodic chorus to an awful breakdown where Pitbull basically just repeats “My girl’s got a big ole booty (oh yeah)…your girl’s got a little booty (oh no).”
“Turn it off! Turn it off!” RohZ shouted in a panic as we got closer to the elderly gentleman, afraid to be judged as a hooligan.
At this point SK and PS, who were slightly ahead of us, had already greeted the old man. I scrambled to stop the song on my phone, but I couldn’t find the right button…
“My girl’s got a big ole booty (oh yeah)…you girl’s gotta little booty (oh no)…”
“What are you doing?!” RohZ grabbed the speaker and turned it off just as we were passing the old man.
“Hello,” I said, smiling at him politely. The old man nodded and continued on his way.
After that, I changed the music to Jason Mraz.
Our descent was going a little bit faster now that we were on safer ground. On our way down, we kept spotting Leaf Face. Some hiker had poked holes in large heart-shaped leaves, creating a face reminiscent of The Scream. Every few yards, we would see another Leaf Face on the ground. We kept hoping to run into the creator of Leaf Face, but alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
By the time my friends and I made it back to the bottom of the mountain, we were starving. It was past noon, and the grounds had become much more crowded with tourists. We threaded our way through them to reach the exit.
“Goodbye, Machu Picchu,” I said, reveling in its mystic splendor one last time.
We caught a bus back to Aguas Calientes, where we had lunch at a cute Mexican restaurant I’d had my eye on since yesterday…and we had to cross a bridge to get there. Win.
Some good old Mexican food would definitely hit the spot right about now…but the food we received was nothing like the Mexican food we were used to in California. This Mexican food had a distinct Peruvian twist, which entailed floppy pancake-like tortillas, rubbery Andean cheese, and the generous usage of basil. But once I stopped expecting it to taste like Mexicali food and accepted it for what it was, my lunch was actually quite good.
We also took advantage of the Wi-Fi at the restaurant to check in on KP again. She had messaged us: Hope you guys had an amazing day and took lots of pictures! Back at the clinic, she was trying to contact the airlines to get an upgraded flight, but to no avail. She also recounted her food drama for us. Since KP was a vegetarian, she had mostly been eating bread. So the nurse complained about it on her behalf, leading the doctor to promise pizza. When the pizza arrived, however, it had…pepperoni. Fail. But KP later received her vegetarian pizza and was back in good spirits.
After lunch, my friends and I did some souvenir shopping at the market stalls, then grabbed our things from the hostel and caught the train to Ollantaytambo (I slept the whole way). From the Ollantaytambo station, a Salkantay Trekking van picked up our trekking group, along with members of another group. This time the rest of my friends knocked out, while P2D2 conversed with the trekkers from the other group. Still feeling a bit sluggish, I chipped in every now and then.
What struck me about this other group of trekkers, who seemed to get along so well and even had their own inside jokes, was that they had only just met each one another on the trek. They were all solo travelers. I wondered if I would ever be able to do that…hop on a plane alone to a foreign land, and make friends along the way. The thought was both thrilling and frightening.
Finally, after every other rider had been dropped off, my friends and I were taken “home.” Comfortable once more in our dear, sweet hostel, we showered (hot, relaxing showers that were a luxury after the spotty coldish showers at the hostel in Aguas Calientes) and got ready for dinner at a delicious Chinese-Peruvian restaurant across the street. Then we took a cab to O2 clinic, this time with P2D2 in tow, and visited KP.
This was the first time all six of us had been together in days. We recounted all that had happened while we were apart. Then KP got down to business.
“So, I’ve arranged for the ambulance to take all of us to the airport tomorrow,” she said. “You don’t have to take a cab.”
“Wow, you’ve got connections,” I said.
But for some reason, PS seemed reluctant to take the ambulance, musing that KP could ride in the ambulance while the rest of us took a cab.
“Come on! How often can you say you’ve ridden in an ambulance?” KP demanded. “And in Peru?”
PS didn’t seem to have an answer to that.
“Ok, then, it’s settled.”
We all chatted some more before sleepiness began to sap our energy. SK promised to return in the morning with a fresh outfit for KP. Then we left KP in the clinic and returned to the hostel, back to our very own room – no sharing with random strangers this time.
As we got ready for bed, I remembered again that it was the fourth of July.
“Does anyone want to sing the national anthem with me?” I asked. The boys just looked at me blankly. When SK came back from the bathroom, I asked her, “SK! Will you sing the national anthem with me?”
I didn’t have to ask her twice.
“Ohhh say, can you seeee?” She and I began our soulful, melodic rendition of the anthem…just kidding; we were awful. We began our off-key, dissonant rendition of the anthem, but at least we sang it all the way through, with passion and patriotism.
It wouldn’t be too long before we were back in America. Tonight was our last night in Cusco. Our trip was nearing an end. After all that had happened on our trip, it was incredible to think that at least five of us had made it to Machu Picchu today, although KP’s absence was keenly felt. But KP had said she would definitely return to Peru one day to visit Machu Picchu…next time, however, she would be travelling by train.
I went to bed scratching the scattering of bright pink bug bites that had popped up all over my body. These Peruvian mosquitos seemed to find me delicious.
America, the beautiful, I thought, and drifted into a deep sleep.
Or start from the beginning: