Start: September 28, Santa Teresa
Finish: October 5, Tinajani Cayon
Machu Picchus Seen: 1
Tourists Taking Stupid Pictures Seen: Hundreds
Dutch Ovens Used to Cook Dinner: 3
Price of One Peruvian Cow: 300 Soles, About $115
Well, we made it. Check it off the list. Never to return again.
Machu Picchu is one of those places everyone must see given the opportunity. It's an image that immediately evokes the wanderlust amongst travelers who have never been. And it's an image that few ever care to capture a second time.
Why the mixed messages? Simply put, it's a tourist trap. And it's either very difficult or very expensive to get to. Normally we would go out of our way to avoid any place fitting that description. However, this is Machu Picchu we're talking about. And we'd be stupid to come all this way just to pass it by.
Was it worth it? Absolutely. Was it expensive and full of goofy-hat zip-off-pants-wearing tourists? You better believe it. Would we go back? Not a chance.
There are no roads leading to Aguas Calientes, the town that services the thousands who flock to Machu Picchu every day. There is a train, but round-trip tickets cost up to $150. Luckily for us there is a back way that simply involves a six hour drive over a 14,000 foot pass and across several miles of death road, followed by a few hours of hiking.
Since we had our own wheels, and weren't willing to shell out hundreds for train tickets, we opted to hike our way into Aguas Calientes from the nearby town of Santa Teresa.
From Santa Teresa to Aguas Calientes you have three options. Hike all the way, about six hours, take a taxi to the train station at the hydroelectric plant for $10 and hike the remainder of the way, about three hours, or take the train from the hydroelectric plant for around $30. We chose the middle option and took a taxi to the station and walked the rest of the way along the tracks.
The walk was very nice, leading through cloud forests, over a rickety bridge and along a river offering great views of the surrounding mountains that are responsible for Machu Picchu's world-wide fame. We caught our first glimpse of the ruins midway through the trek. They sit atop the ridge in the photo above, with smaller terraces farther down the mountain.
After an easy three hour hike we made it to Aguas Calientes. The scenery is amazing, but it does little to dull the fact that this town is the epitome of a tourist trap.
There seem to be more restaurants and hotels in this town than there are Peruvians. Each restaurant offers the same menu, a 20-page book filled with Mexican, American, Italian, Chinese and even a few "authentic" Peruvian dishes. 4 for 1 drinks are common, if you don't mind paying $12 for one drink to get the other three.
Luckily we found a decent and cheap hotel room on the main drag, and were able to shop around for cheap, mostly edible meals. The trick is to walk as far away from the main tourist areas as possible and find places where the locals eat. Had we had hiking packs we could have avoided all of this, there is a market with everything needed to cook your own meals, and a nice-looking campground just outside town.
We opted to spend the night in Aguas Calientes before heading up to the ruins, largely because we wanted to be up early to beat the rush. Once the trains start rolling in around 9 or 10 with passengers from Cusco, the ruins become swamped. So we're up at 4:45 and in line for the bus at 5:30 with a $50 entrance ticket and an $8 bus ticket in hand.
We managed to make it to the gate just as it opened at 6, with maybe a hundred people in front of us. Acceptable. Once the gates open it's a mad rush up to the view point, and from there the crowds thin out as tour groups head their separate ways.
We made it to the view point just as the sun was rising over the mountains and shedding first light on the ruins. We did our best to enjoy the sights, which honestly wasn't that hard, while floppy-hatted tourists posed with llamas and tried to take pictures of each other whilst jumping in the air.
Why this became a thing, we may never know. One fact is certain, I now have a photo of someone taking a photo of someone taking a photo of someone jumping in the air.
From the view point we walked away from the ruins towards the Inca Drawbridge. It took about 40 minutes round trip and was absolutely gorgeous, albeit a bit vertigo-inducing. The best part was that we were practically alone and didn't once have to stop for someone to take a picture in front of us.
From the path to the drawbridge we had a spectacular view of the valley and the hydroelectric plant where our hike started the morning before.
Not having seen pictures of the drawbridge, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. I had to stare at it a few moments before I understood. The Incans built this trail along a sheer cliff face and left a gap at the steepest part that could be covered with wooden planks, or uncovered to prevent an invasion.
People aren't allowed across the bridge anymore. We assume that some hapless tourists fell to their deaths recently, probably while trying to jump into the air to pose for a picture.
The photo above gives you an idea how steep these cliffs are. It's easily a thousand feet sheer drop on one side. The band of green you see running through the middle of the picture is the remainder of the now-closed trail that the Incans built to access the city.
Back to the ruins we found the hoards increasing by the minute. The llamas were especially popular. I wonder if they've been trained not to spit on people, they certainly do seem to put up with a lot of shenanigans (not the cheeky and fun kind either) without raising much of a fuss.
From the top of the viewpoint we catch our breath, calm our nerves and manage to spot a glimpse of the mountains that we drove across two days earlier before they become covered in fog again.
What could possibly be more entertaining than taking close up pictures of fluffy animals with a wide angle lens?
While I goof off with useless camera effects, Jessica attempts to capture the stereotypical Machu Picchu photo of a llama with the ruins in the background. This is as close as she got, those suckers do not like to stand still.
Having had our fun taking pictures from the viewpoint - of which we now have several hundred - we head down to check out the ruins. Machu Picchu is still largely intact because it was never sacked by the Spanish, mostly because they couldn't find it. That makes it special among Incan ruins, most of which were looted for materials to build churches and other buildings.
The ruins aren't really anything special, it's the setting that makes Machu Picchu a famous destination. That said, the stonework is amazing, some say extraterrestrial due how tight-fitting the granite bricks are. I'd prefer to think that the Incans had plenty of time to become proficient at shaping stone and building terraces while attempting to avoid the Spanish invasion from their mountain hideaway.
It's worth mentioning that you can hike from Aguas Calientes to the ruins and avoid paying $15 (roundtrip) for the bus, but it's at least an hour and a half straight up a mountain. I think I heard someone say 1,500 stairs.
But after three hours of hiking up and down Incan stairs, we've had our fill and thus jump back on the bus and wind our way down to town where we promptly fall asleep for a few hours before heading out for a forgettable lunch at a nearby tourist restaurant.
We could have left Aguas Calientes and hiked out after we got down from the ruins, there was plenty of time. But we chose to spend another night in town and give our ruin-climbing muscles a break rather than sleep in a tent at the bug-infested campsite in Santa Teresa.
So we hit the road early in the morning in hopes of making it back to Cusco in time for dinner. After a three-hour hike and a four-hour drive back over the pass we made it in time to catch our old pals Brad and Sheena of Drive Nacho Drive back at Quinta Lala, now overrun by Peruvian lawn mowers, aka alpacas. We hadn't seen them since Costa Rica, so there were plenty of stories to swap and festivities to be had.
The next day we head for lunch at a local market that Brad and Sheena scoped out the day before. Soup, an entree and juice for $1.25 per person. Can't beat that price. It's a good thing those two are together; what Brad lacks in photogenic qualities, Sheena more than makes up for.
The next night we held The Great Dutch Oven Cook-Off of 2012. Between Brad and Sheena's two pots, and ours, we managed a three course meal of lentil and bacon soup with freshly baked bread, delicious slow-cooked fig chicken and Jessica's world famous cinnamon rolls. A meal fit for kings.
After a few more days at Quinta Lala we head east towards the Bolivian border. I managed to find a last-minute camping spot in the Tinajani Cayon, a quick three-hour drive from Cusco. This place is famous for its Sedona-esque red canyon walls and a few unique rock formations.
We drove to the end of the canyon looking for a good campsite. There we encountered an ancient Peruvian fellow who may have either been drunk, or just overly friendly with a speech impediment. He told us we could camp wherever we wanted, and upon asking how many livestock he had in the midst of a herd of sheep, he informed us that a cow cost 300 Soles ($115) and a mommy alpaca 120 Soles ($45). We're still not sure if he was trying to sell us some of his critters, or just misunderstood our broken Spanish.
In any case, we headed down away from his farm so as to not camp amidst a field of sheep/cow/alpaca poop and found a great secluded spot where we spent our first free night since Costa Rica.
At just under 13,000 feet this was the highest-elevation we've camped at. To say it got cold once the sun went down would be an understatement. That night it rained, hailed and snowed, and for the first time this trip we awoke to a layer of ice around our tents. Luckily it cleared up in the morning, and Jessica and Kobus were able to climb up a nearby hill to snap a few photos of the canyon.
The stars were spectacular at night, Kobus and I spent a couple hours perfecting our night-time photography skills. The shot above shows the Milky Way rising above the canyon walls with light-pollution from a nearby town illuminating clouds that are low on the horizon.
Up Next: Lake Titicaca and into Bolivia!