Friday, August 8, 2008

The summit of the trip: Machu Picchu

Geographically it made sense for us to save the best for last. Our anticipation had been building since we’d started planning the trip, and after a relaxing day exploring museums and shops in Cuzco, we were off to Machu Picchu. We took a long cab ride and a train to a town called Aguas Calientes, which is at the base of Machu Picchu. We only had one day at Machu Picchu and were poised to wake up at an ungodly hour the next morning, so we went to bed early.

At 4:00 AM, it was time to get up. The bus to the mountain didn’t leave until 5:30 or 6:00, but we were told that people lined up really early to catch the buses since they only let in 200 people for the first shift every day. We arrived at the bus stop at exactly 4:21 to find that apart from six other hearty souls… no one else was there. Feeling pretty pleased with ourselves and generally hard-core and badass, we sat down to wait, ingesting some battery acid (otherwise known as coffee), and bananas with peanut butter. We almost felt as though we should have lit some incense and mashed some acai berries with woodchips or something, but on our student budget, bananas and coffee were the go-to fuel for Inca-trekking and any spiritual ancient-god communiqués that might transpire.

After some initial confusion with bus tickets, we boarded a bus and rode up the hairpin turns of the mountain to…Machu Picchu! The whole mountain was shrouded in mist, and it was very easy to imagine an Incan religious ceremony taking place on the site hundreds of years before, or bare Incan footsteps treading between walls of stone. The main site of ruins that most people are familiar with lies at the base of another mountain called Wayna Picchu. There are ruins on top of Wayna Picchu as well, and it takes about an hour to climb up. Natalie and I scampered quickly across the main ruins to the other side, hoping to get in line for when Wayna Picchu would open at 7:00. The plan was to see the top, then explore Machu Picchu when we came down.

Going up was not easy and the altitude certainly wasn’t doing our lungs any favors, but at least we got our exercise for the day. The top of Wayna Picchu was absolutely spectacular. We took a ridiculous number of photos, but they don’t do the site justice. We sat on top of giant boulders and gazed out land dipping and sliding dramatically, like a child of the gods had pinched the earth over and over again like playdough. Soon encroaching visitors prompted us to leave the top of the mountain and make way for others, and we started the steep and slow trek down.

The sun was already hot by the time we were back at the ruins, and I was fading fast from all our lack of sleep starting to catch up with me. However Natalie had procured a map, and insisted we go find every officially-named part of the ruins. She traipsed around, proudly proclaiming, “This is the condor temple!” “This is a real sundial!” with the enthusiasm of a kindergarten teacher who has just discovered her entire class can read and understand Plato. I was amused, and went along for the ride.

After our afternoon at the ruins, we got right back on a bus and thus began the long trek back through Peru, Bolivia and upper Argentina to Buenos Aires. It took a few days, mostly because for some odd reason one cannot go straight from Peru back to Argentina. Our return trip involved many buses, trains, taxis, planes, and cars, but finally we arrived back in BA, safe and sound and quite satisfied with our whirlwind cross-country adventures.