Thursday, December 15, 2005

"Hostal La Cabaña", Aguas Calientes (Machu Picchu Pueblo)

Roosters woke me at 3:00 a.m. this morning.

Natividad told me that no one else was staying in the bungalow, but during night, a tenant came and went, while another came, stayed and snored. Not much sleep for me.

Up at 4:30 to prepare for today's hike to Machu Picchu. Breakfast consisted of the leftover ham and cheese sandwich and two small "Tetrapaks" of pineapple juice.

Out into the chilly, overcast morning at 5:00, secretly thinking if Hernan doesn't show, I'd set off on my own, and save on the exorbitant fee. But he was right on time. Departing the village, we immediately descended a long staircase. All I could think of was "now we'll have to make up this loss in elevation!"

Hernan Gutierrez (sp?), my guide from Santa Teresa to Machu Picchu Pueblo (Aguas Calientes)

Just above the confluence of the Rio Urubamba and another river, we crossed a foot bridge and continued upstream through the boulder-strewn river canyon. We soon came to one of the now-famous cable crossings (that Brad had described so well in his blog.) "People use this all the time," I told myself, bolstering my confidence as we approached the landing.

The small passenger cage was dangling out over the torrent. Hernan grabbed the towrope and pulled the cage over to the concrete platform we were standing on. As he held it in place, I climbed in. I figured he was going to somehow reel me across the river, then follow. Instead, he jumped aboard, hanging onto the side and we took off, rolling down the cable, and coming to a halt somewhere out in the middle. Grabbing the cable and pulling hand-over-hand, Hernan then drew us to the other side. Fun!

An early morning river crossing by cage suspended from a cable. Below, Rio Urubamba.

On the east bank of the Rio Urubamba, we followed a road up the canyon. Looking down at the ground, I noticed motorcycle tracks.

"You mean I could have driven my motorcycle up here?"


We crossed sandy areas and it was strange to think that these rugged mountains give birth to the beaches of Brazil's Atlantic Coast, thousands of miles away.

Walking below sheer rock walls, sometimes the roar coming directly from the river would be loudest, at other times, its echo off the canyon walls.

The discharge from the upstream hydro plant, the water flowing out of a massive granite wall

All along the river were small farms, surrounded by lush tropical vegetation, banana trees and coffee bushes, beautiful flowers and clear streams flowing down from the mountains. Though these people have so little, they live in a piece of Paradise.

Typical farmhouse along the Rio Urubamba

Coffee growing along the Rio Urubamba

Here I saw "Impatiens", the popular California garden flower growing in a natural setting. (How often I grumbled while watering twice daily, trying to keep the tropical flowers from wilting in the hot and arid Northern California chaparral!)

We walked for a couple of hours, finally reaching the hydro plant deep in the canyon. We crossed a bridge to the river's west bank and climbed to railroad tracks. A train ran from Cusco to Quillabamba at one time, but floods and slides wiped away the track in numerous place along this river. A project is underway to open the connection once again.

Once we reached the railroad track (about halfway into the walk from Santa Teresa to Machu Picchu), Hernan walked on the rail much of the way. I tried but couldn't stay on for more than a few steps.

I asked Hernan how much longer to Aguas Calientes.

He looked at his watch. "Dos horas." Two hours.

"We have been walking for two, and now it's two more? Your sister said it was a 2½-hour hike."

"That's if you don't walk so slow," he replied.

I thought to myself, "come on! I've been moving right along! Okay, maybe I stopped to take a couple pictures and drink some water, but 4 hours is a big difference!"

Well, this was Hernan's first job as a guide. I didn't want to be too critical - yet.

Seen from below, Machu Picchu rests high in the mists

Just below Aguas Calientes, we walked through two railway tunnels. A team of about twenty police, with what appeared to be riot gear, came walking out of one. Hernan said they were drug enforcement police. "They are looking for coca."

From the railroad tracks, the town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, or Aguas Calientes, on the bank of the Rio Urubamba

After 4½ hours, we reached Aguas Calientes. ("2½ hours, my foot! I'll never trust another thing Natividad says!") Here, Hernan was a help in quickly determining where I could buy my entry ticket to the santuario of Machu Picchu. $25 for non-Peruvians. (And this doesn't even include a rudimentary guide to the ruins. No map. Nothing.)

I offered to buy lunch, and we began to look around for a restaurante typico. Hernan thought we better check on the bus schedule up the mountain. Found the ticket office and bought a round-trip ticket ($12 for non-Peruvians.)

I could take offense at being targeted with hefty prices because of my "First World origins", but I recall the expression "to each according to his means". There's a little bit of socialism in both the formal and informal pricing structures in Peru. And I don't disagree with the principle. I think those who are fortunate enough to be affluent have an obligation to assist the less fortunate, as it is not entirely by our their intelligence and sweat that they have achieved wealth. Nobody "succeeds" without an enormous supporting cast. "Never forget this."

There was word of a bus strike and I was told I better queue up with a group of students and take the bus that was about to leave. "There may not be another." So, I gave Hernan 10 Soles for lunch and bid him "hasta luego" (see you later - back at Santa Teresa. He said it would take him two hours to get back!)

The bus for the 15-minute ride up the mountain is a luxurious tour bus. We picked up members of Peru's "Escuadron Verde", special police force along the way, then began the tortuous winding climb to Machu Picchu. The ride is not advisable for those who suffer from vertigo. I sat behind the driver, noticing the big green oxygen cylinder mounted beside his seat. "I may need that later," I noted.

Up top, we disembarked near the "Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge" (where rooms start at about $450 per night, and I'm told you can spend $1,200 for the "Presidential Suite".) There's a small outdoor food court and restrooms (50-centimo fee).

It was around 11:00 a.m., and I was surprised that it wasn't more crowded, though it was raining and visibility was perhaps one hundred yards, not quite ideal touring conditions. All manner of rain gear was being employed by visitors, from plastic trash bags, to cheap brightly-colored ponchos to high-tech foul weather jackets.

I wandered into the ruins and took a bench under one of the few thatched-roof shelters on the site. Looked out at the rain, pondering. Started talking to a young woman seated nearby. I learned she was from New Zealand. She said there was a rail strike today and no trains were running from Cusco to Aguas Calientes. This meant that the only visitors would be those who were already here, or those coming in on foot along the Inca Trail, or other trails leading into Aguas Calientes.

Like many New Zealanders, she moved to London to work, as part of her "O.E." (Overseas Experience). Unlike most, she stayed on after the normal two-year O.E. visa expired.

With hopes that conditions would eventually improve, I set off to climb Huayna Picchu, fearing that if I didn't do it early, I wouldn't have the energy later. From Huayna Picchu, about 700 feet above Machu Picchu, I was told one would have (weather permitting,) a commanding view of the santuario. Before entering the trail, you must register at a small booth, logging your name, age, nationality and the time you set out. You can only enter up until 1:00 p.m. and must descend and log back in by 4:00 p.m.

The hiking boots that I've carried for over six months are finally getting a workout, and I was glad to have them today. In fog and rain, the stone paths throughout the sanctuary are very slippery. Many paths have sand, and transitioning from sandy path to wet stones can be especially treacherous.

The trail ascending Huayna Picchu consists of stone steps and, at times, just rocks on which to climb. In the most difficult areas, cables or nylon ropes are strung to provide a hand-hold. It's a very steep climb. I took many rests along the way. Conditions seemed so miserable today, that few people were on the trail. Perhaps four people passed me on their way down, and another three or four passed me on their way up.

Near the top, a young fellow from San Diego caught up with me and we chatted a bit as we climbed (until he was too far beyond me to hear!) I successfully scaled the mountain, reaching a large complex perched precariously on the very apex of Huayna Picchu. Through the swirling clouds, occasional glimpses of the Rio Urubamba snaking around the base of this spire thousands of feet below, attested to the strategic value of this outpost. The dizzying view was intensified by the lack of barriers or safeguards. One step in the wrong direction, and oblivion!

Beneath Machu Picchu, Rio Urubamba cuts through the mountains

To build the structures on this mountaintop, did the Incas dismantle the crown to create the blocks? It is unimaginable that stones were carried here from below. The human toll in building the Huayna Picchu complex must have been enormous.

As is often the case, when visiting "remote" sites, one encounters people who live and work there. Atop Huayna Picchu, I found the complex occupied by a crew of maintenance staff who make the climb nearly every day, and bring tools with them! Besides the dozen or so workers, there were a few hardy (or foolish?) tourists.

Out there in the clouds somewhere was Machu Picchu. As moist winds from the selva blow up the Urubamba river valley, you can watch the clouds form in a matter of minutes, rising from far below to envelop the mountaintops.

But over the course of two hours, the rain diminished and the interval between clouds lengthened, until finally the sun managed to break through and illuminate the citadel below. It was well worth the wait.

Looking down on Machu Picchu from Huayna Picchu. After a strenuous climb, a few patient tourists waited for a break in the clouds and rain.

On a clear day, you would have a beautiful view of Machu Picchu

Gradually Machu Picchu revealed itself

Machu Picchu as seen from Huayna Picchu

A bedraggled timtraveler atop Huayna Picchu

By now, the summit was empty. The workers had gone, as had the other tourists. I was the last one to climb down from Huayna Picchu. The ropes and cables that seemed unnecessary on the ascent, were now invaluable. Coming down the slippery trail, I was fatigued and couldn't trust my muscles and judgment. Reaching the gate before 4:00, I found the office closed. I was hurt that no one was waiting to make sure I made it back safely!

This amazing structure juts out from a cliff. A misstep ascending to the terraces, and it's a plunge straight down, thousands of feet.

I was the last one to descend from Huayna Picchu today. The gatehouse that records hikers who ascend the mountain had closed. I guess they didn't care if I returned or not. Just me and the llamas.

Llama taking a dump beside "The Sacred Stone"

Within Machu Picchu's grounds, a horticultural exhibit

They're coming to take me away

There is a rail strike today. No trains running from Cusco to Machu Picchu. Consequently, there were 300 visitors today, versus 1,500 normally for this time of year, and 3,000 in the "high season". You'll be hard-pressed to find a single person in this photo. Huayna Picchu towers in the background.

The lowering sun was now casting a rich light across the ruins. I couldn't believe the solitude here. There were only a small number of visitors scattered across the grounds. I ran into my "Kiwi" friend. Now that the sun was out, she was scurrying about, capturing the pictures that had eluded her all day. (I believe she said she had come up here around 6:00 this morning!) I asked her what I should see in the remaining hour, and she pointed to a number of the highlights.

Climbing to gain a different perspective, I ran into Americans Taylor Paul of Santa Cruz, California and Jessica Gifford of Austin, Texas.

By now, we were all in disbelief at our good fortune, being afforded a quiet, golden afternoon in this magical kingdom. Everyone was in a great mood, regardless of the day's exertions.

Taylor said they had asked at the entrance how many visitors were here today. Only 300 had come, versus the normal 1,500 daily visitors at this time of year (and 3,000 per day during the high season!)

Jessica's an Oceanography major at the University of Texas in Austin and Taylor's a Hotel Management major at California State University, San Diego (and avid surfer. But it was Jessica who said she has a copy of "Stoked", brother Drew's beautiful history of surfing!)

Both have been on an exchange program, studying in Valparaiso, Chile. (You'll notice I only learn background information about English-speaking acquaintances, a result of my weak Spanish skills.)

We used Taylor Paul, my "body double" (Mary, is that the correct term?) to set up the following shot. Notice the striking resemblance.

Anti-terrorist police, who now far-outnumbered tourists within the complex, were beginning to make their sweep to assure there would be no one left here after closing time. Two of the police asked to have their picture taken with the gringos. We put our arms on each others' shoulders.

"Hey! there's a machine gun back here," I exclaimed, laughing as I felt the cold steel of the Russian-made weapon hanging from the officer's back.

Late in the afternoon, the anti-terrorist forces out-numbered tourists. A couple of them wanted to have their picture taken with the gringos, Taylor Paul, Jessica Gifford and yours.

A Machu Picchu resident blends in with its surroundings

As we were gently coaxed toward the exit, I felt completely drained, and my
butt cheeks were so chafed I could barely walk! (But you didn't need to know that, did you?)

Terraces with no terrorists

Huayna Picchu looms over Machu Picchu. I was up on the top there earlier in the day.

I welcomed the ride back to Aguas Calientes on a comfy bus. Boarding, I found Taylor, Jessica and the Kiwi (unfortunately, I forgot her name!) seated at the back and joined them. Soon, the police piled aboard too, and one sat down next to me. I asked about his machine gun, and about the job. His unit had come up from Lima for security training here at Machu Picchu.

The ride down the mountain was pretty exciting. I tried not to worry that I was looking off the edge of a cliff, and the bus seemed to be moving very fast, and the driver looked younger than my daughter!

In Aguas Calientes, Taylor and Jessica suggested we meet for dinner later, which sounded good to me. I headed off in search of a room. Contrary to what I had heard, Aguas Calientes struck me as a fairly clean and colorful town! I was impressed.

I found the three-star "Hostal La Cabaña" and, armed with the knowledge that the rail strike would cause a very high vacancy rate for hotels, went in to see what a room would cost me.


"I'm sorry. That's way too much for me."

The manager asked if I'd like to see a room.


The room was luxurious compared to what I've been staying in lately. I told her I liked it, but I couldn't pay $30.

She then asked how much I wanted to pay, and I replied "no more than $15."


So we were both happy. $15 is still a lot, but to me it was well worth it.

At 7:00, I met Taylor and Jessica in the plaza and we set out to find a restaurant. Many were closed, perhaps because of the strike, but we found one near to my hostel. With Bob Marley echoing through the deserted streets, we enjoyed a mellow evening with some decent local dishes (my aji pollo was very good), a couple beers and good conversation. I enjoyed hearing of their experiences studying in Chile.

At 10:00 p.m. tonight, the entire town was conducting an annual disaster drill, or simulacro. Aguas Calientes is in a deep valley and subject to the very real threats of landslides and floods. It's not a question of if they'll suffer a disaster, but when. The hostel manager told me that if I didn't want to participate, I should just be in my room when the drill begins. Easy choice.

I was in bed by 10:00, and could hear all the commotion when the town's power was shut off and everyone poured into the streets with their disaster-preparedness kits and flashlights. There were whistles and sirens, feigned shrieks, laughter and lots of excitement. It sounded kind of fun and I felt I was missing out. But sleep called...


babycondor said...

Buen hecho! I really liked the sequence of photos showing the mist parting to reveal the citadel. Have you tried coca tea yet?

Evan said...

Tim--have you lost a pound or 10 over the last while? You're looking particularly fit and trim! As always, nice shots!!

Drew Kampion said...

Hey, this looks just like Tim's dad!

timtraveler said...

I love the compliments, especially the one about looking like my father!

And I've lost a little weight, though I certainly do my best to eat plenty!

Genevieve said...

This photo is definitely one to take pride in. You did a lot of high altitude hiking to get here!