July 17, 2011
Obviously one of the highlights of travel through South America is amazing Machu Picchu and there was no way we were going to miss it. Inti Raymi had diverted our attention though while it was going on, so once it was finally over we started looking into tours to Machu Picchu. Due to the unfortunate timing of the border strikes between Bolivia and Peru, it appeared that quite a few people who had booked onto the Inca Trail (the 4 day hike up to Machu Picchu) weren’t making it into Cusco in time so instead of the typical 3-4 month wait we were hearing reports from other travellers you could walk into travel agents and get onto the hike within days.
However, the altitude had hit both Hails and I to some degree and we weren’t feeling super confident we had put the sorocheÂ far enough behind us to hit a 4-day hike which included a pass at 4,600 meters above sea level. In the end we opted for a standard “2D/1N” trip (2 days 1 night). On the first day we’d be shuttled across to a town where we could catch the train down to Aguas Calientes (which is the small town at the foot of the mountain which Machu Picchu is perched upon). We’d get there in the afternoon, have a chilled night and then early next morning set off for Machu Picchu. Finally we’d return the following afternoon/evening, once again by the train and then shuttle for the last leg into Cusco.
Turned out the train ride was spectacular – it is a narrow gauge railway line (and so the train carriages are pretty small too) winding along the bank of the river down on the floor of the valley all the way to Machu Picchu. With vast mountains towering over both sides of the valley, the scenery is epic. It only took a couple of hours to get to Aguas Calientes, where we were met by a tour rep who showed us to our hostel. That afternoon we joined a couple of other people from the tour group and headed up to the thermal springs which give the town its name. Not quite what we expected, but still fun and entertaining for a couple hours. We followed that with a chilled night in and a very early turn-in to bed.Â Because the following morning we knew we’d be up at a silly hour!
Now before I explain about the next leg, just a little bit of insight into the one of the aspects of ticketing at Machu Picchu. The main site itself is accessible via 3 different routes – the Inca Trail from above, and then from Aguas Calientes you can either catch the bus up (or down – its USD $8 each way for a 20 minute ride) or you can hike up via the “shortcut”, which is a 2km long path cutting across the switchbacks the bus uses to get. The shortcut starts at the checkpoint at the bottom of “Machu Picchu’s mountain”, and those 2 kilometers are pretty much just stairs. You also climb up (or down) 400 meters in vertical height during those 2kms.
Now the importance of those 3 routes comes into play because of access restrictions at Machu Picchu. The main site is available to all and sundry, and it didn’t look like there were any restrictions on numbers at all. However, at one end of the site is a further mountain peak, Waynu Picchu, which is also covered in ruins. The paths up Waynu are really steep and narrow and there are lots of shear drop-offs to the valley floor below once you get up there that would make a base jumper giddy with excitement but for those of us not toting around parachutes just really nervous. So for obvious reasons the authorities limit access to Waynu Picchu to just 400 per day, in 2 batches of 200. The first batch is allowed to start climbing up at 7AM, the second at 10AM. The access to Waynu Picchu is stamped onto your main ticket once you reach the ticket gate, and is given out free on a first-come, first-served basis.
What this means is that if you want to climb Waynu Picchu, you need to get up to the ticket gates really early as those 400 stamps of access are used up really quick. To make it even worse, if you want to guarantee one of the time slots (like we did – our tour included a guide from 7AM – 9AM around the main ruins, so we needed to get the second slot otherwise miss out on a guided tour we’d already paid for) you need to ideally be in the first 200 hundred to get up there!
The buses to get up there start at 5:30AM, which means the first couple easily get up there before the 6AM gate opening. However the queues for those early buses start forming around 3AM! That leaves the hiking, and to give those feeling a bit more energetic a fighting chance, the authorities open the “shortcut” at around 4:45AM-5:00AM each morning. But its a twenty minute walk from Aguas Calientes to the ticket checkpoint at the start of the shortcut, and you want to have your breakfast and all that before you start so we were up at 3:45AM! An incredibly early start to the day, especially for a non-morning person like hails. But excitement was in the air and when hails and I got to the shortcut start, it was around 4:40AM. We guessed there were about 50-60 people ahead of us already. And once the gates opened it appeared they were all Olympic mountain runners because they just disappeared up the path ahead of us. Now we’re never going to try claim fitness awards, we both thought we had a little fitness under our belts. Definitely a lot more than when we’d been in London. But let me tell you, that hike up was killer. You start at roughly 2,000 meters above sea level, so already its 300 meters higher than a city like Johannesburg. There isn’t an abundance of air like at sea level lol. Then you’re doing a 2km StairMaster workout, climbing up the equivalent of a 100-odd story buiilding in about 45 minutes. All the time with people coming flying past you (so you’re trying to keep a mental counter going to work out roughly what number you’ll be when you get up there). It worsened at 5:30AM when we heard the first of the buses coming past – How many people were on board? Were they small little 20-seaters or were these 50-seater tourist buses?? We had little choice but to try up the pace. Somewhere around this point, young Hails suffered a total sense of humour failure and was ready to give up the challenge of getting one of the Waynu Picchu access stamps. To be fair, we were both carrying our day packs, both drenched through with sweat (literally, it looked like we’d walked under a shower) and had heart rates you could count on a car rev counter (and probably close to red-lining it too!). I was still super keen for trying to get up Waynu Picchu, so I offered to carry Hails day bag for a while. 10 minutes later though I had to give it back as all that makeup and those hair straighteners were just killing me.
Eventually around 5:45 we turned a corner and there was the ticket office ahead of us… with a huge group of people. We’d heard at least 3 buses come past us, so with nervous trepidation we made our way over to the Waynu Picchu “stamp hut”. BONUS!! We were in time, all the hard work was worth it and we got our 10AM batch stamps. We happily retired to the back of the line and within nano-seconds were just about frozen through by our sweat soaked clothes. But still, with smiles on our faces. We were at Machu Picchu! We had a quick guestimate and reckoned there were around 150-180 people ahead of us, so roughly a hundred people had passed us on the way up, either by overtaking us or by the bus.
At 6:00AM sharp the gates opened and we spilled into the deserted ruins with the rest of the queue. What an amazing introduction to Machu Picchu! The sun hadn’t made it over the surrounding mountains and the site itself was bathed in mist. At first the only living things you could see in the ruins were a bunch of Llama’s grazing down in the main plaza. One of those amazing moments in life. We had a bunch of time before we had to meet our guide at the entrance, so Hails and I found a quiet terrace with a great view and chilled out for a while, nibbling on some cookies and watching the site slowly come to life with tourists.
At our allotted time we met up with the rest of the group and our tour guide and started our proper exploration of the site. Our dude was really good – he spoke good english, knew his stuff well and was full of funny little anecdotes. He even had some props with him for showing off various aspects of the site (like a pocket compass to show alignment of buildings and altars, a piece of rock of the type they used for chiselling their building materials into shape, etc). We both reckoned compared to all the other tours we’d done on our trip so far, this guide was the best. Anyway, he showed us all the cool bits of the ruins and finished off near the gate for Waynu Picchu with just enough time for a quick snooze in a nice warm patch of sunny grass.
At 10AM we joined the rest of our batch and started up Waynu Picchu. My first thought was “Yay, more stairs..” But at least it wasn’t literally a race this time, so we took it easy and stopped frequently for breathers on the way up. Once we reached the top, any doubt we had about whether the early morning start was worth it was completely blown away. The views looking back down onto Machu Picchu itself are simply amazing. The heights, well they just made you nervous whenever somebody got close to an edge. If two peopleÂ got close to an edge together it made most of the others start panicking. Still good fun though, and a great spot for another little snack. Unfortunately not having a guide up top with us, nobody seemed to know exactly what these rather inaccessible ruins had originally been for. I think we spent easily an hour and a half up there, chatting with peeps and chilling out in the sun.
Eventually it was time to head down. As the athletes among you readers will know, its not the up-hills which kill but the down-hills. And we quickly learned that lesson. Hundreds of uneven, different height steps. Some of them so narrow you had to put your feet on them sideways. The knees quickly started to complain, but we ignored them and made our way back into Machu Picchu. We had just one spot left we wanted to get to before calling it a day – to the “caretakers hut” opposite Waynu Picchu where all the classic “postcard shots” are taken from. Making our way through a very full Machu Picchu, we took a wrong turning somewhere and ended up in a dead end. But it was totally worth it – perched up on one of the sides of a building were a pair of Chinchillas! What weird little creatures, kind of like a rabbit with a long tail. These two were both sleeping, sitting back on their back haunches with their paws out front like little rock-jumping kangaroos.
We got to the caretakers hut in the end, got our postcard shots (and a sweet 28-shot panorama of the ruins), then headed out to slowly make our way back down. We’d run out of water by then so we stopped at canteen just outside the gates to laugh about how expensive everything. Soon we were in tears paying USD $8 for a small, paper cup of coke. Bottles of water were even more expensive. So after a quick sugar hit, we started back down the shortcut. Think old age is catching up, cause my knees were not happy. As a hint to anyone who’s still reading this and thinking of doing Machu Picchu one day – rather spend the $8 on a bus ticket and save your knees. Plus once you get down Aguas Calientes again prices are back to normal. We battled the shortcut for around and hour, and by the time I got to the bottom I couldn’t bend my right knee any more so was walking like a gimp. Then we still had a half an hour stroll back along the road to Aguas. Eish. We headed back to our hostel, jumped into a hot shower (oooooh so good) and a fresh change of clothes then hit the town to try put back all those calories we’d burnt that day. One cheeseburger, chips, coke and big beer later we were back on the train struggling to keep our eyes open. Our shuttle back to Cusco seemed to go through a time portal cause it only took 5 minutes (or maybe we just all fell asleep listening to the driver’s 1-track CD of some Spanish version of a crap english song on repeat for an hour and a half). And then it was most definitely bed time!