We made it to Machu Picchu! We pulled out of Cusco at 7:00 am and an hour and a half later were deep in the Sacred Valley at the town of Ollantaytambo, boarding point for our train to Machu Picchu. The roads were oddly quiet, populated only by the occasional cow or goat. Nowhere were the chanting, marching protestors of previous days. After a tough week of rabblerousing, they had granted themselves a weekend reprieve and were apparently sleeping off some of their rage. Lucky us.
All we could think as we boarded our Valley Vistadome train was, “I sure hope this is worth all the effort…and the money.” You see, as far as world wonders go, Machu Picchu is by far the most expensive to visit. We thought the Taj Mahal was bad at $15 each and that Angkor was steep at $40 for a three-day pass but neither of these gems required us to take an $80 train ride followed by a $12 bus ride only to fork over $40 for a 1-day admission ticket. Would the site live up to its hype?
To ensure that we could maximize our time at the ruins and give it the best chance at impressing us, I booked two nights at Gringo Bill’s Hostal in the town of Aguas Calientes, the remote yet vibrant village from which the bus departs. Staying at the base of the mountain would allow us to take one of the first busses up the mountain in the morning and one of the last down in the afternoon. This way we would have a few hours free of the thundering hordes of tour groups who typically arrive on the morning train around 9:00 or 10:00 and leave by 2:00 or 3:00. This proved one of the best strategies of the entire trip because simply stated, Machu Picchu blew us away!
The kids weren’t thrilled that we woke them at 6:00 am. They slept on the 30-minute ride up the mountain and emerged groggy but ready to explore. We took a few minutes to get our bearings and then hightailed it toward Huayna Picchu (the young mountain). We weren’t all that sure what Huayna Picchu was, but we knew that only 400 people per day got to climb it, and I’ll be darned if we wern’t going to be 6 of those 400. We waited in line for 20 minutes and signed in as numbers 181-184. Kieran and Asher didn’t receive numbers because technically they were too young to count. The guard warned us in Spanish that only people over 12 were allowed on the trail but was fine with our group as long as we promised to hold the little ones by the hand. Kieran and Asher are experienced hikers from their summers in Utah and we were confident in their ability to make the trek.
Though I worried the sun might never break through, the misty cloud cover kept us cool as our heart rates climbed. The serpentine path descended down a narrow strip of land across to the base of the mountain and then began the steep ascent to the summit. There were a few flat spots, but for the most part the hike was one long, winding staircase. Asher began counting the steps and after each 100, we would stop and take a break. Kieran didn’t really buy into the counting and wanted to stop every 10 steps, but eventually Tom coaxed him into counting by 10′s to 600. The tight Inca pathways proved tougher on the big people than they did on the little ones as the stairs were designed for feet much smaller than size 11. An hour and a half later we reached the peak and were greeted by a mindnumbing view. Lushly vegetated mountain peaks loomed on all sides, dense, moisture-laden clouds hung heavy in the sky above, and spread out like a model on a drawing table below sat the speckled, labyrthine ruins of Machu Picchu. We took a deep breath, trying not to inhale the smoke of a nearby traveler’s joint, and marveled at our collective accomplishment.
We know not only Kieran and Asher were the youngest people to ascend Huayna Picchu that day but also that Tom and I were the oldest to play hide and seek in the ruins below. After our experience at Pisac, we promised the little two that we would make the most of the elaborate stone walls by turning them into a playground. We chose an elevated area of three-windowed houses that offered row upon row of prime hiding spots. Asher counted first, assisted by McKane, and we all scattered to different parts of the complex. I chose a remote room which I thought would take her at least 5 minutes to reach. My strategy proved sound though for different reasons than I first thought. Within seconds of settling into the corner of the structure, the family of llamas that had been grazing through the buildings wandered into my room and began chomping on the few weeds that protruded from the earthen floor. Two groups of tourists, one Peruvian and one American, followed them in and began snapping pictures. I motioned for them to pretend I wasn’t there, and sure enough, with the room full and bustling with activity Asher and McKane passed right by.
For the next round during which Kieran was counting, I figured I needed a far less conspicuous hiding place. I chose a small crawl space situated between three knee-high stone walls. I laid on my belly, whipped out my guidebook, and began reading about the ruins surrounding me. Within minutes, the llamas had found me once again and were poking their heads over the wall to nibble the grass on either side of me. I tried to contain my laughter but passersby heard me giggling and raised their eyebrows in wonder at the strange American woman lounging on the ground with the resident mammals. It took the kids much longer to find me this time, but from then on they realized that finding me was as simple as locating the llamas. Just call me the pied piper.
Our day at the ruins was magical and we made the most of every minute, staying almost until closing time, when only a few devoted travelers remained. The only hiccup in our otherwise perfect experience came at lunchtime. We brought a backpack full of snacks but planned on eating at the lodge restaurant, which an American at our hotel in Cusco had told us was only 29 sols (about $10) per person. This was expensive, but we figured it would be worth it to fill up on decent eats in this most memorable of settings. We made our way to the lodge (where rooms are over $ 700 a night) only to find that that our confused, tour-guide led friend had gotten the price wrong. It was not 29 sols but 29 DOLLARS per person. Oops. We may have been hungry, but there was no way we were going to spend $180 for lunch. Instead we bought a few $6 burgers and $3 sodas at the snack bar and reminded ourselves some things are too good to be true.
At the end of the day we decided that no matter what the price, wonder is just that…wonder. Nickel and diming tourists to appreciate it seems poor international relations, but in the case of Machu Picchu, the reward is still well worth the price. As long as the trains and busses keep running, people will keep dodging the rocks and tear gas to reach this most enchanting and mystical of places.