Saturday, April 12, 2008

Spring Break Part Three: Machu Picchu

Tuesday morning saw us up bright and early for our bus/train ride to Aguas Calientes, the closest little town to Machu Picchu. Aguas has grown up mostly from tourism to the Incan city and to the hot springs that give it its name, but also from a hydroelectric power plant in the vicinity. The entire trip there was filled with view after view of huge, mysterious mountains shrouded in mist. Once to the town, we dropped off our stuff at the hostel and loaded another bus up to the city itself for a guided tour of the ruins. There are few things in this world that live up the word ‘awesome’ that we throw around so much. Machu Picchu, with its massive stone buildings that have stood the test of time surrounded by the gorgeous Andes Mountains, lives up to such a word. The weather added to the effect: we had a mixture of rain, clouds, and the occasional clear view of the entire city. We learned a lot from the tour guide, about which theories regard the purposes of each structure and the different theories on the purpose of the city itself: how it could possibly be a religious center, a place to study the stars, or even an Incan University. She also informed us about some other possibilities for hiking in the area, and a few of us began to form a plan…

We boarded the bus once again, for our switch-backed road back down the mountain for a buffet lunch included in our package. We were entertained by live Peruvian music just outside the door and enjoyed a wonderful meal with each other after our soggy morning at Machu Picchu. After a little bit of a struggle at the ATM, a group of us walked down the train tracks toward a train head that I had found online and the guide mentioned earlier that day. The hikers’ trail leads up Putu Kusi, or Laughing Mountain, and would provide a spectacular view of the ruins from the summit. However, it was almost nightfall and we only wanted to have a look at the trail which is famed for its wooden ladders leading upward through the rock, one of which is supposed to have at least 161 rungs on it. We made it to the ladders and headed back down, not wanting to get lost in the dark getting back to Aguas Calientes.

While looking for some other members of the group, we ran into a girl from Nevada studying abroad in Chile this semester. She was supposed to meet up with her uncle and go on the Incan trail, but the company botched her spot and she was going to have to meet them in the city on the next day after entertaining herself for 3 days. We ended up eating pizza and playing pool with her and some other students she had run into on her trip to AC. Through our conversation, we discovered that they were planning on hiking up the ruins from the town early the next morning. Being the hard-core group that we were, we made plans to meet them in the square the next morning and accompany them up the mountain to Machu Picchu.

Rising at 4:30 am, we met our new friends in the square and hiked up to ruins in the dark. I had my headlamp and Branson had his flash light, but we ended up not needed either because of moonlight lighting our way. We beat many of the people who took the first busses up the city and were able to get into the sanctuary in time to see the sun top the peaks to the east of the city. Then we got in line to climb Huayna Picchu, or Young Peak, the highest sugar-loaf mountain situated behind the city in photographs. They only let 400 people climb the mountain everyday and you have to early in the morning if you want to have a chance. We stormed the peak, and never looked back in our conquest of the area.

The views from the top were worth every stinkin’ stone stair we had to climb to reach it. One of most incredible things was the building and terraces built on the top for a sort of watchtower to protect the city. We climbed almost entirely in a cloud and were disappointed we weren’t going to get a view of Machu Picchu. Fortunately, the clouds decided to thin and break frequently on our way back down, causing a pause in our descent and a mad scramble for our cameras. Before going back into the ruins, we climbed Huchuy Picchu, the second highest sugar-loaf peak you see in the pictures for more incredible views. The coolest thing about this peak is that there was no one else up there, we had the summit to ourselves. After that, we hiked through the city ruins and up to the ancient Incan Bridge which provided passage along a sheer cliff in order to finish a road system down the Urubambu Valley. Then it was back to the city and up to the Inti Punktu, or Sun Gate, where the Incan Trail comes into the sanctuary. By that time, our group (now nicknamed the “Core Four”) was feeling our escapades of the morning and took our time walking back to the main ruins. We were ahead of schedule and allowed ourselves some chill time just sitting and viewing the city and appreciating the awesome-ness of its structures and location. Walking among us and the other thousand tourists in the sanctuary were a heard of wild llamas complete with several young ones. It was very cool to see them walking around the terraces, trying to picture what it all might have looked like when it was flourishing. Then we literally ran back down the mountain (racing the descending busses) and refueled back in town with Snickers bars and generic brand Gatorades. We topped off our incredible day by climbing Putu Kusi and its many ladders. It rained on us the entire time but, once again, we lucked out and the clouds broke for long enough to catch yet another angle on the ruins of Machu Picchu. Finally it was back to the town for a quick bite of some delicious chicken enchiladas “to go” as we caught our train back to Cusco.

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