Machu Picchu at last!

The hotel had been very noisy last night so it was quite some time before I fell asleep. Also, as is so often the case when you have to get up early, I kept waking up, so still felt very tired when the alarm went off at 3.45am. I dressed and packed up and met Lisa and Russell downstairs, where Erik was also waiting. We walked along the road, said goodbye to Erik and continued on to the bridge and checkpoint at the foot of the Inca stairs that lead up to Machu Picchu. The bridge, we soon found out, didn’t open until 5am so we had to wait for 20 minutes. By the time it did, though, there was quite a queue of walkers building up behind us. Getting through took a little while as tickets and passports were checked by the light of a powerful torch, and then we were off!

The steps go straight up. There is little variation in the degree of steepness, just in the size of the steps. The path criss crosses the zig zags in the road several times and eventually reaches the entrance. Lisa and Russell went ahead as I had to go at my own speed but, as it turned out, they weren’t that far ahead. Lots of people overtook me but I was just concentrating on reaching the top. I arrived at 6am just before the entrance gates opened. There was a mass of people already there and the first buses had started arriving. I felt quite emotional at the top with the thought that I had actually done it. The last four days have felt like a major achievement.

Early morning at Machu Picchu
Early morning at Machu Picchu

We went through the barriers and waited until 6.15am to see if the others arrived. When there was no sign of them, we climbed up yet more steps to the Guard House where Erik had told us to meet them if they weren’t there on time. Once there, I marvelled at the sight before me which, at that time, was relatively free of people. It was unbelievable, with the city being almost dwarfed by the mountains towering above on all sides. Lisa got out her yoga mat and started her yoga practice and Russell set up his camera for a time lapse photo of the sun rising over the mountain tops. They seemed oblivious of the mounting crowds surrounding them!

The mountains in the early morning
The mountains in the early morning

Our group arrived and Erik led us over to a spot where I, for one, had a magnificent view over the city where, as he gave us some excellent information, clouds drifted across the ruins and Wayna Picchu, creating a very mystical effect. I always thought that I would never visit Machu Picchu because too many people would have spoilt it. Words cannot describe how superb it was though and this was the best time of the entire day.

Admiring the view!
Admiring the view!

Erik gave us a 4 hour tour of the ruins. During this time, more and more people arrived until we were almost fighting our way along the paths. The tour guides, though, appeared very professional and waited for each other to finish before moving into a particular spot to give their explanations. It is a huge site with much to see and Erik is extremely knowledgeable about the history and customs of the Incas.

Afterwards, some people had tickets to climb Wayna Picchu (the famous mountain alongside Machu Picchu) and the rest of us had tickets to go up Machu Picchu mountain, which is much higher with steps all the way. Only 200 tickets are issued for Wayna Picchu each day and they tend to sell out very quickly. However, having seen the track from a distance, I don’t know how anyone can go up there. Of the 7 people who had tickets in our group, only 3 went. They all said it was the most scary thing they have done in their lives. The track is on a ridge with a sheer drop and is extremely steep. People are ascending and descending on the same path, which is very narrow. Ben went to the top and wished he hadn’t, Rebecca froze and couldn’t move without Mark encouraging her to come down. Other people were descending on their hands and knees. Why would anyone want to do that? Having said that, it is unbelievable that the Incas went up there and actually built terraces on the side of the mountain.

I set off with John, Eileen and Jennifer to climb part way up Machu Picchu. Somehow, along the way, we got separated, so it was just John and I that went up. I had had no intention of climbing to the top and don’t think I would have had the energy to do so even if I had wanted to. The whole way is on Inca steps and takes nearly 2 hours to reach the summit. I decided I had climbed enough mountains for one week! We found a spot, almost on a level with the top of Wayna Picchu, and sat for a while admiring the view of the city and of Aguas Calientes far below. It was very relaxing before we descended into the hordes of tourists once again.

Roofless buildings
Roofless buildings

At the bottom, after climbing the highest point of the city, John set off to walk back down to Aguas Calientes and I ambled a bit further around the ruins, sitting on some steps away from the people, at one point, just so that I could look and admire. By this time, though, I was under time pressure as I had to be back in the hotel for lunch at 2pm and needed to allow time to return to the entrance and queue for a bus. Getting back to the entrance though required yet more climbing up and down of steps so I was almost relieved to be back.

Shelters on the terraces
Shelters on the terraces

With perfect timing, I arrived just before 2pm. Some people were still missing as we started lunch but most of them appeared, with the exception of Ben, who was still walking down. Erik was catching a train at 2.45pm (for some reason, the guides go on a different train) and Ben had the money we needed to tip him! (I had managed to leave the cash I withdrew for the purpose, in my handbag, which was in my backpack in Cusco.) We had to say goodbye and arrange to meet him later as Ben wasn’t back.

Llamas kissing at Machu Picchu
Llamas kissing at Machu Picchu

We then had some time to wait before making our way to the train station for our 4.20pm train to Ollantayambo. It was bedlam at the station with so many tourists trying to get on the trains. We had our tickets and had to fight our way through the crowds to reach the platform. After that, it was a relaxing 2 hour ride to our destination, where we were met once again by Erik. There were several SAS tour groups on the train and we were divided between buses for our 2 hour trip back to Cusco through the Sacred Valley. Unfortunately, it was dark by this stage so we didn’t see much of the countryside. I was sitting next to Mark so had quite a chat to him.

We arrived back in Cusco at 8.30pm and, having arranged for whoever wanted to, to meet for lunch tomorrow, we all went our separate ways after an excellent trip.

In sight of Machu Picchu

The river valley far below
The river valley far below

The wake up calls were getting earlier and earlier although, this morning, I was already awake, having slept very well, when the ‘knock’ on the tent came. However, as per usual, we didn’t get away quite as early as planned as, this morning, there were some very tired people, including the cook and Erik. We got underway, nevertheless, at about 6.30am.

Erik had told me this was going to be a tough day but obviously the message did not filter through to some of the others. Laura and Philip did not even attempt to walk but stayed behind, helped clear up the camp and went with the porters in a minivan to the lunch destination. Rebecca walked up the hill as far as the coffee plantation we were scheduled to visit and then caught up with Laura and Philip. The plantation was about 45 minutes from the camp and, when we arrived, I, along with 5 others, elected not to do the tour but continue walking and get a head start.

Looking back to where we have come from
Looking back to where we have come from

This was probably one of the best parts of the walk as, most of the time, I was on my own, without group pressure to rush, so could admire the beautiful valley whose sides we were climbing. Mark, John and Eileen were ahead of me and Renee and Brei behind, as I ambled along, listening to the birds, taking photos and generally appreciating the morning. The track was quite steep in parts but much of it was in shade, thank goodness, as it had turned into a hot morning.

Erik eventually overtook me, having run up from the coffee plantation to catch us up. I continued walking, up to the top of the mountain and part way down the other side, only seeing a group of Germans and Tom, who also overtook me. A little way past the summit, I caught up with them and we then sat and waited for the others for some time.

First view of Machu Picchu on the ridge line
First view of Machu Picchu on the ridge line
Resting place for us and the Incas
Resting place for us and the Incas

The meeting place was the site of an old Inca resting place and had a view across the valley towards Machu Picchu, some of the terraces of which could be seen in the distance. The Incas had a number of resting places all over their kingdom. These were for the succession of runners who carried messages from one place to the next – their form of postal service.

Everyone seemed totally exhausted by the time they arrived with the notable exception of Lisa and Russell. The former did her yoga in front of us all whilst Erik was trying to give us information about the Inca culture. I felt so much better today that I had not found the uphill battle nearly as bad as some of the others. However, it was downhill all the way from here and we were under time pressure as we were catching a train to Agua Calientes after lunch.

The river is our destination!
The river is our destination!

I managed to keep up with Erik for quite some time after the break. Gratifyingly, the others were some way behind with only Ben and Tom overtaking me. I had been told before that it is easier to run downhill when the path is steep but have never felt confident enough to do that. Today, however, whilst not exactly running, I could semi jog and did find it easier on the knees and thighs. The aforementioned persons and I consequently reached the meeting place at the bottom some time before the rest. Here, there was a stall selling tree tomatoes (or, to me, tamarillos), avocadoes, bananas and grenadillas (passion fruit). I think the lady did some quite good business out of our visit that day! One or two people, including the fitness obsessed, were quite rattled when they arrived, as they had found the descent so difficult. I shouldn’t gloat but………….!

After the break, there was another 5 minute walk to a suspension bridge across the river before the land flattened out. We walked along the river bed and then the track to Machu Picchu Park, where we signed in and obtained a souvenir stamp in our passports.

A bit further and we reached the train station where our cooks, Rebecca, Laura and Philip were all waiting with our lunch in an adjacent cafe. This, as far as I was concerned, was the best meal so far. (Admittedly, there were a couple of days when I had hardly eaten anything so am probably not really qualified to make that statement!) There were lots of vegetables, chicken and the best avocado salad I have tasted.

This was the point at which we said goodbye to our cooks and took the 3pm train to Aguas Calientes. It was a very slow trip as the train seemed to shunt backwards and forwards far more than appeared necessary. However, the seats were very comfortable and there were big windows so that we could admire the mountain scenery, not only from the side but also out the top.

View from the train
View from the train

Aguas Calientes itself is one big tourist town. It is the closest to Machu Picchu and all the tourists have to pass through it. Consequently, it is full of souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels and not a lot else. We had a 5 minute walk from the train station to the hotel, checked in and headed for our rooms. Once again, I got one to myself even though I hadn’t paid a supplement. All the young people took our their phones and connected with the wifi as soon as we walked through the door as they had been Facebook deprived for 4 days. My phone, however, failed to connect so I remained in ignorance for another day.

Later on, freshly cleaned up, 6 or 7 of us went in search of pre dinner pisco sours. These were found in a Mexican/Italian restaurant and went down very well with the accompaniment of nachos and tortilla chips. Then it was back to the hotel for a buffet dinner and our instructions for the following day. I was determined to walk up to Machu Picchu as I couldn’t bear the thought of going on the bus after walking 4 days to get there. The only other enthusiasts were Lisa and Russell, who, I would have to say, would not have been my first choice of companions but, nevertheless, it was probably better than walking on my own in the dark. As we had to leave at 4.15am to get there by 6am, it was another early night.