countin' the days

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Machu Picchu: The Final Frontier

After Desi left Peru, I could really hear the tick-tock of my travel clock running out. I had two weeks to go. I also had a dilemma: what to do with those two weeks. Being more or less completely broke, a little low on energy, and really sick of the touristy hell Southern Peru can sometimes be, I was debating whether or not to even go to Machu Picchu. I had heard a variety of things about it, ranging from the divine to the disastrous. My travel partner, the lovely Biggi from Germany, was in the same boat. We discussed our options and eventually decided to go for it, together, taking our time, and just doing whatever felt right. The goal would not be Machu Picchu itself but rather the journey to & from. Indeed.

First off, you have to understand that there are literally only three ways to get to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town that sits at the bottom of Machu Picchu.
1) Do what everyone else does: take the train round-trip from Cusco on a one-day tourist trap excursion that will cost anywhere from $75 to $300.
2) Take a guided trek through the mountains -- ruling out the Inca Trail because it's always booked up months and months in advance -- which will last about 3 days and cost $300-500.
3) Go the completely hairball and roundabout back way, taking overcrowded buses and shared taxis through tiny pueblitos until you reach a hydroelectric plant, at which point you & your stuff walk for 2 1/2 hours down the railroad tracks.

Take a wild guess which one we chose.

It took 9 1/2 hours of travel in 2 days to get there, but cost only $11 and the journey was actually quite fun, thanks in no small part to my superfabulous travel chica.

After a rest day of listening to loads of reggae in our room and drinking beers with locals, the big day arrived. We woke up at 5am to catch the very first bus up to Machu Picchu. We reluctantly paid the outrageous entrance fee ($42!!!) and made our way to a cozy spot high atop the site, where everyone takes that classic Machu Picchu photo... as did I. There we sat and watched the sun rise. I topped it off with a headstand. I could instantly feel the magic of the place, and laughed at myself for ever having doubted it. Looking around at the surrounding mountains and epic valley in which it sits, it is extremely clear why they chose this particular hilltop to become a site of divine worship. It is a supremely sacred spot.

We wandered through the site for a while, in complete awe at the sheer size of the place and the tangible sense of mystery that lingers in the air. But exploring was momentarily put aside as we got in line to climb the big peak that overlooks the whole thing, Wayna Picchu. They only let 500 people per day climb the mountain, and we definitely wanted to be two of them. It was a steep 45-minute climb, but was easily the highlight of my day. After reaching the summit, we found a nice spot on a sunny rock and busted out the delicious picnic we'd brought with us as we gazed down upon the splendor below. (Yet another bonus of being an experienced traveler: you always pack plenty of delicious grub.)

On the way back down, I struck up a conversation with a lovely kiwi lady named Angie. Within moments of reaching the ground, we met up with her buddies, kicked off our shoes, had a session, and spent the next couple hours lounging in the grass staring at the phenomenal beauty that surrounded us.

Eventually Biggi & I did more walking around, and our general amazement just continued to grow. I didn't realize how extremely huge the site would be, and we spent several giggly hours wandering past 10 foot high Inca walls into alleys and neighborhoods, discovering carvings & statues & even water fountains along the way. The whole thing is just so fantastically magical, sacred, and awe-inspiring all at once ... it's hard to even describe.

Truth be told, it was a bit like Inca Disneyland with the expensive entry, lines of people, tour groups, and the cheesy statues & crappy overpriced restaurants in Aguas Calientes. But so what?! It was a totally freaking awesome experience that I wouldn't trade for anything.

Guess I can say that about just about everything, everywhere, and everyone that graced my life for the last 18 months. I am endlessly grateful, overwhelmed, and overflowing with joy that I DID IT. And it ruled.