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Legs Fully Recovered from Machu Picchu

September 21st, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

The disappearance of soreness took a while–that was ten days ago.

Aguas Calientes turned out to be a well-oiled tourist processing machine, and with the rivers that run through and lush mountains in every direction it is a pretty one at that.  A flood of well appointed restaurants promising the same deals like menu completo and 4 for 1 drinks lined the main drags.  Strangely some 60 or so percent of restaurants seemed to think it vital to maintain and promote a suite of Mexican food offerings, in addition to the Peruvian dishes.  Pizza and Italian were close seconds in the race to pander to foreign tastes.

The morning of our tour we awoke at 4:45am to catch 5am breakfast in our hotel lobby.   There we found an older couple also assembling their breakfast plates from the spread.  After exchanging good mornings I had the surprisingly good sense (considering the hour) to ask point blank: “Would you guys like some company this morning?”

This was a good move, for Gene and Terry turned out to be exactly the sort of folks Tracy and I enjoy meeting in our travels: they’ve been to 177 countries together1, and are still (clearly) at it.  As bon vivants the phrase role models seems quite fitting: living within their means, traveling well on the cheap, and generally having a lovely go of life.  They even had stories to share about traveling while raising their one daughter, good nuggets worth tucking away for the future2.

In Aguas Calientes the first bus up to Machu Picchu leaves at 5:30am, and there is a sort of magical air about the city at that time.  Here as darkness slowly fades you have this unidirectional flow of traveler types from all around the world, converging from side streets onto the sidewalk that goes along the river, and walking eagerly towards the nexus of the bus system.  The buses are all lined up, and as one bus fills and starts up the winding road the next one pulls forward into loading position.

The road up consists of something like 16 switchbacks as you ascend about 1500 feet.  When you get off it’s you and a hoard of other tourists awaiting entry as gate agents check tickets and match them to passports.  For me it was deja vu of the excitement to enter a Six Flags first thing in the morning, so you could make a beeline to the Batman roller coaster before a huge line formed.  Here instead of Batman we had sunrise, which upon ancient city set against impossibly tall mountains and deep valleys was easily every bit as worth waking early for.

Machu Picchu was voted in as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and I reckon it deserves its place. Now that I’ve been there I get the hype, and agree that, if you have the means, you gotta see it.  The scale, the stonework, the terraces that transform steep hills into arable land all lend the site a sense of real wonder. The build site alone would qualify even a modest fortress as impressive: it’s so greatly elevated from its surroundings that the logistics of building anything of scale must be a feat.  There are no shortage of locations where, if you got a good running start, you could jump off the edge and fall more than 1000 feet before the steep grade of the land caught up with you again.

Oh, and yeah, it does look really cool when this vast architectural expanse is bathed in the first light of morning as the sun climbs above the threshold of the next mountain over.

To be more hardcore, Tracy and I paid more in our admission tickets for the right to be of the 400 people that day permitted to climb Huayna Picchu, the emblematic rock overlooking the city which you’ve seen probably countless times in the classic postcard photo of the site.  Huayna Picchu is a course of perhaps some 2500 stone steps roughly carved into the side of the mountain leading to a ruins site at the very top and offering quite excellent bird’s eye views of the ancient city below.  At a net ascent of about 1100 feet it’s quite a climb, and again 1000+ foot falls are thoroughly available to those keen to running starts.  One of the rocks at the top features a little groove carved in, perfect for sittin’.  I’m struck to think that my butt has now set perched on the same groove as at least a few ancient Inca Kings3.

To be even more hardcore, Tracy and I paid less in our bus tickets for the right to walk down from the site back into Aguas Calientes (i.e. we bought one-way tickets).  While on Huayna Picchu we made some friends, and those friends let us know about mid-way that it was about 4000 steps down, steps rough hewn into the rocks of the mountain and very much non-uniform.

After enough steps going down is every bit as hard as going up, and uses different muscles that are not so often worked.  Wobbly, jello-like legs marked most of this part of the day’s hiking, and it took a lot to prevent a misstep or a fall.  Had we to do it over again, we would have stopped short of the walk down, content with the hardcore points earned on Huayna Picchu.  Our companions it seemed were faring better with the fatigue, and since they’d climbed these very stairs earlier that morning I was given cause to miss being in my mid-twenties4.

Tracy’s got beautiful photography of the whole scene, check it out.

Back in the city we managed only one small beer with the gang before hunger and fatigue set us off for a quick meal and a nap back in our room.  The remaining 24 hours Aguas Calientes are a blur, basically us biding our time before our train, hobbling about to a restaurant as needed, hopefully not up or down too much hill.

When we returned to Cusco it felt like coming home, back to streets and venues we knew, a climate that was familiar, and prices back to normal (I found I could pretty accurately guess the price of commodity items in Aguas Calientes by tacking on 50% to the typical Cusco price).  It was with bittersweet nostalgia that the time back seemed too short when we headed off to the airport the next day5.

Now we’re back in Lima, this time for a 9 day stint.  With its always-63ish-degree weather it’s much nicer for sleeping, and with its always-cloudy-and-gray state of the sky it’s much less nice for exploring.  Aside from a few world-class ceviche and grade-A sushi meals, and a lovely night walk through a park with lit up dancing fountains,I haven’t found much to recommend about the town.  It’s winter here, so the endless cloudy days is apparently a fixture for about 8 weeks–I’m sure it’s better with sunlight (although yesterday we did see some in the afternoon, which I took to be Lima’s birthday present to me).  Beyond that, it feels like any big town in the world, visible in all its glory from our 9th story high rise apartment.

Tomorrow we head off again for Nicaragua, and only a 22 hour layover in Miami separates us from diving into our next country.  I’m excited to bask in the sun again, and I reckon my sandals will be happy to get out and about again as well.

  1. I honestly thought there were only around 160, shows what I know.
  2. “Gene & Terry” seem awfully close to “John & Tracy”, which I take to be a nudge and wink from the universe for me to pay attention to the insights and perspectives they have to share.
  3. Mainly I wonder if their spirits are at all pissed about the situation.
  4. Now at 33 this feeling is still a rare thing–we’ll see how long that lasts
  5. A feeling which I may as well grow fond of, since I hope to experience with every place we call home for the next year.
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  1. Dianna Smith
    October 1st, 2012 at 19:15 | #1

    What a great story. Thank you. One of my very good friends is at Machu Picchu right now, so I will impress her with my great knowledge upon her return. I appreciate you making me look good!

    Tracy’s photos are fabulous. I enjoyed all of it.

    Have fun!

    • John
      October 4th, 2012 at 13:29 | #2

      Hey Dianna, you bet! I’ll pass your kudos on to Tracy.

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