Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Peru - Part 5!

The Andes – Machu Picchu

Originally we were to take a train from Cusco to Machu Picchu.  But a few weeks before we left San Francisco I received an email from PeruRail letting me know that storms had washed out the tracks between Cusco and Pachar Station near Ollantaytambo, so we would need to take a bus to Pachar, which is about halfway to Machu Picchu.  Later I learned that this is not a unique happenstance – apparently it happens almost every year.  Too bad, but so goes life in the Andes.

The bus ride took about an hour and a half.  Actually, we were on the same road we took the previous day back to Cusco from the Sacred Valley.  Except for the fact that we had to stop for a while because of a small avalanche that happened just seconds before we passed that spot on the road (dust from the rocks and dirt were still blocking our view) the bus was uneventful, albeit a little uncomfortable.

The train was much nicer.  Called the Vistadome, we were surrounded by glass and large panoramic windows.  We followed the Urubamba River through the valley and the scenery, as advertised, was beautiful: mountain peaks on either side, small towns, farmland, forests.  After another hour and a half we arrived at Machu Picchu Station in Aguas Calientes.  It’s actually the gateway to Machu Picchu, which is another six kilometers up the mountain, accessed by bus on a twisting, turning, hairpin-filled dirt road.

I’ve mentioned that we were booked into the Sanctuary Lodge, located just a few meters from the entrance to the Machu Picchu site.  A hotel representative found us wandering around Aguas Calientes trying to figure out how to get to the hotel.  Our man Jorge.  With his guidance we got bus tickets and tickets to Machu Picchu, which need to be purchased in advance.  And up the hill we went.

The Sanctuary is a 3 or 4-star hotel at a 5+ star price.  We were paying for location, and in that sense it was worth it.  Their service and food are pretty good, but the rooms are ordinary.  We did have a view of Huayna Picchu, the iconic mountain that overlooks Machu Picchu, the Citadel, and that was a special treat.  Machu Picchu, the mountain, is on the other side of the valley.

Machu Picchu is a challenge to talk about.  On the one hand it is a huge engineering masterpiece.  How could a group of pre-industrial people manage to haul thousands of huge stones up or down a steep mountainside so as to create artistically sophisticated temples, houses, tombs, farming terraces, gardens, fountains, and more?  On the other hand Machu Picchu highlights and honors three main elements of Inca life – nature, culture and the spirit – brilliantly.

We are told that Machu Picchu was built as a retreat for the Emperor, used as such maybe once a year and otherwise occupied year round by a few hundred priests and residents.  A pretty fancy part-time residence, that’s for sure.  Whatever the truth and history, for me it was mostly a special place to be.  Others, including Sandra, want to know the details, and I understand that.  But in the face of such exquisite natural beauty I am happy to just sit back, immerse myself and enjoy it.  And that’s what I did.

Late on our first afternoon, after many of the day visitors had gone, we went into the site for the first time.  It was an exploratory excursion.  We just poked around without a plan to get a sense of what it was like.  We enjoyed it, but realized that a more organized visit would be helpful, so we arranged with the Lodge to have a guide the next day.  I recognize that this may seem inconsistent with my I want to just ‘be’ approach, but I saw no downside to both ‘being’ and ‘being in the place with someone who knew what he was looking at.’  So the next morning Ernesto joined us.

During our time in Peru Sandra had been coping with a stomach upset, including diarrhea.  She’d successfully held it at bay, but at the end of our first day at Machu Picchu she was also feeling the onset of a sore throat and cold.  She wanted some medication, but finding any didn’t seem likely.  As far as we knew, when the site closed all the little stores and kiosks at the entrance went dark and nothing was open except the Lodge.  However, when we asked about medicine at the front desk we were told there was a dispensary/clinic nearby.  So off we went to find it.

With the help of a flashlight and Sandra’s good sense of direction we found the place.  A knock on the door brought out a young man and woman who opened another door and behold, there was in fact a little dispensary inside.  Their stock of meds was limited, but after determining what the problem was they suggested some pills.  We had little option except to take their suggestion.  So we paid for the pills, and also a charge for the ‘consultation,’ and returned to the Lodge for dinner.  When we were back in Cusco we went looking for a pharmacy and added to our pill supply.  Whether either the first or second meds did any good we don’t know.  Fortunately, the sore throat and cold didn’t get worse, so either nature took its course or our medical ‘experts’ were helpful – or both.

The next day we spent three hours with Ernesto and were very happy we’d chosen to use a guide.  He was very knowledgeable, organized our time so that without undue exertion we were about to see the most relevant places, and patiently answered Sandra’s endless questions.  I’d borrowed a walking stick from the hotel, which made it much easier for me to climb around the site, which had a lot of ups and downs and rough spots.  It was a very satisfying morning.

Sandra wasn’t quite finished.  She wanted one more trip inside the Citadel, which she did the morning of our last day in Machu Picchu.  It turns out that for many many years she’d dreamed of visiting this place.  Before we planned this trip her Machu Picchu dream hadn’t come up in our various conversations about where to go in the world, so this was news to me.  She made her final visit and returned, she said, complete.  She was a happy girl.

On Monday, June 24, we retraced our journey down the hill to Aguas Calientes, boarded the train, transferred to the bus at Pachar Station, and arrived back in Cusco about 7 p.m.


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