Plan on going to Machu Picchu someday? Don´t do it like this…
Said goodbye to my German buddies Sepp and Martin, who had to return to Alemania.
Climbed a good climb over a ridge to exit Cuzco, then a good downhill on the other side. Fantastic paved road, not a lot of traffic, slow easy climb until a small town with ruins. I skipped the small ruins determined to arrive at the grand daddy asap.
From the town with the ruins there is a short climb and then a HUGE downhill, maybe 20 kilometers?. This downhill covers a good portion of the day’s ride and makes the ride from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo a relatively easy 70-to 80-kilometer day.
After a few kilometers of dirt roads between Chilca and a town simply called Kilometro 82 I found a family to lock my bike in a closet for 5 soles, or 1.30. Talked about the possibility of walking to Aguas Calientes, the town at the base of Machu Picchu, from 82. Locals said it’s a 5-7 hour walk, so basically a marathon. Igual. I had to get there, and I couldn’t afford the gringo train.
I had plans to wake up at 4am and run the last section along the tracks, but some locals said i might as well try to get on the Peruvian train tonight just to see what happens. After all, they reminded me, I’m not just a tourist. This tour is volunteer work AND I was robbed, so the employees might cut me some slack and let me on for the $1.50 local price without paying the $30-something tourist price tag each way… it was worth a try.
I kept my head down as I tried to board the first train so they couldn’t see my blue eyes. The dark skinned people in front of me got on the train no problem, no ID check. I was stopped at the door. I begged and pleaded and explained my heart out. No.
90 minutes later I kept my head down as I tried to board the second train. They must not have seen my blue eyes. I sat down, kept my head down. The doors shut and the train started to move! You can’t back a train up; I was on my way to Machu Picchu! But there were problems.
“Stop the train! There’s a gringo on the train!” “We can’t stop the train, why didn’t you stop him at the door?” “I-I don’t know. I guess I didn’t see him.” “How did you not see him?”
“It’s okay, I’m not a typical tourist,” I explained. “I am doing volunteer work in Peru at the moment.”
“Do you have an ID of residency?”
“Then it doesn’t matter why you’re here,” they explained, sounding genuinely worried. “The rules are very strict. If they see a gringo get off the train in Aguas Calientes they will report us and we could get fired. You have to get off the train at the next stop.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know that. The people in 82 told me I could get on this train. Plus I got robbed earlier on this tour, I’m short on cash but it has always been a dream of mine to visit Machu Picchu. I rode my bike all the way to 82 but the road ended, and I can’t afford $60 for the train. I’ll pay the local price. I don’t want to rip you off, I just want to be treated fairly. We all know you can’t legally force me off the train and leave me in a town I don’t know in the middle of the night. I’m very sorry, but you let me on the train, and the people in 82 told me it would be okay.”
The train stopped at kilometro 88. They told me to get off the train. “You have to get off. Get off the train right now.” I stood up, started walking toward the exit, but went into the restroom instead. A man ran to the door of the restroom and pushed on it forcefully before I could shut it, jamming it into my foot. I yelled “Ow! You’re hurting me!”
“Get off the train. You have to get off the train.”
“Where will I sleep? I don’t have my tent with me. Just let me pee and then I’ll come out.” I was telling the truth, but we both knew the train would be going again by the time I finished.
They seemed extremely concerned about losing their jobs. They have families to support, they told me. I honestly felt horrible for putting them in this situation, but there was no way I was going to get off the train at night with no tent in a town without a hostel.
They started pushing on the door harder, further ripping my already-ripped shoe and scratching my arm to the point of bleeding. This was getting way out of hand. I said, “Look, there was no problem before. I was sitting in a seat tranquilamente but now you are illegally using force against me.” I showed them my bleeding arm. “Let me pee. I´ll be out in 2 minutes. Then I’m going to sit in a seat until Aguas Calientes. Please don’t touch me, and stop pushing on the door.” After a few sighs and glances, it worked!
I peed, and I tried to flush but it only flushed halfway. A moment later I was opening the restroom door when somebody pushed forcefully on it AGAIN, causing me to drop my cloth backpack in the toilet. Fortunately my clothes stayed dry; the cloth and my sleeping bag were the only things that got wet. “What was the point of that?!” I was finding it very difficult not to lose my temper with these fools. I took one step forward and sat down in the nearest seat. They didn’t touch me.
Finally, a calm, intelligent guy in his late twenties approached me and said, “Listen, I know we’re both in a difficult situation, so let’s use our brains instead of force. There is a stop 3 kilometers before Aguas Calientes. Do you have a flashlight?”
“Okay, we can let you off the side of the train opposite from the station so nobody sees you. It is jungle there. Just take a few steps into the shadows of the trees and wait until the train leaves. After a few minutes keep walking in the direction of the train and you’ll arrive in Aguas Calientes after a 30-minute walk along the tracks. Just don’t ever tell anyone about this, ever.”
After a beautiful night hike along the railroad through the jungle, I arrived just outside of Aguas Calientes at about 11pm. Before entering town, I turned off my headlamp and stopped to think.
The plan for the next morning was to wake up before sunrise and hike up the stone staircase through the jungle, arriving at Machu Picchu at sunrise. That’s about 5 hours of sleep. No hostel necessary. Next to the river there was a variety of large rocks eroded smooth by the rushing whitewater. I scouted around and found one huge rock that had apparently fallen from a cliffside long ago and eroded over who-knows-how-many years to the exact shape of my body. I pulled out my sleeping bag and slept like a wawa.
I have no watch. At some point during the darkness the temperature dropped, which I learned in Paraguay means the sun is about to rise.
I packed up my smelly sleeping bag and started jogging the empty street toward the stone staircase.
Day 2: Machu Picchu
On my way out of Aguas Calientes I stopped to buy a student discount entry ticket (half price) for Machu Picchu. But my student ID was stolen back in Argentina. So I explained this to the woman working at the ticket sales window, but she would not give me the discount. She said I could buy a ticket up at Machu Picchu where there is internet to prove I am a student.
As I continued jogging the road to Machu Picchu I began to see signs of life in the darkness. A long line of people waiting for the buses, a few people walking, and even another guy running. I followed the road around a switchback, and at the top of it I saw people who had been behind me emerging from a staircase now in front of me. Where’d they come from? “I recommend you take the stairs up the mountain or you’re going to end up running 8k instead of 2,” one tourist told me. “Okay, thank you!” And with that I began running the stairs. I made it up one flight before I became so short of breath I had to walk… very slowly. Supporting myself with my hands on my knees. I was tired, but I had a long way to go. And I had to beat the busses up the mountain if I had a hope of climbing Wayna Picchu, which only allows 400 people each morning. I saw it as a cross-training opportunity. I stairstepped as quickly as I could, wheezing like a Serere.
I’m not a student, so I paid full price at the ticket office at Machu Picchu. It costs about 135 Soles, or US$47. Quite caro, but well worth it.
After all my efforts I missed the Wayna Picchu 400-person cutoff, but here’s a secret: the trail to Wayna Picchu is also a trail to some other ruins that don’t have a 400 person limit. An employee took me aside, whispered the fact to me, and then said “now come back and say to me that you are going to the other ruins so my co-workers can hear it. Then just turn the other way up the trail and climb Wayna Picchu. Nobody will know.” Oftentimes I don’t know why people are so eager to help me. This trip really is restoring my faith in humanity. Sure, bad things happen but the majority of people take every opportunity to offer help, food, a place to stay. In this case, however, it was clear why this guy was so eager to help me: “Now… you have to pay me something,” he said. Ha! I reached into my pocket, found a 5 sol coin (about US$1.70) and went back to the entry to the Wayna Picchu trail to tell him loudly, so his friends could hear, “Can I at least take the trail up to those other ruins?” Of course I could.
The view from Wayna Picchu was my favorite part of Macchu Picchu.
After an hour of enjoying the breeze and exploring the ruins I made my way back down to the Machu Picchu ruins (Machu Picchu itself is actually a taller peak on the other side of the Machu Picchu ruins). There, I took my classic Machu Picchu photos in various clothes and jump poses. Then I walked around listening to guides lead other people who had paid for said guides. I found a guide whose style I liked and decided to do what another tourist had recommended to me: “A lot of these guides work for bigger tour agencies and get paid a salary. So if you offer even just a small tip to listen in on the tour, they’ll take it.”
The tour was great. I got to see the stone monument of a condor head and the brick walls in the shape of wings rising behind it. I saw the crumbling main temple, the beautiful temple of the sun, and I learned about the importance of the solstices and equinoxes—they even have windows aligned perfectly for the viewing of the sunsets during these times. My favorite part of the stone village, however, is the ingenious design of small water channels in the stone floor, zig-zagging throughout Machu Picchu, which must have served fresh spring water to hundreds of people using simple gravity. And the best part is that after 600 years the water still flows throughout the town!
If you are fortunate enough to visit this special place someday, I recommend you stay until late afternoon. The tourists disappeared. I sat on a rock and watched the sunset, then made my way down to hike the stairs back to Aguas Calientes. A truck passed me on the road on the way back and offered me a ride. It was getting dark so I took it. Found a hostel that offered to let me sleep free on the couch for 5 soles. In the end they ended up giving me a room and not charging me anything. Thank you Hostal Mirador! But before bed I went to the hot springs… the town IS called Aguas Calientes afterall… there I met a nice Peruvian family who treated me to dinner afterwards. Thanks nice Peruvian family! What a day…
Day 3- I tried to leave Aguas Calientes today but it wasn’t in the cards. While walking the dirt road alone out of Aguas Calientes I saw a latina girl standing at the bottom of a slope, and a white guy sliding down the dirt from the railroad tracks. As I got closer I started to think they looked familiar… then I realized they were James and Viviana, two friends I had met in Bolivia! We had plans to meet up in Colombia. Crazy to meet on a dirt road in Peru. “Let’s go have a beer,” James said. “And we’ll buy you lunch.” So you see, I simply couldn’t leave. Thanks for everything by the way, guys!
Day 4- James and Viviana went to Machu Picchu, and I started the 2-hour hike along the railroad tracks to the hydroelectric station. From there, a 30-minute bus to Santa Teresa, then another bus, 1 hour to Santa Maria. Then I hitchhiked in the back of a fruit truck to Ollantaytambo. What I didn’t realize when I jumped in the back of the truck was that the people in it were currently working. It would drive in the opposite direction for an hour or two, I would help unload cement bags, then help load fruit, and more fruit. The hitchhiking trip would end up lasting 8 hours or so, and I would struggle to sleep in a crouch position in the company of some valienta señoras who do this several times a week. We would huddle together and brave the cold in silence under shared blankets, arriving in Ollantaytambo in the middle of the night. When my curiosity got the best of me I would break the cold silence and ask, “How do you say ‘cat’ in Quechua?” “Michi.” When their curiosity got the best of them they would ask, “Y tu mamá?” “Me dice que se preocupa por mi, y me extraña, pero me apoya completamente.”
I arrived in Ollantaytambo with the small pack I took to Machu Picchu: clothes, toiletries, survival kit, and a sleeping bag. I had to find a place to sleep. There were some ruins outside of town; could I finally fulfill my dream of camping in Incan ruins? No, not safe. I went to the police station to ask for advice, or a floor to sleep on. He said there was a cheap place over there. Over where? Just over there. He walked away.
I went to one hostel, no answer. Then another, and a guy offered me a floor to sleep on for free in the closet next to some Peruvians who were in town to do some manual labor. This was my first time sleeping on a concrete floor without a sleeping pad on this trip… or in my entire life? It wasn’t overly uncomfortable but it was cold so I lined the bottom inside of my bag with a thin layer of extra clothes. I ended up sleeping better than I expected, but not great. At sunrise the laborers got up, so I got up with them and asked, “Do you sleep on the concrete floor every night?”
“When we travel for work, yes.”
“Wow, que valiente. Must be difficult.”
They looked at each other and laughed, “No, it’s really not difficult at all. You get used to it.”
And so it is with life. I packed up my sleeping bag while I thought about those bed commercials with a glass of red wine on one side and a child jumping on the other. And I decided I am learning at least one lesson on this trip: The more luxuries we have, the more miserable life becomes when we have to do without.
Day 5: I still hadn’t reached my bike. I went to the market for a 70 cent smoothie and an egg and cheese sandwich and then got a bus to Kilometro 82. I arrived at about 9am. Nobody was home at the house where my bicycle was locked in a closet. Neighbors said they took the animals to graze in a field. They didn’t come back for lunch, so I sat on the steps, ate mandarins and wrote in this journal. Then, Josh, I went to a restaurant and got a huge lunch for a dollar, hurrying back so as not to miss the elusive family. At about 2pm the 12 year old came back from school. He opened the room for me, and I packed up in a hurry. After 15 minutes I was packed and ready to pedal again for the first time in 2 days. “Wow,” he said to me, “You pack up fast!” “I’ve been doing it almost every day for four months,” I told him.
I pedalled the dirt road east out of 82 toward Ollantaytambo as fast as I could, enjoying the strong tailwind that was my nemesis a few days earlier when i was pedalling west toward 82. The wind is STRONG in this gorge, so even though I was pedalling upriver I was riding much faster than the downriver trek with the headwind. It was reminiscent of the Quebrada de Humauaca area in Northern Argentina, and the giant hill west of Abra la Raya in Southeastern Peru. Downhill with a headwind. Uphill with a tailwind. The grass is always greener.
I only made it to Ollantaytambo. There I met KB, a gringo mtn. biker from the U.S. who moved to Peru a few years back for the trails. He now runs a hostel/mountain bike tour company in Ollanta. He hooked me up with a free suite, complete with a comfy bed and my 3rd hot shower in 2 weeks! Quite a change from the past few nights. So, of course a huge thanks and a little linkage for my friends at http://www.KBPeru.com