Wednesday 08th June 2016 –
It was a surprise to see Francois again – he just turned up at the hostel. When we’d tipped Willie, we’d been so tired that we’d mixed up who’d paid what, and I’d ended up paying all of it. I hadn’t even realised, but Francois had put the effort in to find my hostel, just to pay me back. I was touched.
That was the morning after we came back from Choquequirao, and it would only be another day before I was off again. To Machu Picchu this time. Being pretty tired, though, I decided to take it easy. Instead of a five day hike past Cerro Salkantay, which tops out over 4000m (the one Willie had consistently gone on about how easy it is), I decided on a lazier option. A real cop out. I would spend four days rafting, biking, and ziplining my way to Machu Picchu, with a little bit of walking thrown inbetween.
Handily, this also meant I got to get up significantly later – pick up was at 7AM. Apparently, I was not quite awake enough though – two minutes after leaving the hostel I realised I still had the key to my (private!) room. When I asked if we could go back, I as firmly told we were already late, so couldn’t. Hardly my fault, that one, I thought. We proceeded to spend the next hour in Cusco picking people up. Seriously, I could have just walked back.
Our group was large. Large enough to require two minibuses crammed full with the lot of us (and for me to dispense with names for now), but the journey through Peru’s sacred valley was beautiful enough to overlook that. A few hours of twists, turns, ascents and descents later, we arrived at our start point, Abra Malaga. From here, we would cycle.
It was all downhill, about 60km all told, but unlike Death road back in Bolivia, it was all paved. This was probably for the best – organisation was well down on that previous event – in fact, the only instruction we received was not to overtake people, and not to race. As such, the first half was a nice and relaxed ride, if rather slow. Back on the bikes again for the second half, I attached myself to the leading pack, a breakaway, about seven of us in all. I pedalled manically on straights, knowing both my necessity for slowing more through the corners, and the penance for falling behind the group, from Bolivia’s excursion. It worked – while the group eventually splintered, and I came down about sixth, we stormed away from the chasing pack. Crucially, I didn’t fall over. I did, however, get soaked by a van that timed it’s run through a stream to perfection.
A quick trip in the minivan and a very late lunch later, we were off rafting. Each of us was made to don a fetching yellow plastic jacket, and complete with red helmet it was noted how well they complemented my red and yellow baywatch beach shorts. I was impressed, too. I suppose there has to be a first time all my clothes match up. Anyway, we were separated into groups of five. Janik and I were placed at the front of the raft, with Olivia and Krista sat behind. Crucially, Nicola was at the back, on her own. Our guide only liked hard work. Paddling meant you had to throw yourself forward as far as possible, with exaggerated effort. A yell to get inside the raft meant an awkward lunge to the bottom, while battling against the current was a constant and bizarre demand. For Nicola, these instructions were further complicated. Paddling forward was accompanied by a shout to switch sides of the raft, which was almost always followed by one to switch back straight away. Getting inside meant throwing herself to the other side of the raft. If he wasn’t impressed enough with the endeavour shown, our guide would make her repeat it again and again. And maybe again. Fun for all the family!
It really was though. Despite my reservations – it was only a class 2/3 river (the Urubamba) – it was hilarious, and the rapids were pretty decent. I even managed a backflip off the boat at one point. Sometimes it’s about the company you keep. Back in Santa Maria for the night, we were assigned rooms. Since most people were in couples, they were housed first. Then, the six ‘single’ guys were called up. All seven of us stood up. “No, no. Just you six guys”, the guide gestured me away. Of course I don’t count…
As morning rose the next day, we set off for a walk to Santa Teresa – by all accounts a very leisurely walk. Honestly, we stopped so often we could’ve probably gotten there in half the time. As it was, it took all day. Still, there wasn’t too much wrong with this – the relaxing did noone any harm – and our stroll was punctuated by interesting facts about the Incas, their beliefs, and their trails, part of which we walked on. We also got to drink snake filled alcohol, meet monkeys, eat tasty pineapple (a particular highlight) and even get our faces painted! The Incas traditionally used the very same berries for war paint, so it obviously wasn’t childish at all.
Later in the day, navigating our way through the valleys and around the Urubamba river became the principle cause of our deviating route. Crossing to one side of the river required a rather rickety bridge, regularly interspersed with inviting holes, while we crossed back via pulley system. Basically, a cable splayed from one side to the other, and sat in a basket, we were launched in pairs to the other side. Then, one of the Peruvian guys working there would have to monster it, pulling the basket back as quick as possible. It was an impressive display of endurance, though I was slightly disappointed we didn’t get to use rubber chickens. One disused rail tunnel later (I don’t think the Incas had those) and we reached Santa Teresa, home of thermal baths, beer, and pisco sours. Luxury, really.
I shot across the valley at super speed, marvelling at the ground below, but still pretty worried. It was the first zipline, and to be honest, we hadn’t had too much time to prepare. Just attach on, and go. By the next one, I was no longer worried. By the last one, I was again. Turned upside down into a Spiderman sort of pose, the blood rushed to my head, and I couldn’t see anything because I’d taken my glasses off. Then I stopped in the middle of the line. Above what would certainly be death’s embrace if I fell. Queue an awkward righting of myself, and slightly panicked hand over hand, as I pulled myself to the other end. I stayed cool though guys, don’t worry. Then a wobbly bridge, which was actually worse. That sort of thing wouldn’t normally bother me, but the number of people on at once shook it so much that footing was unsure, and it was longer than first look, with an Indiana-Jones-esque valley drop below. He’s not normally tied onto these things, but I still think the comparison is valid.
It was no more than a short walk more before we arrived at Aguas Calientes, along the railway. Trains are infrequent. After a worryingly thorough relinquishing of any responsibility with Machu Picchu ticket problems by our guide, Richard (we seemed to have lost one by this point), the town that developed to cater to tourists grew out of the distance. Despite all the bad stories I’d heard about it, it was actually quite nice – the railway running through a centre overlooked by balconied buildings, all cut through by a small river. Accommodations weren’t bad either – I was finally included as a guy in room allocation, and he touristy nature meant I finally got to have a meal without soup. Yay!
Finally, we set off for Machu Picchu. We were queueing at the checkpoint by 4:30, and trekking up by 5:10. Four hundred metres, in the dark of the night. The gates themselves opened at 6AM, and we were ready and raring to go, which is where things turned, because apparently not everyone was. Richard had said we’d meet between 6:15 and 6:30 to talk to us about the ruins, but would not wait any longer than that. He was very adamant about that.
We actually saw him while queueing, and he told us to wait just beyond the entrance. We did, and even when moved by security, waited just a few metres further on. He never turned up though, and even as 6:45 went by, and people went to look for him, he was nowhere to be found. That’s twice now I’ve paid for a guide and not gotten one.
Machu Picchu itself made up for it all though. It really is awesome, and a vast expanse of city in the middle of nowhere. Like Choquequirao, I doubt I’ll ever really understand what persuaded the Incas to build such a settlement in quite such an awkward location, but it’s a wonder to behold. Immaculate stonework (very different to Choquequirao) is everywhere in the buildings that make up the centre, while terraces drop away on all sides. In the background lies the pinnacle of Huayna Picchu, which the Incas remarkably built stuff on, too.
Eventually, our now smaller group decided that we really did want some information, so went back to the entrance and hired an independent guide. He took us on what seemed like a ‘best location for photographs’ tour (I think they’re all the same, to be honest) but it was still worth it, just to get some perspective on the life that was, and figure out what we were looking at. Beyond temples, sundials, guardhouses and bathing spots though, much seems like speculation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – you can make up your own stories. Did you know Incas liked to eat brains? Apparently very tasty. True story.
Just before 10AM, Yannick and I (different Yannick, hence different spelling) headed up to Machu Picchu mountain. We were the only ones to have opted for a (very expensive) return on the train, but that meant we could stay till the close at 4PM, as opposed to 11AM to catch the bus from Hydroelectrica, and thereby had the time for such extravagances. I thought we would need it – the return journey was supposed to be four hours – but we bossed the 600m to the peak’s 3082m summit in only an hour. It gave us the opportunity to relax at the top, and take in Machu Picchu’s majesty in the distance below, and the amazing surrounding mountains and valleys. It’s quite a sight.
We followed this up with a snooze on the terraces once we were down – the Incas might have designed them as sun traps for plants, but it seems they work equally well for people – and then wandered over to a bridge. The bridge itself isn’t so impressive (it’s a wooden plank) but they idea behind it is cool. On this narrow path around the side of the mountain (much of which was built with the same stonework as the houses) they just built an uncrossable gap to leave bare if invaded. We could only walk up to the bridge and look past it, but the overgrown path honestly looked formidable enough even without a bridge to cross. Sheer cliff falls from the ridiculously narrow trail, and surley dozens must have died without any conniving bridge tricks.
After some more time around the ruins, eventually Yannick and I had to make the descent to Aguas Calientes, and catch the 7PM train. We ate dinner, celebrated with some ice cream, and generally zoned out. The train was a last bit of excitement though – actually the first one I’ve travelled on in South America! Apparently, this was too much for me, and I promptly fell asleep. A long day, I think…