8 June 2019
I was up well before my 4AM alarm went off, and Shiv and I were at the cafe for breakfast just before it opened. It was dark as we trooped off (uphill) to the bus stand. Dan said that until recently the buses used to stop right in front of our hotel – that would’ve been very convenient – one less uphill trek.
If we thought we were early, we were sorely mistaken – there was quite an impressive queue already. Our only consolation was that only those with the 6AM bus tickets would be allowed on the buses. In the past, it was first come, first served – and queues used to form at 3 in the morning. All in the name of getting to Machu Picchu before the sun’s first rays started lighting it up, and to get some images without the crowds.
Anyway today tickets were checked and only legit 6AM-ers were allowed on the buses. As our bus made its way up the serpentine road to Machu Picchu, we saw several hikers, going up the long way. I remember thinking, that for me, in this instance, it wasn’t about the journey – I just wanted to get there, and if there were a faster way than the bus, I’d take it. It got lighter as we made our way up and the dramatic silhouettes of the Andean mountains gained a bit more clarity.
There was one more queue at the entrance to Machu Picchu – a queue that was long enough for us to take turns to step out and go to the loo – which Victor strongly recommended we do, as this would be the last toilet facility for a while.
Getting to the main act involved another uphill trek. To manage expectations, Dan had said the trek involved just ‘3 bends’, then we’d be there. Victor was super too, telling us to go slow, it’s not a race, we’ll all get there. He reminded us that the altitude can affect anyone – and how he had some super fit young men as guests – they said they’d ‘trained for this’ and were raring to go…till the altitude reduced them to a gasping pile. We stopped regularly, Victor telling us his stories while we caught our breath and had some water – just enough to wet our lips, Victor reminded us (no loo facilities, remember?). The frequency with which he reminded us of this led me to believe that he may have had some guests who desperately needed the loo while up there…or we came across as small-bladdered (I hope not incontinent) individuals.
The 3 bends went by surprisingly quickly (I’d forgotten to count) and then we were there – the sun wasn’t quite up yet but that first look was still quite magnificent; postcard images and those from the pages of NatGeo from years ago, leapt into 3-D reality.
What followed was photographs from various viewpoints, some with us in them for the obligatory proof-of-attendance pic, and some experimenting with various camera settings, as Dan provided helpful tips on composition and lighting.
If you turn the traditional postcard shot on its side, it resembles a man’s face. Victor proceeded to tell us that there was an even more handsome 2nd face in Machu Picchu…
It was news to me that the main peak in front of us was actually that of Huayna Picchu, or ‘young mountain’ – Machu Picchu (‘old mountain’) was actually behind us. So, I guess, when we refer to Machu Picchu, it’s the whole complex that we refer to, rather than the mountain specifically. In human terms, it was as if the wise old person was happy to remain in the background while the young one basked in its reflected light…this might be the hypoxia talking…
But the real magic happened when the sun started coming up from behind the mountain peaks. Huayna Picchu began to be lit up slowly from its peak down to the ruins and terraces in front of it. Some clouds would have made it even more spectacular, but it is what it is. Thanks to Dan, we all remembered to get a time-lapse video –
Sunrise out of the way, there was a bit more time to take in some of the smaller details, and to listen to Victor’s fascinating history lesson. A few things stood out for me this morning (besides the fact that Machu Picchu Mountain was not what I thought it was) :
- The Incan architecture was quite next level civilisation. The polygonal blocks of rock were precisely cut and fitted – no mortar was used. Each wall in the various structures was built at a 15 degree incline, to support the walls perpendicular to them, and rendering them earthquake-proof for the past 500 years. Quite an achievement, considering there are two fault lines below Machu Picchu.
- My lack of enthusiasm for steep climbs was confirmed. Just looking at the almost 3,000 metre high Huayna Picchu and seeing (more imagining really) some of the near vertical, railing-less stairs going up its side made my palms sweat and heart race (even typing this induces a mild variant of this reaction).
3. The Inca – or Quechua – way of life. The Incas and other groups of the Quechua people were governed by a moral code that emphasised goodness – it was about cooperation and a gotong-royong spirit. Their code seemed very Ten Commandment-like, but perhaps more simply put – and so more easy to live by? This further cemented my belief that civilisation is indeed regressing. Victor said the three underlying principles that guided the Quechua people are :
i. to know (yachay) – i.e. first, seek to understand – or ‘head knowledge’?
ii. to love (munay) – once you understand, make it your own – to feel with your heart.
iii. to work (llankay) – my interpretation of this is that once you understand and feel, pour yourself into your work (do what you love and you’ll never work another day?)
In addition, all Quechua children are brought up with the mantra – do not steal, do not lie, do not be idle. This segued nicely into Victor’s story about his background and about being one third Spanish. He was once asked by a group of Spanish tourists how he knew he had Spanish blood…his less than PC answer was that as a child, he was asked by his mother to go buy some bread; preferring instead to play, he dilly-dallied and tried to put off going on this errand. This resulted in a scolding from mum – who said he must be part Spanish. Apparently the tourists, while giving Victor excellent feedback for everything else, said that perhaps he shouldn’t use this story when with Spanish tourists.
We wandered through the citadel, seeing the Temple of the Sun, the rooms for students and their teachers, the thoughtful rock hooks for hanging things, the temple of the Condor and various other architectural marvels. We heard about Hiram Bingham, who supposedly ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu…I have a (negative) ‘thing’ about people who are credited as ‘discovering lost civilisations’ (like Livingstone and Victoria Falls), but I’ll save that for another time.
Before we knew it, we’d spent a good four hours or so with Victor and it was time to make our way down. Getting back to the bus stand seemed to be much faster than our hike up this morning. We remembered to get our passports stamped before getting back on the bus for the ride back down.
Back in Aguas Calientes, it was time for lunch at a lovely restaurant overlooking the river. Then there was a bit of time for some souvenir shopping before our train ride back to Ollantaytambo. Quechua principles were put to the test when I forgot to get the change for a small item I’d bought. When I realised this, I went back to the stall – to be greeted by the lady who’d sold me the item smilingly saying, “I was waiting for you” (at least that’s what I thought the ‘esperanto’ meant) and promptly returning my change. The moral code works!
The train ride back was a bit quiet, as tiredness set in. The quiet was short-lived – after being served our cake and tea, the train staff doubled up as entertainment. One staff member pranced down the aisle in full costume and mask (it was almost Bhutanese), trying to get people to dance. I remained firmly behind the camera, while Dan who knew this would be happening pretended to sleep – as did quite a few other passengers, until one brave soul joined this character in the aisles. This was followed by a fashion show – with the rail staff modelling various alpaca apparel. A multi-talented group.
Bruce was waiting for us at Ollantaytambo station and it was a short drive back to the Tierra Viva. Driving back we saw the famous Skylodge – where people actually pay to climb up a mountainside and sleep in little pods that hang precariously from aforesaid mountainside…why?? There was also a stop to take some photos of some children who were selling trinkets by the road. One of those things I’m not too sure of – they were already expecting money for photos…are we encouraging these children to stay out of school by paying them…should we have even stopped?
Back at the hotel, we were in different rooms from before – Shiv and I now had a gorgeous view of the mountains from our room. Shiv had forgotten to pack her trusty teaspoon when we’d left two days ago. However, she managed to retrieve it, and we all had a very civilised cup of tea in our room.
Dinner was pretty good (other than some obnoxious men from ‘up North’ who were really quite rude and nasty to the lovely staff, who to their credit, kept their cool, and smiled through the ridiculousness). I had a quinoa soup, a lomo saltado and a very yummy poached pear dessert with a chicha morada (purple corn) sauce, sweet rice and a lemon sherbet-like thing. It was perfect. Two of us had this dessert tonight, sharing it (slightly reluctantly) with the other two. Given that it was so good and the other desserts paled in comparison, tomorrow we’ll order four of this. #foodpriorities.