Nice to Meet You, Machu Picchu

I’m fairly convinced that “Machu Picchu” is Incan for “stay the hell away.”

I say this because honestly, I don’t think they could make this place any more difficult to get to.

(OK, fine, I will acknowledge that Machu Picchu actually means “Old Peak,” which is kinda funny when you think about it since we were there to celebrate my 41st birthday, and my super supportive travel organizer and concierge XFE loves to point out all the time just how old I’m getting.)

But back to remoteness: Machu Picchu is a plane, a train, a car and a bus away from the capital city of Lima.

It also doesn’t help that it’s nearly impossible to do any sort of pre-trip prep work on your own, something that’s quite alarming for a couple of type-A travelers like ourselves. We are not “fly by the seat of your pants” people.

For months before our trip, we had tried to find and buy our Peru Trail train tickets, purchase our entry tickets and arrange a guide, all ahead of time. But various communication and technological difficulties (you could not access the Peru Rail website, for example) made these efforts rife with difficulty and for the most part, failures.

However, as we learned, once you get there, these things are easily accomplished. But for pre-planners like us, it just added to the anxiety.

Machu Picchu llama
How in the hell did the llamas get there?

We began our journey to the old peak with a 2 am wakeup call and a 5:30 am flight from Lima to Cuzco. You see, Lima traffic is worse than a Justin Bieber concert, and they want you at the airport two hours before a flight (even domestic). But as with so much we encountered when in Peru, it’s all just a bunch of hurry-up-and-wait. I was in the beginning stages of my lovely WuaynaKihlPhoe parasite, so for me, it was hurry-up-and-wait-near-the-bathroom.

After a short and stomach-stressing flight to Cuzco, we located our driver and began the 43 mile drive to our amazing hotel, the Tambo del Inka in Urubamba. The road was bumpy and twisty as it wound its way through the Sacred Valley – not really a combination conducive to keeping nausea at bay.

Bedroom at Tambo del Inka
Ah, a bed.

Finally we arrived and checked in to our gorgeous room where I promptly took a bath and went to sleep. Poor XFE had to eat and explore the nearby town on his own.

The next day (my actual birthday), we woke up bright and early and after arranging for the hotel to hold our bags, walked to the nearby train station to catch our 6:50 am train. The tricky thing about using Urubamba as your base is that the private train station isn’t actually listed as a stop on the Peru Rail website, so it’s impossible to buy tickets. We used the travel agency at your hotel who will then charge you a lovely surcharge. (We dealt with this T’ikariy agency at two of our hotels and found them to be absolutely horrible. I would not recommend using them if you can find a way to avoid it).

The train is very, very slow. And the engineer will toot the horn constantly during the 1.5 hour trip because everyone – animals, children going to school, farmers working their fields, backpackers stopping for breakfast – uses the train tracks like they’re a sidewalk. But, the view is quite lovely, with misty mountains and river rapids on each side.  They also serve a snack, although I was on a strictly water diet by that point.

After an hour and a half, you arrive at Aguas Calientes, the departure point for buses to take you the rest of the way. There are tons of those big coach type buses, leaving frequently and it’s not necessary to have already bought your tickets. The buses then make the 20 minute drive along narrow mountain roads to deposit you at the entrance of Machu Picchu.

peru road

Since we were staying overnight on site at the Sanctuary Lodge, we went and checked in and had lunch before making our way into Machu Picchu. The hotel asked us if we had a guide and offered to arrange one for us for $80 per person, but I had read that there were tons of guides hanging out just outside the gates, so we said “no thanks.” Sure enough, we found a great English speaking guide who took us around for an hour and a half for $60.

The beginning of March is typically the tail end of the rainy season at Machu Picchu, but we were very lucky: it was sunny and gorgeous our first day there (the second day, meh, not so much). We even saw a rainbow in the late afternoon, which I understand is a rare thing.

Machu Picchu
Day one on the left. Day two on the right. Big, BIG difference.

Our guide, Alain, explained that Machu Picchu was likely built for older teachers, scholars, scientists and philosophers. Sort of like a retirement home for the Incans’ best and brightest.

But honestly, no one is sure what the heck it is or why it was built. Some think it’s a sacred religious site and certainly it has a lot of buildings they describe as temples. Alain went into great detail about the placement of the site and the configuration of the mountains and astrology and astronomy and whatnot, but the place remains a complete mystery for my feeble little mind.

Coca plant in Peru
Hmmm, maybe it was some sort of drug farm?

Others suggest it was a royal retreat. Still others say it was a prison or some agricultural experiment lab to test out different crops. Who knows? Me? I think it’s pretty much the inspiration for that show Lost. I kept expecting the Smoke Monster to jump out and lead me to the Dharma Initiative any minute.

It actually reminded me a lot of looking at modern art: you see what you want in it and it means something different to everybody.

Machu Picchu Peru

All that’s really known is that Machu Picchu was only around for about 100 years before the inhabitants died off and it became a completely lost city until a Yale professor, Hiram Bingham accidentally rediscovered it in 1911 (he was looking for an entirely different Incan city).

Then, as is so often the case with discoverers, he pillaged the place and took a whole bunch of artifacts back to the U.S. and causing an international ruckus that continued until last year when Yale agreed to give back the goods. Like a bad neighbor and your weed wacker, Yale just borrowed thousands of artifacts for, oh, 100 years. And tried to put language in the agreement to let them hold on to the items for another 100 years. This is exactly why I don’t lend out anything.

While I may not have the foggiest idea why the Incans would put all this time and stone-carving effort into building this labyrintine city, I do know that those Incans must’ve been super fit. They did not die out from laziness, let me tell you. There were tons of very narrow, uneven stairs and terraces all over the place.

Machu Picchu stairmaster
One of the Seven Wonders of the World: a ancient stairmaster

That, coupled with diminished lung capacity from the altitude (we were more than 8,000 feet above sea level) left me struuuuuuuggggling. Not that I’m an athlete or anything, but climbing all over that place can leave you breathless from more than just the views.

Machu Picchu panorama
That is my tired hip pose on the edge of that panorama photo.

Speaking of views, we were very fortunate to be able to stay overnight right outside the gates of Machu Picchu. Since the site is open from 6:30 am to 5:30 pm and people are arriving and leaving by bus, we got the park to ourselves in the early evening and morning. Plus, the Sanctuary had an awesome stone hot tub with a view of the site. Definitely a once in a lifetime experience. The hotel itself is pretty basic, but the food, service and the view was across-the-board stellar and well worth the money.

View from the hot tub at the Sanctuary, Machu Picchu
That would be an instagram of the view from the hot tub.

Machu Picchu is all the things that people tell you it is. It’s on people’s bucket list for a reason. It’s, well, a mysterious work of wonder.

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