So we went up for the first of two days on top of the mountain. As I mentioned in a previous post, Aguas Calientes is the town nearest Machu Picchu and where we are staying. Machu Picchu is quite large, so we decided to do a guided tour for our first day to get our bearings, and then to figure it out ourselves from there. This turned out to be a wise decision, and we have Sam to thank for this one.
Our hotel, the Inkaterra Pueblo Hotel, was nice enough to organize the tour with a nice Peruvian guide named Ali. Of course, you wouldn’t think they were that nice if you knew what the tour cost! (I asked if Ali was a typical Peruvian name – it turns out that his dad was a big fan of Muhammad Ali and he’s a little embarrassed about it). Ali turned out to be awesome – he actually is a college trained guide (who knew?), was very knowledgeable about Machu Picchu (of course) and Peru and South America in general, and he was cute and nice (he is 26).
We did a full day tour but we started with a climb to Wayna Picchu. Wayna Picchu (“Young Peak”) is the mountain right next to Machu Picchu (“Old Peak”). Wayna Picchu is also about 1000 feet higher than the Machu Picchu citadel (the citadel is at 7972, Wayna Picchu is 8922 ft), and in Incan days was the site of a guard house where they kept watch looking for invaders. But what a guard house! Almost 9000 feet above sea level with a commanding view of the valley surrounding the citadel.
It was a foggy and rainy day, which is what we get for going in the rainy season. Here is a picture before our climb of Wayna Picchu looming in the fog from the Machu Picchu citadel.
The hike is crazy. Sam and I remarked several times that in the states we would never be allowed on something like this because of our ludicrously litigious society. You climb more than 1000 feet because the path goes down and then up, but the total length has to be less than a mile. There are parts of the climb where they have steel cables embedded in the walls because you basically need the assistance to scramble up the rocks. The rocks are uneven, they are often slippery, and there are places where the path is only several feet wide skirting cliffs literally thousands of feet high. Mom, you might not want to look too hard at these pictures.
The two left pictures are smiles (because we were actually on the way down). On the right is a picture of one of the sissy parts of the trail.
It was drizzling, foggy and misty. Which was actually probably a blessing as we got quite hot anyway, and could barely imagine what it would be like in the dry season when it is sunny all the time.
Although we’d become acclimatized to the altitude in the town (6,627 feet), we definitely could feel the difference when we got to the citadel, and when we started the climb. Our heart rate would climb fast and we would get easily out of breath.
About half way up we had a little scare. We had been resting occasionally, but setting a pretty mean pace, and suddenly I looked back and Sam had stopped and was wheezing and having trouble breathing. I immediately thought it must be an allergy and wondering how we were going to intubate halfway up a mountain (we’ve been too much House – a doctor show on TV :-)). Luckily, she was able to let me know that it was altitude, and so then I realized there was nothing I could really do. A few seconds rest and she stopped wheezing, and a few minutes rest and she felt fine. We took it a little easier the rest of the way up and are happy to report that both of us are present, accounted for, and still have all our limbs.
Finally, about an hour and ten minutes later, we got to the top. No speed records here. The record, by the way, is 12 minutes. And it was all worth it.
Even with a crappy day (it was still foggy and we never got a good view of the citadel which is the whole point of the climb) it was still awe inspiring. Here we are, perched at the top of a mountain, where the only access is a tiny, crappy trail. And the Incas built a relatively large set of structures on top. They built HUGE retaining walls to keep the land from eroding. They built platforms and outcroppings. The seams between their buildings, walls, and the bare rock face of the mountain are often so tight that you can’t stick a knife in the crack. And they did it all 600 years ago.
One short editorial note: It’s actually wrong to say that the Incans did this. There was no civilization called “Inca.” They were called Tawantinsuyu (which means 4 regions, because there were 4 areas that made up their empire). At any given time there was only 1 Inca – who was the emperor of the whole area. Apparently, the Spanish heard about this Inca, started calling them Incans, and it stuck. So it’s wrong, but everybody uses it incorrectly and I’m not pushing rope.
But back to the story. This outpost (and the citadel too but that’s for a later post) is an awesome feat of engineering. Pictures don’t do it justice, but here are a few.
What you can’t see (well) is that these outcroppings are on retaining walls, which are roughly 90 degrees and join bare rock faces that plummet hundreds or thousands of feet. How would you like to be on the construction crew that did this?
What an amazing people. What an accomplishment.
A place like Machu Picchu is so heavily photographed that you’ll have seen more picturesque views than we will post. We don’t have the luxury of waiting 3 months until the dry season, or going back every day for a week to get the perfect light (although we did catch the 6am bus to try today). But I think a lot of people shy away from places like Machu Picchu because they have seen the pictures and it sounds like work. I really think these people are missing out. Things like Machu Picchu make you feel both humble, and proud to be human. There aren’t enough things these days that make you feel that way. It’s worth seeking them out.
Click here for more pictures from Wayna Picchu.