It’s hard to imagine what a place will look like solely based on pictures you’ve seen. You never capture the vastness, and then once you are there in real life, the setting is always so different than the full 360 degree layout you envisioned in your mind. Each time we enter a new city or place, our imaginings of that new place are swiftly moulded as we finally explore it. The way we thought the streets might be laid out, or the depth and size of the neighbourhoods – it’s constantly changed. One can’t help but develop some sort of pre-conception about a place, it’s simply instinct. When we read a book, or when someone shares with us a story, we unknowingly begin to design a whole movie-style reel of what is being processed in our mind. With Machu Picchu, this was certainly the case, only the classic picture constantly replayed out in my mind was so remotely distant to how massive, incredible, and beautiful the site truly was. I don’t think anyone could accurately pre-meditate such a huge, dream-like place.
It was crisp and dark out when we arrived at the train station in Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. The town is quite small with cobblestone roads leading uphill, each side lined with restaurants, hotels, and hostels. We had a small, musty room shared with one other roommate from Croatia. We were doing the reverse travel itinerary, so we all exchanged travel tips and favourite places before going to sleep for our early departure.
It was another cool, foggy morning the day of our trek. Half-awake, we ate up our usual hostel breakfast for the past 5 weeks of crispy bread & jam, and promptly swigged the strong instant coffee. Within about 20 minutes (record time for us), we were ready to begin our much anticipated journey.
Now there are two ways that one can get from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu – one is the very overpriced bus that zig-zags up the hills to the entrance of the ruins. The other is the cheap or backpacker method – that being walking. Our roomie persuaded us to do the hike with him and since it was off-season, we didn’t see the harm in losing a bit of time to get to the entrance.
It soon became apparent that we were most definitely not yet acclimatized (in fact my Dad informed me on our last Skype call that it can take 6 months to acclimatize – whoopsies). The entire 1.5 hour hike was mostly uphill on old, steep rock steps. There was barely ever any flat pathway to relieve our burning thighs and calves. Every once in awhile we would have to stop on the stairs to rest. We were all so continually out of breath that we barely spoke on the entire hike. And no wonder – I have never in my life been so air hungry! I never felt as though I could catch my breath or even slow down my respiratory rate. That experience gave me a lot of insight into what someone having a severe asthma episode is going through. I have seen and treated patients with intense respiratory distress so many times but had never really experienced it myself. Let me tell you, it is scary! I could feel the intercostal space between my ribs sucking in, and my whole chest and shoulders heaved as I literally gasped out loud for air. I couldn’t even always tell Ted when I was stopping to catch my breath because it would take too much air to tell him. So much for acclimatizing in Cusco!
After our agonizing 1 hour uphill climb, we staggered our way to the entrance. I was never so glad to not see another set of stairs in front of me! We parted ways with our new friend since we were first going to the highest mountain peak, Huayna Picchu, which overlooks the Machu Picchu ruins.
As we set foot inside the ruins, the entire view was like a dream. The whole village was almost completely vacant and the stone ruins were wrapped in a light fog. It was almost haunting. As we walked through the houses and temples, I tried to imagine what it would have looked like hundreds of years ago – the buildings with their straw roofs, people bustling from place to place, farming, selling, worshipping, studying, building, working. It was so hard to comprehend that this place had been occupied by some of the greatest architects, astronomers, and artists of all time (more on that soon, keep reading!).
We hiked another steep climb up the Huaynu Picchu mountain which is another 1,180 feet above Machu Picchu. That hike only further impressed us with the power and determination of the Incas, who built a trail up this steep mountain and built temples all the way at the top. The mountain peak was where the high priest and local virgins resided, and each morning the priest and virgins would walk down to Machu Picchu, signifying the new day.
We camped out on a boulder for awhile as we waited for fog below to clear and give us a bird’s eye view. Due to it being the rainy season and of course just off-luck as can happen, the fog never entirely removed itself when we were up there. Fortunately though, we climbed other peaks later in the day and got some absolutely breathtaking views.
The entire layout of Machu Picchu was so staggeringly greater than we both had imagined. From the one classic picture that everyone sees, the perspective given is that there is a small village that extends maybe a few hundred metres. But the truth is, there is a lot not captured in the photo – tons of terraces cascading down the mountains and further temples and villages that continue further back up the mountain on which that picture is taken. We could not believe how extensive the place was. In total, we spent about 8 hours exploring the ruins. The lower part of the mountain is filled with less architecturally tidy structures which were group houses. The higher, neater-built structures are religious temples. Inside many of these temples are round cement circles. These would be filled with water and used as mirrors to reflect the sky at night so it could be more closely studied – a telescope of sorts.
One of the most fascinating things that we learned about the society of Machu Picchu was that it was a “super society”. Machu Picchu was not just inhabited by Incas who had previously existed without any fame or excitement. The greatest masters and experts of all sorts – astronomy, architecture, agriculture – were recruited from all different tribes and villages in the jungles of the far surrounding areas. It was a great privilege to be selected to live in this high society and this huge collection of incredibly talented people is what enabled its great success.
So why and how did it become abandoned? Why are the ruins so well intact compared to many other Incan structures destroyed by the Spaniards? There are a few theories about this and I’ll share my favourite first. Word of the invasion of the Spaniards began to spread to the Incas. The Machu Picchu was such an incredibly impressive masterpiece built in an unbelievably short period of time. The Incas did not want to see their beloved place succumb to the destruction of the Spanish, and so they destroyed all of the roads leading up to it and abandoned the place. Since there were no roads to this remote place, it was never discovered by the Spaniards. Another theory suggests that perhaps some type of widespread illness began to infect the Incas, causing them to think Machu Picchu was cursed – hence, they abandoned it. So much of the intrigue and fascination with Machu Picchu stems from the endless questions that surround it. Perhaps the most satisfying yet equally dissatisfying thing is that we will never have the answers to all our questions about this hauntingly mysterious place.
Wandering the sites for the entire day, we soon learned how the grass is so incredibly lush and green next to the structures. Continuous rainfall that high in the mountains (and especially during rainy season), ensures picture-perfect greenery. Though soaked to the bone, we picnicked and continued to meander through the endless structures amidst the almost non-stop rain.
From high up we could see the ant-sized people in the distance beginning to file out of the ancient ruins. We had stayed until close, and it was time to walk our weary legs back to our hostel. We seriously wanted to hitch-hike but the only vehicles going back were the over-priced buses and we spent our last cash on a tour guide, so that wouldn’t work. Fortunately the hike down was about 1.5 million times easier than it had been going up!
We spent the rest of our evening wandering the streets of Aguas Calientes into the residential neighbourhoods. We warmed ourselves up with cheap street-eats – fried chicken and plantain while we watched some local kids play soccer. It was a great way to end one of the most amazing days we had both ever experienced.
The next morning it was time to head out. We caught our train ride, daytime this time – so we could see the astounding scenery. One of the things that I did not even think about or realize was that the Incan ruins continue to trickle down the mountains far from Machu Picchu. Seemingly everywhere small ruins pop up out of hillsides and next to the streams that our train chugged past. It makes you wonder just how many people lived in those beautiful mountains hundreds of years ago.
We arrived to Ollantaytambo, our stop in between Cusco. We found a local bus – which in some parts of South America means a beat-up white minivan. We bounced along the dirt roads listening to our driver’s interesting array of music – mostly 80’s tunes. Heart’s “Alone” played over and over in English and Spanish. I will now always think of that song and picture a tiny, beat-up minivan bumping down Peruvian roads between the giant green mountainsides.
From Cusco we took an overnight bus to Bolivia. Peruvian buses are known to be dangerous for a variety of reasons – drunk and/or careless drivers, robberies, accidents, etc. Needless to say we chose our bus carefully based on reviews and travel books. Not before long driving in the dark, our bus was pulled over by the police. There’s always a sense of unwanted mystery and cluelessness when you don’t fully speak a language. The police officer rambled a slew of things in rapid Peruvian Spanish. They took everyone’s identifications and we sat parked for quite sometime. The officer returned, gave everyone back their IDs, and we were on our way. Though still a bit out of the loop, we were more reassured knowing everyone we were riding with just had a rapid background check done on them!
One miserable 4:00AM arrival and second bus transfer later, we finally made it to our stopoever destination – the bohemian town of Copacabana, Bolivia. That’s the Copacabana that the beach is named after in Rio de Janeiro. Except there isn’t really a beach in the chilly Copacabana of Bolivia, which is situated in Lake Titicaca (the highest lake in the world). But it is a picturesque little town that just whispers “relaxation”. We purposely did a whole lot of nothing – we splurged on a $30/nt hotel overlooking Lake Titicaca, stocked up our junkfood supply, watched movies, and casually strolled through the artisan crafts and booths during the day. It was a great place to kick back and relax. Our most strenuous and fun activitiy was renting a swan pedal-boat and peddling our way around Lake Titicaca. While on our self-guided boat tour, we realized was that at the horizon where the lake met the sky, there were big, fluffy clouds painting the entire horizon. That was odd – they were the type of clouds that you usually see high in the sky, far above the horizon. But we were so high up that the horizon met the clouds, and just shortly above us then was the sun. What a unique sight to see!
After a few days in Copa, we were bound for the capital of Bolivia: La Paz (also the highest capital city in the world at a whopping 3,650 metres above sea level). We didn’t know what to expect – we knew it was a big city, but Bolivia is the poorest country in South America. We had never seen a “big city” set in a poverty-stricken place so we weren’t sure how it would be made up. We were stunned by how truly unique and beautiful La Paz is -to imagine it, it’s often described as a “bowl”, whose sides are massive snow-capped mountains. The rim of the bowl is the poorest areas, the shanty towns. As you descend downwards, the inner parts of the bowl have big buildings, hotels, and museums which is where we were staying.
Now I’ll admit, La Paz took a little while to grow on us. The city first felt pretty dodgy at night, even for a Saturday. While shopping the streets, we were quite sure we were being followed with the intention of being robbed. We made a quick money-hiding scheme in a fast food place in preparation for having our now-empty wallets stolen. Fortunately this did not happen, but the paranoia lingered as we walked back to our hostel.
As we’ve been settling in here, we are getting our bearings and feeling a little less sketched out now that Carnaval is up and bustling. Everywhere you walk, there is smiling, laughter, and people dressed in all types of bright costumes spraying people (willing or not) with water guns and spray foam soap. The beaten, tired looking streets are livened with music and colourful balloons and streamers. It seems that we picked a good week to explore La Paz. We will probably spend at least another 5 days here, since tomorrow we’re hoping to book us some Spanish lessons and a homestay to improve our skills. La Paz is a great place to do this since 1. It’s got plenty to see and explore, 2. Bolivian Spanish is easier to speak and understand – it’s slower and has a weaker accent and 3. Being the poorest country, it offers highly affordable lessons and homestays to travellers (and in return it’s good to help support their economy). Better yet, there’s plenty to do here. You can paraglide above the surrounding mountains, get a tour of the city prison by a prison inmate, bike ride down the world’s most dangerous road, or try an assortment of alpaca cuisine. And yes, we’re hoping to do all of those things during our stay here 🙂
I’ll end this entry by sharing with you one of our most interesting and fun events to date. Tonight we went to “Cholitas Wrestling” here in La Paz. Cholita is Spanish slang for “tough girl” – you are basically paying to see traditionally dressed Bolivian women wrestle. That, plus the tipico libre wrestling – men decked out in bright spandex with fitted head/face masks. This was the real deal – men and women fighting slamming each other in and out of the wrestling ring. No North American censory here – shouting, swearing, cursive gestures, and taking the fight literally out into the audience, breaking vacant plastic chairs. I don’t think I’ll ever again see a man in bright spandex hurling a Bolivian woman, dressed in the traditional skirt, by her long black braids. It was ridiculous, hilarious, and epic all at once.
Tonight is another movie night (thank you functioning WiFi!!!). So it is now time for our premiere of The Hunger Games (could we be the last people to finally see this supposedly epic movie?!). Ted is recovering from 2 days of heat stroke – the temperatures are cool here, 8 – 20 degrees so the sun doesn’t feel hot and it has mainly been overcast. But even with cloud cover at this altitude it is apparently easy to get sick from the sun. Time to take it easy (hey travelling is hard work! 😉 ). Until next time, buenos noches and Feliz Carnaval from La Paz, Bolivia!