Machu Picchu

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After years of staring at photos of the wonder that is Machu Picchu, being there in person just felt SURREAL. And all the work it takes to actually get there is worth it.

I traveled to Machu Picchu on the last day of October with a group of Iowa Staters on a two-week trip to South America. All the travel arrangements were made by our travel company, Odysseys Unlimited, so we didn’t have to figure this all out by ourselves. But this was what it took to get to what is probably the most famous location in Peru:

  • Fly from the U.S. to Lima
  • Fly from Lima to Cuzco, a lovely city of about half a million people
  • Take a motorcoach ride to the train station
  • Take a comfortable train ride through other-worldly mountains to the tiny town of Aguas Calientes
  • Take the Machu Picchu shuttle bus from Aguas Calientes up, up, up the mountain (take Dramamine)
  • Stand in line

 

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So the good part was we didn’t have to make our own flight arrangements, figure out how to get to the train station, buy tickets for the train, figure out the shuttle bus system, or buy entrance tickets into Machu Picchu. We just had to follow our fabulous guide and go with the flow.

The train trek was about an hour and a half and took us through beautiful mountains, as did the winding shuttle bus. Here’s a picture through the window:

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The other great thing about being with this group tour was that we stayed at the one and only hotel located at Machu Picchu, the Belmond Sanctuary Lodge. Just take a quick peek at their website; it’s gorgeous. This place was awesome and it was literally like 20 steps away from the entrance to Machu Picchu. So when we got there, we were able to drop our bags at the lodge and use the bathroom before doing our first guided tour into the legendary Lost City of the Incas.

Once you get in, you don’t have to walk very far to get to this vista:

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Our guide, Boris, took us through about half of the site on that first visit. I was worried about the elevation (7,970 feet) and the hiking that would be involved. I definitely got winded on a few of the longer stair climbs, but in general it was not too bad. And the place was absolutely remarkable and breathtaking. I mean, Boris kept talking, but mainly I just stared. I mean, holy buckets, I’m in MACHU PICCHU.

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I’m sure you already know all about this place, but in a nutshell Machu Picchu is perched in a high saddle surrounded by the Andes mountains, and it was “lost” until 1911 when American historian Hiram Bingham “discovered” it. The city or royal retreat – it is not known exactly what the site was used for – was built in the mid-1400s by those notoriously talented and ambitious Incas, and it was abandoned about 100 years later due to concurrent outbreaks of war and smallpox. The ancient civilization is located in what our guides called a “cloud forest” – it’s different than a rain forest, and it’s in the clouds most of the time, and that gives it that otherworldly look. The site today encompasses five square miles of meticulously preserved terraced stonework linked by 3,000 steps.

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Thank god we didn’t have to climb all those steps. We climbed enough of them. After our guided tour we had lunch in the restaurant at the lodge (sitting down never felt so good); we caught our breath and stopped sweating and then had time to check into our rooms and spend the afternoon doing whatever we wanted. Well, hello, we’re at Machu Picchu, I’m going back in.

The afternoon visit on our own was a blast. I started out alone but immediately met one of the couples from my group and together we began to climb the steps to the guardhouse, the location where most of the incredible photographs of Machu Picchu are taken. Here are a couple of the views:

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And me, on top of the world:

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Up by the guardhouse, we ran into a few other people from our group, and we continued up, up, up to try to find the famous Inca Bridge. We walked a long time and were getting close when we were turned back by one of the security guards, who said we didn’t have time to go all the way to the bridge and be off the grounds by closing time at 5 p.m. Well, we must have had really sad faces because the guard then relented and said that we should HURRY and only take one picture and then turn around and head to the exit. The funny thing about this story is that the Inca Bridge isn’t that big of a deal, although it did bring to mind something from one of the Indiana Jones movies (I forget which one). Here it is below, with both a wide angle and a telephoto lens:

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At any rate, the climb was fun and the view from the guardhouse on the way back was even more beautiful. The clouds and the light are ever changing in this place. It sort of feels like heaven or something.

 

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I got back to the hotel and hung out on my lovely, relaxing back patio before changing out of my sweaty clothes into something appropriate for dinner in the dining room. Staying at the Belmond lodge may have been the best idea ever. Not only did our stay include incredible food for every meal but we could also drink for free in the bar. A group of us gathered before dinner for a pisco sour demonstration and tasting. If you’ve never had a pisco sour, you’re missing out. It’s like the Peruvian national drink; I’d had these before when I did an Amazon trip a few years back. Here’s a basic recipe. It involves:

  • Ice
  • Pisco
  • Lemon or lime juice
  • Sugar or simple syrup
  • Egg whites
  • Bitters

 

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We got to taste a variety of different types of pisco (who knew there was more than one kind?), which is really freaking strong when you drink it straight. And then we watched the bartender make pisco sours, and we each got a glass. This was Halloween night, and everyone was happy. Dinner (with wine) was spectacular, and I went to bed early…

… BECAUSE I was determined to be back inside Machu Picchu at 6 a.m. when the gates opened. My alarm went off at 5:30 and I was surprised by two things: First, it was already very light outside, and second, after I threw on some clothes and went outside, there was already a hell of a long line to get in. (I thought the first shuttle bus didn’t arrive until after 6 a.m., but I was wrong.)

Oh, also, it had been raining. The ground was wet and the clouds were very heavy and low. It was not actually doing anything when I went in, but after about five minutes inside it started raining, and then raining really hard. I joined a group of strangers underneath a thatched-roof hut of some kind and watched it pour. After awhile I got tired of being splashed by other people’s rain ponchos, and I ventured out. I took some photos of the clouds and the rain:

 

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But my rain jacket, which works just fine to run from the car to the office or out in a light rain, failed me big time and it wasn’t long before I was soaked clear though: jacket, T-shirt, undies, hiking pants, socks, sneakers. All wet, as if I’d jumped into a swimming pool. This was not fun, so I headed back to the lodge and ate breakfast, dripping all the while. (Oh, did I mention how good my hair looked at this point?)

I tried drying off in my room, but unfortunately I didn’t have a spare outfit to change into because we’d only been allowed a small overnight bag and I didn’t consider that I might need more clothes. I tried the hair dryer, but that was a joke. (I am laughing as I write this, just thinking about it. It was the most pathetic hair dryer ever.) I grabbed the umbrella from the closet and headed back outside to see if I could buy a rain poncho from a vendor, which I did, and that $2.50 piece of plastic kept me from getting any wetter the rest of the day. Because all through our morning guided tour, it just rained and rained:

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About the time we got back on the shuttle bus to head back down the mountain, the sun came out and the sky was blue with puffy clouds. Sad…but that’s the way it goes. I was just so grateful and happy that I’d had an opportunity to visit Machu Picchu FOUR times, in good weather and bad.

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