I Machu-se You, Picchu-chu!

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Hello from the train (again), this time back to Ollantaytambo from Aguas Calientes! Once we disembark in an hour, we’ll be taking a collectivo to Cusco to begin our final 3-day-4-night stay in Peru. Kevin is across the table from me, fast asleep and holding his book. Collin sits next to him, reading but threatening to nod off at any second. Next to me, there’s a man of some sort of South American descent, who passed the fuck out the second he sat down. Great crew. However, all of this is wildly trivial when you consider the magnitude of what we have accomplished today.


As promised, we had a lovely 4 AM wake up call. Luckily, we all got up without too much moaning and groaning, and were soon dressed and ready for our trip to Machu Picchu. We headed downstairs so that we could get to breakfast as soon as it opened at 4:30 (Supertramp knows their clientele’s needs, clearly). We all loaded up on coffee, scrambled eggs, and pretty dense rolls that we made palatable with the addition of strawberry jam and butter. The butter here is SO good. After a couple of rolls each, we were ready to go. Collin filled his thermos with coffee, and he and Kevin each stowed away several rolls for the hike. We stowed away anything we wouldn’t need for our hike in Supertramp hiker storage and, at 5 AM, set off for the bus station.


By 5:10, we were in line for the bus. Having missed sign-up for the lunch boxes that Supertramp provides, Kevin and I each bought a bottle of water and a sandwich from a street vendor (I purchased a chicken sandwich – fatal mistake – while Kevin opted for tomato, avocado, and cheese). Collin opted for a granola bar.

At 5:30, we began boarding the buses. We made it onto the 3rd bus, which was the last bus to make it to Machu Picchu before it opened – lucky us! We even scored front row seats, so we could scurry off and race up to the gate when we got there. The odds were definitely in our favor.


The bus ride was about 25 minutes long, filled with both beautiful scenery and scenery that would have been beautiful had it not been clouded by a thick layer of fog. We also got to see the brave souls who had decided to hike up to Machu Picchu rather than take the bus. Bold strategy to save $10, Cotton, let’s see how that works out for you.

We made it to the top, raced off the bus, and were through after a quick ticket, passport, and Student ID check! Note: we asked them to stamp our passports here with the special Machu Picchu stamp, and they laughed at us and told us that we’d get stamped on the way out… if they survived.

We started up the Sun Gate Trail, which we thought led to the Sun Gate (it doesn’t – it starts there – we missed it through the fog. Oops?). This was a great hike – some steep uphill, some rolling hills, some stairs, some “views” that were just fog. A mile or so in, we broke through the clouds and were rewarded with gorgeous views of the mountains, valley, and the city of Machu Picchu below us. We continued up until we reached a large crowd of people – we made it to the end of the trail!


Unexpectedly, as we were walking along, trying to find a good place for a photo op, someone yelled out my name. Just about the last place on earth I would expect someone to know me, I was shocked to see my friend Neil from my intern class at EY! What the hell are those chances?! We made sure to snag a picture to send to our intern class group text. I still can’t believe it.

After several minutes of resting and taking pictures at the summit, we set off back down the trail, ready for Machu Picchu mountain (the hike we had paid for).


Notable quotes from the hike down:

Tour Guide: Wow, that’s a nice camera!
Tourist: No it’s not. This phone is like 3 years old. It’s a piece of shit.

*Elderly lady slips on a rock and stumbles*
Kevin: Are you okay?
Lady: I’m FINE if YOU don’t CROWD me!
(In her defense she had just done the Inca trail which is super badass and I’d be cranky too if I hadn’t showered in four days).

About the Inca Trail – I think it’s awesome and the people who do it are incredible and hardcore, but it’s interesting to think that these people probably make it to Machu Picchu but never hike Machu Picchu Mountain or Huaynu Picchu, which are unbelievably gorgeous and offer even better views. Just a thought!


Our time window to arrive at the base of Machu Picchu mountain was 7-11 AM, and we got to the check-in at 7:30. According to the sign in log, EVERYONE who had checked in within the first half hour was in their 20s. A lot were from our hostel; we knew because we would spend time chatting at our frequent rest breaks. The sign in sheet also required nationality, which was cool to see: there were lots of hikers from South America (mostly Argentina and Chile), and lots from Europe and Australia. Not too many from the US!

Once we signed in, we were off. We were greeted with a flight of stone stairs. Stairs at altitude are my nemesis – you get SO winded after a few, since it’s so difficult to get oxygen. We rounded the corner… more stairs. Then more stairs. In fact, save for a short stretch of rocky uphill, the entire 90 minute hike was stone stairs. I fell behind Kevin and Collin pretty quickly and felt bad slowing them down – they’re in seriously good shape! However, I knew that if I tried to push it and match their pace, my lungs would explode. So, I took it the way i know best – high intensity interval bursts of 30 seconds climbing, 10 seconds rest (how I format my group exercise classes). My only goals were 1) to make it to the top, and 2) to not let the Japanese couple behind me pass. I was successful on both!

A note on this hike. I have done a lot of hiking in my life, concentrated mostly into the past four years. Twice I have hiked 26 miles on the steep elevations of the Smoky Mountains in Jones Gap, SC. I’ve hiked hungover. I’ve hiked when I was battling anorexia and was too scared to eat anything but baby carrots for fuel. And still NONE of these hikes was as physically or mentally challenging as this 90-minute stair climb at two miles above sea level (the first 26-miler comes close, especially due to our food constraints: a small bag of pretzels and a jar of peanut butter between three girls for an 11-hour hike, but that is a VERY different story for a different time). Altitude is REAL. My lungs burned, my legs burned, and my sunburn burned. But, with the encouragement of my wonderful friends, I pushed on. I would have finished that hike if it took me 12 hours. This is such a tremendous change from who I was in high school, when I would go to great lengths to avoid running bleachers at dance practice. Reaching the top was a huge accomplishment, and I am so proud of all three of us.


Ok, emotional soliloquy aside, we finally made it to the top! The first sight of the finish line gazebo was so thrilling, but I was too physically exhausted to sprint the last stretch. The gazebo looked like a great place to have “lunch” (at 9 AM), but this plan was foiled by the wasps inhabiting the space. No fear, we joined our fellow hikers at the rocky outcrop a bit further down the path.


The top was breathtaking. Wholly indescribable. Being above the clouds and above all the other mountains was incredible. Sitting there, eating Kevin’s sandwich (turns out when I bought a chicken sandwich it was actually chicken salad, and mayonnaise – unless in the form of Take It Away house dressing – is my least favorite thing in the world – vomiting on a mountain didn’t sound like fun for any of us, so Kevin graciously agreed to trade), made every stair worth it. We spent about 45 minutes at the top, taking pictures, chatting, reading (Collin), sleeping (Kevin – he got a few comments on his snoring), smiling (me). HIGHlight: Italian guy wearing nothing but a loincloth who lit up a joint at the top. Legal?



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When we had reached a sufficient amount of enlightenment, we began our return trek. What goes up must come down (at a much, much faster pace)! I HATE going down stairs ever since the great Chem Building Staircase Tumble of 2015, and these steps were precariously close to the edge of the tallest mountain in the range. Thus, there was a lot of clutching walls, scooting down steps, and other creative/wimpy descent tactics until I got to a point where there was land between myself and the edge of the mountain. Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do.


But seriously, why haven’t they made a zip line down yet?? I befriended a very nice British man on my way down who also has bad knees, and I think we will be exploring this business venture together.

The only mistake we may have made on the descent is judging time and distance. Because it was SO much quicker coming down, we kept telling hikers on the ascent that they were almost there – even when they DEFINITELY weren’t. Oops?

On second thought, I did make another mistake. On our prior two hikes, I had sunburnt my arms and chest, but not my legs at all – so to conserve sunscreen, I avoided my legs. Poor foresight, because the sun was beating down on my hamstrings and calves the ENTIRE 40-minute hike down. OUCH. UV rays are much stronger at high altitudes, and we all burnt pretty badly. Where is the aloe?!

By the time we got to the bottom and signed out on the lot, I was very happy, but REALLY tired. Any pressure I put on either calf caused my legs to tremble, and I was out of water. Yes, the hard part was over, but we were far from done. We still had an entire city of Machu Picchu to explore, and I wish I would have been in better condition to enjoy it more.


We trekked back to the beginning of the trail to take our basic pictures at the ACTUAL Sun Gate (our bad), then set off to explore the city. The first thing that caught my eye was LLAMAS. They were out of reach, but they were RIGHT THERE. I was freaking out. Kevin got some awesome llama selfies, and I am so jealous. My attempts were sub-par at best.


We needed to be at the train station in Aguas Calientes at 2:30, and we still had a decent hike back to our hostel ahead of us, so we left at about 11. We got our passports stamped (yay!), bought some overpriced drinks (my jugo de naranja at S/.5 can buy a 3 course meal, Collin’s S/.8 water bottle could buy 4 waters anywhere else), and set off on our descent.

The bus ride up was a 25-minute, winding trek, but luckily the hiking trail is much more direct (aka ALL STAIRS WOO). The stairs were MUCH less scary than those on Machu Picchu mountain, thank God, and we made it down in 35 minutes. Then it was a few uphill but stair-free miles back to our hostel. As we walked, rainy season reared its head, and we were greeted with a drizzle, gusting wind, and some ominous rumbles of thunder.

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I was in really bad shape by this point, and I needed water, electrolytes, and sleep like nobody’s business. When we made it to the bus station, I was about to collapse. The original plan had been to get our bags from Supertramp and then get lunch, but I could not fathom carrying my heavy duffel before I had eaten. While we scouted for a restaurant with a promising menu del dia, I popped into a convenience store to grab a large bottle of water that I drank far too quickly, only adding to my nausea (another lesson I should have learned from my 26-mile hike, where I threw up in the parking lot). We found a nice restaurant, but I was so queasy when the food came out that I could barely eat any of it. Collin ordered three limonatas (the life-changing drink from Cuy’s)… and the waitress poured us three glasses of what looked like cranberry juice and tasted like cough syrup. One sip was all I could muster. Luckily we weren’t charged for them!

Once we paid our S/.7 each (literally less than Collin paid for a water bottle at Machu Picchu), we headed back to Supertramp to gather our things, clean up a bit (a new shirt and quick birdbath in the bathroom sink pretty much turned me into a new woman), and head out in search of an ATM on the way to the train station.

Money acquired, we got on our train without issue. We opted for the cheaper train for our return trip, which does not serve pineapple juice or fancy pinwheel pastries like our last train did. This is fine, though, because right now anything with calories tastes AMAZING – even the stale lemon muffin that I’m picking at. I’m alive, I climbed a really tall mountain today, and life is good.


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