Our outing to Machu Picchu began with a two and a half hour cab ride from Cuzco. Once we departed Cuzco, we headed into the countryside and soon found ourselves surrounded by towering Andean peaks. Most of the roads were pretty remote and some were even unpaved. The cab was packed with the five of us (Eric, Rori, Persephone, myself, and the cab driver), and our ride soon took on the feeling of a road trip. Our route became increasingly remote the further we got from Cuzco. Soon the twisting mountainous road led us to a high- mountain pass where a landslide had occurred. From here we had to hike for a good half an hour over the area the landslide covered.
The scene at the landslide was quite a marvel. Loads of buses and automobiles sat helpless at the end of the road while a seemingly endless migration of people hiked the trail over the landslide. It was obvious this was an important route for both travel and trade. Due to the fact that the road was impassable for automobiles, all goods being transported had to be carried on the backs of the people hiking over the landslide. The vast migration of people and goods reminded me of a busy ant colony, high in the remote reaches of the Andes.
After trekking over the landslide, we found our second cab waiting for us. From there it was another three hours until we arrived in a tiny, remote town called Santa Maria. We found the road trip to Santa Maria to be a very exciting and interesting one. The ride was full of incredible high-altitude vistas along the isolated, snaking mountain roads.
From Santa Maria we caught an overstuffed minibus for an additional three hour ride before arriving in another tiny town called Santa Theresa. That ride was a real bone-shaker. The road was basically a skinny, rocky dirt trail with steep cliffs on one side and sheer mountain walls on the other. By the time we reached Santa Theresa we were all quite tired and hungry from the long day of travel. After finding some cheap and simple rooms for the night, we sat down for a meal of chicken and rice.
We spent the rest of the night walking around Santa Theresa and watching a bizarre group of local teenagers doing a choreographed dance to a mysterious man playing a flute. It appeared like a scene out of a musical. First we were just watching the kids play basketball and soccer on an outdoor court when, all of the sudden, an enigmatic gentleman with slicked-back black hair stepped out of the shadows and began playing his flute. The children immediately stopped playing their games and were soon doing an elaborate, synchronized dance. It was truly bizarre and reminded me of the end of the children’s story, “The Pied Piper of Hamelin,” where the piper returns to charm the children away from the town.
The next morning we set out on a hike from Santa Theresa to the resort town of Aguas Calientes. Our hike started by crossing the Rio Urubamba, via a rustic, rickety cable car. We all enjoyed crossing the river in this manner, and it helped add an extra element of adventure to our hike.
After crossing the river, we followed a dusty trail that led through some spectacular scenery. There were looming Andean mountains, waterfalls, and even beautiful flowers that flanked the sides of the trail. After about two hours we reached a hydroelectric plant where a set of abandoned train tracks began. From here we hiked along the tracks for another three hours before reaching Aguas Calientes.
Hiking along the train tracks in such a remote and beautiful place was fantastic. There was an air of romance and adventure. Crossing train bridges, and even swinging hand-over-hand to cross another river, all helped to provide a true feeling of rugged adventure.
The most popular ways to reach Machu Picchu are to either take the tourist train from Cuzco to Aguas Calientes, or to hike along the overcrowded Inca Trail. I found our approach to be the least popular yet, perhaps, the most impressive. We only encountered about five people during the entire hike. We spent the rest of the night relaxing in Aguas Calientes.
Aguas Calientes is also known as “Machu Picchu Pueblo,” and is located in a deep valley directly below the ruins of Machu Picchu. Although it is a tourist town from start to finish, we found Aguas Calientes to be quite charming. The town’s sole purpose is to serve as a base of hotels and restaurants for people visiting Machu Picchu. That said, the town seems to do a pretty good job of it. The best part about staying in Aguas Calientes is that its strategic location provides visitors the ability to awaken early in the morning and hike up to Machu Picchu before sunrise. This allows you to view the ruins before all of the buses and trains full of tourists arrive.
The next day we all awoke at 3:30 in the morning and began our hike to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, I didn’t end up getting a wink of sleep that night and was exhausted before we even began. The hike proved to be an unforgiving experience. It was a steep trudge in the pre-dawn darkness, straight up countless crude rock staircases. Although it was freezing outside, I found my t-shirt drenched in sweat by the time we reached the entrance gates.
After waiting another half hour at the entrance, we found ourselves among the very first people to enter Machu Picchu. The sun had just risen above the towering mountain peaks, so viewing the perfect beauty of the ruins was stunning. Like standing in front of the Taj Mahal, or on top of the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu proved to be one of those unique places in the world that is truly marvelous. I have to say it lived up to and exceeded every expectation I had. This lost city among the clouds certainly deserves its rank among the world’s greatest wonders.
Once inside Machu Picchu, we began the hike up the picturesque mountain called Wayna Picchu that looms majestically to the north of the ruins. This hike was also fairly taxing, but the views from the summit were priceless. Sitting on top of Wayna Picchu felt like sitting on the rooftop of the world. Like Angel Falls, Macchu Picchu is a place where the immortals reside. It is a place of dreams and inspiration.
After our incredible visit to the ruins, we walked back down to Aguas Calientes, where we later caught the train back to Cuzco. Although the train was criminally overpriced at $77, it was an incredible route that provided further stunning views. We ended up back in Cuzco after a very memorable day. The four of us then relaxed there for the next two days before Rori and Persephone left to return to America.
Wednesday morning Eric and I boarded a train bound for the town of Puno, located on the coast of Lake Titicaca. The train was a perfect way to enjoy the beautiful and remote landscape that spans between Cuzco and Lake Titicaca. We relaxed at our window-side table and watched vast valleys, towering mountains, and sparsely scattered mud brick pueblos, race by our window. The landscape reminded me of the Wild West and I felt as if we were in the opening scene of the movie Dead Man. We were traveling toward Bolivia and images of Che Guavara’s execution and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s last stand played through my imagination.
We arrived in Puno around 7:00 that night, after almost 11 hours on the train. Puno turned out to be a busy little town with small cozy streets and an interesting mix of architecture. We found the weather to be very cold, due to a chilling wind that comes over the lake at night.
After the long day on the train, we were starving and looking for something good to eat. Luckily we found what must be one of the best chicken joints in all of Central and South America. Eric and I have become aficionados of fried and roasted chicken; and let me tell you, this place was one of the best. You know a place is good when there’s a line of locals that goes straight out the front door.
The next morning we took a bus to a town called Yunguyo, near the Bolivian border. After walking across the border we entered my 55th country, Bolivia. The crossing was surprisingly easy, and we were relieved to discover that we did not have to pay for a visa to enter the country. We had heard conflicting information about a new law enacted in Bolivia that requires U.S. citizens to obtain a visa at the cost of $100. Although this law has apparently been passed, they have not yet worked out the details and, therefore, it is not yet in effect.
Thanks to the new and tougher restrictions on getting visas to the United States, countries around the world are starting to impose “reciprocal” charges and mandatory visas for citizens of the United States. Brazil now requires a $100 visa, as does Chile, if you fly into the country. It seems America’s xenophobia ends up costing harmless little travelers, like me, big bucks in the end.
After crossing the Bolivian border, we continued on to the quaint lakeside town of Copacabana, where we have now spent the last three days. We’ve taken a few good hikes, and have also been eating excellent Lake Titicaca fried trout for $2.50. Today we took a ferry out to the Isla del Sol (Island of the Sun) on Lake Titicaca. We ended up hiking the width and length of the island and saw several archaeological ruins. The island reminded me a lot of the Greek islands and the coast of Croatia.
The weather in this region of South America can be harsh and inhospitable, but the location is terrible with beauty and mystique. The people of the Lake Titicaca region appeared to be very rugged and earthy. The women here have an incredible sense of style. They all wear grand, multi-layered dresses and classic bowler hats. Several of them carry babies slung over their backs, nestled in colorful blankets.
Traveling to this area is like traveling back in time. You feel as if you are on the set of a movie about another place, another time. From here we will be heading to La Paz, where we heard it was snowing a couple of days ago.
We have once again decided to change our route. We will now be crossing Bolivia mostly via train before heading into southern Brazil. We plan to spend about 2 weeks in Brazil before heading through Uruguay, then on to Argentina in September. We plan to spend all of September and the first part of October in Argentina and Chile before flying out of Santiago.