Friday, April 10, 2009

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu is no Everest, and it is no Kilimanjaro, but it's also no Bukit Timah Hill. After a 4-day trek of nearly 75 km through the sparsely populated but beautiful and sprawling hills of the Salkantay valley to the town of Aguas Calientes, we found time for a short nap before our guide Milthon banged on our doors at Hospedaje Choquequirao shortly before 4 a.m. and said we had to go. Our journey up Machu Picchu began in darkness, head lights in tow, as we climbed the steps to the ruins for about 75 minutes before reaching the top shortly before the gates opened at 6 a.m.

Hundreds of other people joined us by foot or bus (wimps) to rush the gate when it opened because only a limited number of people (400) gain entry to Waynapicchu, the famous narrow peak which overlooks the ruins. Waynapicchu, meaning "young mountain," proved a greater test than it's older sibling after Phil and I jovially took a turn off to a place marked "the great cave." Our smiles soon followed the lead of the trail as it went down, descending further and further into a valley until we reached the grand cavern at a lower altitude than we had entered Machu Picchu at several hours earlier.

We huffed and puffed all the way to the top of Waynapicchu after our 90-minute detour and caught a fog-filled glimpse of the ruins from above, then bounded down the mountain and down Machu Picchu towards Aguas Calientes for lunch. By the afternoon Auggie, Chris, Phil and I had boarded a train back to Cuzco and said goodbye to the wilderness and the trail we had known for the last four nights.

Our journey began in Cuzco at 4 a.m. Saturday, as most of the gringos stumbled home from the city's clubs, with a long bus ride into the mountains and towards the base of Mt. Salkantay, the second tallest peak in South America. Two muliteers (that's what they call them), who would stay with us to guide the mules which carried our stuff, and a chef named Chef joined Milthon as the local contingent in our trekking party. Two Canadians, Mike and Laura, and a Brit named Joss came along as well, and we started trekking around 9 a.m. on Saturday.

When we started the trek I couldn't help but mourn - all too publicly - the fact that we would miss both college basketball's Final Four and the opening of the MLB season, but by mid-day I accepted that we would probably not find any wi-fi along the trail and decided to enjoy myself anyway. Every day presented us with breathtaking scenery. The first day we went mostly uphil, over the pass which curled around Mt. Salkantay and into a valley to our campsite. We spent the next few days going through the valley which marked the alternate route to Machu Picchu. The very popular but less hardcore Inca Trail limits the amount of people who can enter each day, and we waited too long to book our trek. Our trail had less people and better scenery, though, so we didn't think we missed much.

Our dawn ascent to Machu Picchu made every step, every slip on every rock, and every day without a shower worth it. Though the fog would hang over the peak and the ruins throughout the morning and into the afternoon, it didn't keep me from noticing how incredibly intact the ancient Incan city remained. You could see the royalty sitting on their comfy chairs nearly 500 years ago and accepting offerings of giant boulders (the customary gift of the time) from the visitors and townspeople, all 500 of them, in this cloud-scraping pueblo on a hill. You got a sense that the view of the surrounding mountains, rivers and valleys hadn't changed much at all since then. And for a second, just a second, you looked down on the hundreds of people below you in their "Texas Music Rules" t-shirts and Manchester United jerseys and shook your head that something so beautiful ever had to be discovered and violated by the heavy footsteps of tourism...but you got over that because you, too, were part of the tourist rat-king.

I hadn't seen anything cooler than Machu Picchu on this trip, and doubt I will over the next two months. Still, we welcomed our arrival on Thursday night at the Airport Hilton in Mexico City (thanks Moms) and the soft beds, room service and shampoo top-ups that came with it. We also gained whatever weight we lost on the trip right back during the hotel's morning buffet. We're in Guatemala now (sans Chris, who has made a short detour to Canada before rejoining us on April 19 in Tokyo) visiting our friend Andrew, who printed out itineraries for our 6-day stay. It's great to shun guidebooks and know a local. We spent a couple nights at a beach on the south coast, and have spent the last two days here in the lakeside town of San Pedro. Three more days in Guatemala before heading back to Mexico for a couple days and then flying to Japan.

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