And then there was One in Machu Picchu

Trip Start Jul 19, 2006
Trip End Sep 19, 2006

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

For the entire trip up to this point, I have been walking in the shadow of the Incas. Their footprints dot most of the South American coast, and their legacy paints rich traditions everywhere I've been. But now I was going to Machu Picchu. The Incas were no longer some phantom echo in the wind. No, this was their famous lost city. This was a sacred place buried deep inside mountains and jungle, never to be discovered by the Spanish as they plundered and destroyed one of the world's greatest empires. This was the closest you could get to staring an Inca in the eyes...with about a thousand other gringos at your side.

I squeezed into a small colectivo (or van), along with an older Peruvian couple and an Austrian couple. We had about an hour and a half ride to get from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. From there, I would be taking a scenic two hour train ride to Aguas Calientes, the launch pad to Machu Picchu.

The young Austrian couple had been traveling for a while now. They were doing a 10-month expedition around the world. This seems to be a common trek for many Europeans and Australians, but is relatively unheard of for Americans. To this point, I have only encountered three main types of Americans in South America:

1. Service workers: These people do community service in one area for anywhere from 2-4 weeks, and then do a quick tour of the surrounding area. Azalea would fall into this category.
2. Retirement searchers: These are older couples that speak questionable spanish but that are traveling through South America in search of a cheap and exotic retirement home. Dan and Paula (from the Cuyabeno jungle trip) fall into this category.
3. Two-weekers: These are the short-term tourists that are only visiting a few highlights of South America before returning to the real world. It's a brief dip, barely penetrating the surface. This tends to be people who just can't get the time off of work to do more.

For many of the foreigners that I have met, their countries seem to encourage them to just take a year to fly around the world. Australians do it because it's cheaper to buy a round-the-world plane ticket if they're visiting the Americas anyway. I think there's something in the American mentality that tends to prohibit such reckless abandon. If we put a year somewhere, we'd better see some results. We need to be constructive with our time. We can't just go sightseeing and abandon our lives for a year. The Austrians could, though. I was green with envy. Nine weeks is not long enough.

Phantoms in Machu Picchu
I met up with Brett in Aguas Calientes that evening. We wandered around a little, even tasting some of the local cuisine (guinea pig!). We stayed at a nice, cheap hostel that night, conveniently located near the bus terminal for trips up to Machu Picchu. We decided we would wake up early the next morning to get to Machu Picchu when it opened at 6am. At 5:15am, there was no way Brett could be separated from his bed. He said he would meet me later as I would be spending all day on the ruins. I set off for the ruins with the two Austrians.

We got to the terminal just before 5:30am, so we could catch the first bus up to Machu Picchu and maybe get a view of the ancient city before the plague of tourists descends on it. Upon arrival at the bus stop, we encountered about 200 people with the same idea. The bus cost us $6 each way, and we had to pay about $40 for admission into Machu Picchu. They could charge whatever price they wanted, and they knew it.

As it turns out, it isn't really worth arriving at the ruins as soon as it opens at 6am. The clouds are thick, blocking any kind of view of the ruins. The crowds of tourists are thicker, blocking any kind of hope for solitude. We wandered around the ruins a little, finally ending up at the base of Wayna Picchu on the side opposite the entrance. The Austrians decided they would rather not wait in the long line to ascend Wayna Picchu, so I was left alone to climb yet another peak.

When traveling, you encounter many phantoms. You meet someone whose path is temporarily aligned with yours. They are a passing cloud. They have no past, nor future. They are just stories of places they have been and places they may go. They only exist in the present, before fading away into the depths of memories forgotten. Travel is an accelerated microcosm for relationships back in the real world. You become intimately close with someone for a few ephemeral moments, or years. Then they disappear. Time passes, seasons change. You begin to wonder whether they ever really existed, whether you ever really could've been so close to something that is so far away. Then you stop wondering.

In travel, such encounters usually end with "I'm sure we'll run into each other again" or various forms of the phrase. Sometimes the world is small enough to bring truth to your words. Most times it isn't. I parted from the Austrians with the idea that we would meet up later that afternoon. The ruins weren't too big, and certainly we'd run into each other again. I never saw them again.

The hike up Wayna Picchu was rather steep, but I made it to the top within 35 minutes (just under the recommended 1 hour climbing time). On top I met some Americans of the Service Worker variety who had been building something in a nearby city and were now doing their short excursion before returning to the states. The views weren't so great from Wayna Picchu and I decided the hike was more just to say you did it than anything else.

I spent the day floating around the various ruin sites. I did a short walk to the Inca Bridge (which basically just looked like someone had thrown a few boards across a chasm) and met more phantom tourists: a Spaniard and two Colombians. Brett still was nowhere to be found, and I had wandered every corner of the ruins (I had about 12 hours there!).

I met mother/son traveling duo of the Two-Weeker variety who were just doing a short trip through parts of Peru. I told them a few of my stories from traveling so far. I also mentioned my plan to drive from Maryland to San Francisco, CA upon my return to the US (I start work on October 2nd, so that leaves me a week and a half to get across the country). Patty (the mother) offered her house to me as a place to crash at any point if I needed while driving. She's also a journalist for the Lincoln Journal Star. Maybe I'll make the headlines.

I returned to Aguas Calientes on a bus with Patty and her son. I had been around the city the night before so I showed them around a little before heading back to my hostel. Aguas Calientes was a small town, so we said a rushed goodbye, accompanied by a sincere "I'm sure we'll run into each other again." I never saw them again.

The Agua is Caliente in Aguas Calientes...But the Bars Aren't
After parting with the Nebraskans, I made a trip to the natural hot baths at the very top part of the city. The water was murky and steaming. I met a few Irish travelers who had been together bouncing around the world for the past 10 months and still had a couple months to go. The trio consisted of two girls and a guy. I can't possibly fathom how you could find two other people whose mindsets and interests were aligned well enough to survive 12 months of traveling together. They seemed mentally sound on the outside at least. You don't find Americans doing this.

We ended by jumping into a pool of freezing water. It's supposed to be good for closing your pores. I think it's good for making the gringos look ridiculous. We then went to the locker rooms to change. I decided to take advantage of the warm showers here to clean off some of the sweat from a day of hardcore tourism. Aguas Calientes was small, though, so I said goodbye to the Irish trekkers with a sincere "I'm sure we'll run into each other again." I never saw them again.

After leaving the hot baths, I wandered the streets looking for my new Irish friends. I couldn't find them in any bars. I soon realized, I couldn't find anyone in any bars. And it wasn't that there was a lack of bars. Every other building was a bar or a pizzeria. No, this town was just empty. I couldn't believe it. This is the only place that feeds into Machu Picchu, the tourist mecca of all of South America. Nobody was here!

I ended up settling for a restaurant that just had one older couple. I sat at the table, drinking my beer and eating my burger. I was really alone, for the first time. I asked my waiter if Aguas Calientes was always so empty (it was a Saturday night, afterall). "Siempre." He explained that most tourists just come and go in one day, not even staying overnight. I have no idea how all of these restaurants and hotels support themselves. It's almost as mysterious as the ancient Incan ruins.

Machu Picchu, Day Two
I wasn't planning on visiting Machu Picchu again on Sunday, but when I awoke to beautiful blue skies I decided it was worth the $40 splurge on another day, considering the blue sky barely peaked through the clouds the entire previous day. This time I knew better than to show up for the 6am cattle rush. I got to the ruins around 1pm and strolled around. I did a short hike to the Sun Gate (check the photos), and ended up meeting a girl from Korea at the end of the day.

Mihyeon was from Korea but had been studying the past year at UC Davis in California, within 15 minutes of where I will be living upon returning to the US. We ended up grabbing a cheap dinner at a local place. She had been traveling for a month more than me, and had been through parts of Brazil, Argentina, and Bolivia. Did I mention she didn't know any spanish before arriving in South America? Did I also mention that her english was not quite fluent? Wow. And she was traveling alone! I warned her to stay away from northern Ecuador at night.

After dinner, I headed off for my train back to Ollantaytambo, followed by a quick bus ride back to Cusco. She would be in Cusco the next morning, so I gave her my hotel name. "I'm sure we'll run into each other again." I never saw her again. But I have heard from her through e-mail. She's doing well.

A change of plans
As you may know, my original plan was to travel to Brazil after Machu Picchu. I would be working alongside Jina Kim to construct a diagnostics facility for a clinic associated with an orphanage in an isolated part of the Amazon jungle. However, I heard from Jina that she would no longer be able to make it (I actually found out back when we were hijacked in Ecuador). She had very legitimate reasons for dropping out, but this left me in a tough place. Considering the following points, I decided not to continue with the trip as planned:

1. I don't speak portuguese.
2. Brazil is expensive. I would also have to get a Visa, and pay $100 just to get in.
3. The place we would be going, Jacunda, is very isolated and would be tough and possibly even dangerous to get to.
4. Without Jina, I would be much less effective doing this project alone.

So now what?

I decided I would continue southward, keeping to the spanish language. I roughly set a goal of going through Bolivia and Chile, to end up at some point in Buenos Aires. I had no idea if this was reasonable or worthwhile. I guess I'll have to see.

As it turned out, Brett never ended up making it back to the ruins, and his trip promptly came to an end. He would be taking a flight from Cusco to Lima and then Lima to Tumbes, followed by a bus to Quito and a flight to Boston. I never ran into Brett after that morning when I saw him asleep before heading off to Machu Picchu. Oh well, I'm sure we'll run into each other again.

Quantifiable Summary
Colectivo from Cusco to Ollantaytambo: 10 soles ($3), about 2 hours.
Train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes: $26 roundtrip or $34 one-way, 2 hours.
Hostal La Fortaleza in Aguas Calientes: 20 soles ($6)/person/night.
Entrance into Machu Picchu: 118.50 soles ($40)/day, half as much for students with ISIC card.
Bus from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu entrance: $6 each way, about 20 minutes.
Still alive.
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jessi330 on

Que coincidencia!
It's a small world. I'm also living in Lincoln, NE and doing a South American tour, but of the year-long variety. I'm reading your blog as research. Thank you so much for having detailed posts and prices of things. You seemed to like having places to stay all around the world, so you should definitely join - If you ever come through Lincoln, I'm there too!

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