Lily taps me on the shoulder and say she’s having a nightmare. It’s 3:45 am and normally I’d invite her into our bed to finish the night sleep, but instead I give her my spot and pull on my (4 day old) clothes. My alarm will go off in 15 minutes anyway, I might as well get up.
Out on the dark main square of Aguas Callientes, I see a half-dozen people shuffling hurredly toward the bus station for Machu Picchu. We are all trying to be one of the first 400 to get our tickets stamped for access to the spectacular, little-known, hike to the top of Wayna Picchu for a spectacular view of Machu Picchu.
There are already at least 50 people lined up, and most are holding spots for friends and family like me. Within minutes it’s about triple that number. It’s a good thing Lily got me up early or we might not get a spot.
Be among the first 400
A group of Israelis sing songs loudly behind me. A woman with an Argentine passport drinks Coca tea and twitches nervously in front of me. In the dark I read a trashy novel about vampires on my smartphone Kindle.
The family arrives an hour later with a few bananas and some bread from their hotel breakfast. Having bought our tickets and bus passes the day before (a must if you want to do Wayna Picchu) we get on the fifth bus and are driven along the Urubamba river a short way, then up the road to Machu Picchu. In the pre-dawn light, the cloudy tops of the mountains glow erily.
At the gates to machu Picchu, we join the next line for Wayna Picchu stamps but it’s longer because tours from Cusco and guests of the only hotel on the Machu Picchu grounds ($700/night double for meh accommodations) cut in front. Anxiously, we move forward slowly. But we are in time! As we are getting our tickets stampes, he asks us a question that will define success or failure today: Do we want the 7am or the 10 am admittance? I take the 7am because I figure it’s better to do the tough part of the day first.
But I instantly regret my decision. Machu Picchu is really cloudy right now, and the thick fog may not lift until we are done with Wayna Picchu, which would make the whole experience pointless. Dammit, dammit.
The best kept secret in the sacred valley.
You wouldn’t know it today. We head up to the ‘top’ of Machu Picchu, sometimes called the Caretaker Hut and wait with a few dozen other people for the monumental sunrise over Machu Picchu, but all we get is a wall of fog. (The image in the upper right is what we are supposed to be seeing from here.) It’s chilly and damp, but not cold.
Later, KB, the owner of our hotel KB Tambo, says that the best kept secret in the sacred valley is that there isn’t a sunrise at Machu Picchu ever. It’s always cloudy like that! But you can’t blame a tourist for trying.
Wayna Picchu is part of the Machu Picchu complex and houses temples at the top, as well as a significant temple on it’s backside. According to guides, the priests climbed up each day to welcome the morning sun. Only virgins and priests ever stayed up there.Pachacuti, built in the 15th century but abandoned and subsequently ‘lost’ after the Spanish conquest.
What people do agree on, is that Wayna Picchu is a hella climb. It starts innocently enough at the level of Machu Picchu, which is about 7,500 feet above sea level and 1,500 feet above the valley floor below it. Wayna Picchu rises another 1,500 feet at a 70 degree angle. The path is narrow, steep and slippery with moisture from the cloud forest it cuts through.
This hike would never be allowed in the US. Even the Peruvians realize the danger. There are no advertisements for Wayna Picchu. Local authorities are clearly not trying to attract more visitors. I wonder if Emma and Lily’s kids will be allowed to do this in 30 years.
Bad Inca voodoo curses cameras on Wayna Picchu
Trish and I are frustrated by taking pics with our mobile phones and wet hands. We both own the HTC Google-branded Nexus One, which is an amazing phone. I was so dissapointed when they discontinued it, although there is a newer version that is nearly as good. But it’s no fun thumbing a smartphone at Machu Picchu.
On the verge of tears, she held up her smashed Olympus. She just wanted to borrow someones camera that would fit her memory card so she could get a few shots. (Later we saw her again, and she said she found someone with the same camera who agreed to let her take a few pics, but just when she started to take a picture it ran out of batteries!)
We were clearly not the worst off when it came to Kamera Karma. In fact a really nice guy from Arizona, on a two month trip through Central and south America, offered us his camera. We put in our memory card and got a few decent shots including the family photo that will probably make the Christmas card this year. Thanks Michael!
Meeting the gods
We never get a perfect view, but the pictures you see here make it look worse than it is. You can see much more clearly through the clouds with your naked eye than the camera represents. What a spectacle! We are among the gods.
Fear is a good thing, panic is not.
As we pack up to go down, Emma freezes in fear and can’t move. She is silent, and can’t even mouth the words or breath naturally. It’s a panic attack; something Trish takes meds for and Lily suffers occasionally. But Emma is less prone to them, so we’re a little surprised.
Unfortunately for her, back down is even harder. There are people coming up now, so we have to deal with two-way traffic. (One guy bumps Lily down and elbows me in the head, for which he got a nasty tirade of epithets that sent the message even if he didn’t speak English.) Emma bravely takes each step and holds onto the ropes. Even Trish admits she’s scared.
Apres lunch, le Deluge.
At the bast of Wayna Picchu we look back up at our climbing conquest. It’s a fantastic experience, and we are all spent and in need of rest. Through the ruins we pass huge tour groups and see some llamas including a baby that we are told was just born yesterday. He and the mom allow us very close. (A smartphone has no zoom, to speak of, so I was a few feet away when taking this.)
Machu Picchu in the sunlight
We head back inside the grounds, the sun begins to shine and the clouds break through, giving us our first glorious glimpses of the Lost city of the Inca, and it’s sister mountain, Wayna Picchu. Have we said it enough that pictures (especially ones from a smartphone) don’t do this justice? The irony of all the camera problems is that cameras are completely inept at capturing what you see at Machu Picchu.
We traipse around the ruins a little more, and from every turn and vantage point, it’s gorgeous. But after 12 hours of standing and hiking, it’s 4pm, and we have to get back down to Aquas Callientes for our train back to Ollantaytambo. It’s been an exhilarating day.
Trish and I have been a lot of spectacular places, and I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but this place makes you feel god-like. It’s dramatic, inspiring and awe-inducingly beautiful. My words betray its dramatic presence. You really must put Machu Picchu at the top of your travel list.