It's a creekmore world

Peru Day 4 – No Whining on Wayna Picchu!

Family shot at the top of Wayna Picchu

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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

3:50 am.  The line for Wynna Pichu is already 6 busses long.
Fortunately for me, there are coffee vendors that deftly balance cups, spoons, sugar, hot water and concentrated coffee on one arm, while serving me a cup and making change (2 soles a cup) with the other.

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.

The mountainous could forest of the Sacred Valley, Peru in an erie blue light of dawn.

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.

We wait in the early morning fog for the sunrise view.  (We should see the upper left from here)
A few thousand people per week hike the Inca trail for 3-7 days and hundreds more per day get up as early as we do to see the Machu Picchu sunrise.  It’s a late sunrise, because it has to come over the high peaks to the East, but it’s supposedly spectacular.

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

Morning clouds make the ruins dramatic.
it doesn’t matter anyway.  We didn’t get up early just for the sunrise.  We want to go up Wayna Picchu, and it’s getting close to our check-in time of 7am.    The entrance to Wayna Picchu is at the opposite end of the entrance gate, about a 20 minute walk.  Wandering through the misty ruins is spectacular, the stuff movies are made of.

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.

The top of the mountain is covered in mist.  It's a 1500 foot climb.
This is all complete speculation, because there is wide disagreement as to what Machu Picchu’s entire purpose was.  Most accounts have settled on it having been a summer palace for the emporer 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.

The climb up Wayna Picchu is slippery and treacherous.  It takes 90 minutes to get up.
We travel on the stone stair-pat built by the Inca’s, less than a foot wide in spots and only occasionally with hand rails.  Most of the time we need a hand down to steady ourselves.  Off to either side, the mountain falls nearly straight down a deadly quarter-mile or more.

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

Emma, Lily and Dad take naps at the top as we wait for the clouds to break-up and show us the view.
The final 10% of the path is the hardest.  The temple at the peak is even steeper than the trail itself.  At 9,000 feet above sea-level we are exhausted.  It’s only been 5 hours since I got up to quene for this hike, but I could already sleep for days.   The rain starts to come down harder and the girls find a way to doze on the rocks in their yellow ponchos.  The clouds still cover everything although there is an occasional glimpse of the river below.

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.

Waiting at the edge for clouds to pass and show us Machu Picchu.
The funny thing, is we aren’t the only ones with camera troubles.  A woman hunts around for someone with an Olympus brand XD-memory camera that she can borrow.  She explains to us that a guy asked her to take a photo of him using his camera, which she obliged.  He held her camera while she did it, BUT DROPPED IT DOWN SIX FLIGHTS OF STAIRS.

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!)

The clouds never totally clear while we are at the top, but it was still stunningly beautiful.

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

Trish at the top!
The top of the mountain has a series of platforms on which a few dozen people wait around for the glimpse (and photo if your camera works) of Machu Picchu, 1,500 feet below. Everytime the clouds part a little bit a cheer erupts!

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.

On top of the world.
A park official yells that the 7am climb is over and we need to descend.  It’s about 10:30 am, and a few rays of sunlight peek out.   I remember my regrettable decision to do the early climb and wish we had taken the later time.   They will get a great view, I’m sure.

Fear is a good thing, panic is not.

2500 feet straight down to the Urubamba River
The girls have done great, climbing skillfully and attentively up.  Trish, who is obviously out of shape after a year of cancer, manages with relative ease.   But this is scarily high up.  There are 2500 foot drops off  any side and no rails.  (See my hiking boot at the bottom of that picture.)

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.

We begin to descend...
Panic attacks aren’t rational.   You can’t convince someone it’s not scary.  You can only hold them, which I do for my older child, until it subsides enough for her to stand up and move forward.  Emma has incredible mental strength, and never once screams or cries.  She talks herself through it and with my handholding, makes her way back down.

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.

Nearly vertical stone stairs make going back down worse than going up.
The first 300 feet through the mountain-top temple are the hardest.  Then the trail widens a bit, making it easier to deal with the wet, narrow trail.  The clouds part and we get our first clear view or Macchu picchu from the mountan we are on.  As we descend, people cheer for Lily and Emma.  They are the only kids on the mountain today.  Bonitas!  Brava!

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.)

Baby alpaca and mom.
We need food and water and bathrooms, all of which are outside the main entrance.  It begins to drizzle harder and we throw on our panchos and hurry to the front gate.  There are only two places to eat, an outdoor cafeteria with a few tables that are already full with families seeking shelter from the rain.  And an indoor buffet that is exorbitant by Peruvian standards ($35 per person).  We go for the buffet and it’s one of our best decisions ever.  Emma and Lily can easily find stuff to eat, and it’s dry and quiet inside.

Wayna Picchu glows hauntingly in the background.
It turns out our decision to do the 7am trip was best.  The rains get harder and harder.  Tours come out of Machu Picchu in droves, shuffling for the safety of the gigantic tour buses.  We dry out, and enjoy the buffet which has good roast pork and chicken.  The girls have a blast trying to pronounce ‘profiteroles’.  They have no trouble eating them by the plateful.

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.

Alpacas inhabit Machu Picchu at the pinacle of the earth.
Machu Picchu is pretty large, not as large as the major Mayan ruins, but it takes several hours to see it’s parts.  There are temples at the front and back.  Being a cloud-forest, it’s pretty easy to keep grass growing, so there is always a nice carpet underneath your feet.

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.

Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu

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.

Go.

Now.

Book it.

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