Friday, August 11, 2006

The magnificent Machu Picchu.

This was the day for Machu Picchu and I couldn't wait! This day was also all about timing as you'll see.

The day began with a 4:15am wake up call from the hotel front desk. Simon's plan was for us to have breakfast at 4:30am. Then at 5am, we would walk up the street to the bus stop where we would catch the first bus which left at 5:15am for a 30 minute ride up the to the control point (entry gate) at Machu Picchu. We would wait at the control point til it opened and then be among the first to entry the site grounds. Kim and Andrea were going to be ending their Inca Trail hike at Machu Picchu so Simon, the Stelzers and I we were going to meet up with them at around 7:15am. The re-formed group would then tour Machu Picchu.

Simon The Punctual was already in the hotel lobby by the time I got down there around 4:25am. If what was left in his tea cup was any indication of how long he had been waiting for us, it had been quite some time! Though he said he was feeling better, he still looked a little peaked to me but Simon loves going to Machu Picchu and he was responsible for 8 tourists under his watch so there was no way he was going to bow out of this day's trip.

By 4:30a, none of the Stelzers had yet appeared and Simon The Worrier was beginning to pace the floor. A few minutes later, Riley appeared and had had a decent night's rest. Though he was hungry, he was understandably skittish about eating. A bowl of cold cereal helped. Soon the remaining family members made their way down but by the time the last one arrived, it was nearly 5am and Simon was getting antsy to leave.

We marched out of the hotel and no sooner had we started walking up the street when confusion arose as to who (Simon or Greg) had the Machu Picchu bus and entry tickets for the Stelzers. After a few minutes of debate, Simon finally found the tickets in his backpack. By this time, it's around 5:15am.



We got up to the bus stop and there was already a throng of people congregated there. Basically, an endless stream of buses arrive at the stop to ferry passengers back and forth between Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu.

There was some confusion about where to actually stand to catch the bus. Though Simon had gone through this routine countless times before, he was told by the girl at the coffeeshop that the bus company had recently changed the pickup point and the new point was about 50 feet or so away from where Simon had always stood. So, we relocated to the new point and as the first bus pulled in, it stopped at the original point. Simon was not a happy camper, to say the least.

Each bus holds (I'm guessing) about 30-40 passengers. Since we wanted to ride together, we ended up getting on board the 3rd bus.

The bus wound it's way up the steep mountainsides - basically doing switchbacks as we zig zagged up. Though the road was narrow, since there were no buses descending from Machu Picchu so it was an easy ride.

It wasn't daybreak yet so although I could see the scenic mountain landscape, I couldn't capture any photos until my ride down later in the morning.

About 25 minutes later, we arrived at the checkpoint to Machu Picchu. We disembarked and queued in line to enter the site grounds. As we entered past the checkpoint, we had our boletos stamped with the official mark of Machu Picchu.



....and then the view came before us and it was our first sight of the spectacular grounds that is Machu Picchu. Although we weren't the first people on the grounds, as Simon had hoped we would be, it is such a massive, terraced site (probably the size of a football field, if not larger) that we didn't notice the crowd until much later on in the morning when the main crush of tourists arrive.



It wasn't quite daybreak yet and the fog was rolling in and out and constantly shrouding one part or another of the site. Unfortunately, the photos I took truly don't do justice to the scale and majesty of the view - it's really something you have to see for yourself.

I quickly snapped a photo of Riley as he stood on a rocky ledge. The sun was just beginning to peak out from the clouds in the far distance.



We would have a 2 hour conducted tour once we met back up with Andrea and Kim but Simon gave us a brief orientation of the grounds and explanation of the site to get us going.



We had about 45 minutes or so before the start of the tour and so Simon left us to roam the site on our own. The Stelzers wandered off and I followed Simon up to the watch tower where the classic photo of Machu Picchu is taken. On the way up, I caught sight of some llamas grazing and couldn't resist the photo op.



After I arrived at the watch tower, (shown in the photo below), I found a spot nearby and plopped myself down on the ground to wait for the sun to rise and for Machu Picchu to "appear". The fog was still rollling in and out. I started snapping photos at around 7am and did so every few minutes as I didn't know when the fog would lift - I didn't want to miss "The Moment" that Machu Picchu would appear.



Simon eventually joined me and I finally caught of photo of him relaxing in quiet repose. Seconds after I took this shot, Simon the Worrier was up and about - anxiously awaiting the arrival of Andrea and Kim.



By now, a sizeable crowd had now gathered around the watch tower - some with tripods set up to capture "The Moment". I continued to snap photos.



.....then, as if by magic, at 7:17am, the last bit of fog lifted, the sun came out and the full view of Machu Picchu was revealed! All of a sudden, the air was filled with the sound of camera shutters clicking - everyone attempting to capture the perfect shot of "The Moment".

The crowd, which had been relatively quiet, broke out in chatter. It was as if everything and everyone came to life the moment the sun broke through the clouds. Words and photos simply cannot adequately convey the sense of awe and surrounding atmosphere that envelops you as you experience the grandeur of Machu Picchu as it's first laid out before you.




After the sun appeared, we could finally see the full monument site in all its glory. It's truly spectacular.





Eventually, Kim and Andrea arrived at the watch tower and Simon was the first to greet them. We were all glad to see them "in one piece" though they did look a bit "trail worn". I think they were glad to finally see us as well it meant that they had completed their Inca Trail hike - trekking for 3 days at elevations that often exceeded 15,000 feet and traversing glaciers is an accomplishment for anyone and even more so for these two whom Wilbert had nicknamed "Los Princesas de los Andes".

Once we had re-grouped, Simon bid goodbye and headed back into town. We were left in the hands of Wilbert who would be guiding us through our 2 hour conducted tour. In the photo on the right, Wilbert is explaining to us how the Incans cleaved boulders to size the rocks that were used to build Machu Picchu. The Incans inserted carved wooden rods into holes in the boulder. As the rods absorbed water from the fog, they would expand and eventually, the boulder would split. I can't imagine how difficult and time consuming must have been to do!



On our tour, we saw different views of the enormous site and along the way, Wilbert explained about how Incans constructed rooms and platforms to tell the passage of time (specifically the vernal solstice and autumnal equinox), how rooms were constructed for religious purposes and for gazing into the night sky, the materials they used to build roofs and how they attached roofs to the stone structures, how the Incans constructed rock walls so that the site would be earthquake proof, how they grew crops and dried foods, etc.




Unfortunately, because the Incans did not have a written language, much of what is known about them is "educated" speculation on the part of archeologists and historians so no one really knows the truth about Machu Picchu. Nonetheless, it is all very interesting to me.

After the tour, we had time to wander the grounds on our own. The Stelzers went to climb Wayna Picchu which is the mountain that is in the background of every classic photo ever taken of Machu Picchu. Andrea, Kim and I walked around together for a short while and I then left them to go on my own. I found a quiet spot and sat down on the ground to admire the view one last time before I headed down to the control point to catch the bus back to Aguas Calientes.