Machu Picchu Travelogue

Published on 11 May 2024 at 16:29

Conquering the Andes: Our Trip to Machu Picchu


I’ll be honest, Machu Picchu was not on my bucket list of places to see.  I grew up in the southwest United States and the ancient Anasazi and Hohokam cultures were taught about in elementary school.  We even lived just a few miles from the Casa Grande, a pueblo ruin, that amazed me as to how small it was.  Even the cliffside dwellings like Montezuma’s Castle were interesting for a while, but were really just the next level up from a mud hut.


This is what I expected to see when we took our three day excursion to Cuzco and Machu Picchu.




Once we decided to take this excursion, my wife and I started reading everything we could about Machu Picchu and what we would need to go.  The first thing that struck us was the altitude.  We would be going from sea level to 11,000 feet in altitude over the course of an hour.  This can stress the body of even the best athlete.  So we worked to prepare for altitude and even visited a doctor.  The best advice was to avoid heavy food the day before and during the excursion, avoid alcohol, and make sure to stay hydrated.  This advice worked for us.  The other thing is there are local remedies that really work, such as coca candy and coca tea.  Please note, you cannot bring these back into the United States, and may get an uncomfortable visit by a drug smelling dog at the airport if you either intentionally or unintentionally try to bring some in.


Getting There


The excursion to Machu Picchu was part of a 34 day cruise we decided to take, and much more from that cruise will be discussed in other posts.  But we booked the excursion through the cruise line, and that would be important toward the end of the excursion.  We needed to leave the cruise ship at 5:00am to make it to Lima airport in time for an early flight to Cuzco.  The security and requirements to get on a plane are the same as in the United States, but be prepared to listen to announcements in spanish, and broken english.  This is where being patient comes in and not being to proud to ask for English when interacting with boarding personnel.


The flight was easy, and during descent, I looked out the window and realized that this was not our normal excursion.


First Realization this was not our normal excursion


Looking out the window through broking clouds as we descended into a valley where the small hamlet of Cuzco is.  (Population about 700,000).  The first thing I saw was near vertical mountains with agricultural terraces.  I learned about them in school, but was not prepared to see them the entire side of a mountain.  Thousands of near vertical feet broken out with stone terraces to plant crops.  Some of which were still being used.


We got off the plane, used the bathroom, collected our luggage and were introduced to Javier and Eduardo, our guide and driver for three days.  We went through Cuzco and learned about it as we went through a museum that used to be a church that was built upon an Inca temple.  Due to an earthquake in the 1950’s they found the Inca foundation and built a museum to both the church and the Inca that came before.  This was our first personal introduction to the incredible stonemasonry of the Inca.  Large, odd sized stones fit together as if they were molded in place.  The only holes or gaps have come from weathering or water, or from later attempts by men to change them for their own purpose.  We got to touch these stones and feel the age and work that went into such dedication to their construction practices.  These practices were not only effective, but were much closer to earthquake resistant than most construction today.  We were starting to get the impression that the Inca were not your normal ancient stone age civilization.


The Inca and the Spanish


Javier continued the story the rest of the day about the interaction between the Inca and Pizarro the Spanish Conquistador.  The Inca themselves were aggressive and conquered other civilizations.  They had designs on conquering the tribes of the Amazon, but were interrupted by the Spanish.  The military technology an practices of the Spanish led to the demise of the Inca, but in many ways, they refused to be humbled.  Inca practices and influences found their way into the local church and the influences are present even today. 


We also visited Sacsaywaman (sexy woman) which is an Inca fortress above Cuzco (about 12,000 feet). This megalithic structure is simply amazing.  These stones fit together as only the Inca could do are massive, up to 100 tons in weight of limestone.  We walked in front of the zig zag wall that would have been the first layer of defense against an attacker and kept walking and kept walking.  I think we walked an easy half mile along these stones.  These were done with copper, bronze or hematite based tools.  Since none of these tools have been recovered…. It’s all guesswork. 


Resort Stay


We then took a 90 minute ride to the Sacred Valley of the Inca and the Tambo del Inka resort.  Oh my, this property is gorgeous.  It is surrounded by the working and living areas of the basic Peruvian people, but is a green lake of placidity next to the Urubamba river.  I have stayed at resorts before, and there are better ones in the world, but this one rates in the top 25% easily.  We had a buffet dinner as a group (there were 88 in the tour).  Then we rested into the morning for breakfast and the descent (yes, descent) to Machu Picchu.  We got our rain gear, camera gear, walking sticks, and bottles of water together to make the attempt at the summit!!


Train ride


We boarded busses to the Inkarail terminal and rode the narrow gauge train to Machu Picchu township.  The train ride included a small Pisco Sour, which is the national drink of Peru, Argentinian wine, and a locally produced lunch with potatoes, quinoa, and trout.  There was also entertainment by the train staff acting out a love story from Incan legend.


The real story was the views.  We were deep into the Andes and moving from a desert area closer to the Amazon.  The Urubamba river that we were following is a tributary to the Amazon.  We were amazed at the vertical rise of the mountains around us.  There were very occasional open areas, but none of which were flat.  Each was cultivated with corn and other local crops.  The river itself was milk chocolate colored due to recent rains and was rushing and angry as it descended the mountains.  We left Urubamba in rain and thick overcast.  We could not see the peaks of the mountains as they were mist covered.  As we travelled the tracks for a little less than two hours, the rain slowly slackened and stopped. 


Machu Picchu township


The train pulled into Machu Picchu station.  There was more of a township than I expected.  There probably is a population of around 1,200 that live there to help service the trains, busses, moutaintop and the workers for all of the above.  Of course there are many many vendors selling local wares.  It is hard to say no to the alpaca wool items, they absolutely beautiful and so incredibly soft. 


One other thing we noticed as we waited for the busses to take us to the top were the local dogs.  We had been seeing dogs in Cuzco and the entire trip to the mountain.  The tour leader explained that locals kept the dogs and turned them loose during the day.  At night the dogs came home and resumed their guard duties.  Not one of them was malnurished and many walked around with tails erect and happy postures.  There were a few that were disturbed by us as we passed by.  They were trying to catch a nap, but we rudely walked by. 


Bus ride up


We got to the bus stop and got on the 30 passenger bus and crossed the river and started the ascent.  I could not tell how many feet we climbed but it was a 20 minute ride through 13 switchbacks.  Each turn revealed more of the neighboring area from the jungle plants that tried to overtake everything.  For the first few turns we looked below as the river and train station quickly grew smaller and smaller.  We then started to notice stone steps intersected by the road, then the green terraces, and finally we caught a glimpse of the city in the clouds.


Entering the Mountaintop


Unless you are a frequent hiker through difficult trails, I would strongly recommend using a walking stick.  There are steep, uneven stone stairs all over, and most do not have handrails.  We checked in and got through security into the mountaintop itself.  The weather that had been raining and spitting on us in the valley gave way to blue sky and sunshine.  Our tour guide explained that is not normal this time of year, which is the rainy season.  But we took it anyway.


Route Decisions


We then had a decision to make, we could take the stairs and six switchbacks to get to the highpoint to the south of the city, or skip those stairs.  My wife and I were committed to doing the steps until we saw them. She decided she could not do them, and I went on.  I have been working on my fitness for a year, and to be honest, I’m not that fit.  But, I do not have lung problems, I do not need a cane or a walker, and have been walking and going to the gym.  It took everything I had to get to the top.  My Apple watch and the fitness app stated that I claimed that I had climbed 98 flights of stairs.


The views and the city


This was the payoff.  We got to the top where the postcard picture can be taken.  We were greeted by full sun, a few puffy clouds in the distance, and hovering around the highest peaks.  The views and pictures we captured were worth it all.  When looking at pictures of Machu Picchu you see stone walls and expect something similar to the walls from the American Southwest Pueblo cultures, but no.  This was all Inca.  Some of these buildings were two and three stories.  The ceilings were wood and thatch and were long gone, but the granite walls remain.  The Incan architecture is unmistakable.  As we slowly came down the stairs and terraces (which sported llamas trimming the grass), we passed areas that were unfinished.  The things to see and the facts to absorb were too many to count.  This was no small family unit that lived here, but more than 600 nobility.  The pictures cannot do it justice.  I’m a firm believer that you cannot get the feel of a place until you are there.  When I was at the Gettysburg battlefield, you could feel the solemn sorrow of the place.  At Machu Picchu you could feel hope, determination, and dedication to their way of life.


Getting back


The trip back took more out of us than the trip to the mountain.  We came down on busses, tired but victorious in our quest to put feet on the ground in Machu Picchu.  We boarded the train and began the trip back to the hotel.  We rain into a problem on the tracks were they were blocked by a landslide.  We did not get to see it, so we do not know how serious it was, but with the near-vertical mountains, and rain, it could have been minor or could have washed the rails away for the entire season.  Luckily it was the former and we were back on our way.  We hit the hotel about 9pm and ate a quick meal before showing and packing.  We had a 5am wakeup to get a quick bite before the first bus ride of the day to the Cuzco airport, flight to Lima, and a 5 hour bus ride to Pisco.  We arrived about 45 minutes late, due to some issues at the Lima airport and Lima traffic.  But because we booked our tour through the cruise line, the ship waited for us.  We had a crew to help off the busses, through security, and handover our passports.  But we were back!!!


Lessons Learned


  1. Patience required – In Peru nothing goes perfectly according to plan. If you are expecting that type of tour you need to go to Germany or Switzerland.  Also, other passengers on the tour will cause delays.  I sympathize with the tour guides as they try to herd the passengers like a bunch of curious cats.  I recommend listening to the tour guide and staying close.  The passengers who caused delays for the rest of us did not even notice (but the rest of us did).
  2. Prepare for Altitude – The highest elevation I recorded was 12,500 feet. That is the height of the second highest peaks of the Teton mountains in Wyoming.  We toured, and walked and slept at altitudes from 11,500 feet to 9,800 feet.  Machu Picchu itself is only 7,900 feet, and that alone is high enough to give some people issues.  Exercise, consult your doctor, and listen to the tour guides.  If you cannot do the most difficult portion, do not be ashamed. 
  3. Take advice seriously – The tour guides are very helpful and provide great advice on how to make the most of your tour. It is important to listen to them, and do your own research.  My wife and I kept reading everything we could and talked over every “aha!” moment.  The walking sticks were one.  I researched the best ones for the money that collapsed to a 16” package.  Machu Picchu also requires rubber tips on the sticks.  If you assume the floors and steps will be grass or dirt, you would be wrong. The Inca built with stone, and we must preserve those stones for the generations to come.
  4. The Andes are Vertical – no really. The Andes are freakin’ vertical.  I grew up in Wyoming and have visited the mountains many times.  There are a few that would challenge the Andes FOOTHILLS, but none that really challenge the Andes.  If the clouds had parted we would have been able to see three or four mountains that were more than 20,000 feet in elevation.
  5. The people are sweet, kind and hardworking – These people. I really cannot describe how my heart goes out to them.  Our tour guide, so intelligent, so patient, and so good at what he does.  Our bus driver, always had a smile, I really mean always.  The people at the hotel, the people we met in villages, the police, the train employees all were sweet, kind and hardworking.  The poverty many are under, and the corruption and violence they have had to endure is heartbreaking.
  6. Not everything goes according to plan – Murphy must have a say. He doesn’t live in Peru, but he visits there often.  This land is beautiful, but that beauty is from the active tectonic regions, volcanoes, and rivers.  Much of Peru is desert, and yet they have rain forest.  Saying all of this, there will be things that are outside your control.  Roll with it.  There were a small group on the train coming back from Machu Picchu that spent most of the trip back complaining about this minor thing or another.  I wanted badly to say to them that they could choose another outlook.  They could see they were granted a blessing to see Machu Picchu in all it’s glory.  Not everybody gets to do that.  A delay here or there, or the inability to shop does not diminish that. 
  7. There is a reason Machu Picchu is so revered - The city was sacred to the Inca, as were the mountains, the rivers, the sun and the sky. The place has a magical feel to it.  It is almost surreal to be thousands of feet above the valley floor and surrounded by mountains that rise into the bases of clouds.  This truly is a city in the clouds.  Primitive men and women built this city with backbreaking labor and careful engineering.  Today we cannot duplicate the way they built their walls.
  8. Benefits of on-ship excursions – If you book your shore excursions through the cruise line, you get the benefit of the ship knowing where you are and waiting for you. We arrived back in Pisco almost an hour late.  The ship should have departed, but didn’t.  They waited for us.  That is such a relief that we do not have to worry about missing the ship.
  9. Try to absorb some Spanish before the trip – Every little piece of Spanish that you can absorb will help you. I subscribed to Babbel to get a foot up on learning Spanish, but I did not stay with it.  I have good excuses, but it would have helped.
  10. Learn, Learn, Learn – Finally, keep learning. I had a boss one time that said that any day that you didn’t learn something was a day wasted.  As I get older and a little wiser, I see the truth in that.  See different countries, cultures and people to learn and grow.  Make sure to always grow into a better version of yourself.

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