Monday, April 25, 2011

Cusco > Ollantaytambo > Aguas Calientes > Machu Picchu

By Pauly

The wake-up call was set for 4:30 -- that's AM, in the fucking morning -- a time when I'm usually winding down the night and going to sleep. I passed out around around Midnight after chewing on a Vicodin to help ease the throbbing headache that accompanied altitude sickness after my abrupt ascent into the 11,000+ zone.

Our caravan had to ship out of Cusco no later than 6am if we wanted to catch the 8am train out of Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, which was at least a 100-minute drive away. The breakfast buffet started at 5am and I was still in bed at that time, although I heard the shower running in the adjacent room where Sos and Shirley were staying. I assumed the former military man in Sos was up and at 'em before the wake call echoed in the room. I skipped a shower in favor of checking the previous night's scores from the NBA playoffs via wifi that was a step quicker than dial-up, before I made my way downstairs to the dim dining area.

The majority of the lights were shut off in the lobby with the exception of a few stray lights illuminating the dining room. I peeked into the metal buffet tins and didn't see much edible fare to my liking. No bacon, instead, they offered up what looked like mini-hot dogs as their breakfast meat du jour, the Peruvian version of nitrate-riddled breakfast sausages. I skipped the dogs and scooped up two spoonfuls of runny puke-yellow tinged scrambled eggs, then tossed a couple of hard rolls on my plate next to a couple of slices of fruit. Along with a glass of orange juice and a cup of coca tea -- that might have been my only fuel to carry me atop of Machu Picchu. The runny eggs tasted as expected -- like runny eggs. I just prayed that the eggs wouldn't run right through me with a two hour ride in the Peruvian countryside ahead of me. I'd really hate to have to shit on the side of the road and I made sure I took some extra TP with me -- just in case.

By 5:55am, I checked out of my room and waited in the lobby with Sos and Shirley for the little old lady with the limp who spearheaded our entire tour. Two large groups of other travelers surrounded us, one American and the other Brits, where the median age was anywhere from 15-20 years old than us and everyone looked like wealthy retirees of the adventurous sort, spending a portion of their savings on a trip of a lifetime. I felt a tinge of luck because I got to embark on the same trip at a much earlier juncture in my life and sorta got paid to do it because my client got me halfway there -- I was already in Peru, all I had to do was figure out how to get from Lima to Machu Picchu in order to cross off an exotic destination that appeared in the Top 5 on my bucket list. That's where the little old lady with the limp came in.

Two huge buses idled in front of our hotel, but we were not on neither bus. The little old lady with the limp waved over to us and we followed her to a white station wagon parked behind the buses. She arranged a private car to take us from Cusco to Ollantaytambo. Our driver, Joseph, spoke passable English and cranked up a mix of reggae songs on his car stereo. I stuffed my bag in the back and slid into the front seat. I was gonna be riding shotgun all the way to Ollantaytambo and hoped that I didn't have to shit my pants.

Our route took us up to the outskirts of Cusco up into the hills and we quickly passed any of the big buses on the way. We reached a valley surrounded by rolling hills and farmland that was flanked by the ominous Andes Mountains in the background. At one point, Joseph stopped the car and parked on top of a vista for us to snap a few photos. After an hour or so of driving, we reached the town of Ollantaytambo, located in a valley, and we made our way down from the mountain. We drove through the main part of town, the only route to the train station on the outskirts. We got caught up in traffic at the end of one square. A clusterfuck of small vans and buses filled with tourists were trying to force themselves into a one-way cobblestone road. An exhausted solider with a rifle slung over his shoulder acted as a traffic cop, but there was nowhere to go. We had about ten minutes before our train left the station. At some point I wondered if we should start walking...but then the traffic miraculously subsided and Joseph dropped us off in a parking lot adjacent to the train station.

Vendors as young as six years old swarmed us as we walked down a hill to the depot. It reminded me of Shakedown Street in the parking lot of a Phish or Grateful Dead show -- minus the spun-out wooks slinging drugs -- instead locals were hawking hats, sunscreen, bottles of water, and batteries.

We found the toilet, but it cost 1 soles (35 cents) to get in, and an old lady on a stool front handed you two squares of toilet paper -- hardly enough to clean yourself if you seriously busted ass. The runny eggs were rumbling inside of me and I rushed for one of the two stalls. I was greeted by no toilet seat and the toilet itself was rather small, only a few inches off the dirt floor. I had a false alarm, which was good, because I wasn't prepared to shit in a hole in the ground.

We approached the platform and got caught in a crossfire of mass confusion. People were streaming in all directions from all areas. A group of Peruvian guides, all short men around 5 feet in height with reddish brown skin in alpaca hats, had disembarked from what looked like a cattle car and two Peruvian rail workers at the train's doors hurled backpacks into a pile on the platform, where the guides hovered to retrieve their gear. Meanwhile, hundreds of tourists were getting off the train, while hundreds more were scrambling to catch the train before the doors closed. The train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu ran on the same singular track. A couple of times a day it transported tourists and supplies back and forth, back and forth.

Sos found a Peru Rail worker who pointed out our exact train. We had less than a few minutes to spare when we boarded what appeared to be a "first class" car. The little old lady with the limp arranged us passage in the "vistadome" car which had windows partially built into the ceilings to view the Andes on our two hour trip to Aguas Calientes.

I had a window seat and noticed that a Japanese guy sat in the aisle seat in my row and his girlfriend sat across from him in the aisle. With the few Japanese phrases I knew, I excused myself and asked him if they wanted to sit together. They were extremely grateful for the gesture and continuously thanked me as the train pulled out of the station, even offering to take a photo of me. Sos gave me a little guff for becoming their new best friend and a celebrity in Japan.

I kept my camera out of sight. I shot a few minutes of video en route to Ollantaytambo, but didn't want to shoot my load taking photos/videos of the mountains along the Urubamba River, an uniquely dangerous waterway where no boats could traverse the narrow river because of all the jagged rocks underneath the water that created rapids that were unnavigable, even for the most astute class five rapids adventurers. I understood why the Spanish never conquered or reached Machu Picchu, because it was in such a remote place, then boats could not get in and the only way to reach the spiritual center of the Incan empire as by foot on the Incan trail.

The railroad had been built at the turn of the 20th century and it followed alongside the Urubamba River, which I nicknamed as the Chocolate Milk River because of it's milky brown color. On the other side of the river, you could see the infamous Incan trail, and a few brave souls were in the middle of their arduous hike.

Our first class car was filled with tourists from all over the globe, which I quickly learned from the variety of languages spoken. A teenager next to me was from Argentina. In front of Shirley and Sos were Germans. A few Brits were in front and a horde of Brazilians were behind us. They went a little loco when the train pulled out of the station and made its first turn through the mountains. Everyone with a video camera or professional camera went berserk in the narrow aisle of the train, elbowing each other for a shot of the mountains. At first I was perplexed -- it was just mountains and not Machu Picchu -- why the fuck was everyone going apeshit trying to get a few seconds of videos in the mountains?

That frenzy died down after twenty minutes and it felt good not to have someone's sweaty ass in my face trying to steady themselves to snap photos of cloudy mountains. I ignored the vapid jackals and settled in with my iPod and mentally prepared myself for the eventual summit at Machu Picchu.

An hour into our voyage, the crew served us a snack in baskets comprised of cookies, fruit, and a roll with a slice of ham and cheese. I skipped the cheese and ate everything. I ordered a coca matte to drink because I needed another injection of Incan Red Bull before we reached the end of the line.

As we inched closer to Aguas Calinetes, the rolling hills and farmland gave way to thick, jungle canopy cover. The mugginess set in and the train grew eerily quiet as we inched into the station. Aguas Calinetes had hot springs at the edge of town, but the mood seemed somber and intense. The lush, green mountains shot up all around us like New York City skyscrapers, but it was surrounded by puffy white and grey clouds, which blocked out the sun and gave the air a smoky, dreamlike quality to it.

We found a woman in an orange jacket at the station waving a piece of paper with Shirley's name on it, after a slight miscommunication about our accommodations, we figured out what hotel we were booked in, but our rooms weren't ready. We had to dump our bags into a metal wagon, which was guarded by a guy in a green doorman's outfit with a name tag for our hotel. The process seemed a little sketchy, but we had no choice but to leave our bags with the wagon because we were scheduled to be on a private tour in less then thirty minutes.

We ditched our bags and I only took a liter of water and my camera with me. The lady in an orange jacket practically dragged us out of the train station, begging us to hurry every few seconds, because we needed to get to the bus depot as soon as possible. I had just stepped off the train and was still trying to get my bearings when the lady in the orange jacket was leading us through a darkened maze of a market with tin roofs and filled with tons of cheap tourist stuff. I told Sos that I'd catch up with them, so I stopped at a stand to purchase a contraption that allowed you to carry a water bottle in a pouch slung over your shoulder. It cost me 5 soles and ended up being a clutch purchase. I also picked up a couple of crystal stones which I intended to carry the top of Machu Picchu with me, whereby allow the rocks to absorb the energy of the pyramids, and then take those rocks back to the States with me to disperse to a couple of friends who actually believed in that sort of mystical power.

We crossed a bridge into the actual town of Aguas Calientes, practically jogging in order to keep up with the lady in the orange jacket. She eventually stopped alongside a street that had two big tour buses. We stood in a single queue and waited to board the bus. The first one filled up and sped away, literally leaving behind a cough-inducing dust cloud. We were the last people to board the second bus as dozens and dozens of other tourists stood in line behind us.

The entire morning had been hectic -- wake up at 4:30am, breakfast at 5am, check out of the hotel, get a ride from Cusco to Ollantaytambo, then take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Caliente, only to be rushed off the train, dragged through a darkened market, and tossed on a bus. I was a tad frazzled, but Sos bubbled over with excitement. He couldn't contain himself and he looked like a kid on Christmas morning. We all sat in the last row of the bus and I took the center seat. Shirley had the window and I could tell that she was slightly freaked out at the sheer drop off from the menacing cliffs as the bus rocketed up the mountain on a dirt road that kept winding up and around, and up and around, and up and around.

It's at that moment when terror set in. We've all experienced that moment in a foreign land when you start questioning and doubting everything. My mind was paralyzed with a morbid thought: if the bus fell off the side of the mountain, then we were properly fucked because if the rescue teams got to us by the end of the day, maybe we'd have a slight chance of reaching a hospital by the next day, so I calculated how much blood could I lose before I either 1) passed out, or 2) died.

At that point I blurted out, "Machu Picchu is a wonderful place to die."

Sos didn't blink and said, "Absolutely."

That's when the terror subsided into a calming, soothing realization that I had no control over the next twenty minutes, let alone major aspects of my life. Surrender to the flow, even if it's morbid flashes of death.

I sincerely hoped that the driver was well paid and more importantly, that he was having a good day. Personally, I got paid an absurd amount of money to visit exotic locations to write about people playing cards, so I hoped that whomever owned the buses (the Peruvian government or Ministry of Tourism), paid the drivers, especially our driver, a very good and competitive wage. After all, our lives were in his capable hands as he swerved to the side to allow a bus pass us in the opposite direction.

"Holy shit! I thought this was a one-way road!"

Yes, despite the narrow, windy road, buses traversed both ways.

I always thought that I'd die in a place crash, but I looked off the side of the cliff and reminded myself, "Machu Picchu would be a good place to die."

By the look of Shirley's face, I assumed she had similar thoughts as me with her eyes fixated on the drop off from the side of the mountain, whereas Sos was all smiles for the entire ride. He was a kid in a candy store on Christmas morning and he couldn't have run off the bus fast enough.

We were greeted by a man named Augustine, our private guide for the morning. He assembled a small group of about eight of us including a British couple in their late 60s and an American woman about my age and her elderly mother. Both older women carried walking sticks, and I kinda wished I had bug spray. Our guide pointed to the toilets, "This is your only chance to relieve yourself because there are no toilets inside Machu Picchu."

As per the norm in Peru, you had to pay 1 soles to use public toilets. The guard handed me a receipt and pointed at a roll of toilet paper next to her guard desk. We got unlimited TP, unlike the train station in Ollantaytambo. Sos and I joked that were were going to take a shit and that we should have made shirts that said, "I dropped a deuce at Machu Picchu."

With a cleared out digestive tract, I was ready to enter the holy sanctuary of Machu Picchu. The guards checked your passport and scanned your ticket. Our guide pointed out that you could go to a different window to get your passport stamped with Machu Picchu on it and I decided that was going to be the coolest stamp on my passport (with the exception of Antarctica which I probably will never achieve, but it's on the bucket list).

Once inside, I followed the guide along a narrow path. To the left, a couple of tourists snapped photos of the dedication plaques while to the right, a flimsy wooden rail as the only thing that prevented me from falling off the side of the mountain.

I never heard the introduction from the guide. I was caught up in my own world, soaking up the truly awesome sight. The journey had taken over 24 hours since I left Lima for Machu Picchu and despite the stay over in Cusco, we had finally arrived. I kept snapping my own internal photos to ensure memory burns, whereas I could hear Sos muttering, "This is so fucking cool. This is so fucking cool."

I got smiles writing that because his phrase succinctly described what was going on inside my head.

Our guide

After the initial shock of being at Machu Picchu wore off, I began documenting my visit with videos and pictures, and I attentively listened to our guide reveal insights into Machu Picchu.

Sos went nuts when we reached the Temple of the Sun. I joined in on his enthusiasm, because that was the one piece of masonry that I was the most curious about. The theory goes that the Incas constructed almost all of the structures on top of Machu Picchu, but aliens built the original temples, like the Temple of the Sun, and the Incans built on top of them. The vast difference in construction styles were staggering from other structures compared to the Temple of the Sun, which had smooth, polished rocks that were earthquake proof and so densely stacked together that I couldn't squeeze a business card through the cracks.

Temple of the Sun

The question remains -- how the hell did the original architects get those huge stones to the top of the mountain? And how were they able to create such a flawless structure that withstood seismic events and hundreds of years of inclement weather?

Like I wrote in my last piece Lima > Cusco: Coca Tea, Alien Stonework, and Saqsayhuaman, many Peruvians get pissed at you if you even hint at alien technological assistance, let alone theorize that aliens built it themselves. I understand how they view those assertions without proof as insulting, but then again, do they have any proof that their ancestors did it all by themselves? The lack of evidence on both sides allows speculation from half-baked scribes and amateur philosophers like myself.

I didn't climb Machu Picchu as a religious quest, especially because I don't consider myself religious or spiritual at all. I'm a born skeptic, and an existentialist Jeffersonian anarchist, even though I was raised in the Christian diet of buffet Catholicism. But it's hard for me to deny what I saw with my own eyes on top of Machu Picchu.

So, does God exist? If so, where was God on Black Friday when all of my friends lost their jobs? Or how about on 9/11 when the world as we know it shifted into a paradigm of fear mongering and disaster capitalism? Is God really a singular, omnipotent God, or a collection of celestial gods? Or are we really an experiment by the Anunnaki, who left us all behind?

Was I really ready to tackle all of those impossible-to-answer questions on this trip? Or was I supposed to confront those exact tough queries if all of my Catholic upbringing and rigorous education from the Jesuits aptly prepared me to engage in an internal symposium of religion, astrology, engineering, and philosophy... and if not on top of Machu Picchu, then where else was I going to seek answers to those questions?

I stood inside the Temple of the Sun passing my hands over the smooth stones and asking the same questions that many greater, more intelligent, more pious men before me asked...

Who is God? What is God? Does God exist?

Our guide, Augustine, mentioned that he's a devout Catholic and he believed that Jesus was the Son of God (and thereby believed in the Holy Trinity of God, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost aka the Holy Spirit), but he also was adamant when he said that he believed in Inti, the Sun God and Viracocha (the ocean god, or sea foam, which Incans believe is the source of life).

Although it was cloudy all morning, we were fortunate to experience huge chunks of time when the clouds dissipated and the strong sun shone directly onto our faces. I was bummed out that I didn't come better prepared (no sunscreen or bug spray), but at least I heeded Owen's advice of taking water with me to Machu Picchu since they didn't sell anything inside the ruins. With the powerful sun hovering above us, it was easy to understand the relationship between Incans worshiping Inti the Sun God, because the sun is the source of life in our solar system, because without it, Earth would be a frozen rock at the edge of the universe. But with the sun's warmth, we have life, and it's a life enriched by rivers, oceans, mountains, fruits, vegetation, cattle to be slaughtered for In-N-Out Burgers, and most importantly, Atlanta Braves baseball (I once heard a story, and sincerely doubt that it's true, but it's fun to spread the urban myth that Ted Turner said he was positive that God's favorite baseball team was the Atlanta Braves).

You didn't have to scan back and forth on top of Machu Picchu for more than a few seconds to understand why that particular mountain top was chosen as the spiritual epicenter of the Incan Empire. Cusco was the political and commercial center, but the mountainous retreat of Machu Picchu allowed the intellectuals and religious leaders to get as close to the gods as possible.

The steps that our guide pointed out as farmland were amazing. He gave us a quick tutorial on step farming that included building a retaining wall and filling in the gaps with materials as it flushed against the side of the mountain. Among the fillers included sand -- mainly from the bottom of the chocolate-milk covered Urubamba River -- but he also noted that archeologists noted that Machu Picchu's farming steps included sand from the beaches alongside the Pacific Ocean, imported from several hundred miles away. The Incans treated sand as a powerful commodity and I wondered the hell they were able to transport all that sand from the ocean to Machu Picchu -- that takes a lot of llamas dragging sandbags through the jungle and mountains.

Animals and wildlife were prevalent on top of Machu Picchu, including llamas and lizards, both incidentally were titles for Phish songs. The llamas roamed freely in Machu Picchu grazing on grass in the large courtyards, but they were nimble enough to climb up and down steps that were five feet or higher. I tried to visualize a few hundred or so people living up on Machu Picchu all year round -- farming high-altitude crops of potatoes, maize, quinona, passion fruit, and coca leaves. Our guide mentioned that the Incans feasted on guinea pigs and even llamas. He even referenced human sacrifice to appease the gods during times of tumultuous natural disasters.

We made our way to the top of one pyramid like structure where the Inca Stone was located. The Stone had been rumored to have special magical powers due to its mystical energy. The stone didn't look like many of the other stones at Machu Picchu and was the source of controversy among archeologists, ufologists and geologists. Much like the stones at Saqsayhuaman, it had a "porcelaneous" quality to them. I read somewhere that the Inca Stone could not have been cut that way and that it was thermally disaggregated, just like the stones from the Temple of the Sun. If that's the case, then how did the original engineers acquire a heat source to alter the thermal dynamics of the stones?

You're not supposed to touch the Inca Stone, rather, you're supposed to get as close to it as possible without touching it in order to harness the positive energy of the stone.

After visiting the stone, I was struck with an emotional moment after being jarred with the spirit of my grandmother. I never fully had any closure because I never got to say goodbye before she died while I was away on an assignment when I first got into poker. In many ways, I achieved closure on top of Machu Picchu with a lot of internal family stuff. The entire trip to Machu Picchu was surrounded with many "opened" and "closed" doors in my inner reality as I realized I was standing on the most powerful fields of energy on the planet. Whether or not it was its intention, but I was confronted with an opportunity to let a lot of mental baggage go, and at the same time, find the courage to deal with a monumental tsunami of change that is headed my way as the insanity of the world seems to be accelerating at a rapid pace that any day now, it can all blow up.

After an intense few hours, our guide said it was time for a lunch break and that he'd be leaving us behind to explore Machu Picchu on our own. We exited the park and grabbed a quick bite at the snack bar because paying $33 for a buffet that was not the Bellagio seemed absurd. After lunch, we hiked up to the highest point of Machu Picchu to snap some photos. I almost slipped on one of the stone paths but caught myself before anything bad happened. The way my body spasticly jerked, Shirley freaked out because it appeared as though I was about to tumble off the side. I assured her it looked more dangerous than my body responded, but I was lucky -- it was a lot closer of a call than I suggested.

At that point, I needed some alone time after an intense situation with the Inca Stone, so Sos and Shirley decided to see if they could keep hiking up to the top of the mountain, meanwhile, I settled into a grassy knoll on one of the farming steps and fired up my iPod. I specifically wanted to listen to a version of 2001 by Phish when I reached the top of Machu Picchu -- and I got my wish. I listened to 2001 and highlights from the infamous Charleston, SC show from last October. I actually dozed off for a few minutes and could only wonder what sort of dreams I had because I couldn't recall any of them when I woke up.

By the time Sos and Shirley returned it was mid-afternoon and had spent almost six hours at Machu Picchu. It was time to head back to reality and take a bus back to the bottom of the mountain. It wasn't as scary going down as you were going up, probably because of the calming nature of visiting Machu Picchu had on everyone, particularly me.

We checked into our hotel without an problems, and we were set up in one of the nicest joints in town on the same block that ran along the Chocolate Milk River. I could see and hear the raging rapids out of my window as I slowly took off my drenched clothes. My room was swanky enough that it had DirectTV and the bathroom had a bidet. I actually broke the toilet in my room.... I flushed it, hopped into the shower, and when I ended my shower I heard water running. I thought I left the bidet running but it was the toilet that couldn't stop flushing. I had to call down to the front desk and explain in broken Spanish that I broke the toilet. It was fixed, but I'm sure they made fun of me as the gringo who broke the toilet.

Shirley, Sos, and I were famished so we ate at one of the dozens of "pizzerias" in Aguas Calientes. The menus looked the same and I assume one guy probably owned all of them, so it didn't matter which one we ate at because it was a virtual monopoly. The thin crust pizza was surprisingly good for South America and fired up in a wood-burning oven. I opted for bacon pizza and a Susquena, a local beer... and that beer never tasted better after a long day. Machu Picchu was a few thousand feet lower than Cusco, so we adjusted to the altitude with ease. No headaches, but I had wicked sunburn on my neck and ears, plus my back was sore and I had a shin splint in one of my legs (opposite my bum knee). I was hurting like beat-up veteran catcher Jake Taylor after his first Spring Training game with the Indians, but all of that pain was welcomed because it came at the expense of a bit of spiritual clarity and revitalization.

After dinner, I collapsed in bed and watched the Yankees-Blue Jays game on satellite TV. The announcers were Mexican and I was in the Andes of Peru watching my Bronx Bombers play a team from Canada. Thomas Friedman would call that globalization at its finest hour. I passed out as the game went into extra innings. After an hour or so nap, I looked in the mirror at my bright red ears, popped a Vicodin, and decided to wander around town in search of the local produce or hash. I noticed signs for hostels and figured an influx of hippies could mean potential flourishing black market for hashish. After all, at all the tourist shops in town, they had a decent collection of stone pipes. Now only to find something to put in it...

The main square had a three-story tall 24-hour cafe and restaurant across the street from the police station, which was bigger than the school. I ordered a beer and made small chit-chat with a trio of Scandis. They were in their 50s and looked more like European businessmen on a holiday, than the hemp-toking beatniks I was hoping to find. The waiter suggested I checkout the disco or one of the karaoke bars around the corner, but the directions he gave me were bunk and I didn't find any karaoke joints, nor a disco. I found a shoeless wook sitting in front of a hostel strumming a guitar and thought I hit the jackpot, but he was Brazilian and didn't know what the fuck I was taking about when I asked, "Donde esta la mota?"

I gave up, bought a big-assed orange Gatorade and chocolate-covered wafers at an all night store for the equivalent of $1.75, and went back to my hotel room. I uploaded all of the photos off my camera and onto my laptop. The hotel didn't have wifi, which was good. I didn't want to jump onto the grid just yet. Instead, I created a blank word document, slid open the window to hear the raging Chocolate River, and began writing... "The wake-up call was set for 4:30."

* * *

I posted four complete galleries of photos, including almost 180 photos of Machu Picchu...
Machu Picchu
Aguas Calientes
Cusco, Peru and Saqsayhuaman Ruins
Lima, Peru
Stay tuned for a video(s).


  1. Thank you for sharing your journey Pauly. Can't wait for the recap over beers.

  2. Very informative. Well written. Felt like I was there. Some of your best writing seems to come when you try the least. Well done mate.