Machu Picchu - the DIY way
Deciding to forgo the guided tours to Machu Picchu - which are a dime a dozen, expensive and more of the toursit herding that I am growing to despise - my Israeli rafting friend (heretofore called by his actual name, Yuval, instead of 'my Israeli friend') and I left the hostel early-ish in the morning with hastily scribbled directions from other Israeli's on how to get to Machu Picchu.
The Road to Machu Picchu:
Part one: For the four to five hour drive from Cusco to Santa Maria, we found a collectivo a.k.a. a cramped, rickety van stuffed to the brim with Peruvians, with a crate full of ducks strapped to the top, for good measure. They shunted "Los Gringos" to the very back seat, which wasn't quite attached to the floor, and the driver took off on the dusty road that twisted round the moutainside. Machu Picchu here we come!
We changed vans in Santa Maria, this time into a rickety tin can full of very friendly Chilean students (a couple of whom we ran into later in Cusco, and they tried to take us to a Peruvian strip club. Noooo gracias!), and were taken via slightly dodgy, narrow gravel road that hugged the sharp cliff sides through Santa Teresa and onto the hydroelectric station. In order to pass oncoming vehicles, the van had to back up into a small turnout and wait. Not quite the infamous Bolivian death road, however, and once we got used to it, it wasn't that bad. The best strategy is to close your eyes and hope you make it one piece.
Luckily, we did make it one piece, and were dropped off at a hydroelectric station nearby the train tracks that lead to Aguas Calientes (town at the base of Machu Picchu). You do, of course, have the option of riding the train to Aguas Calientes from just outside of Cusco. I've heard good things about it. Yuval, the Chileans and I, however, took the cheap and scenic route and walked along the train tracks, like hobos, for about 3 hours to Aguas Calientes. The Chileans were hilariously ill equiped for the walk: they had brought their giant suitcases and garment bags for their nice clothes. What they needed nice clothes for in MP was beyond me, but the poor things had to walk along the tracks with their suitcases uncomfortably perched on top of their heads.
The walk through the jungle was very scenic indeed, with bright green parrots swooping in and out of the trees, screeching happily and other invisible birds making sounds I've never heard before. The only downside was that we were plagued by hordes of tiny ravenous bugs (excellent reason to shave your legs in Machu Picchu: to give the bites a really good scratch). To pass the time, Yuval and I played his noun-song game, wherein one person picks a noun and the other has to come up with as many songs containing that noun as possible. Two songs in particular have become my Machu Picchu theme songs: Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues and Frank Sinatra's Come Fly With Me (Yuval insists that Frank says 'come fly with me to Peru'. I disagree. We remain at a standstill at time of writing).
We arrived in Aguas Calientes just as night was falling in the jungle; the horrid tiny bugs finally abated their onslaught and went to sleep, and were replaced by flickering fireflies, lighting the way.
For some reason, the Lonely Planet people hated Aguas Calientes. Both Yuval and I, however, found it to be adorable. Touristy, of course: Machu Picchu is a world wonder, after all. But for whatever reason, we did not spend much time with other gringos on the way to and from MP. Perhaps it's worse if you go on one of the tours. But Aguas Calientes is certainly not the hell hole Lonely Planet painted it out to be. Quite the contrary; its quaint, with loads of restaurants - for some reasons hordes of Mexican joints, a cute central square, and an atmosphere of happy anticipation.
The Swedish Wake up call:
After an excited pre Machu Picchu night in Aguas Calientes, we forgot to set an alarm for the following morning. Fortuitiously, right at 5 am (when we had planned to get up) a Swedish couple knocked on the door, looking for the front desk. Happy coincidences like that happened the entire time we were there. Thanks, Incas!
Stairway to Machu Picchu:
The mountains surrounding Aguas Calientes at 5:00 in the morning were swathed in clouds, the air was crisp but heavy with moisture, and the jungle was making its murmuring, shrieking noises, as though to encourage us. There's a tourist bus that climbs the last stretch of hill up to the ruins, but we, naturally, took the walking tour: 80 bajillion stairs straight up the mountain side. It took about an hour or less to crest the top - finally, after dodgy collectivos, crazy dirt roads,horrendous bug bites, 5 am Swedish wake up call, more stairs than I care to talk about - we were at Machu Picchu.
There is an additional Inca site open to tourists, at the far end of the Lost City, called Waynapicchu, on top of a steep mountain overlooking the ruins. It's where most of the iconic MP pictures are taken from. Up to 400 tourists a day are allowed to climb the mountain and visit the additional ruins. We were numbers 165 and 166. For about another hour we climbed yet more stairs, some of them so small and so steep, falling off the side of the mountain seemed like a inevitability. The climb and the dizzying heights were well worth it: the view was nothing short of spectacular. We were literally at the top of this popsicle shaped mountain, sitting among old inca ruins with the lizards sunning themselves, looking out over all of Machu Picchu.
After the precarious climb down from Waynapicchu, we wandered amongst the ruins; the heat of the day rising, sweltering, and the tourists all milling about. Despite the hundreds of pink gringos, MP has a magical feel to it, a peaceful hum that seems to come out of the rocks themselves. A tour guide that we eavesdropped on said that MP is a major magnetic center of the world, and a few of the spots have healing properties. At the very least, our spirits were high that day. I highly recommend the trek.
We returned to Aguas Calientes in the early afternoon, more than ready for lunch, a shower and a siesta. Instead of making the trek back to Cusco right away, we decided to take the afternoon to relax, the evening to visit the hot springs (Aguas Calientes' namesake) and return in the morning.
The Way Back:
The walk along the train tracks was quieter than the way there, and a little melancholy. Leaving a wonderful place always seems to be that way. The van we took from Santa Maria back to Cusco was just terrible, though. The guy who was "driving" - if you can call it that - seemed to have never been behind the wheel of a vehicle before. The van jerked back and forth like he had a hornet in his pants. He dodged invisible rocks, braked for no apparent reason, and drove at breakneck speed around curves he should have slowed for. The drive was two hours longer than it should have been because of his spotty driving, and his constant stopping to pick up other passengers and snacks - he literally ate the entire six hour drive. We arrived in Cusco cold, frustrated, and our ears ringing with the same CD that he had played over and over and over again.
We arrived back at the Loki hostel, and the bar was in fine form: a bunch of guys were dancing shirtless on the bar, singing and hugging each other in an inebriated haze. Ahh home again.