Sunday, June 7, 2015

We went to Machu PIcchu!

So, I arrived back in Rio on an early Saturday morning (think 5 am), and after a painful 40 minutes waiting to have my passport examined at the airport, I jumped into a cab and ran home to see the boys. In the next four hours, I had to empty my two huge suitcases and re-pack them because that same day, at 3 pm, the Diplomat, Son and I left for Peru for vacation. I am proud to say that we made it to the airport with time to spare and with perfectly packaged luggage.

Lima is a lovely city with incredible food. Everyone has been talking how in the past few years Peruvian food has been one of the best and the most innovative in the world. And it is! Besides cebiche (oh, my God, the cebiche!!), I can’t really say what is typically Peruvian food. Each restaurant has a chef trying to outdo everyone else with creative, at times odd combinations of ingredients, presented exquisitely to the eager eater. One of the nights, I took the Diplomat to dinner for his birthday at one of the fanciest Lima establishments, Maido, featuring Nikkei cuisine (that unique Peruvian-Japanese combo that is, errr, unique? Think cebiche sushi. Yeah, can’t explain it. Anyway). After we overdosed on cebiche and pisco sours, and listened to Son complain for 3 days straight that he was too tired to walk around the city (he was not, blasted child was just bored), we flew to Cusco to begin our amazing Machu Picchu experience.

Now, you might have heard that Machu Picchu is so high up that ordinary tourist folks (like us) suffer from the high altitude. We armed ourselves amply with soroche pills, offered to me by a stone-faced pharmacist in Lima, and were sure to take them before getting on the plane in Cusco, as advised. We gave Son the child equivalent. Either the pills were full of crap and I am amazing, or the pills worked only on me because, folks, let me tell you – altitude sickness hit the Diplomat and Son like a ton of high altitude bricks, while all it did to me was to make me out of breath when climbing steep streets, which was more probably due to my ever expanding posterior rather than rarified air. We started off with a mistake by beginning our tour in Cusco. Cusco is 3,400 m (11,200 ft) above the sea level (at which we live in Rio, by the way), and Machu Picchu itself is at 3,200. Oddly, 200 ft make a difference!

Exactly 8 minutes after we arrived, the Diplomat decided he was already badly affected and began complaining. Son complained too, for good measure. We piled into a cab from the Cusco airport, and went to our fabulous digs at the Sonesta Hotel, a most amazing, cheap hotel in the middle of it all. I was excited and giddy to be there. I had been dreaming my whole life to go to Cusco and Machu Picchu. I was actually on my bucket list. It was all so exotic and ancient and ruin-y and enchanting, and very much lacking in oxygen as far as the Diplomat and Son were concerned. We were greeted by copious amounts of coca-leaf tea (nothing to write home about, so don’t get excited) and some of the most hospitable people I have ever seen this side of the ocean. After we dumped our luggage, I put on all of our sweaters (you must know that I detest being cold; I revel in heat and humidity and shiver the moment it falls below 20 Celsius) and marshaled the gasping Diplomat and the unwilling child to climb through the enchanted steep streets of Cusco to have dinner at the acclaimed and romantic Pachapapa. All through Son kept complaining that he was not feeling well (I did not believe him), and the Diplomat kept stopping and rubbing his chest (I did not believe him either). We pushed through and had a lovely dinner. We took a cab back.

In the middle of the night I was woken up by loud noises in the bathroom, and was son told that Son had just thrown up. Son is 6 and a half years old. He has thrown up exactly one other time in his entire life. Clearly, he was not faking it. I suppose it was possible the Diplomat was not faking it either. So, the next morning, after I took both of my weakened men to breakfast, I decided to leave them to recuperate in the hotel room and go see the local ruins by myself with a promise to come back at lunch. I hired a cab and set out to explore old Inca ruins above the city with amazing names like Sacsayhuamán. During the trip I got a great taste of Inca architecture, acquired two alpaca sweaters and took a side trip on a horse (my first time on a horse, actually). Happy and slightly out of breath, I came back to the hotel to pick up the men, sure that they were in much better shape and ready for lunch. Instead, I found the Diplomat morosely drinking gallons of mint tea, and Son wearing a giant oxygen mask, playing a game on the Diplomat’s kindle in the hotel lobby. A sorry sight indeed. Everyone eventually pulled themselves together and we managed to see the city in the next two days and to eat even more amazing, creative food.

From Cusco, we hired a cab and took the 2-hour drive to Ollantaytambo, a cute little town from where one takes the train to Aguas Calientes, the starting point for Machu Picchu. Oddly, there are two different companies running trains to Aguas – the Inca and Peru Rail, and arguably one is better than the other. I can’t say – it is a one hour journey through fabulous scenery and unless you are booking the Hiram Bingham express (which is a fancy train with a 5-course meal), I’d think that all you care about are the cost and time of the train. We ended up with Inca Rail, purely as a function of those two factors. Perhaps here is a good time to mention that I managed to book the entire trip online, from the hotels, to the trains and to the tickets for Machu Picchu itself. If your travel plans are more or less firm, I’d recommend you do the same for peace of mind and in order to use a credit card. 
Here is what you need:
·         From Lima to Cusco
o   Star Peru -
o   Pervian Air -
·         From Cusco to Ollantaytambo
o   Hire a cab, 3-4 hrs – 100 pesos (about $30)
·         From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes
o   Inca Rail -
o   Peru Rail -
·         From Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu park
o   Shuttle bus from town center, buy tickets the night before to avoid long lines, $19
·         Machu Picchu -
Or you can climb the whole thing. I am sure it’s fun.
While we were sitting in the restaurant at the train station in Ollantaytambo, waiting for the train, we stumbled upon none other than Son’s first grade teacher. Coincidentally, he had spent the last 2 days complaining how much he missed her and looking to buy her a gift. In fact, we had just spent 30 mins explaining to him who we could not call her from Peru (1. Did not have her number, 2. Would be really weird). So, meeting here there was fairly surreal.

The train ride up to Aguas is enchanting, as the tracks wind along the lovely Urubamba river, surrounded by tall, stark mountains and lush vegetation. We got there, settled into a cheap hotel, ate a really bad dinner in the next-door restaurant and fell into a coma, anxiously anticipating the next day. We got up at dawn and ran to the bus up to Machu, ostensibly to avoid the crowds up there. The thing is, everyone does the exact same thing so the result is that you end up with the crowds anyway. Frankly, my recommendation is to get up like a normal person, have a good breakfast, pack a lunch and head out around 10 am. Unless you are climbing one of the mountains there, you’ll have plenty of time to see everything, have a picnic lunch (secretly!), and climb around some more.
It is tough to describe Machu Picchu, frankly. Y’all have seen it in pictures, and as I write this, I am watching a National Geographic story on it (which happened thoroughly randomly, and the coincidence is freaky!). It looks exactly the same in real life. What is astonishing about it is the extent of preservation of the construction, the phenomenal engineering thought behind it, its purpose and its location. Frankly, it seems to me that there is no consensus on the purpose of the place – our tour guide told us that MP was largely a science laboratory, which on an average day had about 200 scientists and a bunch of support staff, with families staying elsewhere. There were agronomists (the Incas were mad about growing quinoa and corn, for example, and those terraces that you see in the pictures were used to saw things and see how they grow and experiment with cross-cultures); astronomers, physicists, engineers, all kinds of educated folk. Naturally, the King and his retinue hung out there a lot as well. There are temples and granaries, and living space, and all is incredibly well preserved. It seems that it was largely built during the reign of a king whose name I can’t remember even if the preservation of the human race depended on it (it has more consonants than a Polish word), and it seems to have been perfected and finished in the span of 3 generations of people (then again, keep in mind that the average age of death back then was 45 – too much quinoa, I suppose).

After the guide left us a couple of hours later (yes, I do recommend getting a guide), we ambled around pleasantly and decided to climb towards the Sun Gate (a rather un-challenging hike, which we were told would take less than an hour). Plus, Son needed to use the bathroom urgently and the only official bathroom is actually located outside MP. So, if you have gone all the way down to see the lower parts of MP, and then the roasted guinea pig from last night (oh yes, it is a local delicacy, you didn’t know??) decided to remind you about itself in your stomach, that means that you have to sprint all the way up to the entrance of the park, pushing eager tourists aside, gasping for air, fumbling your ticket for re-validation and trying to find pocket change to pay your way into the bathroom (of course it is not free, whoever has heard of such absurd concept as a free public toilet!). Instead, we decided to go for a hike and find a nice secluded spot for Son to enrich Mother Nature. With that successfully done, we panted through another 30 mins or so up, being passed by spritely old ladies and grandpas in khaki shorts, large white sneakers and climbing poles. At that point, the Diplomat was theatrically clutching his chest, gasping for air, Son kept running around like a billy goat and I decided that I will leave the Sun Gate for the next time I go see Machu Picchu. Relieved, we all went back down and just as were nearing the exit, it began to pour down.

Few hours later, we were back on the train to Aguas Calientes where we were to spend the night at a funky B&B I had found on The room I booked couple of night before that was pretty much the only one available in the village that night. I was a bit apprehensive as it did mention that it had a shared bathroom but it seemed that there was only one other room on the same floor, so I was OK with that.  We arrived at 8 pm, in total darkness, and were taken to the B&B by a rickety auto rickshaw (up, in Peru, it exists). We entered into the funkiest entrance, which was clearly designed and adorned by a bunch of drunk hippies on a creative high, and were greeted by two teenagers, one of whom was higher than Bob Dylan during Woodstock and the other was a French girl, who apparently was there on a two-week student work-travel exchange, which seemed to constitute of her sleeping with the stoner Pervuan teenager, smoking pot for breakfast, perfecting her highly accented Spanish and providing dubious guest care. Incredibly exhausted by a day at Machu Picchu, all I could do was ask for our room and the bathroom. Then, incredibly, Peruvian Dylan, who could barely say a word straight, turned around and opened a door to a room, which was separated by the rest of the entrance area by mere glass and severely dirty curtains. Inside were two sets of bunk beds, all made of unpolished wood and covered by the most fantastic colorful blankets, which were probably washed last year.  Then he pointed to the bathroom. It turned out to be a tiny thing with a toilet seat and a shower, to be shared by anyone who happened to be on that first floor and the reception. At that point, the French youth cheerfully went to make me mint tea. It was surreal. Son, however, was happy and immediately chose the bunk above my bed.

Eventually, the Diplomat and I went to our respective bunks and I tried to fall asleep only to be woken up by the French girl, who (30 mins later) had brought me my tea. I didn't drink it, it tasted like pot. I fell asleep again and I woke up, frozen to death, around 7 am and decided to go for breakfast. To my dismay, there was no electricity in the whole village. I cannot say that Ollantaytambo was a great success in our book, although the tiny main square was certainly picturesque and the Diplomat swears it was the best sleep he had gotten on the entire trip. From there, we went back to Cusco, stopping by Pisac to see some more excellent Inca ruins, and then by our old hotel to pick up the rest of the luggage we had stored there before leaving for MP (you can’t take much luggage on the train up). Once we landed back in Lima, and I got off the plane and took my first full breath of polluted air, I realized just how rarefied the air had been in Cusco. It was glorious to be able to breathe oxygen again.

Overall, Peru was wonderful and I highly recommend it to everyone!