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Friday, July 9, 2010

There! We fixed it!

They lied. They lied about having fixed the train tracks after the February landslide. The tracks are still under it. What they did do was to invent a fantasy that they fixed it. You used to drive about five miles out of Cusco and pick up the famous train and go about 40 miles to Machu Picchu. Now you drive about 60 miles in a miserable cramped minivan over the roughest roads, absolutely not navigable and completely unsafe by American standards, and then hike down a steep gravel path at a temporary train station where the toilets don't work, and take the beautiful train about 12 miles to Machu Picchu.

Were we pissed off? You bet. It would be one thing if they told you this in advance, and offered a refund if you declined to go, but they didn't. Peruvian vans are made to fit Peruvian people. Joyce couldn't even move her legs all that time, and neither could anyone else over 5'6". Then with her bad knees and labyrinthitis (courtesy of a high-performance jet ride when she was in the Air Force), she was expected to haul her own luggage down a small landslide to the train at a very high altitude. Luckily the locals discovered an opportunity here, and hired themselves out as porters. So all we had to carry was ourselves. They told us it was definitely going to be fixed by June 29. I bet it's not, but I don't care enough to find out.
The train itself was good, but the way they arranged to get to and from it stank. Not everyone who wants to visit Machu Picchu is an agile young backpacker, but they have no accommodations for anyone who isn't. We arrived at Aguas Caliente and were herded through the train station market to real buses to take us the last eight miles up. So if they had real buses for this crazy, narrow switchback, why not for the endless crazy ride to the temporary "train station"?

We got up to the top, to the Park itself, and there was the Sanctuary Hotel. Yeah, it's five stars and just outstanding, but even THEY don't have a friggin' ramp up to the front door. And no elevators, either, not even a dumbwaiter for luggage. Our guide met us there, we checked in, and prepared to see the site. We went through the gates and took a look, and Joyce turned around and left. The "steps" are huge and uneven, and not a railing to be found. With any balance or mobility problems, you are not going there, period. They don't accommodate you, and they don't tell you. Their only "accommodation" is that if you are limited, you may use hiking poles. That's just not enough, folks. Some ramps and railings, some leveling of the walking areas, would not destroy the authenticity nor the ambience of the site. Shame on Peru for this. Failing any accommodation, let people know that this is not something everyone can do. Even though it's a valley, it's still high in the Andes. It would be hard even if it were at sea level.

I spent about two and a half hours with the guide myself. I made an immediate rule, two up and two down from the entry level. I would not even attempt anything higher or lower, and I had to rock-climb my way up and down the walls most of the time as it was.

Here's that postcard picture that everyone takes when they arrive. Look carefully. We'll be returning to this later.

This is right at the entrance, which is paved and level. After that, forget it.


People should know several other things before going. It may be very hot (our first day) or very rainy (our second), for which we were prepared. It may be extremely crowded, and you may not be able to enter. This didn't happen to us, but it does happen. You must carry water and there are no bathrooms. These are understandable, but you should be aware well in advance. Not everyone was. Some people had no clue.
As to the Park, well, it's beautiful. The Inca made sure of that, and the archaeological authorities have done a superb job of restoring it, even though it is far from generally accessible. You know what Machu Pichhu is? Probably the royal Inca summer home. And they did a lot of astronomy and artisan work up there, too. So this was an indication of the advanced nature of their culture, that they could create a basically superfluous site for the pursuit of self-actualization, at least for some people. It's a really, really nice spot for these purposes. All those pretty terraces are agricultural. They were pretty self-sustaining up there.
I like this site:

Cleverly, the authorities of today realized llamas eat grass, are gentle and visitors love them. So guess who does the gardening? They really are adorable. Just don't step in the llama shit. They avoid the stone steps, so this isn't a big issue. Don't forget to click on the pictures. You can see a lot more detail if you do. Like the baby llama.

Here's one of my favorite things, the reflecting telescope.

It may look like two dog dishes, but the concept is you use it at night to look at the stars and chart their movement. Only works when it's clear, but I guess it worked often enough since their calendar and star charts are flawless.

Some other interesting shots of the restoration:

The top one of these three is the Temple of the Moon, the bottom is the Temple of the Sun, and the middle is a pretty picture of the landscaping originated by the Incas. They had beautiful little gardens all over.

Following my exploration, we had lunch and then a very long nap, after which we were scheduled for the spa. When we made that reservation we had no idea how high we'd have to climb to reach it, but guess what. When we got up there, we had the same view of the postcard I mentioned above! A little further back, a little higher and not as bright, but Joyce got to see the Park after all. And the hot tub was stone, and we had it all to ourselves with fuzzy robes and slippers. We only got out when the mosquitoes came to supper.

That night we had a fantastically elegant dinner including music by local Inca musicians. I bought their CD and have actually been playing it since we got back. You can see them here:

YouTube - Allpa Machupicchu

Joyce ate alpaca and swears it tastes like veal. I had alpaca burger in Cusco, and I thought it tasted like beef. Very rich. For Joyce, the evening was the highlight of Machu Picchu so I'm glad we stayed up there, and that she enjoyed it so much. At this point, I was feeling terribly guilty about the difficulty of the trip, and both of us pretty much wanted nothing more than to go home. Knowing the next couple of days were very likely to be pure hell, we went to bed about nine and slept twelve hours. Damn good thing we did.

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