Ancient ruins. A magnificent city of stone nestled in the mountains of Southern Peru. Machu Picchu.
The gateway to Machu Picchu is Cusco, one of the preeminent tourist destinations in the world, and with good reason. There is much more than archaeological treasures to be experienced in Cusco however. My adventures at Machu Picchu began when I first flew into Cusco in May 2007.
I flew into Cusco on a Thursday evening. If you werenít aware of this, Cusco is located at a very high altitude. That being the case, my body had to adjust to the altitude, which didnít feel very pleasant, but I got over it quickly. The next day at 6 a.m., I took a 4 hour train ride to Machu Picchu Pueblo (formerly known as Aguas Calientes), which is located in the valley at the base of the mountains where Machu Picchu was built. Machu Picchu was in contention at that time for one of the world's new world wonders. Upon exiting the train at Machu Picchu Pueblo I was overwhelmed by locals offering cheap rooms in their hostels. After getting settled into a room I purchased a bus ticket and went up the mountain to Machu Picchu.
The ride up the mountain road to Machu Picchu is amazing. You can feel the energy and the anticipation building up. If you are squeamish about heights; however, you might not want to look out the window. After several minutes you finally make a turn along the narrow road and then you see it: Machu Picchu. It is there, nestled on top of the mountain. It is hard to describe the sight with words.
According to Archaeologists, Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spanish; therefore, it is basically still intact. If the Spanish had found it, they would have most likely destroyed it, which is what they did to the other Incan cities that they conquered. I recommend that everyone see this wonderful place. After spending a few hours in Machu Picchu, I decided to go back into town and freshen up for a night out.
Up to this point in my story you might be thinking that it is nothing special or out of the ordinary for most travelers; however, the story is about to change. I was looking for a bar that evening in the small town and I couldn't find one that interested me. Most of the places there were either empty or they were filled with tourists. I know that I was tourist as well, but I didn't want to drink with other tourists that night. I eventually found a place way in the back of a dark alley. I know, it sounds dangerous, right? Well, I decided to take a chance on the hope that I might have an interesting encounter and I went in.
When I entered the bar I saw two groups of Peruvians sitting in the bar. The group closest to me was watching me as they were dancing, drinking, and laughing. I eventually got up the courage to start talking to them and they invited me to sit with them. They shared a beer with me and I purchased some more beer to share with them. This, incidentally, is the best way to make friends in Peru when you are at a bar. Buy them beer and youíll have a way to start a conversation with any group.
I recognized one of the girls in the group from earlier that day. I had seen her with a film crew in the park. I knew that these people were somehow associated with the park, but I wasnít sure in what capacity. One of the other girls at the table, at the behest of her friends, grabbed me and had me dance with her. I made an immediate connection with these people and it was obvious we were going to be friends. It turns out that I had met the administrative staff, including the administrator himself, of Machu Picchu.
I ended up spending the entire weekend with these really great people. I never thought I would become friends with the people who work at Machu Picchu. I had several discussions with the administrator about the history of Machu Picchu and the Inca people. He also gave me a personal tour of Machu Picchu, explaining to me how the Inca carved their incredible stone structures. I also went out dancing with them in the evenings. I was invited to eat with them at the workersí dining hall and I even did some volunteer work in Machu Picchuís administrative office stamping visitorsí passports with the seal of Machu Picchu. While I was in the office I had the opportunity to witness a unique event.
It turned out that while I was in the main office of the park, the spiritual leader of the country of Bhutan was visiting Machu Picchu. It was quite a sight to see a preeminent Buddhist spiritual leader, attended by his retinue, visiting the main office of Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is considered to be a highly spiritual location. Thousands of people every year go to Machu Picchu in order to observe spiritual rituals. The administrator of the park brought out a special book, in which the famous visitors to the park sign. I was able to snap a picture of the spiritual leader of Bhutan signing the book that presidents and famous celebrities sign. Later on that day I shared a truck ride down the mountain with him and, who I presume were, his body guards.
The evening that followed was an incredible cultural exchange involving a lot of beer, dancing, and karaoke. My interpretation of Vicente Fernandez was quite a hit with my Peruvian friends; however, Iím sure the copious amounts of alcohol had an effect on their opinion. Unfortunately, I could not stay too long at Machu Picchu. I had previously purchased a round trip flight back to Lima and I could not change it. Even though I wish that I could have stayed longer, I certainly made the most out of those few days at Machu Picchu. I promised my new friends (Norma, Alain, Louisa aka Mami Lou, SeŮor Javier (o jefe), y Maquela (Maria Angelica) that I would return and visit them again.
Return to Machu Picchu I had made a promise to return to Machu Picchu and in March 2008 I fulfilled the promise that I made to my friends there. Having learned from my previous trip to Machu Picchu, I went with a completely open itinerary. Instead of flying into Cusco, I took a 24 hour bus trip from Lima. The bus trip was actually very comfortable. Thinking ahead, I had purchased a ticket with a bus that offered first class service. If you decide to travel by bus within Peru, it is worth the additional cost to upgrade to a first class seat.
Perhaps I knew what to expect when I arrived in Cusco, or perhaps my body adjusted to the altitude while enduring the long bus trip. In either case, I fortunately did not experience the nauseating effects of altitude sickness this time. I spent a couple of days in Cusco and then I took the train to Machu Picchu. For your information, you can take a four day hike along the Inca Trail, which winds through the jungle and mountains. Iím more of an urban cultural explorer, however, and I opted for the far more comfortable train ride.
I checked into another hostel (they go for around 25 soles a night) upon arriving in Machu Picchu Pueblo. Once I had settled into the room I set out to find and to surprise my friends. I didnít tell them that I was going to visit them beforehand. Maquela was working in the parkís cultural center in town that day. To her surprise, I showed up suddenly and greeted her. It was a great feeling to see my friend again. After spending some time with her, I took the bus up to Machu Picchu and surprised my friends who were working in the office just outside of the archaeological sanctuary.
The reunion with my friends was heartwarming, I must admit. Since I didnít have a set schedule to follow I was free this time to spend as much time with my friends as I wanted, with the only limitation that I return to Lima in about four weeks for my flight back home. What set this experience at Machu Picchu apart from my first on there was that this time around I was able to become friends with nearly all of the employees of the archaeological park.
My friends invited me to go to work with them and I had the pleasure of riding the bus that the workers took each morning to Machu Picchu. I received multiple tours of the park while teaching my new friends English as they taught me about Machu Picchu. I was invited to a birthday party for one of the workers, I played pool with the guys, and I got drunk with them in the same bar where I met my friends the previous year. I had learned a few Peruvian songs since I had seen my friends the last time and they thought it was hilarious when I would sing and dance to those songs when we would go out to the discos in the town.
Another memorable experience about my second trip to Machu Picchu has to do with the bus trips that I would take with the workers of the park. Many of the parkís laborers are native to Cusco. Many of these people speak the language, Quechua or Runasimi as it is called in Quechua. I was intrigued by this language, because it has a beautiful sound to it. I took it upon myself to start learning as much of the language as I could with the time I had to spend there.
While riding on the bus with the workers they would teach me words in Quechua and I would practice the language with them. They were delighted to teach me their language and I was able to establish a strong rapport with them. They often taught me how to say dirty words and more innocent pickup lines in Quechua. They roared with laughter as I repeated them to the female staff of the park. It was all in good fun though and certainly nobody was offended by it. In fact, the little Quechua that I picked up was extremely useful to me and I have since learned even more.
Like all good things, this trip also had to come to an end. Iím glad that I was able to see almost all of my old friends together again at Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, some of them had moved on to other places, but the majority of them were still there. At the time I am writing this; however, almost all of my best friends are gone now. Iíll never forget the amazing cultural exchanges and simple, yet profound, human connections that took place.
If I were to continue writing about the incredible experiences that I had on this trip there would be several dozen pages before the story would be complete. I have touched on the most poignant aspects of my trip and I hope that you have found it entertaining and useful. My advice to you is that if you do go to Cusco make sure to take an interest in Quechua and the customs of the locals. They will appreciate it and youíll have the trip of a lifetime.