2:30AM alarms awoke us for what should’ve been an exciting Machu Picchu day. I felt more unease and concern than excitement this morning, as well as epic heartburn from all the spicy, garlicky sauce at La Bodega (see end of Day 5). We had been informed the previous night that the roads would be closed today due to strikes and there was uncertainty about whether we would actually make it to Aguas Calientes. We prepared our bags and went to the front desk, the concierge man was waiting for us with our sack lunch and indicated that our taxi had arrived. We were introduced to the driver who spoke no English, and then hopped into a small hatchback car. I hoped that the concierge had paid him but we left without confirming. After about half an hour, we came to the first road block where large rocks and other barriers blocked the paved road, we veered off onto a dirt road which had signage indicating a work zone. This road was very rocky and rough, not appropriate for regular small cars. We passed yellow road signs that showed images of work trucks with rocks falling on top of them, not an image I’m familiar with along regular roadways. We stayed on this dirt road for the majority of our drive and finally came to paved road close to Ollantayambo around 4:45AM. We passed some riot police where we stopped and the driver inquired if they would allow us to continue on to the train station, they agreed and a few minutes later we arrived at our destination. We were an hour and a half early for our train and had paid almost triple the expected taxi rate to reach the Olly train station, but we had surpassed the strike issue and were confident we would make our scheduled Machu Picchu trek. This was a really disconcerting experience to say the least.
We were dropped off about a half mile down the road from the train station so we walked down, checked in and then made our way toward the platform. We entered onto the platform and then found a bench to wait for our train to arrive. We were taking the PeruRail Expedition train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. Finally the train arrived, we boarded and tried to catch some ZZZ’s before we had to begin hiking. The train ride is a quick 90 minutes so I barely closed my eyes for 20 minutes before the sun was up and the landscape was mesmerizing. You can see mountains, glaciers and rushing rivers on this route and they are all captivating. The Inca trail meets up with these train tracks so we also saw hiker/campers who were part way through their 4 day trek from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu – this journey sounds like more than I would ever be willing to take on, but many ancient Incans walked this same paved route.
When we got to the train station we were greeted by a representative from El Mapi hotel where we would be staying and who we would be trekking with this morning. They took our passports to get our bus and Machu Picchu tickets while we checked into the hotel and decided what we wanted to wear for the full day tour. It was much warmer in Aguas Calientes than it had been in Cusco, so just leggings, T-shirt and wind breaker were sufficient for this day. We left our large backpacks at the desk and only carried water and snacks in our day packs. Our guide greeted us at the hotel desk and we set off around 8:45AM for the bus. The bus stop was 2 blocks from the hotel door and we were on the first bus that arrived within 2 minutes of waiting. We were informed that we were lucky because earlier that week people had waited over 2 hours for the bus going up the mountain and 2 hours wait to come down, the strike had prohibited many tourists from reaching Machu Picchu this particular day and helped to significantly thin the crowd.
To get to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, you have to either take this bus, or hike the stair well which is a couple hours of stairs through the brush before even reaching the entrance to Machu Picchu, we didn’t experience this route but had been warned it is exhausting. The bus takes about 10 minutes total and is a very winding and steep road. Then you must pass through the entrance gate to Machu Picchu, the tour guide had previously arranged our tickets for entry, the line was under 3 minutes and we were quickly within the park boundaries. We could see the citadel of Machu Picchu, but were intending to hike Machu Picchu montana. The mountain seen in the iconic photos of Machu Picchu is called Waynu Picchu or “Young Mountain” while the larger mountain on the opposite side of the citadel, overlooking Wayna Picchu and Machu Picchu ruins is called Machu Picchu montana or “Old Mountain”. The montana has a stone walkway leading up to the summit and our guide, Ruth, would lead me and Katie up for a stunning view of the citadel and surrounding mountains.
The citadel is located at 7,970 ft altitude, the top of the montana is at 10,000 ft. So 2,000 ft of incline which starts off simple and safe and gets more narrow and terrifying as you near the peak. I began to get worried as the stairs got steeper, with no ledge or guardrail and a sharp drop over the edge should you misstep; I was also informed of a man who had slipped and died off this same montana the previous week, so that didn’t help ease my concern. They do regulate the number of tourists who enter the montana each hour to prevent congestion and crowding on these risky trails. The views going up this trek were incredible, it started off kind of foggy and cloudy and got clearer and more breathtaking as we progressed. After 1.5-2 hours of hiking, we reached the top and the 360 degree views were jaw-dropping, literally, I kept catching myself with mouth wide open in disbelief. We snapped some photos and sat down to enjoy the vistas along with the sack lunch the hotel had prepared for us.
We took this time to get to know our tour guide, Ruth, who was around our same age. We had a lot in common with her and it was fun to learn more about real life in this area. She had also educated us in detail about Hiram Bingham (the explorer who made public the existence of Machu Picchu in 1911) and the historic Incan inhabitants. Finally, the mountain guard informed us that it was time to descend and we looked around to realize that we were the only 3 remaining on the top of Machu Picchu montana. We began our descent and Ruth continued to enlighten us about the history of the area, even pulling out a book to show us photos and offer further explanations.
At the bottom of the montana we crossed over to a shaded area on the way to The Citadel, there were multiple llamas in this area. These llamas were friendly and approachable, opposed to the ones we’d seen in the highlands on our Ausangate trek who ran away as soon as you got too near them. We crossed over into the citadel and walked throughout the entirety of it, stopping to admire the incredible masonry of the Incans. It is shocking how they shaved the stones to fit together so seamlessly without the need for any kind of mortar and they’ve remained in tact all these years. We viewed and discussed the temple of the sun, the sun dial, condor temple and everything in between.
By 3PM Katie and I were feeling the effects of the 2:30AM wake up call and full day of exertion in the sunshine. Even though Ruth could easily have continued educating us for another hour we requested to start wrapping things up and heading home to the hotel. We didn’t have to wait long for the bus and were back at the hotel concierge in 15 minutes. We were told our room was ready and were shown the bar and dining area on our way up. After a refreshing shower, Katie was feeling terribly nauseous and opted to crawl straight into bed. I went down to the hotel bar to try to get a better WiFi signal to Skype Ryan, my husband; but the WiFi connection at El Mapi was not sufficient.
I went back up to the room to check on Katie and she was still feeling quite miserable and not up to eating dinner. Dinner was included in our hotel fee, so I went down and dined alone. It was a 3 course menu with 3 different options for each course. I started with a vegetable soup then had trout with sauteed spinach followed by chocolate cake. It was all decent, not spectacular, but filling. After this early dinner I was beat and went straight up to bed as well. By this time Katie was starting to feel better and was hopeful that after a good night’s rest the next day we’d both be rejuvenated and back in exploration mode.