We caught the train early this morning. It was still dark in Ollantaytambo. We boarded right on schedule, and pulled out of the station, headed to Machu Picchu. The train ride was absolutely incredible. Sights I could never have imagined. As the sun came up, we passed through the jungle, steep cliffs on both sides and a raging river to our right, rain splashing against the windows overhead. I couldn't help but think I was dreaming. Or on a ride at Disneyland. Absolutely surreal. Adding to this feeling of wonderment, the rail car was filled with the sounds of traditional Andean music. If only I had been able to stay awake for the whole trip. We were pretty tired, and I slept for about half of the journey.
When we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the last town before the climb to Machu Picchu, we were completely awestruck. Surrounding the whole town were giant green towers, covered in vegetation. They called them mountains, but I've never seen mountains that were so extreme. It was still early in the day at that point, but we wanted to spend as much time at Machu Picchu as possible, so we hurried to find the hostel that Urias had recommended, called "Hostal Namber One," bought our tickets to enter the ancient city of the Incas, and set out on foot.
I don't believe I have ever set out on a more difficult hike. The closest thing I can compare it to is hiking to Nevada Falls via the Mist Trail in Yosemite. Miles and miles of stairs. But that's only the hike from Aguas Calientes to the base of Machu Picchu. Carlos and I also opted to summit the mountain of Machu Picchu, which nearly doubled the distance we climbed, all of it nearly vertical. We had hoped to climb Wuaynapicchu, the famous mountain in all the pictures, but they have a permit system for that similar to our system for Half Dome, and the trail was already full for the day. So we climbed Machu Picchu instead.
As we headed to the base of the mountain, we caught our first glimpse of the city of Machu Picchu. But it was only a glimpse. We were up among the clouds, which obscured about half of the ruins, adding a sense of mystery.
We made it about half way up Machu Picchu when it started to rain. But we pressed on. Vani had loaned us a couple of rain panchos, but we ended up pretty wet. Several times one or the other of us wanted to turn back. But, we're both pretty stubborn once we set a goal, and struggled up the serpentine steps, through the rain, through the clouds.
Finally, we made it. We came over crest and saw the rainbow colored flag of Cuzco, shrouded in the mist, waving in the wind. There was a small hut where we were able to dry off a bit. Once it stopped raining, we, and the other few adventurers who had endured the climb set out to the very top, where the flag was, to await the appearance of Wuaynapicchu. But she was shy today, and preferred to hide behind her veil. A couple times she began to peek through, but was quickly covered up.
All we could see for miles was a sea of clouds, both above and below. But we had made it. We summited Machu Picchu. And so we rested in the peace on the top of that mountain, in the strange solitude provided by the heavy mist, and enjoyed the company of our fellow strugglers.
Just about the time Carlos and I were ready to make our descent, it seemed that all the clouds came down to meet us. It rained the whole way down, the water turning the Incan Serpentine a bright blue. Hiking in the calm of the storm, in the quiet but not silent peace of the raindrops, I was struck every second by the beauty of God's creation. Every time we would stop, I'd point something out, saying, "Mi Padre lo hizo."
By the time we made it down the mountain, we were soaked and starving. We decided to take a break and eat a quick lunch, and find some hot coffee. At lunch we encountered a strange mix of cultures, mostly South American, with a few Americans and Europeans here and there. Pretty typical of places like Machu Picchu. But I got the chance to see a little bit of how American tourists are seen around the world. The New Yorkers I met spent the whole time complaining about the rain, about the service, about how bored they were, about how there was nothing for them to do in Aguas Calientes. I was glad I was having more fun for them, but sorry for them at the same time. I'm not sure how you can experience something like Machu Picchu, like a rainy day in the Andes, and not absolutely love it.
It rained all through lunch, and all through the rest of the day as we explored the ruins of the ancient city. We first set out for the Temple of Three Windows, and then to the Hitching Post of the Sun. Carlos and I tried to share what we knew about each place, as if we were both knowledgeable tour guides, even though we had only heard about several of the sites in grade school or researched them online.
As we descended from the Hitching Post, we discovered alpacas grazing in the main lawn, soaked like hairy sponges. We walked past them to the Ceremonial Rock at the base of Wuaynapicchu, where we found shelter in a small hut for a little while and tried to warm up as more clouds blew through the city.
After a while we moved on toward the Temple of the Sun. We took our time walking along this side of the city, taking pictures when the rain let up now and then. We probably walked through every building. Every structure is absolutely incredible. I can't even begin to imagine how the ancient people were able to move such great stones and set them so exactly in place. Absolutely incredible, like a giant stone puzzle.
After we had explored the city, we climbed back up to first viewpoint, to the entrance of the city. We were among a very few people left among the ruins. Most people had descended out of the clouds. But we still had an hour before we had to leave. We figured we couldn't get any wetter or any colder, and so we waited for Wuaynapicchu to lift her veil. Every time we thought we just might see the whole mountain at once, another cloud crept in, shrouding the ruins, or blurring the peak. We sat, staring at the clouds, at the ruins, and the wonder and glory of our God for the whole hour, through the rain and through the wind, in the calm. Then, we heard the whistles. Machu Picchu was closing. We waited until we were asked to leave, and still Wuaynapicchu remained hidden. But was we turned and walked away, heading down toward the gate, Carlos shouted, "Travis, mira!"
I turned, and there she was, Wuaynapicchu, full of glory, clear as day, the ruins in plain sight. I ran back, snapped the pictures I had searching and waiting for all day. When the security guards came and asked us to leave a second time, we were sad to go, sad to leave such an incredible place, such an amazing display of the glory of God, but content, knowing that we could leave the city in the clouds having done everything we had wanted to do and seen everything we had wanted to see.
We descended from the cloud into more rain on our way back to Aguas Calientes. As we made our way down the slick stone stairs and along the angry, swelling river, we were both looking forward to the agua caliente that the hostel advertised, as well as a good hot meal. When we got back to the hostel, I downloaded pictures while Carlos took a shower. When he came out of the bathroom, he was shivering. Apparently there was no agua caliente in Aguas Calientes. But luckily that was the extent of our typical adventures for the day.
Since we were both pretty tired, we found a restaurant that didn't serve pizza or fake Mexican food, and shared a meal together, and then headed to bed early. Another early morning tomorrow. Another train ride. And back to Cuzco.