Day 2: POR HOY
We awoke at 6am in anticipation of having breakfast, checking out, and getting to the train station by our 8:25am departure. After getting the morning formalities out of the way, we walked to the nearby train station where there was a surprisingly bustling scene with a handful of stands.
We got there around 7:45am and just in time for the arrival of a cargo train full of local Incans as well as a handful of adventurous backpackers amongst them. It seemed like a real shoestring way to travel. A few minutes thereafter, the guard let us through and we awaited our own train (which was the considerably more upscale Vista Dome).
And before 8:30am, the train showed up (having come from Cusco 2 hours earlier). When we boarded the train, we put our daypacks in the luggage area before getting seated in seats 1 and 2. Unfortunately for us, these were crappy seats as we were sitting backwards and had very limited views of the entire train ride. While the transparent dome windows at the top of the train car offered limited views of the mountaintops and forests above, I wondered whether they were worth the extra $80+ USD we had to pay over the backpacker’s train solution.
In any case, Julie stuck with her decision to upgrade and we moved on from there.
The train passed along a deep river canyon surrounded by towering snow-capped peaks with vegetation gradually shifting from cacti and other dry foliage to more lush jungle vegetation. The river along which the rail pretty much followed raged with foaming whitewater.
At times we could see and smell the black smoke coming out of the obviously coal-fired engine at the head of the train.
On the train itself, we were served a bunch of snacks and drinks, which we gladly took mate de coca (tea with coca leaves). The leaves are like a staple in the country, but the tea was said to help with any discomfort at altitude as well as some other ailments.
Deep into the train ride, we noticed a pretty impressive waterfall next to some Incan ruins. Unfortunately, the train doesn’t slow down nor stop for it and our crappy seats made it especially difficult to take a photograph of it. Oh well, hopefully, we could take a photo of it on the return journey.
After about a 90-minute ride, the train stopped at a station in the Machu Picchu pueblo. On the map, this was also known as Aguas Calientes.
We exited the station and found the next tour guide representative, who managed a rather large group of people and directly all of us to board a bus bound for the Machu Picchu attraction itself.
After boarding the bus, the vehicle proceeded to drive along some mountain roads and then up a series of switchbacks. Along the switchbacks, we caught dramatic views of the steep-walled valleys surrounding Machu Picchu pueblo. High up on the switchbacks, we could catch glimpses of the ruins of Machu Picchu up ahead. After another half-hour or so in the bus, it finally stopped in front of the Sanctuary Lodge.
From there, we spent some time dropping off at the storage facility some of the stuff we brought that we didn’t really need. I think it was around 5 or 10 soles per piece and decided to drop off my pack along with Julie’s bag. We only took our DEET and cameras.
The tour proceeded along around 11am as we showed our tickets at the gate and headed onwards into the archaeological reserve. Immediately to our right, the dropoffs provided dramatic views of the canyon surrounding the Machu Picchu pueblo and train station way down below. With such steep terrain and trouble to get up here (as evidenced by our ride up), it seemed amazing that such extensive structures could exist up here.
We thought Ollantaytambo was impressive, but Machu Picchu was on another level. Even my jaded perceptions of this place being like Disneyland with hordes of tourists couldn’t deter my appreciation of it.
Anyways, the tour began in earnest as we huffed and puffed our way up a series of steep stone steps. Right off the bat, my arthritic knees were already starting to feel it as the unforgiving stone surface, steep steps, and altitude didn’t help matters. I had to adjust the way I walked to minimize the pain.
As the tour group gathered around a shelter with a straw roof, Julie and I and a handful of other tourists in the group went forward and took in the familiar view of Machu Picchu itself backed by the picturesque Wayna Picchu (Huayna Picchu?).
Needless to say, the view was breathtaking and we wasting no time taking as many photos as we could of the scene. No wonder why this place gets all the Perú marketing efforts as well as a place in the new so-called Seven Wonders of the World (Maravillas del Mundo).
Thereafter, we followed the guide, walked amongst the ruins, and tried to listen to what he had to say. Like Ollantaytambo, this place was full of nuances and structures that any engineer could appreciate. It had fountains that worked and strategically-placed windows and sundials to accurately predict the summer and winter solstices.
It was easy to envision wandering amongst the ruins in much the same way as Indiana Jones or Lara Croft would do or seeing how games like Hexen II, Ultima, and just about all Role-playing D&D type games were influenced. After all, these structures had every bit the mystery and grandeur envisioned in both the movies and video games.
At first glance, it seemed like Machu Picchu was a fortress because of its strategic position atop a mountain at some 7000ft or so. But it was really more of a religious site as the Incans revered the sun and moon and places like this brought them closer to their deities.
In fact, they also worshipped Mother Earth and were perhaps one of the original environmentalists as they revered the condor (sky), puma (land), and snake (underworld).
Considering how they lived off the land and built in harmony with their surroundings, it wasn’t much of a stretch to see why they considered their land a providing “mother” while the light brought from the heavens guided other facets of their life. Come to think of it, this way of worship certainly makes a lot more sense than worshipping some arbitrary guy with a book written about him.
By about 2:30pm, we caught one of the frequent buses back down to the train station at Aguas Calientes. After going through the usual formalities of showing our ticket and getting on board the train (to the tune of El Condor Pasa, which was remade by Simon and Garfunkel, in the signature Incan instruments), we sat further into the middle of the car this time around, but still facing the wrong way (i.e. away from the action)!
That’s ok though, I figured the goal is to try to shoot that waterfall by the ruins we missed earlier in the trip.
We managed to make good conversation with the folks across from us. The guy sitting across from me had the same zoom lens as mine as we broke the ice by discussing camera-related stuff. He hailed from Oregon and was shown around by his sister-in-law, who sat next to him. His sister-in-law had been living in Cusco for a few years now, and she’s writing a book about her journeys. Quite cool!
When the train got to that waterfall by the ruins, I had my camera ready and armed at a high ISO and in rapid-fire mode. Unfortunately, the best photo I could get of both the falls and the ruins was this unsatisfactory blurry image of foreground foliage getting in the way of the nice scene before us. I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.
The long train ride continued beyond sunset. During the latter stages of the train ride, there was a little fashion show that was going on where the crew would wear wool-related products from the local livestock. There was even a guy wearing a white mask with a cross on his forehead. A local guide sitting near us told us that he was supposed to represent the white people who came to the New World. I wasn’t sure whether this was an inside joke mocking the gringos (a term that’s now expanded to include all foreigners regardless of skin color), but it was entertaining and it seemed quite a chore for the dancer to maintain his balance as the train teetered from its movement on the tracks from time to time.
As we got closer to our destination of Poroy as instructed yesterday (which was where a lot of other people were also getting off), we got into a discussion of how that town got its name.
You see, Poroy is neither the native tongue of Qechua (sounds like “ketch-wuh”) nor seemingly Spanish. But the lady who lives in Cusco told us that conquistador Francisco Pizarro was supposed to make a long trek with his group from some place far to Cusco. But given the high altitudes and mountainous terrain, Pizarro stopped in what was now Poroy and said that was “¡Basta por hoy!” or “enough for today.” At that point, a light clicked in my head and I realized, Poroy is short for “por hoy” (for today). Aha!
Anyways by about 6:30pm, we got off the Poroy station and rendezvous’ed with María and driver Wilson with a hug and firm handshake, respectively. We managed to pick up a pair of American backpackers looking for a ride as María indicated that it was Sunday and many bus services don’t run.
Back in Cusco, we dropped off our packs at the charming Midori Hotel, which reminded us of the Posada Angosturra in Ciudad Bolívar, Venezuela with their tight corridors, outdoor courtyards, and spanish style roofing and balconies.
María suggested we check out La Retama, which was a tourist restaurant with Peruvian food and performances. It was a bit pricey, but being late at night, we didn’t do the walk around Avenida del Sol as we had intended earlier on.
The dinner consisted of Julie’s Lomo Saltado and my cuy, which was guinea pig. I guess it doesn’t get much more traditional than this so I decided to give it a go. Definitely one of my more adventurous things to put in my mouth.
The cuy was a bit salty, tough, and boney, but it wasn’t all that bad. But at 58 soles, it was quite pricey.
In any case, we got out of La Retama lighter on the wallet and spent a few more moments in the now-quiet Plaza de Armas. We took a few evening shots while trying not to mind persistent children trying to either sell something to us or steal from us. Fortunately, a cop shoo’ed them away.
Light in the head from the altitude (even after this being the second or third day of our trip), we both slept uneasily despite our long day of touring. All those classic symptoms of altitude sickness – headaches, difficulty sleeping, etc.; yeah, I got that.