[Editorial note: Here’s a post based on hand-written notes that Everett took more than a month ago during our trip to Peru. These are just now getting onto our blog due to a delay in the editorial process. (His parents agreed to type them into the computer for him.) For the record, for the past month Everett has been holed up in our apartment in Valparaiso living the life of a secluded scholar as he prepares for his upcoming AP Exams in Biology, Calculus, Chemistry, and US History — and keeps up on his reading list for English. -Fred]
March 11, 2019, Urubamba, Peru
We were told a bus would pick us up from Urubamba at 9 am. We would drop off our big bags at a hotel in the next town (Ollantaytambo) and continue on to Aguas Calientes, the base of Machu Picchu. We were picked up by a van already full of folks; there were 3 other couples, though none spoke English as their first language. I sat at the very back row of the van between my mom and a lady who, I think, spoke German. We talked to our driver and told him the address in Ollantaytambo where we had a hotel for after the Machu Picchu trip. He agreed and we handed over our payment, with the hope that it would get us to and from M.P.
We got back in the bus and drove on through the beautiful mountains. We reached a cobbled street and soon found ourselves stuck in a traffic jam in Ollantaytambo. Our agency called the driver and said that we couldn’t drop our bags there because of the traffic, instead our bags would be kept in Hydro Electrica while we visited M.P. We weren’t sure what this meant exactly, but we didn’t have much choice.
After that, we started to drive on switchbacks with blind corners. Our driver insisted on taking these turns as fast as possible! We passed a few ruins and several small villages. We climbed so high that it got noticeably cooler, then it started to rain. At the top, we were in a cloud that was so foggy we couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us. Finally, we crested the summit and we began going down, taking sharp turns very quickly on the edge of a mountain without rails or a fence. The road grew worse and worse, and rock slides often blocked half the road.
Instead of bridges, the water was allowed to flow over the road so the van splashed through it. Both Ian and I weren’t feeling great. We stopped for a snack, and I ate chocolate cookies, which may have been a bad idea. After 10 minutes, we got back in the van and descended down the bumpy road into the valley. The lower we got the bumpier it became and we passed through several towns with speed bumps.
The weather also started to heat up and the sun baked the van. The driver had his window open but the air wasn’t reaching the back. My mom and I were boiling alive along with the German couple. By the time we got to a small town, my stomach began to hurt. We turned off the main road and I was glad because I thought we were going to stop. We had talked to our driver at the rest stop and he has said that it was only two more hours. He also said he has been driving back and forth on this route (Cusco to Hydro Electrica; 7 hours one way) nearly every day for 6 years (and he was 25 years old!!).
To my dismay, our turn off the main road quickly led into a dirt road even bumpier than before, which took us back up into the mountains. We were on very sketchy roads, up high, cut into the side of the mountains, and I was extremely hot and my stomach hurt, making me quite uncomfortable. We went on and passed a huge town were children were walking to school and people were selling fruit in the streets. It was full of those 3 wheeled moto-taxis.
We continued on, but I began to feel worse and worse. I couldn’t tell if I was hungry, I had to go to the bathroom, or just tired of the heat and bumpy ride. [Ed note: the inability to tell the difference between nausea and hunger is not new for Ev!] By the time I thought I was going to burst, we saw an electric dam and I thought that this HAD to be the place.
I was wrong.
We turned away from the dam and I lost hope. I wasn’t sure if I was going to throw up or what, but I did NOT feel good. We finally made it to Hydro Electrica and a man came over and started to explain what would happen next. I didn’t have time to listen. I hopped out of the van and ran over to the bathroom. However, it cost 1 sol (about 35 cents).
I ran back and got the money but by the time I returned there was a line. I waited anxiously, feeling awful. After the bathroom, I decided I was hungry; but after a few bites, I rushed back to the bathroom. All told, it took 3 trips to the bathroom and me swallowing a pill to start to feel better. [Ed note: first pill ever successfully swallowed. Immodium, just so you get the full picture.]
We had received coupons for the buffet for lunch and I was able to eat most of my food and drink some water. We were told that to leave our bags there, we needed to pay 10 soles. We did, but they didn’t seem to move them out of the restaurant area. Before we had time to see what happened to them, the next phase began: a 12 km walk to Aguas Calientes. So, we left our bags, crossed our fingers and began the long walk.
We walked almost entirely on and next to the train tracks, making sure to get out of the way when the train came. There were beautiful mountains to see but otherwise it was an uneventful, flat hike. We left around 3:30 and by 5:30, we arrived at the base of M.P.
Our guide directed us 2 km down the road to Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu’s “Pueblo.” It was a busy town with lots of tourist shops and restaurants and hotels with neon signs. We made it to the central plaza where guides were wandering around yelling names off of a list. We heard ours called and joined a group of four. After a 10 minutes wait, he turned us over to another man who led us to our hotel. He told us to meet him back in the main square at 8 pm to have dinner and learn about what would happen tomorrow.
We got to the hotel at 6. I took a nice shower, my second that day!! My stomach felt much better, but I was a little nervous to go out again. It turned out that food and my stomach was the least of our problems—we next encountered a serious issue: Alex.
8pm: meeting the dreaded “Alex”
We met our Machu Picchu guide, who said his name was Alex [Ed. note: The next day I noticed that many tour guides had Alex name tags on, so I’m guessing Alex isn’t his real name.], in the main square at 8:07. He was late. He then explained that we would be going either by bus or by foot up to M.P. by 6:30 am in the morning. There, we would meet at the black flag and Alex would be our guide. Next, he showed us to our restaurant where we would eat and get our tickets. However, when someone came out to give us our tickets, only dad got a ticket while Mom, Ian, and I did not.
We told them we had paid for tickets for everyone. Next, Alex came out and explained how we would have to get up at 5 am and meet someone in our hotel lobby who would give us our tickets, though it wasn’t clear how or why this would happen. We were understandably upset as we had planned to see the sunrise over M.P. [Ed. note: To see the sunrise you need to leave town around 4:30 am and hike up. The buses don’t arrive at the top until after sunrise. We had heard that it is an unforgettable experience to see sunrise at the top of Machu Picchu before the tourist hordes arrive by bus. Alas, we may never know.]
My dad tried to get Alex to explain what had happened and find out what we could do to fix this, but instead of apologizing, Alex began to raise his voice and yell the same thing about 5 am. His breath smelled of alcohol and he grew angry, saying “you clearly don’t understand anything.” We left the restaurant to check if we could buy entrance tickets on our own. Unfortunately, the office to buy entrance tickets had closed just 20 minutes before (at 8 pm) and wouldn’t open again until 5:30 am, so it made sense that there was a problem with our tickets that they couldn’t fix until 5 am the next morning
We tried to talk to another guide who had brought us dad’s ticket to see if there was anything else we could do, but he just called Alex over and the same scenario played out except now Alex was angrier! The problem with Alex was clear; he didn’t own up to a mistake or apologize that they had messed up our tickets. Instead, he grew hostile.
I give a lot of credit to my dad for keeping his cool. Responding to Alex with more anger solves nothing, even though it felt like what I wanted to do, and probably my dad too. This has taught me about being the bigger man, because there will be more Alex-like people out there and it is best to keep calm. Also, it has taught me — don’t be like Alex! Own up to mistakes and give an honest apology when it is owed. It will be a whole lot better than becoming aggressive.
As for what to do next, we bought tickets for the bus up to MP in the morning, but we still needed our entrance tickets. I was nervous because Alex was going to be our guide in MP, and I was still pretty angry at him, and clearly, he was annoyed with us too.
March 12, 2019, Machu Picchu at last!
My brother woke me up at 4:30 am with an alarm. We got dressed and packed up all of our things quickly. It had rained hard all night and was still drizzling. We had to buy ponchos to keep our bags dry, even though we had rain pants and jackets. We went to the lobby at 4:50 and we got a bagged breakfast. It consisted of a banana, peach juice, and a dry cheese sandwich.
A little after 5, a man showed up and took us to the ticket office that opened at 5:30. While waiting there, we met a young Japanese man who also had a problem with his ticket. He was traveling alone because his friend had suffered from altitude sickness in Cusco and had decided to go home to Japan!
They finally opened the doors around 5:30 and it turned out that our guy did have money and we successfully got our entrance tickets. We headed to the bus and stood in the line which stretched across the whole town, luckily, we got in line in time to get an early bus. We boarded at 5:50 while the rain was still drizzling. After half an hour of switchbacks, we arrived at the top, which was full of people anxiously waiting around the entrance in groups. [Ed note: The early morning weather was overcast and raining, so we would not have been able to see the sunrise anyway.]
We spotted Alex with his black flag waiting for his group. As we walked up the steps toward him, a man called to us asking if we needed a guide. He spoke English well and seemed nice. He said he would charge us $15 US per person and that he had been a guide in the area of 32 years. We decided to do it.
My dad told Alex that we would be going with the other guide. He said “it will cost money but do whatever you want.” We went back and our guide told us to go through the front gate while he tried to round up a few more people for our group. In the meantime, it turns out Alex was also an a$$hole during the day. Instead of asking or talking to us, he shoved a camera in our face and said that we had chosen to leave his group, probably to let his company know. Just talking or asking permission would have been perfectly OK, causing no problem, but that is just not who he is. Also, he was leading his tour in Spanish, so our English guide was worth the money!
After a brief while talking with our other group member, Mr. Gohn, a 64-year-old Chinese man, Felix (our new and improved tour guide) decided to start the tour with just us 5 people. He was knowledgeable and had been on all the treks in the area “hundreds of times.” The rain had stopped, but the clouds still covered MP. And we saw only glimpses from up above. Felix promised that because it had been a rainy night the fog would clear and it would be a beautiful day.
Felix led us up the mountain to the Inca Gate. On the way, he explained that he knew a lot about the biology of the area and he pointed out birds and insects. Ian asked about bullet ants and Felix promised that he would find one, and would even pick it up and let it crawl on Ian. As we walked along a rock path overlooking mountain ranges on the edge of a sheer cliff without rails, the altitude, view, and height combined to make anyone short of breath.
We walked until we saw a bridge constructed into the side of a cliff. Our guide said this was “not so easy to make” (which seemed like an understatement, especially without any equipment but llama-hair ropes). As we returned to the main MP site, the view of the whole city was clear and the sun was shining as Felix promised!
Felix explained how the city took 700 years to build, starting in 700 A.D. [Ed. note: Felix might be an unreliable narrator. Best to check other sources if you are interested in the fascinating history of Machu Picchu.] They laid boulders, rocks, sand and dirt to provide drainage and to earthquake-proof the city. Also, he pointed out how nothing was built along one central line. This was in fact, a major fault line, and the Incas knew enough to not build any structures on it. It also divided the farming and urban areas. The upper portion of the town was for important people only and there was also a temple to the sun God.
We passed Alex and his group a couple of times with no problems.
We saw the sun dial where the sun hits when it shines through the sun gate. We saw rollers for the stones, stones that were half way cut, and beautiful views of the mountains all around. Incredible to think about how much planning the Incas did and how they were able to do it. We saw the lower part of the town, built for workers and we walked on the terraces the Incas used for farming. Towards the end of the tour, Felix found a bullet ant. He picked it up and let Ian hold it too—pretty dangerous!
When it was time to pay Felix, we didn’t have quite enough money. We paid half at the top and agreed to pay the other half around 1 pm at the Aguas Calientes train station. We decided to walk down, because we had only bought one way bus tickets. Pretty long walk down and back to town!
We were tired and none of us wanted to go all the way to Hydro Electrica to take the crazy bus back to Ollantaytambo. Dad volunteered! He bought a train ticket from Aguas Caliente to Hydro Electrica so he could get our bags, and then he would take the 5-hour bumpy bus ride to Ollantaytambo. Meanwhile, Mom, Ian, and I would take a different train in the other direction, straight from Aguas Caliente to Ollantaytambo.
We had lunch in town, paid Felix, and got on our various trains. Our train was super nice. Most of the people were old—much older than the folks on the bus had been. The train had windows even overhead and they served tea and a brownie with golden berries. We followed the river through the valley. We got back at 3:45 and walked to our hotel at Apu Lodge. Nice place—we could see ruins right out the window!
After a few hours of rest, we went down to the main square to get dinner around 7 pm and wait for dad. We had a decent meal and around 7:30 our crazy driver from the day before who had gone so fast came barreling through town.
Dad wasn’t on the van.
We were starting to worry, but dad finally showed up around 8pm in a different van and… he had both bags!! What a relief.
We all went back to the hotel to check all of us in. We made some plans for the next two days, but we were very tired, so we went to sleep.