Have Dental Floss, Will Travel

Mapping the world, one waxy strand at a time…

Machu Picchu or Bust

Planning for this trip to Peru began about ten years ago, when my dad and I started throwing around the idea of hiking the Inca Trail together.  He had lived in Bogota, Columbia for a short time in college, and while he was there, added Machu Picchu to his life-long travel list.

Over the past several years, we discussed the possibility in the abstract, but when I met my world-traveling husband and gained a bit of wanderlust myself, we began to talk about it in earnest.

A couple years ago, my parents decided that my dad and I would hike the trail when I finished my Ph.D.  And so it was in January, with my defense in sight, that we began to research our options.

Due to increasing tourist traffic and environmental concerns, the Peruvian government no longer lets individuals hike the Inca Trail on their own (when Brent visited Peru in 2000, he was able to complete the trek without a guide).  You must hike with an established tour company, and the company must obtain official permits for you several weeks in advance.

I read through all the guidebooks to try to figure out which company to sign on with, and ultimately landed on a highly reputable company that was supposed to offer guided tours for more independent-minded travelers.  The company touted porters’ rights and environmental sustainability, and employed an entirely local staff.

In February, we signed up for the June 25 4-day trek.  Brent would fly down to Peru with us; the three of us would spend a few days together in Cuzco, and then Brent would go off on his own adventure while my dad and I conquered the trail.

We purchased plane tickets a day later, and bought the ever-trusty Lonely Planet.

We thought we were set.

Last week, I got an email from the trekking company alerting us to an update on trail conditions.  The rainy season had produced floods and mudslides, damaging both the trail itself and the rail line that serviced Machu Picchu, the end site.

But, the email concluded, all is well.  “Your four-day Inca Trail trek will start on Monday, 21 June 2010, as planned.”

June 21?  But we had signed up for the June 25 trek.  We weren’t even scheduled to arrive in Cuzco until the morning of the 21st, and we had been told my countless travelers that we needed to allow three to four days to acclimatize.

I wrote back to the company, thanking them for the information and asking them to confirm our date of departure.

And when I got an reply, my heart sank.

“On checking our records, you are correct that you requested the 25 June trek date, as per your confirmation.  However, for some reason, at our end, we have booked for you for the 21 June trek date.  I sincerely apologize for the mix up of information at my end.”

The email went on to say that because of the special government permits that needed to be obtained for each hiker, it would not be possible for us to join the June 25 trek.

I went to my dad with the news.

I’ve never seen him so demoralized.

We began making alternate plans, but the following day, I got another email from the company.

“We have petitioned the government for special permission, and we think we will be able to get your permits in time for the 25 June trek.  Please send us scanned copies of your passports and travel itineraries immediately for process.”

We did as we were told, and waited.  We didn’t hear any news before we left for Peru, and when we visited the company’s office the day we arrived, they were still awaiting the final clearance.

“It should be no problem,” they assured us.  “We are 99% confident that they will come through.  We just need one more signature.  Please come back tomorrow afternoon for confirmation.”

Frustrated and befuddled, we left the office that day and decided that if there was no news by the following afternoon, we would come up with a new plan for the trip.  We didn’t want to spend our week in Peru together waiting to hear whether we’d be going on this hike.

I wasn’t optimistic.

We went back the next day, and there was still no news.  Reluctantly, we asked for a refund of our deposit, and set about figuring out how to spend our time.

Brent canceled his hike, and we decided that we would all take the train directly to Machu Picchu on Saturday night, to get to the site on Sunday.  We would miss the trail, but we would still get to see the ruins.

We learned that because of the rail damage, we would have to take three buses and one train to get to Aguas Calientes, the tourist-trap of a town that services Machu Picchu.

We awoke at 5:30 AM on Saturday to begin our journey.  The first local bus took us to Urabamba, in the Sacred Valley, where we got in a small van to Oyatatambo, the site of a different set of ruins, built directly into the mountainside.  We spent the morning there before boarding the final bus to the Pisca Cucho train station, en route to Aguas Calientes.

Everything went according to plan, until our train slowed in the middle of the track.  After twenty minutes, a German tour group informed us that a different train had derailed earlier in the day, and was still on the track (in point of fact, they actually said that a train had plunged off the track, but we soon learned that this was a bit of an exaggeration).

Another half hour passed before they had all of the passengers get off the train.  We walked 200 meters down the track, passed the broken-down train, and gathered on a small ruin by the river.

And we waited.

A second train approached from the opposite direction, and after several minutes, those passengers disembarked and walked to our original train.  They boarded and took off.  We thought that we were getting on their train, so you can imagine our surprise when it took off back toward Aguas Calientes, with no passengers.

Twenty minutes later, two new trains pulled up in quick succession, and we were finally able to board.

Three hours after we were supposed to arrive, we made it to Aguas Calientes.

The next morning, we awoke at 4 AM.  We had decided the night before to hike to the ruins.  We could have taken a bus, but we would have had to stand in line for over an hour, and we couldn’t guarantee that we would arrive in time to get the tickets necessary to hike Whayna Picchu, the peak off to the side of Machu Picchu that only 400 people are allowed to summit per day.  Plus, after the train debacle the day before, we were wary of more time in transit.

We set off at 4:30 in the morning for the 1.5-kilometer road that meets the 2-kilometer Incan stone staircase that connects the town below to the ruins above.  We started in winter jackets but stripped down to t-shirts quickly as the thick rain forest air took hold.

The climb was steep and techical, especially in the faint light of Brent’s headlamp and my dad’s flashlight.  We passed several other people as we ascended, our labored breaths joining the sounds of the jungle birds in the early morning.

At 5:45, we arrived at the top.  We waited in line, secured our precious Whayna Picchu passes, and watched the minutes tick by.

At 6:00 on the dot, the gates opened.  We walked toward the front, signed in the logbook, and quickly parted from the crowd that was going through the main entrance.  We climbed again to the highest terrace, and went inside.

When we got there, the site was hidden under cloud cover, but within minutes, the air began to shift.  The clouds rolled out and the Incan ruins appeared as a palace in the sky.

My dad, with tears in his eyes, sat down to take in the view.

At 58-years-old, he had finally arrived.

Another picture care of the web… I can’t wait to download ours, because we got some amazing shots.

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2 responses to “Machu Picchu or Bust

  1. Denise June 29, 2010 at 8:16 am

    wow! it's just unbelievable to me all that you guys do. so amazing and the stories you have to tell. enjoy what's to come and i can't wait to see the pictures!!

  2. Amanda June 30, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Amazing, I feel like every comment I make says that but it truely is. I hate that your hike got messed up, but am so glad that you and your Dad got to Machu Picchu. It is somewhere I really have in my heart that I want to visit as well.

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