On our way out of town we stopped at Moray, which is said to have been used by the Incas as a kind of agricultural laboratory, where they grew crops at varying altitudes with impressive terracing and recorded the results.
Ollantaytambo is the last opportunity travelers have to board a train to Aguas Calientes, the final portal to Apu Machu Picchu and Apu Huayna Picchu . It was in Ollantaytambo that we had our first decent cup of coffee since arriving in Peru; a cappuccino, even. Despite the fact that Peru is a major producer & exporter of coffee, you will have a hard time finding anything but Nescafe instant coffee in much of the country because the real thing is simply too expensive for most locals in Peru. Sad but true.
We stayed at a really nice B&B in Ollantaytambo that we highly recommend called Samanapaq that was run by a husband and wife team. The property is absolutely beautiful with gardens, exotic birds, and a delicious breakfast. The wife is a potter, and has a little shop with her work and offers classes as well. We bought some cool coffee mugs from her that we still use today.
We decided to go the less travelled route to Aguas Calientes; most people take a train for about $160 from Ollantantaytambo. Three miles north of Ollantaytambo, continuing on the calle principal, we continued climbing up a mountain via switchbacks for 15 miles, or so. It’s a pretty hairy drive; gaining elevation quickly, and at times driving uncomfortably close to the shear cliff’s edge. In the clouds once again at the top, we were greeted by stunning views.
We then descended into the Pinasnioc valley (one of the headwaters to the Amazon River) and arrived in a town called Huayopata. We continued from there to Santa Maria, crossing a bridge, then drove East on a dirt road toward the town of Santa Teresa, where there is a beautiful hot springs resort.
We stopped and soaked, then ate dinner after finding a little hotel where we could safely leave our rental car for the next 24 hours (a necessary task that we had to deal with often throughout this trip despite how annoying it was at times). The next morning we took a cab to a town called Hydroelectrica, where we would have taken a train for 20 minutes to Aguas Calientes, but because of the protests the trains were shut down, we were told.. So we hiked 3.5 miles along the tracks to get to Aguas Calientes.
The hike was enjoyable. We left at 5AM and we even ran into some friendly tourists from Argentina who were also told the only way to access Aguas Calientes at that time was to walk along the train tracks due to the paros. You can imagine our collective surprise when we heard a train approaching while in the middle of a tunnel. I am not making this up.. Ari, I, and our new Argentinian friends, ran outside of the tunnel as fast as we could and plastered ourselves to a wall just before the train passed with a jolting force.. like something right out of a movie.
When we finally arrived in Aguas Calientes, the first thing we did was purchase our bus tickets. We wanted to get on the very next available bus to be sure we were granted entry to climb Huayna Picchu, the majestic mountain you often see behind Machu Picchu in many of the stunning photos of the iconic site.
Only 400 people are permitted to ascend the 8,920 ft. peak per day. Between 7-8 a.m., 200 people sign in and hike the 45 min – 1 hour hike to the top, then another round is allowed to sign in and ascend between 10-11 a.m.
We were pleasantly surprised to find good coffee in Aguas Calientes for the second time during our entire month-long stay in Peru. This was the only thing we really liked about Aguas Calientes and tried to limit our time spent there. We helped our selves to a cup or two of cafe, along with some breakfast, and prepared for our trek.
It definitely feels a bit like DisneyLand when you enter Machu Picchu, and was a little commercial for our usual taste but hey, it’s Machu Picchu. It’s considered to be one of the modern “Seven Wonders of the World” for a reason- it’s amazing.
There is a bag check and a turnstile. You are not allowed in with a bag the guards deem too large. For whatever reason they thought my REI 18 FlashPack was a passable size and let us through with it. There are no bathrooms once you enter Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, so best to take advantage before you proceed past the turnstile.
We started our trek up Huayna Picchu shortly after we entered the ancient city. The hike to the peak of Huayna Picchu is about 1.2 miles and has an altitude gain of about 1,000 vertical feet. The hike could be scary if you are afraid of heights or have vertigo. The trail hugs very steep, sheer cliff faces, dropping tens of thousands of feet without any guardrails, and can be crowded at times
I have to admit I almost fell off the side of the mountain while Ari was setting up for the shot below, by placing my hand behind me with the intention of leaning on it, but with nothing to lean it on, I almost slipped silently off the edge , falling thousands of feet. It could happen easily.
The view along the hike, and of course, from the top, are incredible…
I think a lot of people are just satisfied when they reach the top, and the fact that they’ve “made it”, they wrongly assume that’s all that Apu Huayna Picchu has to offer. They take some awesome photographs from the bird’s eye view of Machu Picchu, and begin their descent. Ari and I almost made this same mistake. I thought I did all of my research before we left for Peru, so I can’t believe I didn’t even know about the incredible secret that Huayna Picchu holds that we just so happen to stumble upon next..
By this point in the trip, we became adept at identifying shamans of the highlands. It was pretty easy to do; we were told that they wear the very brightly colored chullos or beanies with pom poms, sometimes beaded, and often wore them with matching brightly colored ponchos:
As we were about to begin our descent with the rest of the tourists now clustered at the top, Ari happened to notice one of these brightly colored hats disappearing over the other side of the mountain where we didn’t even know a trail existed. Ari quickly got my attention and told me to follow. We saw where the shaman and a group were going and proceeded to the sacred and mysterious Moon Temple (http://www.bbc.com/travel/feature/20110720-what-most-people-miss-at-machu-picchu ) where they began a San Pedro ceremony.
We sat and meditated while the group began burning Palo Santo and chanting beautiful songs. They asked us if we were interested in joining them and we happily agreed. San Pedro is a very nice medicine.
They then took us to another, smaller cave, which was very dark and had 7 posts with monolithic stones prominently positioned along the walls. We were instructed to quietly enter the cave, one at a time, and touch the third eye area of our foreheads to each of the 7 rocks, which all came to about heads height. They each felt different, but smooth and weathered by the millions of foreheads that have intentionally touched these rocks for thousands of years before.
I highly recommend hiking Huayna Picchu if you do go to Machu Picchu, and making it a point to find the Templo de la Luna. I honestly assumed that the Machu Picchu portion of the trip wouldn’t really reveal many surprises or mystery, because of what a highly destined tourist attraction it is. I was totally wrong. It was more magical than I had ever dreamed it would be.