Saturday, January 30, 2010
Circle South America: Machu Pichu Adventure
Machu Pichu Adventure
“The best made plans of mice and men often go awry”, has always been a favorite phrase of mine, but never was it more appropriate than our recent excursion to the fabulous highlands of the Peruvian Andes mountains and the unique and mysterious Inca ruins at Machu Pichu. It is seven days Vicki and I will never forget.
Buses picked us up at the ship shortly after we docked at Callao, the port city for Lima, the capital of Peru, and took us directly to the airport. After a short commercial flight of one hour and forty minutes with 65 of our fellow shipmates we arrived in Cusco, the second-largest city in Peru with a population of about 1 million people. Cusco is at an elevation of 11,800 feet and the moment we stepped off the plane, our breathing became labored. Just walking a moderate distance or scaling just a few steps left most of our party breathless.
We met our tour guides who were all native Peruvians but with very good English skills. Aquialino was the principal in charge for Lima Tours, the sub-contractor working for Regent Seven Seas. Edwin was assigned to our bus and he was very knowledgeable, friendly and humorous. Roger and Jose were the other guides.
Off we went to the Urubamba Valley, or Sacred Valley of the Incas, a long and broad breadbasket of a valley nestled between the huge mountains, some soaring to over 16,000 feet, of the Andes range. The mountains of the Andes are some of the most beautiful we have ever seen in all of our travels, which included an around the world cruise to 29 different countries in 2006. Surely, the ones we viewed surrounding the Sacred Valley were the equal of any. We drove through three of the four towns in the valley to a lunch at a private residence Casa Hacienda Orihuela, a gorgeous estate nestled amongst a forest of eucalyptus trees on a hillside with spectacular views of the valley. Our hosts were avid collectors of popular and colonial art, ceramics, paintings, weapons, photography and other collectables.
We then drove to Pisac at the other end of the valley and shopped in the market square where Vicki picked up some hand-woven pillow shams and a burnt-orange Alpaca wool shawl. From there we traveled to a unique luxury hotel, called the Aranwa Resort and Spa, buried back in the thick woods at the edge of a small village along the river. If you did not know it was there, one would never suspect this gem of a five-star hotel to be tucked away in the forest.
The river, which changes names as it makes its way through the Sacred Valley depending on the district which surrounds it begins at Cusco at over 12,000 feet and proceeds through the Sacred Valley, past Machu Pichu, into Brazil and feeds into the Amazon River. It was quite swollen from three days of previous rains back up in Cusco and had made the unpaved entrance road to the hotel a muddy, bumpy mess. Just as we arrived at about 5:00 PM it began to rain and rain HARD!
They had an outdoor show planned for us with actors in Inca costumes complete with dragons and evil spirits, warrior kings and queens on stilts with flute and drum accompaniment. We sat under portico roof and the show went on in the driving rain. After a sumptuous meal, we retired, thankful that we were now only at 8,000 feet although the air was still pretty thin.
After an early wake up call at 5:00 AM and a full breakfast we were informed of a change in plans. Instead of going to the train station where we were to board the narrow-gauge train, the Hiram Bingham, named for the explorer who discovered the ruins at Machu Pichu back in 1911, for a luxury ride to that site, we found the tracks had been washed out on that line. We proceeded to another town, Ollantaytambo, where we visited our first Inca sight at the edge of town. This Inca fortress and a series of residential ruins with some admirable examples of terracing constructed by the Incas in this area around 1200 A.D. to expand their agriculture development by utilizing the steep foothills. Proceeding to the train station, we boarded PeruRail on the only other track that goes to the town of Agua Caliente at the foot of the Machu Pichu ruins. We were told since this was just a “day trip” to pack our bigger bags which we would leave on the buses and they would be taken back to the hotel in Cusco where we were to be staying at the end of our day at Machu Pichu. We were told to take only our cameras, sunscreen and nothing else. Made sense, right?
After a pleasant one hour and thirty minute ride through the jungle and forest that meanders beside the river we noticed that the mountains on either side were becoming not only higher but steeper and even more rugged and beautiful. It rained on and off as we traveled and we noticed the river rising substantially and becoming more turbulent.
Arriving in Agua Caliente, a small town of about 2,800 permanent residents and, at any given time, about 2000-3000 tourists, our party of 67 boarded smaller buses for the ride up the narrow, switch-back road which wound up the mountain to Machu Pichu, 2000 feet above the valley floor and the now raging river. The rain stayed off in the higher mountains which surrounded the ruins and the sun shone on us from the moment we arrived at the site.
Words and not even my 1,000 pictures can fully describe this most magnificent place. Completed around the 1520’s by the 19-year old king of the Incas as a summer and winter meeting place (not for permanent all year residence as was first believed even though there are residential houses there) and place of worship for both the summer and winter solstices, Machu Pichu is perhaps one of the most impressive ruins in the world. The Incas worshiped the Gods of the Andes, including the Sun, the Moon, the Fire, the Mother Earth or Pachamama, and the Thunder. The ruins themselves are about 80 % uncovered and only about 25 % of those have been reconstructed, the rest is as it was discovered by Bingham after being lost for over 400 years.
What makes Machu Pichu so spectacular is not just the ruins, as certainly the Pyramids at Giza, Petra in Jordan and even ancient Ephesus in Turkey are as or more impressive, but none of those others are in the exquisite natural setting found in this part of the Andes. These mountains, with their nearly vertical peaks soaring to 4,000 feet (10,000 feet above sea level), are simply the most incredible we have ever seen. The site and surroundings are awe inspiring….even spiritual and everyone felt the sanctity of this very special place. I hope you like the few photos I am including here. I have 500 more if you care to see them when we return. I must say Vicki and I would strongly recommend on your list of 1,000 places to see before you die, move this one up to the top. Just don’t go during the rainy season.
After spending two and a half hours climbing all over the ruins, we came down to the welcome area and had lunch. At that point the heavens opened up and it rained hard for about an hour. Then it was time to board the buses for the ride down to the train and our adventure was just beginning.
We were told on the way down that our train was delayed because of a mudslide on the track that was being worked on as we spoke and we would go to a local hotel and camp out in their lobby to wait for a call from the train station. When we came down to the valley floor we could not believe what we were seeing as the river came into view. I have never seen a river as angry as this one was at that point. It looked like a boiling, churning, crashing wall of water coming at us and our hotel was right across a narrow road from the banks which were straining to contain the torrent of rushing water.
We were all dead tired and our legs ached from all the hiking up and down the stairs and trails up at Machu Pichu but a glass of wine and snack eased the pain a little. Some people began to grumble a bit but the vast majority of our group remained jovial and in awe of our recent excursion into history.
Aquialino was on his cell phone constantly and got, what we discovered as we went along, one piece of bad information after another. We were assigned rooms in the hotel but that was just to be for a short time until the train could leave. At about 8:00 PM we were rousted out of our rooms and told to rush to the lobby. When all were accounted for we were “forced marched” up the steep, narrow road and through the town to the train station, reportedly to board the only train back to Ollantaytambo. When we arrived, panting and sweating, the scene at the train station was like something out of Dr. Zhivago. I estimate there were two thousand tourist, hikers, campers and locals crammed into the station, the platforms and the surrounding streets and market area, shoulder-to-shoulder, trying desperately to get on a train out of town. After standing like sardines in a can for nearly an hour an announcement was made that no trains would be leaving that night and to come back in the morning.
We all then walked the mile and a half down the hill and returned to the hotel where we had dinner. Vicki and I got to the little shop in the hotel and got one of the last tubes of toothpaste, but that was all they had. We were told to be prepared to get up at 5:00 AM and hopefully the trains would be running again. We brushed our teeth with a washcloth, showered and collapsed in bed around 10:30 PM, totally exhausted and sore.
I did not have my CPAP machine with me and slept little and fitfully all night, dreaming about how we would escape this situation and the frustration of it all. The next morning we put on our already soiled clothes, ate a small breakfast and waited in the lobby for instructions. About 10:00 AM they moved us up to the fourth floor saying it was not safe on the first level and showed us an escape route from that level up at the back of the building. A portion of the road up the hill to the train station washed out and shortly thereafter we got word the train tracks were covered by a landslide and it would be days or weeks before it was repaired.
By noon we were told that helicopters were being arranged for our evacuation but that we could walk on the railroad tracks into town and get something to eat. Several of us went but no sooner had we finished then word got passed to our little group to go back to the hotel, collect our things and evacuate the hotel as it was not safe. We got our stuff and were then told we were all going to force march to the stadium where the helicopters were going to pick us up. The government had declared the entire town was to be evacuated because they were afraid the dam upriver was going to burst.
We all proceeded up the railroad tracks and finally got to the stadium. It was Dr. Zhvago all over again. This time it was more like 3,000 people crammed into the stadium and surrounding area with police clearing the middle of the field to allow helicopters to land. We were given a little room adjacent to the stadium where we could sit and spent the next two hours listening for the sounds of rotors.
Finally, we heard the first one coming and everyone poured out with cameras ready to record this momentous event. The bird circled the field twice and then flew off, never landing. This happened twice and then nothing for the longest time before an announcement was made in Spanish over the stadium speakers that no further flights were expected that day. The crowd did not take well to this news as thousands of hungry, thirsty and tired tourists chanted and shouted their frustration. It could have gotten ugly at this point, but finally people settled down and grudgingly dispersed.
Vicki and I and some friends we had made in this group decided to go eat while others returned to the hotel. As we finished, the bigger group marched by our restaurant single file headed in the opposite direction. We were told to come quickly, we were being evacuated from the hotel as it was deemed unsafe and moving to another hotel. In fact, the day we left, The Sumaq first floor was flooded and two other hotels in town were about to collapse.
They wanted us to stay together and in single file as we had to be taken through a crowd of people being restrained from going to a separate helicopter landing area by military police. It was the only route to our new hotel which was up on higher ground.
By the time Vicki and I hit the crowd they were stacked up 40 deep at the police blockade and were not happy campers. We were just going to our new hotel but the crowd thought we were being given special treatment and being taken to the helicopters ahead of them. One very vocal woman was blocking our way and shouting at the police and us in Spanish, inciting the crowd against us. The police stayed calm and tried to explain we were just going to our hotel but the crowd and especially this one woman did not believe them. Finally one of the military men with a huge AK-47 motioned for me to move past this woman and through the barricade of police. I grabbed Vicki by the arm and dragged her through the crowd bulling my way to the police line and on to the other side. It was a pretty frightening experience but fortunately nothing erupted beyond a lot of shouting and digital salutes.
We checked into our hotel and were told no more helicopters would be coming that night. The fuel depot at the Cusco Airport had been flooded and the fuel compromised so fuel was going to have to be flown in from Lima. Earlier in the day, the President of Peru had declared Cusco and the Sacred Valley a national disaster area and mobilized the military to assist in evacuations and security throughout the region. We had dinner and were told we would be getting 5:00 AM wake up calls.
The annual rainfall in the Cusco region is 30 inches. So far in the month of January up until that night, the rainfall was 100 inches, over three times the annual rate in less than one month! The local news claimed there had been 10 deaths caused by the rains, flooding and mudslides, including an Argentinean woman and her guide who were swept off the Inca Trail by a mudslide and into the river.
It rained all night and the morning of our third day in the same clothes had us all smelling pretty ripe. Not to mention the fact that when I don’t shave for three days I look like an old, overweight homeless person. I woke up from a minimum night’s sleep with altitude sickness; headache, dizzy and disoriented with nausea. I couldn’t keep breakfast down so didn’t eat and started powering down water and Koca Tea, which the locals swear can prevent or cure altitude sickness. It started to work by about 10:00 AM when we heard the first rotor sounds of the day.
The helicopters were landing on a grassy flat area down by the raging and continually rising river about a mile upstream from our hotel. Five of our party was ushered out of the lobby, which were elderly and were having health issues. We were told that only 8 person helicopters were in use but that 19 seat, ex-US Army units were on their way. We had no dedicated helicopters for our group and the military was in charge of the evacuation and deciding who went and in what order. The sick first, the elderly, pregnant women…etc. We were told if we were under 70 to not expect to get out that day.
Suddenly at noon, Aquialino rushed through the lobby and shouted at everyone to follow him. We bolted out the back doors of the hotel, up and down multiple stairs and onto a 3 foot wide path that headed out into the jungle alongside the river. We went about a mile or so and stopped. We were told to stay in line, not to let anyone cut in, do what the military men were telling us to do and we would all get out today. We did that but waited nearly two hours, standing in the jungle, waiting. Finally we were separated into groups of 19 and moved along the path to different checkpoints. It was hot, we all had to pee and mosquitoes were starting to feed but there were now more regular helicopters coming.
We were told to go and we stumbled down this muddy slope and out into this small grass field right by the river. We crouched down as the copters came in kicking up muddy water from the river and spraying all of us with a shower of water, mud, grass clippings and bugs. Then we raced to the birds, scrambled up inside, parked our butts on benches with no seatbelts and off we went.
The old bucket of bolts shook and rattled and we lifted off, swinging from side to side inside the steep walls of the canyon to gain altitude in this rarified atmosphere so we could climb over the shear, green 4,000 foot cliffs. In 20 minutes we were back in Ollantaytambo, landing at a small soccer field where they were incredibly organized. They had chairs set up, water for everyone, a doctor to check us out and even a smile or two. A representative from the American embassy in Lima was there to take all American’s names and passport numbers so they could verify our safety to loved ones who had been calling them for days.
We then made a three hour bus ride back to Cusco where we spent the night at the Liberator Hotel, a fairly decent place with a hot meal, a hot shower, a toothbrush and, finally, my CPAP and our medications, which we had been without for three days. We were met in Cusco by a representative from Regent who flew in from Ft. Lauderdale the night before to Lima and then up to Cusco that morning. He was trying to arrange a charter jet to take us all to Lima but it would not happen until the next day.
We got some much needed sleep that night and the next morning we found out we would be getting a flight to Lima that afternoon. Once in Lima we checked into the Novetel Hotel in the rich financial district of Miraflores. We were treated that night, at a fancy restaurant which overlooked a nighttime lit pyramid built by an early tribe of natives in the Lima area. It was lovely and we felt some of the pressure ease as we drank wine and watched a pretty spectacular fireworks show from our outdoor seats.
The next morning we were told we might fly to Coquimbo, Chile to meet the ship but because of the bureaucratic red tape between the Peruvian and Chilean governments concerning charter flights, we were running into a political quagmire. The morning passed to the afternoon and by 4:00 PM we were told it would not happen until the next day…..breakfast at 4:15 AM, buses at 5:00 AM, takeoff at 8:00 AM. Vicki and I skipped dinner and ordered room service. We watched CSI NY reruns until 9:00 PM and called it a day.
We got a 3:30 AM wake up call, put on our now two day old clothes, skipped breakfast and headed for the airport. We could only arrange for a charter to Santiago, but the ship was in Valparaiso, so we boarded buses and took the two hour trip to our ship where the captain, his entire staff and all of our stewardesses were in a double reception line with a champagne welcome, band playing (When the Saints Come Marching In), ship’s horn blowing and our fellow passengers leaning over the railings above, cheering our return as we dragged our weary bodies up the gangway.
No one died….and they could have. The physical rigor was well beyond what many people in this group have ever experienced or should have been subjected to. No one quit…..and they couldn’t have been blamed if they did. No one pooped on the carpet.
In our version of “Survivor – Machu Pichu”, we were all on the winning team. Out of the 67 who got started we only had 4 or 5 who we really wanted to vote off the island, so to say. You find out what some people are made of in situations like these. The rest kept their cool, their humor and their grace throughout. We pulled together, helped each other and cared for each other. We stayed positive. We became a big family this week. And the leader of the pack, the one person who encouraged everyone, listened to their complaints with a sympathetic smile, kept things light and showed no sign of weakness despite a severe congestion in her chest…..you guessed it, Vicki.