Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Machu Picchu

The alarm wakes us up at 4.15AM. There is still no electricity. Armed with a headlamp, we head out into the dark streets. By 5AM we join an army of backpackers who, like us, are not willing to cough up the money for the bus ride up the mountain. The guys are sleeping in but we want to beat the crowds. There is a long line up at the gate and I am surprised by how many people will be taking the stairs up the mountain. Once the line of people starts going up hill it quickly becomes clear that we are not in our twenties anymore. I always used to be leading the pack in situations like this but no more. It’s very painful to watch one after another 20-something sprint by. But hey, we are going up! Slowly but surely. 
Good morning! The only ways up to Machu Picchu. The green line is the hiking path and the black line the bus lane.
Great view to wake up to... once our eyes were finally ready to be open.
Soon the first buses start riding by and we are wondering if we should have bought a one-way ticket. Especially since it has started raining. An hour and twenty minutes later, we make it to the top of the stairs and are exhausted. The café deems it to be to early to open up for the hundreds of coffee thirsty people making it up the mountain but there is a machine that saves the day. We take a short break and then start walking towards the Inca ruins. It is still raining and the clouds are hanging low. The first sight of Machu Picchu is nothing short of amazing, with the clouds making it a magical experience. We take it all in for a while and walk through the ancient sight. The llamas walking around in the mist look like guardians of what once was a city in the clouds. 

No words can express the magic of this place. Waynapicchu in the background.
We have tickets for Waynapicchu, a part of the site with restricted access, but it means more climbing and we are not sure we’ll see anything up there due to the clouds. We decide to take a chance as this may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for us, and climb up the steep path to the ruins. We sit down once we make it to the top and hope for the clouds to clear while we are having breakfast. An hour later the guys join us. We have a laugh over the crazy climb this morning following yesterdays long ride and hike. The clouds part all of a sudden and for a few seconds the full size of the city is revealed, only to be covered in mystique again a blink of an eye later. 
This rock is at the base of Waynapicchu. At first sight it's just a nice big rock but then you learn that it is a miniature version of the holy mountain behind the rock (now covered in clouds). Impressive.

A few more steps Azure! Almost there!.... not...

Great feeling to be up here but slightly disappointed by the restricted view. Can't win them all!
And then, just for a few seconds, Machu Picchu was visible.
We start the hike down and conclude that the Inca must not have been big people… We are having difficulties finding room for our feet. My size 14 does not fit on the tiny stairs and the rain has made it slippery. A steep drop off to the right makes for a few freaky moments. This is the only point at which Azure is grateful for the cloud cover - at least she can’t see how far down the drop-off is! 
Go ahead Patrick. I'll catch up. Damn that is steep!
Parts of the "staircase" had to be done on all fours.
One missed step and you can only hope the clouds will catch you.
Back at the main structure we walk around a bit more in the rain. The busloads have arrived and we choose to hide in the café for a while and pray for it to stop raining. The café is expensive but the food is delicious and the portions very generous. And they have APPLE PIE!! We spend a couple of hours just sitting there as we see more and more people leaving. A long discussion on whether or not to hire a guide for the afternoon is held and the majority is for. We find a nice woman who is willing to give us a good price.

Upon re-entry the sun shows itself. It even stops raining. Well, for a few minutes. We have a very interesting tour and learn a lot about the structure and the culture. We now know the function of ruins we had mindlessly ambled by earlier and rocks that seemed like just rocks now are astronomical observatories. Fascinating! 
The temple of the Condor. Check out the rocks shaping the wings, the head on the floor and the white neck of the male Condor. Very impressive how they managed to build on the slopes of the wings.

Well camouflaged and damn cute!
Temple of the Sun.
More stairs...
Inca Sun Dial.
All the hiking has taken it’s toll on our bodies but we want to be around here as long as possible and go for a last minute hike to the Inca bridge, which is just carved into the cliff. Just before we leave Machu Picchu the weather really clears up and we get a last full view of the sight. There are no words for how incredible this is.

Nice bridge! No I'm just fine here taking in the view.
Leaving the ruins to the llama's on our way out. The Inca spirit feels alive in this magical place.
The hike down is fast as is the walk back along the tracks. We get to the hydroelectric plant and convince a waiting, yet un-eager taxi driver to bring us back into town. Our bikes sitting in the hotel lobby. After all of the walking, we are more excited than ever to be back on two wheels again tomorrow.

The ride back to Cusco gets the blood pumping again. Tim, Pat and Matt take off into the paradise of hairpins while Azure and I are taking it easy. The recent rains have brought up the water level where a river crossed the road in several places. This isn’t a problem until I’m suddenly facing the opposite direction and am on the ground with water rushing all around me. The high-side of the road had been ok on our way in but the low-side has algae growing everywhere. I try to get up, my feet sliding all over the place. I look to the right and see the 5-meter drop off that I was fortunate to avoid. I try to lift the bike back onto it’s rubber but my feet slide away. I tell Azure over the SENAs that I need help and watch as she makes her way over, and can’t help but laugh when her feet fly out from under her and she goes down hard. It looked very funny, as if in a cartoon, but she landed hard and was in pain. Soaking wet, she gets up and helps me with the bike. Together we get it up and I slowly ride it out of the fast flowing river. 

It feels good to be back on the road. Let's give the legs a break for a while shall we...
I was coming from the right side. Perfect 180 though!
Azure was already wet but the rain on top of the pass makes sure we are both cold and not loving life for a bit. We catch up with Matt and together we make it back to Olantaytambo where Tim and Pat are waiting for us. Here Matt finds out that he will need to return to the US suddenly and Pat joins him to return to Cusco immediately, while we make a little detour with Tim to yet another Inca sight.
Salt mines on our way to Moray.
Moray. What archeologists believe to be an agricultural test site. I think it's a UFO landing strip! And I bet the "Starship Enterprice" could land here in a heart beat!
At Moray we marvel at an Agricultural test site where the Inca managed to create a 60F /15C temperature difference between the highest and the lowest terrace. These guys were so ahead of their time. Or maybe we don't learn enough of the past. Maybe the same goes for lessons about civilizations that are at the height of their power... 

Tim finds a nice dirt road back to Cusco on his GPS and soon we find ourselves riding through agricultural land, herding livestock for locals as we go. We have a fun ride before we get back into the city mayhem again. 
Are we sure we wanna do this!?! Well, the GPS says it's a thru-road... LET'S GO!!!
Do you need some help?
Nice work Azure. Don't forget the one to your left!
Never ask me to ride your bike around the mud Azure! Braaaaaaaap! Thanks for the picture Tim Kemper.
When we get back to the hotel, the mood in somber. Matt is heading home. We are all sad to see him go. Azure and I had loved talking to him and riding with him. The energy of the three guys together had made us laugh so many times. We had a very special connection and although traveling in a big group makes for a different experience we had loved every bit of it. On the other hand it showed again that leaving for a long journey is the hardest part. Stepping out of the system is what is difficult. Getting back in is done in a matter of hours. We’ll miss you Matt and we hope to see you again back in the US.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Cusco And The Epic Ride To Machu Picchu

The sun wakes us up early in the morning and we find ourselves in a desolate but beautiful region. I make coffee and one after the other emerges from their tents. It is still a long way to Cusco and we are not sure we’ll make it today. Patrick wants to gun it there but we are not keen on racing and making it there by nightfall. We decide to split up for the day and we see the guys disappear over the horizon. We take it easy as we make our way up to the highlands. 
What a place to wake up!
My morning ritual. Making coffee for Azure...
And Matt's... Respect for doing exercises while on the road buddy!
In a small town we find Tim sipping coffee. He had been hungry and wanted to stop and the guys kept going. As Azure is always up for more coffee, we join in. On my way to the toilet I run into the neighbor who is butchering a cow in the backyard. Not something you will come across in Holland anymore. I watch for a while as they carefully remove the skin. This cow will feed the whole village for a while. 

The youngsters patiently learning the skills.
We truly enjoy the corners that take us up higher and higher. It is cold up here but we get to see a whole different side of Peru. The flat highlands are boring at first sight but there are many small communities up here making a living by herding llamas. Small herds of wild vicunas cross the road out of nowhere and we have to be careful not to let the spectacular scenery distract us too much.This is also where Azure gets sick for the first time on this journey. At first we think it's food related and then we realize that we're riding at high altitude and it's likely altitude sickness. Regardless, the frequent stops on the side of the road give me ample opportunity for photo ops of llamas.The little ones are very cute and furry and naturally Azure wants one. If she could we would be Noah’s Arc on two wheels by now. 
The curves turned into long, straight, perfect pavement, crossing the pampas.
Vicuna's roaming freely. What a sight!
What!?! Us?!? No way! We did not cross the road right in front of your bike. It was the llamas!
This is how the people live up here. The corrals for the llamas are built with stones.
Such a simple life but great to be one with nature.
No you can't have one Azure! They are damn cute though...
And there is definitely no shortage of llamas.
Hmmm.... this reminds me of a certain band... They had a song called "She's got a ticket to ride"... One is missing though.
A lovely home but just a little too remote for me.
Azure, how often do I have to tell you to hold the camera still and not move it along with the action! ;)
He certainly dressed up for the occasion.
We are in constant awe of what mother nature has to offer in Peru.
A few miles down the road the colors of the rocks have changed yet again.
In the town of Abancay we have a quick bite to eat and look for the guys. They are nowhere to be found and we ride out. The road starts climbing again. It’s green here and the smell of clean air lifts up our spirits. On top of the pass the wind picks up but soon we’re riding through forests and towns again. It is getting late and we find a place to camp on a dirt road. A minute after we stop the bikes a tractor turns onto our road. I did not expect that at this time of day. With our cover blown we continue and have a hard time finding anything suitable. About an hour later we see some bright lights on the side of the road. Tim was waiting for us as the guys checked out another dirt road leading to a river. Although it was a weekday and it was late, the natural hot springs at the end of the road were crowded and we rode all the way up again. Another half an hour down the road we found a place next to a bridge. It was late again but we were close to Cusco and had had a stunning day of riding. 
Somewhere in the middle of the night, Tim gets violently ill. Another one feeling the effects of the altitude.

As we ride through the suburbs we get our first glimpse of Cusco down in the valley. It looks promising but it takes us a long time to get there, fighting traffic for every square inch as we go. It does give us a better impression of the real city. Most tourists that fly into the gateway to Machu Picchu will never experience the slums, the garbage and the thousands of street dogs that surround the beautiful old center of town. 
A tribute to one of the last Inca's standing. Interesting detail is that they made his hand point at the Spanish built Cathedral behind me.
The Plaza des Armas is absolutely stunning but the stones to build the Church, the Cathedral and many other buildings were taken from the walls of the Inca fortress on the top of the hill.
Magical sunset over the city.
Azure and Tim adjust to the altitude (many cups of Mate de Cocoa later) and recover. We spend the next days exploring Cusco and its surroundings and preparing for our visit to Machu Picchu. The old square is beautiful and the Inca fortress of Saqsaywaman (or sexy woman as most tourists have come to call it) gives us an opportunity to stretch our legs before the hike to Machu Picchu.. The massive blocks that form the impressive wall of the fortress fit into each other perfectly. We still don’t know exactly how they managed to do this back then. It looks impenetrable. Just looking at it stopped us from invading right away. Add to that the burning sun and the altitude and we were beat.

These stones were too big for the Spaniards to carry down to town to build there Churches.
Pretty stunning defenses!
Yep, you could not get a needle in between!

A little siesta before storming the fortress.

Inca theme park! What a ride!
Azure leading the attack.
I don't want to be that tourist but the colors begged for a picture.
I leave her alone for 1 minute and she manages to get a llama on a leash.
Gotta love colorful Peru.

The beautiful streets of Cusco.
Our preparations for Machu Picchu are made easy by our friends Shannon and Mike who have written an extensive report on how to visit the sacred sight for less money than most people shell out. All we had to do was follow in their footsteps. We buy tickets in town and set out on our bikes, avoiding the expensive train and bus ride. 
We managed to get special tickets for Huayna Pichu as well at the ticket office.
On our way to Machu Picchu we visit another Inca ruin. Pisaq gave us a good idea of how the Inca’s lived back then but also, how they buried their dead. We thought we would be able to see it all in an hour but we ended up spending quite a bit of time learning about its history and taking in the views. I was blown away by the ancient structure. A must visit if you ever find yourself in Peru! 

The fortress of Pisaq with it's agricultural terraces being part of their defense system. Good luck invading this place!

Did I say how they lived... How they are living, I meant.
Every hole used to be the final resting place of a mummy. There were thousands of them.
We continued through the “Sacred Valley” and had lunch at the bottom of yet another Inca stronghold; Ollantaytambo. With many miles ahead and a long walk along a train track to our final destination we skip climbing the many stairs and just enjoy the view from below. There is no skipping the climb up the mountain pass that we have to take to get to Santa Theresa, the closest you can get to MP with your own vehicle. We thought we had already seen Peru’s most beautiful mountain roads but we are not so sure anymore as the road winds its way up past numerous small Inca ruins. The way up is just astonishing but as soon as we make it to the top of the pass a dark cloud moves in and it does not stop raining until we are all the way down the mountain on the other side. We are soaked and cold to the bone but we have to keep going. 

Just wow!
Such a pity we have to ride the same way back... ;)
It is easy to imagine an Inca stronghold in these misty mountains.
In Santa Maria we turn left onto a dirt road along a river. Before long the road hugs the mountain slopes and the drop offs get steeper and deeper. Not a place to rush through but the sun is about to set. The views are spectacular and so is the riding. Just before sunset we all make it safely to the town of Santa Teresa where we store our bikes in the lobby of a hotel. 

No words can describe riding a bike here...
It certainly feels like a magical place.
The ride to Santa Theresa is packed with adventure. Mud, dirt, rocks, steep deep drop offs and river crossings.
I love Peruvians. Imagine doing this in a hotel lobby in the US or Holland!
An hour later we are in a taxi towards a hydroelectric plant from where we will continue our journey by foot. The driver is a true rally driver and magically dodges most of the bumps and potholes in the road. In complete darkness we set out on our three hour long expedition along a train track through the rain forest. It is a little bit freaky in the dark. A short part of the track leads away from the track through the jungle. We have no clue whether we are going in the right direction. We run into another track and decide to follow it. It is not until we encounter someone coming from the other direction that we are sure we are on the right track. 
The first meters along the track were well lit...
But soon it was dark and we did not see this sign... ;)
Two and a half hours and a lot of sweating later we are getting closer to Aguas Calientes. On a very narrow part of the track we suddenly hear the horn of a train. Great! We hug the wall while a light comes closer. With a lot of noise the train comes rolling down the tracks. It is about time we get to town and find a place to sleep instead of dodging trains in the dark. Around the corner it gets better as the only option is to go through a long tunnel and somehow there is a lot of train activity this late. Just past eleven we stumble into town and find a hotel for what is left of the night. We still need to eat something but there is a power outage and everything seems closed. A wood fired pizzeria on the main square saves the day and soon after we fall into a deep sleep. What a day.