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Monday, April 25, 2011

Day Zero: Preparing for the Machu Picchu/Wayna Picchu Trip

Just like any other trip, preparation is a must (at least for an OC like me). Along with officemates Topeng and Nina, we started reserving plane tickets and hotel accommodation as early as March 25 for the April 18 – 21 schedule (it was Holy Week so please consider that a lot of people all over the world might be optimizing their holidays). I think we began checking the rates days before March 25 and prices kept on jumping up by the day. Needless to say, the earlier you plan your trip to Peru, the better deal you will get.

Furthermore, below is a list of things you need to consider for your Machu Picchu/Wayna Picchu itinerary:

1. Plane Ticket

Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu are two mountains (“picchu” means mountain) located 20 minutes away by bus from Aguas Calientes town (some websites call it “Machu Picchu Pueblo”). The town is four hours away by train from Cuzco (also “Cusco” or “Qosqo” in local dialect Quecha) which is roughly two hours away by southeast-bound plane from Lima City. So to get to the mountains, you need to get two flight itineraries: one international flight going to Lima and a domestic flight to Cuzco.

Coming from Uruguay, a local officemate suggested to check out for cheap rates. We ended up with Expedia instead since the price range is comparable and we’ve got a cheaper flight and hotel package.

For Philippine passport holder like us, tourist visa is not needed. As per experience, we were given 15 days for the entire stay by the Peruvian immigration officer (depending, I guess, on how many days you plan to explore Peru).

2. Train Ticket

As a friendly advice from another officemate who already visited Machu Picchu, purchasing a train ticket from Peru Rail is very important before plotting your itinerary. Schedules are a bit odd (like the first train takes off at 7am and will land you to Aguas Calientes at 11am; too late if you wish to visit Wayna Picchu as people queue as early as 4am to get a slot out of 400, a limit set by the park authorities to preserve the mountain).

Prices start at $48 and it can go as high as something unimaginable like the Hiram Bingham series (a rolling five-star hotel). We got Expedition ($48) on our way there and Autowagon ($60) from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo. Complimentary snacks are inclusive.

3. Entrance Ticket to Machu Picchu/Wayna Picchu

This is the tricky part. Since number of visitors to Wayna Picchu is limited to 400, tourists wish to secure this hot ticket first. Let me get things straight. There’s only one entrance ticket (a whopping Peruvian Nuevo Soles or PEN 126 or $45) needed for both Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu. Wayna Picchu is seated at the back of Machu Picchu in most of the postcard shots. So to go to Wayna, you need to access Machu. Visitors are either going to Machu Picchu only or to both Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu (if you still have the energy). I don’t think there is a limit to the number of people going to Machu Picchu but to Wayna Picchu, it’s 400 a day (200 on the first set at 7am or earlier and another 200 at 10 or 11am).

I heard that before, you can only purchase the entrance ticket at a center (one in Aguas Calientes’ Machu Picchu Cultural Center and alternatively, in Cuzco at Instituto Nacional de Cultura in Calle San Bernardo or Direccion Regional de la Cultura Cusco at # 238 Avenida de la Cultura). Then we heard about having a reservation through online in which we availed of after some trials (the website is quite moody). Please note that the online thing (with bar code and all on your print-out) is just a reservation. You still need to pay up in the cultural offices mentioned above. In Cuzco, as per experience, we ended up paying at Interbank along Avenida del Sol (a detailed story to follow) with a note from the staff that reservation is valid for six hours only! To be safe, have the reservation ready prior to your trip to Cuzco then go the offices the earliest possible or do another reservation within six hours upon arrival in Cuzco.

4. Bus Ticket from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu/Wayna Picchu Drop-off

Bus tickets cost $15.50 for the year 2011, two-way. It is valid for three days and you may use it anytime from 5:20am onwards (last bus from drop-off leaves at 5:30pm). If you’re planning to have a climb at Wayna Picchu, you better purchase the ticket day before your schedule to make use of your time. There are two ways to purchase it and through online is, as of this writing, out of the question. One, is in Cuzco, at Consettur Office (the only company that operates the busses in Aguas Calientes) located in Avenida Pardo just opposite Parque España. As per experience, this is difficult to locate even with the help of a taxi. The other option, the one we ended up doing, is through the ticketing office in Aguas Calientes located along the main road (parallel to the river Rio Urubamba). Beside the bus pick-up/stop is a selling booth and few meters from it is smaller one, right under the biggest bridge, opposite the information center. There was no queue when we got ours at around lunchtime.

5. Hotel/Hostel Location

Cuzco is a small town. From the airport, you can reach the town proper in roughly 10 minutes by cab. You can either take any place to stay near Plaza de Armas but it won’t hurt if you choose those located two or three blocks away (like Misters Inkas Hotels Inn Palace Exclusive where we stayed at). Aguas Calientes is far smaller than Cuzco. It looks like a village and it’s divided by the river (Rio Urubamba). One side has the train station, where a less busy line of inns are found (including our pick Machu Picchu Green Nature). The other side has the main road (where the bus station is), the main square where the post office and other tourist centers are located and streets bustling with restaurants and bars. Either side, bus and train stations are walkable. Since the Cuzco – Ollantaytambo train route was under construction due to flooding in 2010, we opted to stay in Ollantaytambo for a night. Hostal Iskay, our place, is probably the best among the three hostels we stayed at but we decided to ask for a pick-up at the train station. It is located in an old Inca village and finding it on foot at night can be taxing.

6. Health Preparation

I just have to include a note on this one as Wayna Picchu is not an easy climb. Find time to do some exercises like jogging or brisk walking at least a month before (mine wasn’t enough). There’s another thing to consider: high altitude sickness. Websites (and friends) were warning us before the flight to take a medicine and not just rely on coca leaves (as mostly suggested). On our end, we tried our best here in Montevideo to look for a travel doctor that would prescribe us some medicine but to no avail. One admin employee from our client even thought that I was joking. Our first night in Cuzco was a little struggle during the night, mostly for shortness of breath. But that’s it. No stomach ache or dizziness. I believe this is a case to case basis so I suggest that you still look for a doctor and ask around.

7. Pocket Money

I can't provide a sound advice on this one but I allotted $300 t0 400 for the whole 4-day trip and survived. Perhaps as a guide, each meal can cost Peruvian Nuevo Sol (PEN) 30 in an average touristy restaurant. Taxis around Cuzco proper range from PEN 2.50 to 3. For souvenirs, get cheaper options in goods sold by vendors along the streets and always haggle. It won't hurt if you ready some local currency prior to the trip but on personal note, we got our PEN from the forex booth in Lima airport on our way to our gate for our Cuzco flight (in the same open area where the conveyor belts for luggage are found). It's convenient that most stores (both in Cuzco and Aguas Calientes) accept USD. Just a note though. They are very particular with the USD bills. Those with minor cuts are not considered by some vendors, saying that the banks won't accept it.

8. Itinerary

Lastly, there are a thousand things to do in Cuzco alone so you better choose the things you love to do and pick the best from it. We only had four days spare so we cut some of the spots out of many and finalized the itinerary as specified below (just click on the image to enlarge):

Day 01: Around Cuzco

Between Uruguay and Peru, there’s only a slight difference with time. Two hours for the record. Though I woke up at around 4am, it didn’t hinder me from adjusting with the high altitude in Cuzco or to starve for energy at the end of the day. Everything went well in the morning. The remise taxi picked us up on time and all flights were on schedule. We had our quickie lunch at Lima on our way to Cuzco so we’re all packed for our first day in Peru.

We reached Cuzco at close to 3pm. It was sunny but the temperature was around 15 degrees according to our taxi driver that brought us to the hostel. We picked the cab, by the way, from a stand that says “official airport taxi” only to find out later that we had cheaper options if we get out of the airport and just hail one there. They charged PEN 30 for a 15-minute trip (PEN 25 cheaper if we’re smarter). Misters Inka was not a busy hostel. I didn’t see any other occupants but that doesn’t mean it’s empty. The portero was very nice and very accommodating. He had us wait in the small lobby for a few minutes while the airport taxi driver was trying to make a deal for a day trip. We declined. A bowl of dried coca leaves was waiting for us so we served ourselves with a hefty cup.

Once settled, we found ourselves prioritizing the payment for Machu Picchu and bus tickets. Reservation online was easy but paying it up is another story. At 3:30pm, we went directly to Calle San Bernardo. It was Holy Monday and a procession at 6pm prompted the office to close early. We were then advised to go to Direccion Regional de la Cultura which was very difficult to find as the door is not along Avenida de la Cultura but in one perpendicular side street. The very friendly female staff told us that they don’t accept payment. The office is probably for reservation only or for other tourist information. She told us to go to Interbank along Avenida del Sol instead, marked our map and gladly offered to get a taxi for us as time was running out. We also asked where we can secure a bus ticket and she told us to visit Banco Nacional. Topeng and Nina chose to go to Interbank and I volunteered to arrange for the bus tickets (the two banks are only a block apart). I wasn’t successful. Banco Nacional, it turned out, is not aware of such bus ticket payments. A staff in one of the booths told me to visit the Consettur Office (as mentioned in some websites). I took a cab, braved the traffic as the procession was about to start, only to find out that the office closed early. Got no choice but to go back to Avenida del Sol (still on the same cab) to meet up Topeng and Nina who had their own share of struggle with the ticket. Our Machu Picchu reservation happened to expire already so they had to beg for a reconsideration (in which they were successful).

At past 6pm, the area surrounding Plaza de Armas was already crowded. Some roads were closed. We explored the plaza once more, burping with a street food called “tamales” (which is like kamoteng kahoy with stuffing), and took pictures of the twin churches (the Cuzco Cathedral and Church of the Company of Jesus Christ). As the procession was about to reach the cathedral and started to get crowded by the minute (a proof here), we were already inside the Paititi Restaurant near the main square having a shot of Pisco Sour.

I fell in love with Cuzco at dusk. The area surrounding Plaza de Armas in cobble stones has a small European city feel and it seems everything can be explored on foot. The house lights from the mountains looked like stars had paid a visit to the town. We didn’t get a chance to get inside any museum or a church but a view from outside was fulfilling enough. The path leading to Plazuela las Nazarenas beside the cathedral was a mix of history and simple joys. Some were selling cheap bonnets and gloves (we got our official Cuzco get-up there) while some kids were playing football in a patio (check out the video here).

We slept at around 11pm, fighting back the thing called high altitude sickness specifically the shortness of breath. Oh, the price of falling in love.

The rest of the pics here.

Day 02: Hello There, Machu Picchu

I remember waking up uneasily at 2am and tried to sleep again for two more hours. During shower on a cold weather, I was panting heavily. Good thing soroche (high altitude sickness) had no other impact on me. We packed up early as planned and the other portero in Misters Inka prepared a breakfast for us with scrambled eggs and bread with butter. At 6:15am, we checked out already and found ourselves trotting our way to Wanchaq train station where a couple of busses were waiting. The ticket we paid for actually was a Poroy (Cuzco) – Aguas Calientes route but due to some maintenance, a bus sent us to Ollantaytambo instead (it’s in the middle of Cuzco and Aguas Calientes). From there, we took an Expedition seat in Peru Rail Train # 33. The seat numbers for us were messed up so I was trapped in a group of eight Brazilian family members, having a drink or two.

The whole trip was a great experience on its own. View from the two-hour bus trip alone was amazing (grab a seat on the left side). Cuzco is higher than Ollantaytambo so our descent was a mix of picturesque valleys shadowed by some clouds and a peek of the snow-capped mountain called Veronica. The train ride took another two hours of slow and relaxing pace. Its coaches are designed to let the travellers enjoy the view (a ravishing river on the left and mountains on the right). Order a complimentary coffee from the crew to complete the experience.

Peru Rail videos here and here.

We reached Aguas Calientes at lunch time. The map that we got online for Green Nature (our inn) was incorrect. The stationed tourist police assisted us to locate the hostel. It’s got free Wi-Fi (just like Misters Inka) and a storage that we can use in case we need to leave early and just come back to pick up the bags. Our room was on the third floor. Bed sheets are colorful and the window is facing not another big mountain. Opposite is the train station so it’s helpful when you need to rush back to catch a trip.

After munching some “international” cuisine and chicha (a grape juice-looking drink from corn), we headed our way to buying two bus tickets (one for that day and another for the next day). Busses to Machu Picchu leave almost every 10 minutes (or when it’s already full). The rough and winding trip took roughly 20 minutes. Good view. And some thrills every time the bus had to maneuver to give way to another bus.

At around 2pm past, entrance to Machu Picchu was still crowded. We presented the receipt for the payment but they asked us to show our passport as well. The big map outside wasn’t that helpful for us as everything looks overwhelming. We didn’t get a guide, too (one offered for PEN 100 and we refused). In the area, you can find some arrows that serve as route for the visit. One is heading to “integral” or long path while the other will lead you directly to the Inca city (we chose the former). There we experienced our first “exercise” as we needed to have a short climb to the guard hut. Most postcards of Machu Picchu are probably taken from there. Visitors were everywhere, either within the city or from our vantage point.

One arrow was leading to a certain Inca bridge. We’re clueless what’s in there but we still trekked it nevertheless. It took us around 30 minutes of walking along a narrow path without any support whatsoever from the side. The acrophobic in me was kicking in but at least I had Topeng and Nina with me. The end of the route happened to be just a piece of wood that connects two sides. Below it looks like a wall built with properly arranged rocks. We tried our best to figure out how the Incas managed to put those rocks considering the ravine underneath. Were they hanging? Topeng was brave enough to get near it with the help of a rope installed at one side.

On our way back, Nina was on the lead then Topeng at my back. The father and daughter team that we met near the bridge was ahead of us and they were warning us on something. We thought that they were just fooling us until we saw a llama feeding some grass in the narrow path. We stopped because the moment we attempted to pass by, the freewheeling animal might have a trip on us and decided to kick us down to Rio Urubamba meters and meters below us. We stepped back and hold on to some grassroots (our dear life) and waited for the llama to walk past us. And it did, not mindful of anything but his meal.

Some videos of Machu Picchu here, here and here.

We left Machu Picchu at 5pm (with our passports stamped and dated with a Machu Picchu seal!) and spent the rest of lull time to scout for souvenirs. I also got the chance to explore the main square which was more festive compared to the main road. I sneaked in three postcards for mom and dad, my brother and family and my housemates in Makati. The post office is just on the left of the small church. Dinner was another highlight as we tried this artsy place called Indio Feliz. Cuisine is a fusion of Peruvian and probably French but it’s the ambiance that makes eating more delightful. The walls on the main restaurant are covered with business cards while the bar in our area has lots of drinks to choose from. They also have free Wi-Fi.

Bedtime’s at 9pm or a bit later. Temperature was very much different from Cuzco so we had a ball resting and preparing for the big day.

The rest of the pics here.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Day 03: Of Wayna Picchu and Acrophobia

We were advised by the hostel staff to queue at the bus station as early as 4am if we wish to climb Wayna Picchu but we didn’t follow that. We underestimated the other tourists and thought that they might wake up a little later than us. Breakfast was already served at 4:30am so we grabbed the chance to have another quickie meal before joining the queue. Surprisingly, a long line was already waiting for us. My estimate was that there were around 150 climbers ahead of us. Coffee and sandwiches were offered by the vendors, that’s a good thing if you wish to have your last-minute breakfast. It was dark and drizzling at the same time.

At close to 6:30am, we were already at the entrance to Machu Picchu. Park authorities were head counting. They allow only 400 visitors a day for Wayna Picchu and it’s divided into two groups. The first 200 are allowed to begin the climb at 7am then another 200 at around 10 or 11am. We were caught off guard when the staff announced that we three were the last ones on the first set (to the wailing and violent reaction of those behind us). That gave me a sign that I should probably do Wayna Picchu (I was still unsure the day before because it gave me chills every time I looked at the high mountain at the back of Machu Picchu). Topeng assured through a staff that it’s gonna be an easy one-hour climb and that it can be done by your lonesome (meaning the trail is safe).

We logged in at the starting point (there’s a guard house there) at 7:20am. The one hour trip was only to a certain point but the peak can be reached in 2.5 hours. Since I was already there, I decided to still go for the challenge. First few minutes were easy-going. Paths are narrow but there are some ropes on the side if needed. Foggy mountains were everywhere and it’s a pleasure to experience nature that grand. After 20 minutes, there’s a point that connects Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu and that’s where my real adventure began.

The descending steep path leading to Wayna Picchu from Machu Picchu can give you a hint of what’s in store for you. That’s the time I realized that it’s not going to be an easy climb (at least the ground staff was right when he said that the trek can be done alone). People ascending can be seen from there and it’s going to be endless. Ten minutes from that point on, I surrendered to the idea that I can’t keep up with Topeng and Nina so I asked them to go ahead without me. Lots of climbers passed by me but I was taking my time. At least I had a temporary company and they were very nice. One guy even volunteered to carry my little red backpack but I declined (primarily because my food and water were there). I stopped a hundred times. A few more minutes and my legs started to sore and I felt that lack of a decent and heavy breakfast wasn’t helping. It’s a steep climb of paths made of rocks and Rio Urubamba below served as a reminder of how high I already was. Just like the route to Inca bridge, only going up, there’s no support facing the ravine.

Tired and with a little courage, I reached the first part of the portal made by the Incas. It’s a platform of soil supported by rocks at the edge and can be explored by going sideways. Machu Picchu can be viewed from there. Some were resting while others were having a puff. But the peak is still far from there. The whole structure leads to a cave in which I didn’t know how I managed to get out. It’s a one-way ticket from the cave. The moment I crawled out from it, I knew I had to start taking care of my acrophobia. I didn’t see much support underneath like a safety net or another platform. It’s like one big mistake and you’re history. One couple got me connected (the guy is Arab-looking and the girl spoke Spanish really well). They confessed that they took a picture of me while struggling myself out of the cave. They helped me cross one critical step leading to the peak.

My mindset when I reached the peak was how the hell I would climb down. On the first sturdy platform, I saw how people descend. It’s a narrower step and slightly steeper. I was scared and proud of it. I didn’t enjoy the peak much and I even forgot to take a Hipstamatic shot for my Project 365 Days. I remember saying “hi” to Topeng and Nina (who were having a grand time with the view) but I just continued going down to finish the whole thing. I found a nice spot to photograph Machu Picchu from there but that’s about it. I started the climb down through the narrow path just opposite the other path with a cave (got no other choice), with my behind hitting the rocky steps, sit-crawling the whole she-bang. At one point, I had to rely on a crack to cross the path while praying big time. As far as I can remember, there were three long narrow paths that I endured. Some were with company of trekkers that added pressure and some, all by my lonesome. Until now, I don’t know how I made it.

The rest of the descent after the Inca platform was not as challenging. My mental note then was not to look at Rio Urubamba below and it helped. Halfway through the trek, I turned my iPhone on and played Mishka Adams. Why her? Her latest album has a mix of English, French and Spanish songs. I was just trying to connect with the people I met along the way, either those who were going up or Machu Picchu-bound like me. I greeted the climbers good luck and one British girl even commented “Thanks but I wish I have your music.” Another Asian-looking girl joined me in resting at a spot near the destination. She was trying to figure out my nationality.

See a video here of climbers on their way to Wayna Picchu.

The first glimpse of the guard house made me celebrate. I really made it and decided to hang out in the bench there to wait for Topeng and Nina and to dry my socks out. Good to have seen the people there, jubilant with their finish. Mostly Spanish-speaking but I had the chance to talk to an Italian couple with a nice DSLR (they asked me to take a picture of them and the guy was such a perfectionist). There was also a Thai family where the head of the bunch mentioned that he just visited Cebu and Bohol for business and pleasure. A Japanese guy came out while videotaping himself and another big guy rushed on his way out as his elbow was bleeding. I waited for an hour more for Topeng and Nina but they probably decided to prolong the experience further (I caught up with them on my way out of the ruins). I just killed the time by exploring the “city” of Machu Picchu and took more pictures.

While resting at a spot overlooking Wayna Picchu, some silver lining came by:

1. In every mountain, it is the climb that matters most;
2. You’ll get by with a little help from some friends no matter how temporary;
3. It is not always fun at the top;
4. You can only see clouds from the top and not those that make you commit mistakes;
5. Struggle is, first and foremost, a personal thing;
6. Ropes are there for a purpose; and
7. The whole process of trying to hurdle a mountain is not entirely scientific. Sometimes you need faith and a little luck.
The rest of the tiring afternoon were spent eating a cuy (a guinea pig!) and alpaca (or llama), getting our bags back, checking emails for the next hostel and visiting the hot springs (I opted to stick on the net and skipped this one) right before we met up again for the train ride back to Ollantaytambo at 6:10pm. During the trip, there’s a devil dance called “sacra” right in the aisle of the train (video here) which was very amusing. They said that during Holy Week, God is not watching in which I beg to disagree after accomplishing the Wayna Picchu climb.

The rest of the pics here.

Day 04: The Ollantaytambo Leg

I woke up ahead of my celfone alarm clock. It was more than eight hours of sleep. I raised the curtain beside my bed in Hostal Iskay (a glimpse of the area here) and I was greeted with some chirps. A huge mountain was at a distance, returning my glance. It was a beautiful morning, so serene and freeing. The night before, we didn’t have any idea that the hostel was this relaxing as the driver who picked us up from the train station took a dusty road. Breakfast followed suit: hot scrambled eggs, bread, jam, cheese, ham, a kind of cereal that looks like rice crispies, fresh orange juice, fruits, coffee, tea and of course, coca leaves.

There was a minute mishap with the ATM at Hotel Sauce near the main square but that didn’t stop the fun. It was supposed to be our anti-fatigue day. We rented a car that would bring us back to Cuzco airport and we will be having some stops along the way. Everything went well as planned except that we were delayed for an hour. The hotel staffs headed by Cristina were very helpful and very understanding. We availed of the “box lunch” to make us of our limited time.

At 10am, we were already on our way to one mountain peak overseeing the Sacred Valley (see a 360-degree video here). Our guide Jose (yes, we also hired a guide) mentioned that the Sacred Valley is called as such because of the Sacred River with a shape similar to a constellation. The view from there was nice and the weather was just cooperative. Then we went down on our next stop which is the archaeological site in Moray. It’s a place used to experiment plants that suit to a particular temperature. In a glance, it looks like an inverted Banaue rice terraces. The deeper the plant can get, the colder it gets. A really clever experiment, I should say. Going to the bottom and back reminded our legs of what we’ve done in Wayna Picchu.

Our last stop was at Chinchero. We passed through fields and fields of barley and wildflowers, at times dreamy. I finished my lunch during that trip which includes two sandwiches (which we shared with our guide and the driver), an apple, an orange, cookies, candies, a peach juice and a bottle of water. Chinchero is a small village with some stores that sell hand-woven textile similar to those we can find in Baguio. In one store where Jose brought us, there was a short recreation on how the garments are made. It’s a fascinating demo. We learned from it that the colors itself are organic, either from an insect or from fruits like lemon. I ended up buying some bracelets and a winter scarf.

There's a video here and here on the textile-making demo.

We left Peru at 4pm past. That’s after having a nice chitchat with two other fellow Filipinos Dean and Dang at the airport lobby and at the gates. How come I wasn’t surprised that we will be meeting a “kababayan” in places like Cuzco? We shared stories on Machu Picchu, about backpacking and how to save up more in trips like that. Of course, we parted ways after having a group picture and exchanging Facebook accounts.

The rest of the pics here.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Candombe! Candombe!

Just last week, we went to Gral. Rivera corner Missouri Streets to watch a parade of different candombe bands (Wikipedia is your friend). I was informed that it's similar to what we could have witnessed if we came here right before the lent. As noted from the parade, it usually has a logo bearer first, announcing their band name. Then a set of flag bearers waving gigantic flags (too big that you'll be hit if you're near). After that, an entourage of carnival ladies then an old couple (where the lady is dressed up a la Corazon in "Marimar"). Then the carnival queen leading the group of drummers. Everybody was dancing to an African beat.

The rest of 200 plus pictures here plus a video here.
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