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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Heights of Machu Picchu

Headed for the train station,
past the as yet unopened shops
Today started at the Niños gates at 5 AM when I waited for my transport that arrived at 5:30AM, Peruvian time. It was a tourist filled van that picked me up, and I was excited as I got to ride shotgun for the hour it took to get to the train station.

At the station, everyone raced to the train station with oxygen deprived me, gimping along in the rear. 

The train station
The Machu Picchu Express awaited
We milled around the station for nearly an hour, which gave me time to get my first Matte de Coca tea. I needed that tea, as I've heard tales of how it helps with altitude sickness, which even after 3 days was still keeping my head in a spin and my body's internal energy bars registering minus one.
The train interior was nice & lush
When we arrived at the village below Machu Picchu, my fellow passengers disappeared up the hill like scattering game birds. I was quickly left alone, lost! I headed where I thought they'd disappeared, beyond the walkway bridge over a little river.  
View looking towards the walkway from downhill
(taken during my return later in the day)
I meandered around lost for maybe a half hour. Finally I spotted tourists lined up where several buses were lined up. Boldly (for once!) Panicked, I rounded on some guides. On of them spoke English and checking my papers, he shrugged, pointed to a blue ticket and told me it would gain me passage on any of the buses to Machu Picchu. Relieved, I boarded one such bus, which so help me had the narrowest aisle and seats of any bus I've been on in my life. I felt like I must have gained 500 lbs since the previous day. 
Glared view out the bus window on the way uphill

I've heard the bus ride to Machu Picchu is steep, treacherous and terrifying. Uh... no, not really. The bus route went up hill but it wasn't any steeper than any drive in the California Sierras, or maybe the route is steep but how would I know? I'm not afraid of heights.

When I got off the bus, I realized the 7,972 foot above sea level altitude was still kicking my butt. I took my time climbing steps up to a little square where tourists milled about before crossing the gate onto the grounds of Machu Picchu. I was light headed and seriously needed a seeing-eye llama or better yet, a saddle horse. I sat on a low stone wall and was feeling good and sorry for myself. Then, out of the blue, a gentleman seated next to me and chatting on a cell phone shouted at the top of his lungs, "NORMA MILLER?"

I almost fell off the wall. "I'm Norma Miller", I shouted back at him.

Uh yes - "Norma" which I'm stuck with as it is my first name and it is on my passport.

The man was with Inca Connections which was actively - seated-ly - trying to locate me. He happily told HQ over the phone that he had found the lost tourist, Senora Miller. Then he told me who my guide was and how to find him so I could rejoin the tour. I told him there was no way I could hike uphill and keep up with a pack of snails, much less other tourists. He told me just to make sure I made the last bus back to the train station at 5 PM . 

So I was off to give myself a tour of Machu Picchu. I showed the guards my official Peruvian government permit to tour the ruins, and I was on the grounds! After crawling up the rising walkway you see signs that mark Machu Picchu as... uh... well hell, they were all in Spanish so I don't know what they said exactly but I'm sure it was cool stuff.

Finally I made it to the first Y point where I could either go uphill, downhill or forgetaboutit. I decided to go uphill figuring if I went down, and couldn't get back up again I'd be Peruvian toast.
As I tackled the ancient stone steps, old ladies
wielding canes, raced past me, shouting "Vamanos Senora!"
I took forever to get up the couple of switchbacks. I was so out of energy. Wasn't anyone else as tired as I was? The answer is 'no'. I suspect people with altitude sickness as bad as I had it, had the good sense the stay the $#%& home.
The view downhill from the switchbacks
Hurrah! It took perhaps an hour, but at last I was at the top of the switchbacks. At sea level the climb would have taken me perhaps ten minutes. I could finally behold the beauty & mystery that is Machu Picchu.
My view
I had hiked as far as I thought was possible for me. I got out my eensie little hiking chair and sat facing the terraced hillsides. I did some people watching as I seemed to have chosen the best spot for 'selfies' in the country of Peru. I watched Americans, Japanese, Germans, Brits, Australians and of course Peruvians, taking photos of their own smiling faces. I didn't have the energy for a selfie!
Tourists were everywhere and I
sincerely wished I had the energy to join them
I was at the very cusp of a walkway down to the terraces and though I eyed tourists crossing them enviously I didn't go there. Woe was me!

I sat right by a structure the Peruvian Government had 'restored', adding a thatched roof. The government is restoring many structures of the ruins. No one really knows how the structures were thatched or what they may have been thatched with, i.e., straw, wood, what? I would have just left well enough alone myself, but that's just me.

I sat by a structure with a thatched roof
In the late afternoon, I returned to the square by the entrance and while there a little tropical butterfly that conveniently landed at my feet.

A little distraction
I decided I was done in after my afternoon of panting and roasting in sun, so I got on the line to the buses. It was Disneyland on grad night long, but it moved briskly. Soon I was stepping off the bus and into a blinding whiteness as my altitude sickness bleached my eyesight again. *sigh* I stumbled back uphill, and along the way saw one of only two Peruvian Orchids I've seen in Peru thus far. Earlier today I saw 2 such dogs race by, and this pink-togged pup was one of them. I had no trouble recognizing the pup in its stylish pink jammies.
Inca Orchid - the hairless dog of Peru
It took me more than an hour to trudge to the train station, but still, it would be dark by the time my train chugged out of the station 2 hours later. The train arrived back in the little departure town and again, my fellow tourists disappeared in a blink. As I headed for the exit I wondered what I would do if I missed the van back to Cusco. But when I got to the exit I saw there were dozens of tourist group leaders holding up signs to signal their passengers and I spotted 'Norma Miller' on one of the signs. Hurrah! My Hurrah turned to $#*@& when again, my group & tour guide, disappeared rapidly up the hill, leaving me panting in their dust. The cold mountain air had triggered my asthma. RATS! I slugged it uphill to discover the lady tour guide again. She escorted me to a huge bus which I climbed into. I promptly sat, falling into a lovely deep sleep.

I was jolted awake when the bus halted an hour later, and the bus driver yelled in broken English, "Senora! Los Niños Hotel!" I got off the bus, realizing the hotel's street was so narrow there was no way I could be dropped off at the hotel gate. So, off I drudged downhill, thankful it was and not uphill.

Then I freaked. I spotted a sign, "Los Los Niños Hotel" on the right side of the narrow street. Why did I freak? Because there are dos Hotels Los Niños in Cusco, and if this was mine, it would have been on the left side of the road. I was in serious danger of bursting into tears on that long dark street as I wondered how the hell I was going to make it to the correct hotel at 10PM when I had no clue where the hell I was... taxi?

"Senora!", a call echoed up the street. Hurrah! far downhill, on the left side of the street I saw the same hosteler waving at me from downhill. I was on the right street! I very nearly broke into a run as I tromped downhill, grinning like a jack-o-lantern, and profusely thanking him for keeping an eye open for me. Soon I was unlocking my hotel room door, where I took two big steps, and landed, WHOMP on my face on the floor. I'd forgotten there was a step just inside the dark room. Oh well. At least I was face down on the floor of my own damned room.

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