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South America

Peru: Machu Picchu

The alarm went off at 5:30AM but I had no problem getting out of bed. First off, it was my birthday, and unlike many others, I LOVE birthdays. It's a day of celebration. Probably because I love them so much, I find that I actually have a large capacity for remembering them, and Facebook often picks up where I left off. Birthdays remind me to be grateful. On a loved one's birthday I think of the good times that we've shared and the qualities that I admire about them.

The second reason it was so easy to get out of bed was that we were about to visit Machu Picchu, the ancient city of wonder. If that's not enough to get you out of bed, I'm not sure what is.

After a good morning kiss and a "happy birthday" from Kyle and Gaia, we made our way upstairs for breakfast. Breakfast consisted of the usual: bread (Gaia once asked if all of Peru had the same bread recipe,) instant coffee, and fresh juice. We stuffed some cacao leaves in our pockets and walked down to catch the bus. 

Crossing the bridge, we were surprised to see how long the line for the bus was at 7am (first bus leaves at 5:30). It wasn't even busy season yet and it still snaked its way up the street. A few of our fellow Canadian travelers from the hostel who had helped us open a bottle of wine with a shoe the night before had informed us that the line moves quickly, so we didn't allow the length to disappoint us. True enough, we were in line for hardly 15 minutes before we found ourselves inside the bus with more excited tourists.

The drive up to Machu Picchu was stunning. The Aussie beside me and I joked that if that was the only thing we saw that day, we would walk away happy. The bus zig-zagged its way up a series of switchbacks perhaps a bit faster than I would have liked. Flowers of every colour were sprinkled along the banks of the drive. The forest was lush and dreamy- so green and full of life. Soft clouds hung in the air, breaking to reveal the most mystical mountains.

Walking up to the office we flashed our tickets and entered the enclosure. We followed the path until we came around the corner and there she was in all her grandeur. It was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined.

When I had originally purchased our tickets online I had also purchased entrance to Waynapicchu. Of the two time slots (7am&10am) I had chosen 10am as our entrance time in order to give us time to leisurely explore Machu Picchu in the early morning. Despite the fact that you're not supposed to bring food inside the gates, nobody checks the packs. We definitely brought a lunch in and had the most amazing lunch break sitting on a tenderly cared for patch of grass within the ancient city. With lunch out of the way, we made our way to the gate for Waynapicchu which was at the very back of the grounds.

Arriving at the gate for Waynapicchu we realized in utter disappointment that the only bathroom was at the entrance for Machu Picchu so back we went. The sun was scorching hot and we had a lot of ground to cover. I worried that we would wear ourselves out before our big climb. You only have an hour to enter from your chosen time (so we had from 10- 11am) and I also feared we wouldn't make it back in time. Luckily we did it with mere minutes to spare. It was now almost 11am and we only had until 1pm to do the entire hike. We slowly started down the footpath until we reached the carefully constructed staircase.

So I'm not trying to scare you off, but the staircase is not for the faint of heart. I had asked a couple of young American travelers who had visited it a few days before if there were any dangerous sections for children but they clearly do not have children since they answered "no". The beginning part consists of ridiculously tall steps. I have no idea how Gaia clambered up them considering the steps were a stretch for me and I easily have a foot on her.

Between the sections of steps hugging the mountain, there are small stretches of dirt trails. Thankfully, the trail was built in such a way that we were completely sheltered from the intense sun. Gaia raced ahead of us, excited and proud. Of course, we never let her get too far ahead. After many micro-breaks to catch our breath we reached the upper section which was completely exposed. Kyle and I exchanged amused looks and we took a slightly longer break before the final push. 

And good thing we did. The final staircases were completely different from all previous sets. Instead of massive steps these stairs were hardly the width of my hips, and shallow enough for only Gaia's feet. Kyle's size 13's hung off the edge to the point where him and I both had to walk with our feet parallel to the stairs. To compensate for that, the stairs were finally of reasonable height. Unfortunately, that didn't really matter considering that for one stretch there was absolutely nothing on one side but a drop into the abyss. No joke, we crawled up this section and I made every effort to only look ahead. Gaia lead, with Kyle carefully treading behind her, and me bringing up the rear. By this time the heat had started getting to me, and my fear of heights was peaked. I dared not look at anything but the stair ahead until we finally reached the top. We have no photographic proof of this section since I was holding onto the Earth for dear life.

Coming over the last stair we were greeted with a round of applause and some hoots and hollers. Many of the people relaxing at the top had either passed us or heard of the 6 year old slowly making her way up the mountain. Our time at the top was limited, shortly after summiting a ranger walked around warning everyone it was time to descend. We used the opportunity of flat land for a good photo op and then continued around the mountain and back down the trail. The ranger kept warning us to be careful and take our time. When we finally reached a relatively safe stretch we followed her wishes and stopped coddling her. Of course we hadn't taken into consideration that this "safe stretch" though not adorned with dangerous cliffs and sun exposure, had a hidden danger. The trees had given it so much shelter that it was still damp from the previous night's rain. Gaia jumped from one huge stair to the next, didn't land on her feet and ended up rolling down a couple of stairs to the ranger's feet. He swept her up and handed her to us. She briefly sat whimpering and then stood up with confidence and we continued down the trail uneventfully.

Reaching the main grounds, we explored a bit more and then made it back to the entrance for an overpriced iced coffee (after all it was my birthday) at the gate. Once again there was a massive line for the bus back into town but we didn't have to wait long before we were making our way back to Aguas Calientes for a delicious birthday dinner at Indio Feliz. It's tucked in some backstreet like all of the best restaurants, so you may need to ask someone on how to find it but I promise it won't disappoint. We went all out with a 3 course meal and a couple of tall beers. We walked away with our desserts in hand because otherwise we would have rolled away.

The night before we had eaten at a restaurant on the main strip and had been so utterly disappointed. Walking inside the restaurant the smell was a little off-putting but we decided to give it a chance. The food was so salty I couldn't even tolerate it, and the menu pricing was ridiculous. Afterwards we walked over to La Boulangerie De Paris for some dessert to console ourselves. The owner was kind and struck a conversation up with everyone in the restaurant. He took a shine to Gaia and offered to make her a boxed lunch on the house for Machu Picchu to be picked up the morning of. So in the morning we returned to purchase our own lunches and pick up one for her, and low and behold, he had organized a lunch for her complete with a custom made sandwich, juice, a boiled egg, a chocolate, and a muffin. I can't say enough good things about La Boulangerie De Paris. Our sandwiches were also incredibly tasty.

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All of the reviews that I had read about Aguas Calientes had been fairly negative but I actually found the town to be fairly enchanting. We only used the town as a base to Machu Picchu in order to reach the ruins earlier (the other option is to catch the train very early in the morning from Ollantaytambo) and most of our time was spent eating or touring around, but it's hard to ignore the magical setting. Tucked between a lush forest brimming with flowers and unique mountain tops, the landscape alone was enough to draw you in. It was also a place for Gaia to make friends. Up until this point Gaia had been shy to talk to children due to the language difference. The night before climbing Machu Picchu and Waynapicchu when walking back to our hotel, we had passed a trio of 6-8 year old children playing pass with a balloon on the streets. Gaia originally passed by them and then looked at me and said, "mum, I want to play too." Kyle and I encouraged her to ask them to play, and then the 4 children ended up playing pass while Kyle and I sat on a bench and watched. It was so beautiful to see that the children could play so nicely despite the language barrier and laughter rang throughout the streets. After a while the balloon popped and we made our way back to prepare for our next adventure.

BY THE NUMBERS:

What to Bring to Machu Picchu:

  • waterbottle
  • snacks (you aren't allowed food on the grounds but there is a place to check your bags at the gate and then you don't have to pay the ridiculous restaurant prices)
  • sunscreen and bug repellant
  • a map of the grounds (it would have helped us realize that there was only one bathroom)
  • your tickets which you purchased well in advance since you're so organized
  • Peruvian Soles and/or American Dollars
  • a waterproof jacket or poncho
  • walking sticks wouldn't hurt if attempting Huaynapicchu or Montaña Machupicchu but aren't necessary
  • passport (you need this for identification to enter)

Make sure to spend at the very minimum one day in Cusco/ Ollantaytambo/ Aguas Calientes to acclimitize. Machu Picchu sits around 8,000 ft and any of the various climbs surrounding surpass that. For added security you could use a prescription to help reduce the symptoms of altitude sickness but we chose not to. Tickets MUST be purchased in advance. We bought our train tickets (Ollantaytambo- Aguas Calientes) 3 months in advance and our Machu Picchu/ Waynapicchu tickets 6 months in advance. At the time of writing, children under 8 do not have to pay to enter the grounds, and therefore do not need a ticket. We purchased our bus tickets the day of visiting, I am unaware as to whether you can purchase them ahead of time or not. You may also hike from the town of Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu but I'm going to suggest saving your energy for the beautiful MP. The bus ride is steep (24USD/adult, 12USD/child) for a short ride, but that gives you more time for the grounds themselves. As of July 2017 they have changed the rules that when visiting Machu Picchu you now must be accompanied by a licensed tour guide. Entrance tickets are for half day tours with two seperate tour times (6am-12pm) or (12pm-530pm). Waynapicchu only allows 400 people up a day with 2 seperate entrance times (7am-8am) (10am-11am). There also is the possibility to hike Montaña Machupicchu. Tickets to Montaña Machupicchu also need to be purchased in advance limited to 400/day entrance times of (7am-8am) or (9am-10am).

Another option for visiting Machu Picchu is via the Inca Trail. Perhaps one year when Gaia is older we will do the trek and write about it.

Random facts:

  • While built sometime in the 15th century, Machu Picchu wasn't discovered until 1911.
  • It was declared a Peruvian Historic Sanctuary in 1981.
  • There were no clashes between the Incas and the Spanish conquistadors at Machu Picchu since the Spanish never found the city. This aided in its preservation.
  • WaynaPicchu is believed to have been the residence of the high priest and local virgins.
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For the record,

That peak in the back is Waynapicchu otherwise known as Huayna Picchu.