Monday, May 11, 2015

A DETOUR: Peru Travelogue (Part 2)

April 7, 2015 (Tuesday)

Breakfast started at 5:00 a.m.  I arrived about 5:05 a.m., and there was already a line of German and French tourists.


When our group was checking in to the Agustos Valle I made an offhand joke to the group and happened to make eye contact with a woman not in our group waiting to check in.  I smiled at her, thinking I was including her in on the joke, but I wrongly assumed she spoke English (this habitual misperception is, I hope, the worst trait I share with the stereotypical ugly American).  She thought I was speaking to her, and she asked me to repeat myself.  Her accent suggested she spoke German, so I repeated myself and apologized in German.  She was good-natured about my assumption, commenting that I had been talking to myself (which, as it turns out, I had been).


Upon seeing the long line I was initially alarmed that breakfast would drag out longer than planned (and was secretly grateful for my 4:30 a.m. alarm call), but the line moved quickly.  As it happened, the German and French tour groups had an earlier train to Aguas Calientes than we did.  More alarming, perhaps, was a note in the information packet sent by the travel bureau which mentioned offhandedly that if the representative didn’t meet us at the hotel in a timely fashion to simply take a taxi to the train station.  Our train tickets were for a specific train and specific seats, so any delay in our arrival at the station would have the potential to cause an unfortunate chain reaction.  After breakfast, while waiting for the arrival of the bus to the train station, John and I speculated as to how long we should wait before calling a cab.  The consensus was that if the bus didn’t show, we were screwed.

To our relief the bus arrived around 6:10 a.m.  It had picked up the rest of our group (the upgraders) first.  The Machu Picchu adventure had officially begun.  Diego was on board the bus, which came all the way from Cuzco by the looks of it – quite the schlep.  He would guide us to the train station.  Raquel would meet us at the bus to Machu Picchu.  Diego handed John and me the good-sized box lunches we ordered.  So I wouldn’t have to lug the box over the ruins, I spent the early part of the train ride secreting the components of my lunch into the various pockets of my raincoat – much to the amusement of fellow tour groupies, Brian and his wife, Nikki, who sat across from me.  They are part of the upgraded group, so I’ve seen little of them (until now) outside of the tour bus.  The two of them placed bets on which way I would list once I stood up from the train seat.  Brian and Nikki have lived in Phoenix since 1982 but are U.K. ex-patriots.  Brian also carries around a very expensive and professional-looking camera, which he snaps with enthusiasm.

A nice young Latin fellow was sitting with Brian, Nikki and me.  Because a total stranger didn’t want to face backward (and sit next to me) the nice Latin fellow separated himself from his wife across the aisle.  So his wife and I switched places (I sat next to the non-backward-facing grump of a woman).  It all worked out because the new seat had a great view as the train followed the Urubamba river, wending its way to Machu Picchu.

In Aguas Calientes we disembarked and met Raquel, who would guide us through the ruins.  The final leg to Machu Picchu was by bus as it wound its way like a drunken snake up into the mountains.


Here our group was joined by a young woman from New Jersey by way of Puerto Rico named Arelys.  She was a solo traveler whose agency would drop her into a tour group temporarily.  She was spending the night in Aguas Calientes so she could hike Wayna Picchu first thing the next morning.  She had to reserve a space over 3 months in advance because, like the Inca Trail, only 400 people are allowed on Wayna Picchu a day.  To give you a sense of the geography, there are the ruins of Machu Picchu bookended by Machu Picchu, the taller, older mountain, and Wayna Picchu, the shorter, younger mountain.  If you are in decent shape it takes about 1 hour to hike up Wayna Picchu and another hour to hike down.  You don’t need a reservation to climb Machu Picchu, because fewer people are inclined to do it.  That hike takes about 2 hours up and 2 hours back (if you’re in decent shape).  The postcard shot of Machu Picchu (the ruins) you’ve frequently seen was taken atop Machu Picchu (the mountain).


We arrived at Machu Picchu and, in true tourist fashion, had our passports stamped by an amenable Raquel.  We then climbed up a steep switchback to get to the ruins’ entrance.  The trail was slick from overnight and early morning rain.  At the entrance Raquel gave a history of Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of the ruins.  Most of the information I’d read recently.  I felt restless.  I wasn’t the only one.  John and Joy moved on ahead.  I probably should have, too, but it felt rude.  Silly, Midwestern me.  Dan (of Dan and Debbie from Chicago, who I haven’t mentioned previously because he was part of the upgraders) went off on his own (as he did before at Ollantaytambo).  Linda from Alabama (also an upgrader) followed after him.  The rest of us stayed for the spiel.


For our return trip we had a specific train to catch back to Urubamba, so we had to determine the absolute latest bus we could take to have ample time to make our train.  If forced to choose I would say Linda is the most notorious of our group for vanishing in a market.  We had to wait for her at Pisac.  My point for this digression is this:  Diego thought catching a 3:00 p.m. bus to Aguas Calientes would give us ample time to catch the train, which he relayed to the group at the train station in Urubamba.  However, during the tour Raquel, perhaps erring on the side of caution, suggested that, due to crowds, 2:00 or 2:30 p.m. (latest) would be better.  When Linda took off after Dan, she still thought 3:00 p.m. was the optimum time to depart for the train.


Machu Picchu cannot be adequately described, either in words or pictures, so I won’t even try.  You simply must see it for yourself.  It is awe-inspiring.

We broke for lunch at the end of the tour.  I had missed a fair amount of Raquel’s observations because I was taking pictures of Nancy or Sally or Doreen or Angie (the Asian contingent).  In fairness the favor was being returned.  I just would have been (and was) more selective.  Dan rejoined the group, but there was no sign of Linda.  Dan had passed her on the trail coming back, but, beyond that, nothing.  Dan spoke of seeing the Inca Bridge, so John, Joy, Brian, Nikki and I headed in that direction, knowing we wouldn’t make it that far but wanted to see what there was to see in the remaining time allotted.  Raquel had said her goodbyes.

The five of us made our way to where the Inca Trail comes out of the jungle.  John, Joy and I only hiked a short distance up the trail, as we would need to start back for the bus to Aguas Calientes soon.  Brian and Nikki decided against the trail (Nikki had a migraine) and headed back toward the entrance.  Once on the trail it felt a bit like being in the jungle, with more insects and dampness.  At the first break in the foliage there was another view, not as spectacular as Machu Picchu but nothing to sneeze at, and a small ranger station where Inca Trail hikers could sign their name and date of arrival.  After a brief rest we made our way back to the bus.  No sign of Linda, and there was some concern that she may not catch a bus until 3:00 p.m. and possibly miss the train.  So down the winding road to Aguas Calientes we went.  There we found Linda, and she, Dan, Debbie, Bonnie (the only member of our group I’ve failed to mention until now), Brian, Nikki, John, Joy and I stopped for a drink and snack while waiting for the train.  (It appears Raquel was over-cautious in her prediction of the line for the bus.)  Many opted for booze.  I stuck with coffee and dessert, because I wanted a drink for dinner.  The Asian contingent were off who knows where.  The restaurant was out of the dessert I wanted, so Linda and I went to the dessert table to choose another option.  I thought I had chosen a variety of mousse, but what I received was a cocoanut flan of some sort.  It was fine, and I ate it; but I’m still not sure what it was.

The train ride back was anti-climactic, but I was a little flattered when a stranger sitting next to me (across from me were Brian and Nikki) asked me if I spoke Spanish after I had requested coca tea fluently.  The woman spoke little English, was of Latin descent but lived in Germany near Dusseldorf.  Therefore, she spoke fluent Spanish and German, and our conversation with her, needless to say, was limited.  Our tour bus met us at the Urubamba train station, and there followed a 2-hour bus ride back to the hotel.  Getting my bag at the Polo Cuzco took a little longer than necessary (the porter seemed surly, but I tipped him nevertheless).  Once settled I wandered back up toward the Plaza de Armas to find a place for dinner.

I arrived at Aldea Yanapay a little after 9:00 p.m. for some late dining.  The restaurant is sustainable (according to Lonely Planet) and all their profits go to helping abandoned children.  As I walked up the steps to the entrance, I heard music being broadcast along with announcements in Spanish and English.  I hesitated because I feared they may be closed for a private party.  Hungry and curious I walked in anyway and was ushered to a table.  The décor was child-friendly, with stuffed animals all over (a large one was removed from my chair so I could sit) and board games lined a shelf along one wall.  The rest of the décor looked as if it had been chosen by an 8-year-old.  I had arrived Tuesday night, their regular charity game night, and they were in the midst of a game of bingo.  The announcer spoke both Spanish and English and had enlisted two tow-headed Anglo boys to announce each number.  You won a free drink for a completed row.  For a full black out, a free dinner was on offer.  There was a large table of Anglos and Latinos who were competing with good-natured enthusiasm.  The overall feeling was of a raucous family gathering (and, in a way, perhaps, it was).  I had a pisco sour (my new favorite drink) and a plate with curried tofu and chopped cashews and lentils covered with sautéed vegetables.  Everything was excellent.  Before I left they began a new game, a quiz of 25 questions played by 3 or 4 teams.  Since I was by myself, I opted not to join (though I was tempted).  Also, I was tired from the long day and needed to get back to the hotel before it got too late.  I am sorry I could not stay longer, and sorry that I would not be able to return here this trip.  But my next visit to Cusco will definitely include a return to Aldea Yanapay.

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