Thursday, May 21, 2015

Cusco and Getting to Machu Picchu

After our finding-the-airport adventure, we took a quick, uneventful flight to Cusco (where the flight attendants noted my affinity for Inca Kola and offered me seconds and then thirds).
A lot more pumped about going to Cusco than I am about this lighting!
We checked into our hotel and tried to get adjusted to the altitude. Some shots from the place where we stayed:

View from the balcony.
More balcony.
Outside our room.

Being that far up is no joke! I definitely underestimated how weak the lack of oxygen would make me feel. I got a pretty painful headache (and I rarely get headaches) and got really tired as well. So, I napped my way through most of our first day there. 

I did, however, get to try coca leaf tea for the first time!

I liked it a lot more than my face indicated.
That evening, which we spent sitting in the hotel lobby, chatting with other guests, I overheard the front desk clerk saying something to another guest about not being able to go to Machu Picchu on the train the following day (the exact same day we were scheduled to get there).

So, I immediately went up to the desk to ask what was going on. We were informed that there were scheduled protests the following day, and that the protesters target the railroad tracks to put a financial hurt on the tourism industry (since the train is the only way people can get to Aguas Calientes, which is the village next to Machu Picchu). Thus, we would have to visit the railroad company to reschedule our trip.

I immediately started panicking because we had already purchased our tickets to Machu Picchu. I had to jump through quite a few hoops to get the tickets, and they were nontransferable. Plus, from everything I had read in my guidebooks, tickets sell out months in advance. So, we couldn't have even eaten the cost and bought new tickets.

So we made our way down to the Peru Rail office in Cusco's city center and waited in line for what seemed like forever.

Finally, we were told by a clerk that the first half of the train trip (which is normally a four hour journey) would be closed by the protesters, and that if we wanted to get to Aguas Calientes we could "try out luck at getting a cab." We were also told that since the protesters often make fires and push boulders into the middle of the roads to block them, that we would have to leave at 4 am to beat them.

I didn't even think there were roads that cars could go on to get to Aguas Calientes. I thought it was nothing but hiking trails up the mountains and train tracks.

We felt defeated and went back to the front desk, asking the front desk person to call us a 4 am cab.

When 4 am rolled around, our cab never showed up. Luckily, there was a family of three from Canada who had also ordered a cab. We begged them to let us go with them and that we'd pay half the fare. They reluctantly agreed, so I got in front, and the three of them and Keith piled in the back.

Immediately as we got out of Cusco, the driver got onto a "road" (and I definitely use that term loosely) that resembled a mix of a narrow, dirt path and a muddy rock pit.

Oh, and did I mention that it went straight up? Because, it did.

It also had no guardrail, which I would think is kind of crucial when traveling at nearly 90 degrees straight up the Andes Mountains. Apparently not though.

I'm just glad it was dark because I couldn't see how far the cab would have plummeted if we were to go off the "road."

Honestly, this was like something out of Ice Road Truckers (sans the ice, of course).

Now might also be a good time to mention that the entire thing was muddy. At one point, I was convinced we were going to get stuck in the mud and that we all would have had to get out and push.

At another point, the cab driver stopped the car and got out. I asked him what was going on, to which he replied that he was "looking for the road" (apparently, this thing was so muddy and undefined, it was hard to tell what was road and what was us about to fall off the mountain).

And at yet another point, when we approached a gathering of a few houses, our driver got out of the car as these stereotypical Sopranos-looking guys got out of their cars (which were blocking the road) to have a chat with our driver.

Our driver looked scared, which prompted me to be scared. Since I was the only one who spoke Spanish, I asked if everything was okay. He nodded.

I translated to the Canadian family and Keith and just said, "he says everything is okay, so let's just go with that."

I asked him if he had taken this trip a lot before, and he said yes.

It was at this point I seriously questioned my Spanish abilities because I couldn't believe another car had been on this road in the last year.

After several very nerve-wracking hours, we finally pulled into Estacion Ollantaytambo!

And we were in luck as there was a train leaving right as we got to the station! So, we quickly traded our tickets, ran, and got on.

So relieved!

We ended up sitting next to two ex-pats who currently live in Cusco (one from Canada and one from the U.S.). The one was vegan, too, so we had a nice little chat about all the recent advancements in soy cheese.

Some views from the train:

After a couple hour ride to Aguas Calientes, we finally made it!

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