On day three, we are not so much in wilderness anymore: large parts of the day are spent hiking past small villages and road construction. After lunch we actually get piled into a van for part of the trip, on the way to some hot springs, and our eventual destination — a campsite outside the town of Santa Teresa.
Everybody is pretty excited about the hot springs, if not for any other reason than it’s our first chance for a shower since we started the trek. The Californians seem to be having a little bit of an argument. “I don’t think you should bring the crystals to the hot spring,” is the only part I catch.
The hot springs are a welcome break from hiking, and the view can’t be beat, nestled between mountain peaks. The late afternoon shadows made it hard to capture the contrast between the setting sun on the peaks and the shadows in the pool, but you’ll get the idea.
After the hot springs, there’s a bonfire and party with a bunch of other groups that are making the trek. It’s fantastic. My photos from this, sadly, were on my phone and got deleted before I could save them.
Just as things are starting up, we are all gathered around the bonfire, and the music gets up. A fairly attractive female starts gyrating at the fire and immediately makes a beeline towards me. This is terrible. For one, it’s way too early in the night for such a thing, and two, I had noticed her previously. She’s hiking with one of those guys who is either her father or her boyfriend, and regardless of which it is, it’s kind of tough to engage in the sort of provocative choreography she so clearly was looking for in front of that dude, especially when you haven’t had enough Cusquena to make you stop caring about such things yet. Later she ends up making up with somebody else behind a tree over by the tents.
The party is just a great time though. Our guide gets thoroughly wrecked and is having a great time dancing. We’ve got people climbing up on rocks, dancing and singing and having a blast. Eventually we all crash, drunk and exhausted.
The next morning starts off with a good laugh. It is the birthday of an unnamed male member of our expedition, and the cooks have made a cake for him. We gather almost all the crew together — except for an unnamed female — who cannot be found, for a surprise wake-up edition of Happy Birthday. The joke is really on us though, when the tent opens and the heretofore missing unnamed female is unexpectedly in the tent with the birthday boy.
(For the record, my birthday is in March, and this was May, so to answer your question, no.)
The day itself is really spent hiking along train tracks to reach Aguas Calientes. There’s not a lot of variation in the terrain, but there is some excitement when we look up and realize we can see the edge of the ruins high atop a nearby mountain.
Not all marvels are ancient. There’s also the hidroelectrico, a massive waterworks partially carved into the mountains.
By late afternoon the trek is really over. We’ve reached Aguas Calientes, which fits the dictionary definition of town, even if it’s a ramshackle sort of place that only exists to give people a place to stay before they get up at 5a.m. to hoof it up to the ruins. But we are staying in real beds, so who can complain.
The hike up the stairs to Machu Picchu is a hell of a slog. It seems way worse than any of the final ascents in Patagonia, or even final stretch toward the Salkantay pass, probably because it is stairs all the way up, and you can’t really take any baby steps, plus the people behind you keep coming, so it’s hard to take a break. It is also almost totally dark, except for my headlamp. But the payoff is that we reach the top just before the first tour bus drops the slackers off. And as it turns out, if one person in your group is in line, anybody who is up there when then gates open can go in at the same time, so thanks to some of the younger and more intrepid Team Toto members, I’m one of the first 50 people into Machu Picchu that morning.
For something that’s photographed so often, Machu Picchu really is worth seeing in person. The photos never really capture the way the ruins are nestled in the jagged green surrounding mountains, and certainly never show the snow capped peaks further in the distance. And below, the Urubamba winds its way through the valley floor.
The ruins themselves are also fascinating, even if nobody is really sure what their purpose was. The masonry is famous for how seamlessly the rocks fit together, and this is really impressive to see in person.
At the ruins there’s two mountains you can climb. The more popular one is Huayana Picchu, which is the mountain that you see in the typical postcard shot of MP, right behind the ruins. It’s an hour up and is very steep. The other option is Macchu Picchu Mountain, which is a little less steep, but is two hours up. The Huayana Picchu tickets had sold out by the time I had made my plans, so this was my only option. If I had been buying day of, I probably would have skipped it altogether, but Luc, the Irish girls, and the Canadians were all going up, so I was going with them.
Unlike the initial climb up to the ruins, the sun is beating down on me constantly and there’s no shade anywhere. I get to the top but I am completely miserable and dehydrated by this point and barely can enjoy it. I stick around for a bit to catch my breath and head back down.
I got down the mountain, decided I’d seen enough of the ruins, nearly created some new ruins in the visitor center bathroom, and stumbled down the stairs back to town where I bought up all the Gatorade I could find, rehydrated, took a nap, and finally wandered back to the town square to meet up with the rest of Team Toto for post-trek drinks.
By evening it’s time to catch the train back, and we are all feeling in pretty high spirits. We continue drinking on the train, and there’s talk of keeping the party going all night at the Cusco nightclubs
As so often happens, the pre-party gets a little too aggressive and becomes the only party, and everybody crashes upon returning to Cusco. That’s it for me and Team Toto — in the morning, I’m off to Lima to meet Shannon.