You know that feeling you get when you see a celebrity in real life? It kind of just doesn’t seem real. They look everything like you knew they would but for some reason the real-life version of them just exudes perfection and it feels like, if you were to reach out and touch them, they’d disappear or your hand would fall through them like a ghost. That is how it felt when I stood above Machu Picchu looking down on the ruins. There it was, laid out in front of me. So perfect. I’d take a picture and the picture was perfect. It was really hard to catch my brain up to the moment I was in. This was indeed real life and here I was standing on and in and surrounded by an ancient world wonder. I’m pretty sure I teared up. I can say this now that I am back home and done with my trip – this was the moment that it all sank in that I had followed my dream to go to Peru. I had made it happen. I was really here and I could not have been happier, prouder, or more alive than I was in this moment.
Once I had accepted the reality that I was in fact standing amidst the world-famous ruins of Machu Picchu, I started to explore. I decided to save the actual ruins for the end and instead opted for any and all of the hikes I could access without an additional ticket (Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu Mountain would have to wait until my next visit). So, I explored the Inca Bridge and the Sun Temple. I opted to go without a guide and so much of my exploring was completely blind, having no idea what trail led where. The Sun Temple hike was fairly interesting. I climbed for over an hour up a very steep hill having no idea when or if I’d ever arrive anywhere. At one point, I thought I might be hiking the Inca Trail backwards and would wind up in Cusco in about four days time. It wasn’t until I reached the top that I actually knew I had arrived at the Sun Temple or that there even was such a thing as a Sun Temple.
The combination of my two-days hike in the Colca Canyon and the hilly streets of Cusco had left my leg muscles screaming as I pushed them up and down ever-steeper hills all over Machu Picchu all day long. When I did make it down to the heart of the ruins, I rounded every corner and followed every guiding arrow I came across, having absolutely no idea the significance of each room and courtyard I passed through. One thing I did know was that it was beautiful and the fact that these blocks of perfectly placed and packed stone had withstood the test of time and invasion was all I really needed to know anyway. I’m pretty sure I ended up in areas that I wasn’t supposed to be climbing. Oops. I blame the maze of twists and turns that are the ruins. It was amazing finding myself in pockets where I truly had the space to myself. Not another person in sight. Not a man-made sound to be heard. These moments I will never forget.
The weather was perfect. The train ride into Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo had been rainy but only a slight drizzle remained upon arrival at the ruins and sun prevailed later. The lighting was actually great for photos. The overcast conditions left no shadows. And the wispy clouds that hung over the surrounding mountains only added to the already epic scene. Now, let me at least spend a sentence on the mosquitoes because they were most certainly an ever-present companion throughout my exploration. My ankles were eaten alive. Moral of the story: bring bug spray to Machu Picchu.
When I’d seen enough and my stomach started grumbling for lunch, I decided it was time to take the bus back down to Aguas Calientes where I’d be spending the night. I had a hostel booked so step one was finding it and dropping my bag off. This is where the story gets interesting.
Unlike my hostel in Ollantaytambo, my hostel in Aguas Calientes actually had an address that was on a map so I found it fairly easily. Only problem was, the door was locked and covered in signs that I’m pretty sure I was translating correctly to mean, this hostel is closed. I hadn’t checked my email in a few days. Maybe they had warned me they were shutting down? Regardless, this was an unexpected turn of events and here I was tired, hungry, weighed down by my overstuffed day pack, and without a clue as to whether I’d have a place to lay my head this evening. So, I started walking away. A parade of costumed and masked dancers blocked the road ahead so I decided to wait it out and consult my guidebook for some hostel alternatives while they passed.
While I was searching for the Aguas Calientes section of my book, a woman I’d never seen before was coming my way calling my name. Cue confusion until I glanced at her shirt to see the the name of my would-be hostel like a long lost friend patched onto her shirt pocket. She explained to me that she was indeed from EcoPackers Hostel and that she had seen me knock on the door. She said the government had recently shut them down for reasons I couldn’t quite make out through her accent. But the most important part was that they had a room for me in a hotel on the other side of town and that I would only have to pay what I would have at EcoPackers. She walked me to it as soon as we walked through the hotel’s doors, I realized that I had gotten very lucky indeed. The hotel was top-notch and my room was gorgeous! There were three beds and I was told others may straggle in throughout the day. They didn’t. So, I ended up having an incredibly, luxurious room for the price of a dorm room at a hostel all to myself. Can we call this “luck of the Incas”?
Now that I had a home for the evening, I could relax and explore the quaint, little town of Aguas Calientes, nestled between mountains, cut by a rushing river, and in the shadow of glorious Machu Picchu. I ate lunch at a pizza place, Chez Maggi, recommended by my guidebook and was quickly joined by the most adorable cat. It was a stray from the streets but it was just too cute to shoo away, as I know my doctor would have preferred. It curled up on the bench next to me, practically in my lap. While I ate, it slept. I swear, I don’t think loneliness exists in Peru. Every time I seemed to have found it, someone or, in this case, some creature would walk into the scene to chase it away. This little kitty was just the companion I needed for this moment. The duration of one meal was all the time I needed to grow attached and contemplate taking her home with me. She’d fit in my backpack, I think 😉
After lunch, I explored the local market, bartered for the mug that would forever represent my Peruvian adventure (I collect mugs), and before I knew it darkness had fallen over the town and a shower was in order. Then more food, why not?!
I wandered into a a restaurant I had spied earlier in the day for dinner. The promise of local artisanal beers is what truly drew me in but the roaring fire in the center was a nice touch as well. I may have showed up alone but by the end of my meal I was deep in conversation with the table of Canadians next to me. They were on a family vacation, off to Brazil next. Like I said before, never alone…
As I exited the restaurant, yet another crazy, costumed celebration was parading down the street. Next thing I know, I’m being pulled into the mass of paraders and am flanked on both sides by white-masked men dancing some jig that I awkwardly tried to replicate (because what other choice did I have? They weren’t letting me go back to the sidelines). What a crazy, unexpected and unforgettable experience. A perfect capture of the trip as a whole. Nothing was what I could ever have imagined. It was better.
I went to bed smiling this night. It was a good day.