There is no easy way to get to Machu Picchu. Even if you spring for the $230 per person package that gets you there by train, you have to get up at like three in the morning and will still spend most of the day commuting. We chose a three day package by car (actually a large van), which involved two full days of transport. It’s a six hour van ride to the end of the road at a hydro-electric station, then another two to three hour walk from there to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is not accessible by car.
The drive was hard because we were in the very back of the van where it is bumpiest, and both Eva and I started feeling carsick. We came down out of the mountains were back in the jungle and then it got really hot. At one point we came up to a bridge over a torrential river, only to find that the bridge had several sections missing, and that we would have to wait three hours for it to be fixed.
Thankfully, our driver managed to find a different route, perilous though it turned out to be. We almost got stuck several times, and the road was so narrow and the turns so tight that one point we had to do a multi-point turnaround with the tail end of the van hanging out over the ravine. This detour cost us at least an hour, and by the time we got to the drop off point, it was already late afternoon.
We could have taken the train from the hydroelectric station, but I thought a walk would be good for us, and it was through such pretty country, with towering peaks all around us and the Urubamba River rushing past. It was a beautiful walk, but morale was decidedly low. We had two small backpacks stuffed with all our clothes, plus Lila, which meant the older girls had to trade off carrying the second backpack. This was a travesty beyond comprehension in their world. The squabbling over when it was time for them to switch got worse, and our pace was glacial. Eventually I took up the extra backpack, wearing it on my front.
The pitch was gentle, but there wasn’t really a trail in many places. Just the gravel on the side of the tracks, or the tracks themselves. Alone, I could have made the hike in under two hours, I’m sure, but at the pace we were going, I began to get concerned that we wouldn’t make it before dark. Eventually we came to a train stop where there were some restaurants and small wooden signs indicating that we had come seven kilometers and still had four more to go. This was not good, since it had already been over two hours. I didn’t know what time it was, but the sun was long behind the mountain and the early dimming of twilight was upon us.
We had no flashlights. We would make it though, I was sure. Just barely, but we would.
It was over an hour later when we came to the first tunnel. It was still light outside, but in the tunnel was total darkness. I told Lila that we would have to turn on our Jedi vision, and she spoke of this all the way through. In truth, not even my Jedi vision (using what little light there is to generate a rough picture – useful on a trail at night) worked in that darkness. It was all about stepping carefully and keeping the dot of light straight ahead.
We came to a second tunnel, and by the time we got out of it, it was getting quite dark. Fortunately, we could see the lights of Aguas Calientes ahead. We were all tired of walking and we had no idea how to find our hotel. All we had was the name, and we had been told that Aguas Calientes is small and we would have no trouble finding it, but walking in, we realized it wasn't a just a one street town.
Our tour package included the hotel and meals for the first day, though the lunch we ate on the way in (at a small town called Santa Teresa) consisted of fries, rice, and pasta. I gathered it was not an Ayurvedic establishment. We hoped dinner would be a bit more substantial. I hoped that we would make it to dinner at all. It had to be past seven, and we still had to get our bus tickets up to Machu Picchu. Even though there are no roads going into Aguas Calientes, there is a whole fleet of buses that ferries tourists up each day. (They must have brought them in on the trains.) The other option for getting to Machu Picchu is to take a set of stairs that goes straight up the mountain, leaving at four thirty in the morning.
I had planned on buying the way overpriced bus tickets, knowing that the girls would never be able to do the climb. I only bought one way tickets for half price, figuring they could surely make it down. But I had to buy them that night, as I was told that the lines in the morning were out of control.
By the time I got back from buying tickets, the girls had found ice cream, and of course they wanted it. I suggested that we wait until after dinner, concerned that we would miss the dinner that we had already paid for.
“It’s only seven,” Laura told me. “We’ll be fine.”
I didn’t agree, and I fumed a bit as they all ordered double scoops and then walked very slowly as they ate them. After asking many people and following a false lead to the wrong side of town, we eventually found the hotel and checked in. When I asked about the dinner, the man told me we were twenty minutes too late.
Later on I gave Laura some crap about it, but at the moment, I resisted rubbing it in. Instead we dropped off our stuff and went to find a restaurant. There was no shortage. Aguas Calientes is even more of a tourist town than Cusco, and about every third building was a restaurant. And like in Cusco, they have hawkers out in the streets trying to bring you in.
We went across the street and found the prices to be decent, though we had been told they were exorbitant. We were out of water, and rather than going to a corner store to buy some, I ordered three bottles from the waiter.
The food was okay, but I was appalled when we got the bill. Not only did they charge us three dollars per water bottle (half liters), they tacked on an 18% gratuity and a 10% tax of some kind. Combined with the waters, this made what was supposed to be a twenty two dollar meal cost more than forty. I think this might have been the point that I started griping about missing our dinner because of ice cream.
Even with bus tickets, we had to wake up at 4:30 the next morning. The bus ran at 5:30, and we were told to get there thirty minutes early because of the lines. We were shocked by how long the line for the buses was, even as early as we arrived. It was past six when we finally got on the bus, but the trip up the mountain was short. It started raining as soon as we arrived at the entrance to Machu Picchu, and the crowds were immense. Fortunately, it’s a massive site, and one inside the gates, the crowds dispersed well enough to be able to move about and see.
Machu Picchu is an incredible place. It’s everything it’s cracked up to be, and more. It was hard to imagine that somebody went to so much trouble to build such a place. I’ve built stone walls before, and it’s slow, cumbersome work. Surrounding Machu Picchu are hundreds of steep stone terraces, all along the top of a large peak that’s over a thousand feet over the valley floor. And the buildings! What an awesome town it must have been.
We had a guide who spoke English, and he gave lengthy explanations of everything. He told us that Machu Picchu is 80% original, with only minor restorations having been made. It was not an ordinary town, but something more like a university, where elite students and priests came to learn about astronomy and other sciences. It was deliberate put in such a remote place to guard the secrets that were known to the Incan culture. I had always believed that Machu Picchu was far older than the Incas, who found it and used it for themselves, but the guide claimed that they built it themselves, as late as the 1450s. Having done little research on this matter, I can’t really say, but like Sacsayhuaman, just the sight of such a place stirs up images of a culture far more sophisticated than our own.
It took us two hours to get through the tour, and then we stayed another hour and a half to walk around ourselves. The weather cleared and it actually got quite warm. I took tons of pictures, feeling like every angle from which I looked out was a postcard view.
I wish we could have stayed longer, but the girls complained constantly, demanding snacks every five minutes and griping about having to walk. Even they could recognize the majesty and power of such a place, but this only dawned on them between their bouts of petulant whining.
The hike down was not as easy as I’d hoped. The stairs were all made from uncut stones, and they varied in height and width. Plus, I had to carry both Lila and the daypack, and the extra weight began to register on my legs. It took us over an hour to get to the bottom, and then we still had a bit of walk back to town. Before we made it back to town, the sky opened up. Not just a little drizzle, but a veritable downpour. We all had raincoats, but our legs got soaked. When we got back to the hotel, Laura was not in good spirits. She wasn’t sick anymore, but she was exhausted from two days of hiking. I was tired, but when the rain let up a bit, I went out for a walk around the town, as I tend to do.
The girls really wanted to go to the hot springs, so we put on our bathing suits with clothes and rain coats over them and started out. They were supposed to be close, but we hiked some ways before finding the entrance, and even after the entrance, we had several hundred meters to walk, up a hill. The elevation there was only about half of Cusco, but it was still noticeable, and, as always, I had Lila on my back. The rain picked up again too.
The hot springs were less crowded than the ones at Baños, but none of them were very hot. It was almost unpleasant to get into the coolest of them. A tease. Only one pool was even acceptably warm, but it was too deep for Lila to stand, and she didn’t want me to hold her. I let her sit on the steps, but people came and went frequently, and I kept having to pick her up.
Eventually we discovered some spouts that pour out water directly from the source of the springs, which is the hottest water at the whole place. It wasn’t really all that hot even (maybe 100° F) but it did feel nice. Once we discovered this, we spent the rest of the time under these spouts, occasionally going to the cold water spouts for contrast. It was already dark by the time we decided to leave.
Getting dressed again was a huge hassle. I had to dress Lila in a tiny dressing room with little space and wet floors, and we somehow managed to forget our only towel. Plus, the pants we were all putting back on were wet.
When we got back to the hotel, everyone was tired and not in the best of moods. They all wanted to take the train back, but I resisted the idea, preferring to use the energy our legs rather than drawing on the stored up energy of our bank account. I suppose it doesn’t cast me in the most favorable of light amongst my crew, but I believe strongly in the notion of building character through hard work and outright struggle, and I feel that sometimes my girls, for all their exuberance and energy, are downright lazy, much preferring to take the easy way out than to have to struggle and work hard for something. In my book, the best cure for this kind of mentality is a hard trek through the mountains or across the desert.
When I woke up early the next morning, my heart had softened. I suppose the soreness of my legs also had something to do with it. Or perhaps I was just so sick of hearing everybody whine and complain that I took the easy way out. Before everyone else woke up, I walked to the train station and bought us tickets, lamenting the deficit spending, but relishing the thought of surprising the girls.
Upon returning to the room, I placed the tickets on the bedside table next to my still sleeping wife. I then took up my book, the final installment of the Conqueror series, by Conn Iggulden, about the Kahn dynasty. I have recently taken great interest in the stories of the Mongol Hordes, particularly in the lives of Genghis, Ogedai, Mongke, and Kublai Kahn, and Iggulden is a genius author of historical fiction.
When Laura awoke, it was clear to me from her reaction that she soon found the tickets. She came over and smothered me with kisses, thanking me. When Gaia woke up, Laura announced that we would be taking the train, just as all three girls had begged to do the day before. Gaia was so excited that she tried to wake Eva to tell her of this news. Thus began the greatest drama that we have ever seen in our family, and that, I must admit, is really saying something. I don’t know how it got so out of hand, as I went out to take our wet clothes to a lavanderia for them to be dried, but when I returned, Eva was in the corner, banished from the company of all the rest for her vitriolic words and malevolent behavior.
With the train to speed our expedition along, we had now more time, so we decided to go out for a leisurely breakfast. When I asked Eva to come along, she glowered as if she wished for my slow death, and she refused to cooperate. When she wouldn’t put on her shoes, even after all the cajoling I could muster, I eventually figured her hunger would speak louder than my threats, and I announced that we would go without her. I told her as much, adding that she was on her own for breakfast.
We left the room and went down the street to find some food. Eventually she stalked by, stopping when she saw us, but not coming in. She simply sat outside while we ordered. After a time she came in, still fuming. “Give me my money,” she demanded, sounding not unlike Tatum O’Neil in Paper Moon. Since she had no Coney Island to eat, I simply reminded her that she ought to use her manners. An apology was the only way she could regain our company, but she wouldn’t have it. She had her mind made up. She was done with our family, and wanted the sixty-three dollars she had left over from Christmas. Owing to the numerous instances of the girls losing the cash they are given for birthdays and Christmas, we now keep their money on deposit, which also gives us veto power on their purchases, including but not limited to running away and trying to make it on their own while traveling through South America.
I explained to Eva that we could not let her run away, regardless of whether or not she had some money. “If I thought it would do you any good, I would happily set you loose to figure the economics out for yourself,” I told her. “You have enough for maybe two days. No more. What then?” She didn’t know, or care. Analysis of the long term is difficult in the fog of smoldering pre-teen fury.
I reiterated my case. “I don’t have any problem with you going out on your own and learning the hard way that you can’t make it, but it would be foolish of me to turn you loose. We’re in a foreign country, and in an isolated valley, deep in the jungle. If you were to try to do anything on your own, the authorities would be notified and it would be quickly traced back to us. We would then be held liable. I am not willing to go to jail for your temper tantrum.”
She would have nothing of this, and she stormed out again. Laura went after her, to make sure she did not go too far. It was some time before they returned, Eva being dragged and Laura looking exasperated. “Do something,” she said to me. I noticed her hand, which was all torn up.
“What happened to your hand?” I asked.
I stood. “All right Eva. Come with me.”
At first she did not, but then she heeded my warning that I would carry her out if she did not come willingly. Fortunately, she knew better than to initiate violence against me. The topic of coercion and parenting is a deep rabbit hole of anarchist philosophy, which I intend to cover in a future article. Freewill and self determination are our birthright, but we do not come into full possession of them until we have achieved a certain level of self-reliance, and I do not accept the notion that children can simply do whatever they fancy based on the principles of self-ownership. If I am traveling with my children in a foreign country and I say it’s time to get on the train, then they are coming on the train, regardless of whether or not they want to.
Fortunately, no force was needed. I took Eva with me to collect the laundry, and then took her to a small park where we sat, her crying and refusing to come close to me, while I explained my position as clearly as I could. It took some time, but eventually we reached a compromise, which involved she and I spending the rest of the morning apart from the others, only to meet right before we were to board the train. She was mostly mad at her mother, for reasons unknown to me.
“It’s like we were enemies in a past life,” she lamented. “And now I have to live with the person who I hate the most!”
“That’s exactly what it is,” I said. “I expect. I’m telling you Eva, you better work out your problems with your mother and your sister now, in this lifetime, because if you don’t, it’s only going to be worse the next time around. There is no escaping your karma.”
I took her to get some food, and since she and Gaia had been showing interest in chess, I bought us a board and we played a few games. I trounced her quickly both times, making clear that I would be doing her no favor by going easy on her. I helped her see the bigger picture of her own moves, and I explained each of mine, giving her ample opportunity to spot my intentions when I moved in position to strike. She accepted her defeat with grace, and I felt that some breakthrough had been achieved, both in her chess game and her awareness of the larger chess game of life.
When we met the others near the train stop things were peaceful, though no open reconciliation was made. The story of Eva’s rivalry with her mother and sister is far from over. I cannot help but feel that perhaps one of the reasons why I came into their lives when Eva was only three and Gaia just barely three months is because I have some role to play in the fulfillment of whatever karmic debt is owed amongst and between them. It is not an easy task, but it has become mine to bear.
The train ride back was short, and the bus ride very long, made longer by numerous delays, including a long stop on a winding highway while two trucks tried to untangle themselves from a pinch they got themselves into at a narrow point.
We returned to Cusco after ten p.m., and we went quickly to bed. Our next move would be an overnight bus to the border, which gave us one more day in Cusco. We used it to see a museum and explore the city a bit more. We liked Cusco a lot, but we were ready to move on from Peru. If we had known what ordeal the journey to come was going to be, perhaps we would not have been in such a rush. But what good would any of this do if it was too easy?