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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Viva El Peru: Machupicchu - Day 1

In case I haven't mentioned it so far, traveling to Peru was far from a relaxing vacation.  We were up very early every day, took multiple forms of transportation to get to each archeological site, and when we arrived at each destination, we loaded up the backpacks and started hiking.  Not to mention that most of the Inca sites that we visited were built on mountains - and these folks loved building stairs.  Lots and lots of stairs.  
Machupicchu was no different.  We drove 30 from our hotel in the Sacred Valley to get to the train station that takes you to Aguas Calientes.  I think this was the most confusing part of my pre-trip research was figuring out the best way to get to Machupicchu with little ones (not to blame it all on the kids, I wasn't exactly looking for a multi-day up-mountain hike either).  The two options, as I now understand them, are: 1) Do the Inca trail, a multi-day hike that includes camping and carrying most of your belongings, starting from Ollantaytambo, or 2) Take the train and bypass this portion of the trip, arriving in Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machupicchu.  The trail is supposed to be mind-blowing, lots of amazing ruins along the way, a way to test your faith in your health, this route allows you access to Machupicchu before anyone else has a prayer of arriving in the morning - all amazing things that I imagine are impossible with children.  Lots of people do the hike, so if that is your thing, you want to find a good tour company to guide you.  They have people to carry most of your things, set up camp, cook food and generally help you along the way.  The trail is strenuous, uphill, long, and in thin atmosphere, so it's a good idea to get in shape before attempting the hike. 

In contrast, we took the Vistadome train, and it was great.  The station is clean and well stocked with snacks, tissues, beverages, medicine and all sorts of yummy US candy (Kit-Kat and Reece's, specifically).  The train ride is approximately 90 minutes, and the train cars have large windows both on the walls and the ceiling so that you can fully enjoy the trip.  It is a beautiful trip indeed.  

Here is the other key point about the train  You are limited to 5 kilos (~11 pounds) of luggage.  This was not strictly enforced with us, but it was a major point of concern considering how heavy we normally travel.  We brought 1 backpack for clothes and night supplies, 1 camera bag also filled with baby supplies and the carrier backpack and we had just enough stuff for the overnight trip.  Here is when it was great to have a travel company helping out, because all of our other luggage was sent to our next destination for us - so that we could pack more for the other days on our trip.  I'm not sure how anyone else does it, unless you are headed to Peru solely for Machupicchu and then turning around and going home.  

As we arrived in Aguas Calientes, the plan was to head directly to Machupicchu.  Our overnight items were placed in a storage area specific to our hotel, the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo in Aguas Calientes, so we took a coat-check style ticket to claim our luggage later and headed to the shuttle buses.  Aguas Calientes is a very small town that exists almost solely to accomodate Machupicchu tourists.  From here, you can also hike to the archeological site, but it is a looooong way up.  Again, we took the fastest route there, the shuttle bus.  The buses are large and accustomed to the mountainous road, but even so, I was pretty nervous riding up this incredibly windy road.  On the second day, one poor kid got sick in the back of the bus, so for those traveling with children - come prepared!  Even people (especially kids) who do not usually get motion sickness can have issue with this trip - bring tissue, crackers, water, and the air sickness bag from the seat pocket in front of you on the airplane - no joke.

So, after a car ride, a train ride and a bus ride - here was our reward:

Pretty great, huh?  It was more extreme than I had imagined, even after all of my research on traveling here.  The architecture, the mountains, the fact that it remained hidden from the rest of the world for almost 500 years, it was all just amazing. 

To add to the amazingness was the fact that the two dads, Jon and Jeff, did it all with approx 40 pounds of additional weight to carry around.  Super-Dads!  

 So, a little bit about Machupicchu: Machupicchu is the name of the entire mountain that this site sits on, there is no known name to the ruins themselves.  The complex is believed to have been a sort-of summer home to the Inca emporer Pachacuti, who died in 1472 and is the most familiar Inca icon, but by no means was the most important in it's day.  Hiram Bingham from Yale University was the first to lead an expedition to find this hidden Inca site and it is said that he paid a local boy 1 nuevo sol (~$0.35 US) to lead him to the site.  One of the strangest things we learned about the expedition to study and restore the site was that Yale University spearheaded the expedition, and it was funded by Abercrombie & Fitch. The trendy-high-school-student clothing store.  How things have changed.

There is so much more to know about this amazing site, I highly encourage you to read more about it on your own since there is no way I can fit enough into this post.  

As for our experience, we were unaware at how few children would be visit the site, especially small children (since that seems like an ideal time to travel with them, they're not too heavy, they sleep more often and they're not big enough to want to walk on their own).  I can count on one hand how many other children I saw, and Jon and Jeff were a tourist attraction of their own.  People asked for pictures with them, of them, of the kids alone - so much that I was tempted to point out that the real sight to be seen was Machupicchu!  Of the other tourists that loved us, there were just as many that did not appreciate the presence of children.  The meditators, spiritual folks that were looking for enlightenment gave us a few nasty looks when our happy girls decided on Day 1 that they no longer liked Machupicchu.  Here is that moment for our family:

If I could read Jon's mind in this picture, he would be saying "I sure wish we had brought a pacifier...". Which we didn't.  And we paid dearly.  Poor little Gretchen was so tired - and her parents forgot the pacifier. Sorry baby!  We planned better for Day 2.

That afternoon, lunch was included in our tour for the day and we ate at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge buffet lunch.  This was not the best meal we had in Peru by far, but it was the only restaurant option without returning down to Aguas Calientes.  This is also the only hotel located alongside Machupicchu, and though I didn't see any of the rooms, the hotel looked pretty beat up on the outside.  Obviously, the location is amazing, but it is over US$1,000 per night!  Yowzas!  I don't have to see the room to say that it's not worth it.

After lunch we hiked more of the site, this time with happier babies.  It was a long day, and when we got back to our hotel we were glad that we made the choice to stay at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo for the night.  It was beautiful. Filled with plants and greenery, great rooms, nice showers and an extremely friendly staff.  They provided cribs for the kids (super small cribs, but cribs nonetheless) baby bathtubs since they only had showers, and had a welcome gift waiting on the bed when we arrived.  They have a beautiful pool area that had a complimentary merienda (snack time) with coca tea (for altitude sickness) and banana bread.  It was a really great, comfortable place to stay.

As with most places we stayed, there was a downside.  The dinner service was incredibly disjointed and awkward, and we had to contest some of our charges afterwards with the front desk.  For example, the waiter wanted to charge us full price for both kids meals that were included in the cost of our room, charge separately for a cup of milk because it wasn't on the kids menu, charged us for water that should have been free, and the list goes on.  In their defense, I think we threw them a curve ball with having the babies with us, and the restaurant staff clearly didn't know how to deal.  The food was really good and we had a nice night, but it was very out of step with the rest of our experience with that hotel.

That last part is thrown in just in case you plan on staying there with children, overall the hotel was fantastic.  In addition to this amazing day, I saw this guy outside of our hotel room, so those that know me know that I was in complete heaven.  It was an amazing day, with more incredible days in Peru to come.

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