On a ceaselessly scenic rail line that flowed like a vein toward the heart of the Inca mountain empire, Kilometer Marker 104 did not look like anything special. There wasn’t even an actual station there; just a ditch, where we stood all of 30 seconds before the train pulled away from us.
As we would do throughout our two days tramping around one of the world’s most-photographed historic sites, Machu Picchu, we jumped when our guide Sebastian said jump.
A Quechuan native — essentially an Incan descendant — Sebastian somehow located my friends and me at sunrise that morning in a little lodge in the mountain town of Ollantaytambo, along a narrow street where no cars can go. He found us even while saying my name about as well as I pronounced Ollantaytambo.
Sebastian earned our trust again at our secluded train stop. He led us over the tracks to a rickety walking bridge across the Urubamba River, where we met up with the Inca Trail and our first ruins of the day, Chachabamba, a water temple cut into the hillside.
There, our short, smiley guide sat down with our group of five hikers and made an introductory confession that endeared him to us even further. Turned out, Sebastian wasn’t entirely trustworthy.
“Only about 50 percent of what I’ll tell you is probably true,” he said.
After a few guffaws and a fake news joke he didn’t seem to get, Sebastian explained himself. For all their fame and historic designations and National Geographic TV specials, our final destination of Machu Picchu and the surrounding Inca ruins sites are still being studied, still the subject of as many theories as facts.
The mountaintop ruins weren’t even discovered by the Northern Hemisphere until 1911 — “discovered” a word Sebastian used with the same eye-roll as an American Indian on Columbus Day. Machu Picchu also didn’t become a major tourist destination until earning UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1983.
Our guide seemed apologetic about the uncertainties, but those lingering mysteries only added to the mystique and awe as we started our trek into the Andes.
And anyway, Machu Picchu’s most relevant and best-known trait proved to be 110 percent accurate: It truly is stunning to see in person.
You know it’s amazing from all the photos, but you don’t know just how far and swift a drop it is from the tiered temple buildings and stone walls into the canyons below. Or how the changing sunlight atop the mountain seems to alter Machu Picchu’s dimensions every half-hour or so. Or how the mountains around it seem to cradle it like protective big siblings (which saved it from the Spanish).
“Congratulations, you made it,” Sebastian ceremoniously told us after we finally walked into what he rightly assumed was a bucket-list destination for all of us.
“And congratulations that you didn’t get here the lazy way,” he slyly added.
A jungle of details
Our first glimpse of the ancient holy site — built at the height of the Inca empire in the mid-1400s — came in the late afternoon about seven hours after we got off the train. In between, we hiked up from the river. And up. And up.
Our trek was only about six miles total, but it was steep and extra-tough for those of us not used to the 9,000-foot altitude where Machu Picchu sits. We actually didn’t have much breath to be taken away once we set our eyes on the prize.
This was a new, middling way to visit the famous ruins: We chose a two-day hiking trek instead of either the standard four-day Inca Trail camping trip (which we did not have enough time for) or the 25-minute shuttle bus route from the train station in the nearby tourist town of Aguas Calientes (which sounded like a Disneyland ride).
The Peruvian government started issuing two-day permits only last year, part of a more complex system of timed entry points and new requirements to prevent overcrowding. There’s also a new rule that every visitor must be with a professional guide. In short, planning ahead is more necessary than ever for visiting Machu Picchu.
In light of all these issues, my friends and I opted to line up a full-service tour company to map out our trip for us. As much as we always like to go it alone, we didn’t want a once-in-a-lifetime trip derailed by any one little missing link that could break the chain.
We went with SAS Travel, a well-reviewed company based in the mountain city of Cusco, where most treks to Machu Picchu begin. For about $900 per hombre, we landed modest hotel rooms, smart tour guides and train and bus service for four days, plus permits and tickets to a half-dozen ruins sites and a few meals, too. It proved a great deal.
Our planning started six months earlier. And our trip actually started three days before we set off on our hike. Getting to that remote part of the Andes still requires a connect-the-dots array of travel arrangements.
Flying from Minneapolis to Peru’s coastal capital of Lima took half a day. Then we had to catch another 90-minute flight on a regional carrier up and over the Andes to Cusco, a historic, lively city in the mountains that proved to be the trip’s most pleasant surprise. (Lima, on the other hand, was just so-so.)
We spent a day and a half in Cusco, partly to get acclimated to the altitude before hitting the Inca Trail. There, we met up with our first SAS tour guides, who took us through the city’s historic cathedral and two impressive ruins sites close to town.
One of those rocky sites, Sacsayhuaman — pronounced close enough to “sexy woman” for us to just go with that — dates back to the earliest part of Incan history, around 1100. It looked more like an ancient Viking site and offered sweeping views of the city and surrounding mountains.
Cusco is also where we got acclimated to Peruvian cuisine, with mixed results.
You looking at cuy?
A plate of stir-fried alpaca meat at one nice cafe near the main square tasted the way a barn smells. My friend Albert swore he enjoyed his plate of iron-rich fried guinea pig (“cuy” to the locals, pronounced “quee”), but the rest of us couldn’t get over the sight of the cute critter’s head and limbs on a platter.
Much better, we had our first of many plates of mouth-dazzling ceviche and octopus at a higher-end restaurant, Morena. That’s also where I downed my first of many pisco sours, a margarita-like swill made with a ubiquitous Peruvian brandy and an egg-white foam.
The next morning, we left Cusco for Ollantaytambo, a white-knuckle ride by minibus filled with mountainous twists and turns. Driving in Peru might be the country’s most daring sport; it’s actually sage advice to stay off the roads as much as possible.
At least it was a scenic drive, though. We traveled through the so-called Sacred Valley, a fertile route lined with Incan sites and quaint, market-lined small towns. The ruins along the way consistently got more and more impressive.
At midday, we hit the sun-soaked, mountaintop temple and fort of Písac, which looked like an ancient amphitheater with a great VIP area atop it. Our big finish that afternoon was the Inca site of Ollantaytambo, a tall line of agricultural tiers, temples and even an ancient walk-in cooler that surrounds the town of the same name.
“We haven’t even reached our main objective yet, and already this has been a helluva trip,” I remarked to my friends as we drank dark Cusqueña beers overlooking the square that night.
We expected great things of Machu Picchu. We didn’t expect how much we would like everything leading up to it.
The people of Peru proved not just to be friendly, but soulful. The peripheral scenery was worthy of a few hundred cellphone photos even before we got deep into the Andes. And the decision to go with a guided tour service kept all the detail-sorting from driving us nuts.
Once we finally hit the Inca Trail, the details were thankfully all up to Sebastian.
Our trusty guide kept us on pace so we would make it to Machu Picchu in time for the rich late-afternoon sunlight. He walked us around another set of dauntingly steep and well-crafted ruins along the way, Wiñay Wayna, which — as Inca ruins go — must feel like Scottie Pippen to Machu Picchu’s overshadowing Michael Jordan.
As he led us up to the fabled Sun Gate for our first views of the final destination, Sebastian also corrected us on our pronunciation of Machu Picchu. He told us to not forget the first “c” in “Picchu,” thus making it “peak-choo,” which translates to “old mountain” in Quechuan.
“If you just say it ‘pee-choo,’ that means ‘old penis,’ ” he said, flashing another of his wide grins.
Sebastian was no-nonsense and even quite devout the next morning as he gave us an up-close and personal, 2½-hour tour inside the ruins.
After a night spent in Aguas Calientes, he convinced us to rise by 4 a.m. to get in line for the first buses up the mountain. That got us there in time for the citadel’s 6 a.m. opening. More important, it gave us a couple of quieter hours on site before the bigger crowds started arriving by train.
You’d have to be staunchly agnostic to not feel something a little spiritual or cosmic walking around the Machu Picchu grounds, especially in the morning as the mist surrounding it continually, gracefully moves like a slide show revealing new scenery every 20 seconds or so.
For a whole other reason, we said a few Hail Marys as we took an extra 90-minute (and $85) hike up to Huayna Picchu, the ultra-steep peak seen behind the ruins in most photographs. Those photos don’t show you the ropes and dropoff-lined steps to get up there.
As we finished listening to Sebastian’s in-depth details about each of the main site’s various structures — from the room innovatively designed for stargazing to the house where the Inca king stayed once a year — I didn’t even mind if his original statement of only being half-right was true. Our Machu Picchu trek was storybook-perfect in the end, whatever the exact story is.