First of all, to reduce nervous anticipation: Yes, I've made it.
I haven't been this nervous before a trip for years.
The last time I had been worrying this much was before going to the South Pole.
The reason is simple.
Whether the trip was worth the effort hinged on a single element.
The South Pole trip could have been as fantastic as it was - and I loved being in Antarctica - but if I hadn't gotten to the South Pole marker, it would have been a depressing experience, wasting almost all the money I had at the time on a failed attempt.
It all went well in the end, but I had been increasingly uneasy in the weeks leading to it.
Oddly enough, I hadn't been that worried that much about the North Pole trip. While the same 'rule' applied (Would I get to the North Pole?), it seemed an easier attainable goal and I never really doubted that I would get there. (Even though it, in retrospect, was probably a larger risk. While the North Pole is closer to civilization and easier to approach, the dangers (during 'tourist season'), like polar bears and breaking ice floes are greater and less predictable. To quote an Ant-/Arctic guide: "Antarctica is not a dangerous place".)
In any case, dog sledding trips are not as nerve wrecking. While things usually don't work as planned (looking back, I think there were only two dog sledding tours I was on that went according the original plan), it doesn't matter much. Whether you reach the places on the itinerary is not that important. It doesn't matter if you go somewhere else instead. The goal is to do dog sledding, not to go somewhere specific. And even on the days where dog sledding doesn't happen, you still get to hang out with a bunch of nice dogs. So no worries!
This time, however, the reason for going to Peru was clear: Spend a night at the Skylodge!
Everything else (visiting Machu Picchu) was secondary to that.
'Skylodge' is hotel/guesthouse consisting of three sleeping pods made out of aluminium frames with large acrylic glass windows and one glass igloo serving as the dining room. All are hanging on the side of a cliff, high above the Sacred Valley in Peru.
To get there, you either climb a Via Ferrata up the cliff. Or you walk up a small path and zipline over to the 'Skylodge'.
I had decided that it might be an interesting place to spend my birthday there. (Well, at least at some point seemed like a fun idea to spend my birthday there. Later, at best, it seemed like a good idea. By the time the trip started, I had settled for 'interesting idea, maybe'.)
But according to the "Only flowchart you'll ever need" it still was a "Do it" activity.
However, there were three big downsides to the idea:
Height. Height. Height.
And that's not simply tripling the word for emphasis.
I am talking about three different things here.
First is the height above the ground. I am usually nervous about heights. Not quite paralysed with fear, but uncomfortable with it. Even on some mundane places, like observation towers, my feet go a bit wobbly and I am approaching the guardrail slowly and with caution. So hanging on a cliff face, 400 meters above the ground, is not my natural environment.
Although, on the other hand, I am doing fine with heights when I am attached to something. I enjoy ziplining and wasn't nervous at all when I was ziplining 350 meters above the ground at Lago Maggiore or 150 and 130 meters above the ground in Portugal or Brazil, respectively.
So I assumed I would be fine up there on the cliff, as long as I was in a harness and clipped into the safety line. But then again, I had never done anything like that, so I might not.
The second issue was 'height' as in altitude above sea level. Skylodge is in Peru's "Sacred Valley", so the base level for the tour is at about 3000 meters.
I know that I suffer slightly from altitude sickness. (On of the reasons for going to the Gornergrat hotel at 3100 meters in January was to find out how much it would bother me.) While I am not likely to be affected by one of the more serious forms (HAPE and HACE - but then few people are at that altitude, it's more something to worry about when you get above 4500 meters), it still meant that I was likely to spend the time there with a light head ache. Not the best way to celebrate a birthday.
And the third height is the height difference. I need to walk a fair bit uphill. Something everyone from a mountainous place will laugh at. But I live in a mostly flat environment, and while I don't mind long walks (on flat ground), I get exhausted quickly when walking uphill. And here I need to walk the equivalent of the Empire State building. Which would be taxing for me, even the help of a regular staircase, but her it would be walking over uneven ground. And that at an altitude where the air is noticeably thinner, so it would exhaust me even more than it would normally do.
(At least I wouldn't do the Via Ferrata. From all I had seen, there were long sections going straight up and I knew I wouldn't be able to rest and catch my breath there. But they also had an 'hike your way up' option, which I was the one I had booked.)
So the whole endeavour seemed daunting and I was doubting whether I would be able to do it at all.
Due to all of this, I got unusually nervous as the trip draw nearer.
Travel guides tend to tell you to spend some time in Cusco to acclimatize to the altitude, before doing any strenuous activities.
So I had decided to spend a day in Cusco, see the sights and get accustomed to the thin air.
When I arrived in Cusco, I was surprised to find that there was some sort of festival going on.
Or, probably, a number of festivals happening in the same week.
As far as I can gather, two big festivals in Cusco are the Corpus Christi festival on the ninth Thursday after Easter, which fell on June 20th in 2019. And there is also the Inti Raymi 'Festival of the Sun', which is on the 24th of June.
As both were close together this year and the events were flanking a weekend (Corpus Christi was on a Thursday, Inti Raymi on a Monday), it looks like they decided to make a week of celebrations out of it and added a "Folkloric Parade" on Saturday and a "Civic Parade" on Sunday.
When I arrived, they were carrying some religious statues around the city and towards one of the church buildings, presumably marking the start of the Corpus Christi festivities.
There were also a couple of strange looking people around, I wasn't sure whether they were some Peruvian version of Anonymous activists, the local variant of masked Mexican wrestlers or whether they represented some local folklore group.
Or, in one case, most likely the local football mascot.
Other people were clearly more 'traditional' folkloristic.
In the side streets, there were a couple of carnival floats parked. They likely weren't part of the Corpus Christi festival. I assume they were used in the parades during the weekend.
(I think the first sculpture is some sort of statement about children being fed on social media.)
There also was the "Festival del Chiriuchu".
"Chiriuchu" is a kind of local dish.
Although it is not really a dish - more like a food sampler.
Around one of the main squares, Plaza San Francisco, were roughly a hundred stalls, all offering the same menu - a lunchbox with grilled guinea pig, chicken, cheese, black pudding, seaweed, chorizo sausage, peppers, some sort of baked bun, some sort of crusty animal skin (which might have been part of the guinea pig) and some other things I couldn't identify.
It was a convenient festival to have.
There's always the temptation to try some local food when traveling. And here were all the traditional 'have you tried these?' food items in one ready-made set. (Except for Alpaca meat - I had that later in Aguas Calientes.)
At first I thought the festival might be some sort of 'cooking competition', but all vendors were offering exactly the same stuff. I have not the slightest idea why. I am also not sure whether there is some sort of historical significance to the "Festival del Chiriuchu" and whether it is in some way related to the Corpus Christi festival or the local chamber of commerce came up with it to create some sort of event for entertaining (and feeding) tourists.
The next morning, I spent some time walking around Cusco, although I wasn't confident that this was a good idea.
Most guide books tell you to take it easy at high altitudes, as this helps acclimatization. As I was planning to go to the Skylodge later that day, I knew there was going to be a fair bit of uphill coming up later that day.
As a result, I was not sure whether walking to the hills outside the center of Cusco was a good thing. On one hand, it might be considered 'training' and getting accustomed to walking uphill at 3000+ meters. On the other hand, it might be stupid to tire and exhaust myself in the morning, instead of resting and getting ready for the 'main event' in the afternoon.
But my pick-up time for the Skylodge was in the early afternoon and I got bored, so I started walking around Cusco anyway.
By then, the festivities in town had taken a more formal religious tone.
On the previous afternoon the parading of the religious statues were accompanied by marching bands, involving a surprising amount of tuba players. Now a crowd had assembled at the Plaza Mayor de Cusco and was singing a capella hymns, which could be clearly heard up in the hills.
I walked up to a place called Quenqo Chico. It's a minor historical site (even the name means "Little Quenqo" to distinguish it from "Quenqo Grande", a few kilometers away).
It is pretty much a simple stone wall, but it's located in a small grove of eucalyptus trees and a convenient place to relax a bit.
I had considered going to the better known Sacsayhuaman site nearby, which is larger and has more variety of things to see. But that would have taken at least two hours and I needed to head back to the hotel.
There was enough time, however, to make a detour to the local "Christo Blanco" statue. The main reason for it's existence seems to be "Because Rio has one too". (Yes, there's some background story about Arabic Palestinians and World War II connected with it. But they might as well but an obelisk or a statue of a penguin up there.)
But then it was time to take the long walk down the stairs, back to downtown (almost literally) Cusco.
A while later I was back in the hotel lobby and my transport to Pachar in the Sacred Valley (where the Skylodge is located) arrived. (Only later I made the connection that this would have been a good time to put on the headphones and listen to "Make Tomorrow" by Peter Gabriel, which contains the lyrics "Where the sacred meet the scared.", which would have been nicely appropriate. But I didn't think of it at the time, so I haven't.)
It took slightly less than an hour to drive across a surprisingly diverse landscape.
After that, we arrived at 'base camp'.
Above us were lurking our rooms for the night.
(The two platforms visible in the first picture are part of the zipline system used for descent. The left one is the landing platform for one zipline and then there's a short traverse to the beginning of the next zipline on the right.)
There were five clients heading up for the Skylodge that day.
Two American women, two Canadian women and I, together with two guides and a photographer.
After we got our equipment (climbing harness and helmet) and a quick instruction, we were ready to go.
As I had expected, I was the only one heading for the trail. The four women were using the Via Ferrata to make their way up. (My assumption had been that anyone who was willing to sleep on the side of a cliff would also be eager to scale the cliff themselves. Except for me, who was there to sleep in an interesting place, but would also been content to take the lift there, if there had been one.)
Six of them started their way up the Via Ferrata(four clients, guide and photographer).
I waited with my guide for a couple of minutes, which is standard procedure, in case someone who booked for the Via Ferrata decides that they don't feel comfortable doing that, and then started walking along the trail.
The primary reason for taking the trail was that I did a short bit of a Via Ferrata when visiting an underground climbing trail in a slate mine in Wales. There I noticed that one of the more strenuous bits on that "terrifying adventure in an abandoned mine" (as the BBC called it) was going up roughly 20 meters on the Via Ferrata. And I didn't want to do that 20 times, especially since there's little chance on a Via Ferrata to stop and catch your breath.
So I had hoped that the trail would allow me to take it slow and have a couple of 'catch your breath' stops on the way (and, assuming I would be the only one going that way, I wouldn't slow down a group of enthusiastic climbers, eager to make it to the Skylodge).
The downside was: I did know almost nothing about the trail.
Nearly everyone uses the Via Ferrata. So there are a lot of pictures and videos of that. And it's easy to see most of it and have an idea how challenging (or not) it is.
But I hadn't found any info about the trail, except for what is on the organizer's web page: "To sleep at Skylodge, people must climb 400 mt. of Via Ferrata or hike an intrepid trail through ziplines."
And that's it. Every other website mentioning the trail only copied that. (Which is easy to notice, as they all seem to use the wording "intrepid trail", which is hardly a common phrase.)
Also, it didn't really help much as a description, especially as it doesn't make any sense.
I wasn't even sure what 'intrepid' meant. The dictionary gives only "describing a person or action that is bold and brave" and "invulnerable to fear or intimidation".
A trail isn't a person. It's also not "bold and brave". And while, technically, it surely is "invulnerable to fear or intimidation", so is any other inanimate object. You will find it difficult to intimidate my shoes, but I wouldn't describe them as "intrepid footwear".
So I assume "intrepid" is supposed to mean "scary" in that context, but that didn't help much either. Was it "scary" in the sense that the climbing trail in Wales was a "terrifying adventure in an abandoned mine" (i.e. not that much) or was it really scary?
My main worry was that it might be like some alpine mountain hiking trails, which sometimes are small paths, two feet wide or less, that run right along deep drops. And that I might have to walk right along the cliff side on uneven ground, but, unlike on the Via Ferrata, without the benefit of being secured with a safety cable.
Luckily it turned out not to be like that at all, but I didn't know that when I started.
The trail turned out to be easy to walk and well away from any scary drops for most of the way.
It was mostly a comfortable hiking path without serious difficulties.
And any section that was potentially dangerous was well protected with safety cables.
So every time the path got close to any cliff edge, there was the need to scramble over some exposed rock or there were a couple of iron rungs (or 'stemples') to climb, I always was secured with two safety lines. (As far as I recall, the guide mentioned that about a fourth of the hiking path is secured. And the rest is really a normal hiking path.)
So the whole thing was a lot less scary than I had assumed.
The only downside of the whole thing was that it was uphill most of the way.
And while I tried to keep an optimistic and eager impression (at least on photographs) as much as possible, most of the way I was looking and feeling exhausted and out of breath.
Good thing that we could have a lot of rest stops along the way!
Luckily for me, another bit of information from the web turned out to be pleasantly wrong. (Or at least misleading.)
Most web pages and magazines that mention Skylodge state that it's "400 meters above the valley" or some badly deformed variant of this. (Journalists are in general horrible with anything containing numbers. And freelance content creators for web sites are even worse.) Many sites mention that the sleeping pods are 1,312 feet above the valley, which provides a precision that surely wasn't intended. (Yes, 400 meters are 1312.34 feet, so the value is not really wrong, but unless someone means exactly 400 meters, like on a 400 meter running track, it would make more sense to state "about 1300 feet" or something equally vague.)
Then there are also articles that just assume a different unit and talk of "400 feet up a cliff face" or, even more confusing, about "122 m up a rocky cliff", a figure derived from reading the original "400 meters" as "400 feet" and then 'helpfully' converting those into meters.
But then there are also articles that helpfully state that there are three capsule suites with four beds each, so the Skylodge "can sleep a total of eight people". Aehm...
Fact checking doesn't seem to be popular in online magazines... But that will surprise nobody.
In any case, I did a similar mistake myself.
After about fifteen minutes of walking, I had roughly estimated that we had covered about 50 meters of altitude, so we had done about an eighth of the ascend and would have at least two more hours to go (probably more, as I would get more exhausted on the way) and was surprised when the guide told me that we had already covered a quarter of the way.
It didn't look like we were a hundred meter above the starting point, but the guide turned out to be right. All in all, it took us about 75 minutes to get to the Skylodge. And given that the trail got a bit trickier towards the end (more climbing, less walking), I got more exhausted and we also did one zipline on the way (which means getting a bit farther up and then down again), he was surprisingly accurate with his 'already did 25% of the way' assessment.
I had my GPS on during the hike and noticed at the Skylodge that we were 'only' about 200 meters higher than the starting point. So the whole hike was only half as hard as I had originally assumed.
The reason for this was easy to find. All the original web page really states is "you will climb 400 meters of via ferrata". Sometimes for a Via Ferrata the info given relates to the length it (roughly measured in the length of the safety cable) and not its altitude difference.
For example, there are Via Ferratas that are mostly horizontal traverses. So while they might be hundreds of meters long, the altitude difference might be only a few dozen meters.
So, technically, the builders and owners of the Skylodge have never been claiming that the Skylodge is 400 meters above the base of the cliff. (Well, they do mention on their web page the "transparent capsule located 400 meters above the Sacred Valley in Peru". But even that doesn't claim it's 400 meters high up the cliff. And it doesn't really say which part of the Secret Valley.)
Admittedly, "400 meters Via Ferrata" sounds more impressive than "roughly 200 meters up the cliff". And then every newspaper and web article copied that (and managed to mangle the information as well). And, oddly enough, the articles that did the worst, misreading meters as feet and then claiming the Skylodge would be at 400 feet instead of 400 meters above the ground, happened to be closer to the actual value of about 200 meters than most.
In the end, I was happy that I managed to make it up to the Skylodge and it turned out to be a lot easier than I expected and much, much easier than I had feared.
I had even made it up to the 'dining room' by daylight, although barely so.
After a short break, it was time to visit my sleeping pod. (In general, there is one sleeping pod per booking. So I had my own and the American and Canadian women had one pod each. They try not to put strangers together into one pod.)
Getting there was an interesting experience, as this is the closest I got to the 'Via Ferrata experience'. Walking on metal rungs attached to the rockface, with a huge drop below. And doing it in the dark with only a small flashlight on the helmet to light the way.
I then got a short 'introduction lecture' on the use of the sleeping pod, primarily on how to use the toilet, as this was a bit unusual.
There is a small downpipe to pee into. (Women are expected to use a kind of 'chamber pot' and then 'decant' it into the downpipe.) For solid excrement, there is a toilet seat and there is a wider downpipe leading down. But it doesn't work in the way you'd expect it to. You take a black garbage bag, hang that under the toilet seat and do your business into that garbage bag. Then you take the bag, grab it above the 'squishy bit', try to get as much air as possible out of it and tie the upper end up with a couple of knots. And then you take the bag and drop it down the pipe. At the other end of the pipe, about 5 meters below, is a garbage container to collect the excrement. When going down the next day, the guides have to put them into a backpack and bring them down into the valley, where they are removed properly (it is hoped). So they really prefer if you put proper knots into the bags that don't open easily. And they also prefer if you do a somewhat 'elongated' packet, as getting packets out that got stuck in the pipe on their way down isn't much fun.
I also got instructions about the electric lights, when to wear the harness (always, unless you're in the sleeping pod with the roof door closed), where hot and cold water were located and how to use the emergency two-way radio. But those were all pretty much as expected.
After a short "relax and write postcards" break it was time to go back to the 'dining room' for dinner. Given the limitations of the location, it was surprisingly good, especially as everything (food, drinks, gas for cooking) needs to be brought up by the guides.
The it was time to get some sleep.
The way to the sleeping pod was even more interesting now, as it was the same as before, but now after two glasses of wine. (I had another half bottle with me, but it seemed better to take that to the sleeping pod for a small birthday celebration at midnight instead of drinking it before climbing along a cliffside in the dark.)
The sky at night was amazing, but ultimately I was too tired to get up to the 'sun deck' of my sleeping pod and lie down up there for some stargazing. But as there are windows all around the pod, I moved the curtains above me aside and looked at the stars while lying comfortably on my bed.
Next morning I got up at daybreak and got properly dressed to head to the 'dining room' for breakfast.
It was the first time I climbed along the rock wall while being able to see the drop all the way to the ground. But I was paying so much attention to what I was doing (like where to place the feet, where to put the hands, when to clip into the next safety line) that it didn't worry me at all.
Also, there was the smell of coffee on the other side of the traverse - a powerful incentive to keep going.
But I was surprised that I never needed to overcome any fears or worries. I had assumed that the 200 meter drop might worry me at some point (even though it was 'only' a 200 meters drop instead of the 400 meters one that I had expected, I think it's unlikely that this makes a lot of difference) and I would need to concentrate and deal with height anxiety, but that never happened.
I also had worried a bit about sleeping in the pod and whether I would 'feel the abyss' below me and whether that would keep me awake. I heard that there are some swimmers who do well in pools or lakes, but have problems when swimming in the ocean, as they 'feel' the deep waters below them and start to panic as their brain invents all kinds of horrors that might lurk there. There are probably no horrors between the Skylodge pod and the ground, but I had been wondering whether the feeling of hanging from a few bits of cable would keep me awake at night. Luckily it didn't.
So there are no big stories of heroically overcoming my fears and coming back a stronger, more fearless person. Like many activities that seem scary, it felt surprisingly normal when actually doing it.
After a nice, long and varied breakfast, we moved back to our pods.
We had some time for a slightly better look at the facilities in our sleeping pods, which, so far, we had only seen at night.
By then, the sun had gotten sufficiently high above the mountains to illuminate (part) of the Sacred Valley below.
After about an hour, it was time for a bit of a photo session.
They have a photographer that accompanies the group and you can (and everyone does) hire him to take some pictures along the way (if you take the Via Ferrata), at the pods and on the way down.
So, without further comment, here's a set of pictures of me in and on my Skylodge sleeping pod.
Definitely worth it!
The images are cool (the photographer clearly knows which are the best points to stand and take photos) and it's also an incentive to do some things I wouldn't have dared otherwise - like sitting on the edge of my 'sun deck' or jumping on it. Really nice mementos of my birthday!
Then the photographer went to the other pods to shoot some pictures there.
So I had a bit of time to relax on my 'sun deck'.
Then it was almost time to descent.
But first we met on the top of my sleeping pod for a group photos!
But then it was time to leave.
For the first fifty meters or so, the trail was the same one I used the previous day to get up to the Skylodge.
Which is also the reason why I'm (sort of) 'leading' the group. The guides had some clean up to do at the pods and dining room and told us to go ahead, as I would already know the way and the rest should follow me.
We arrived at the first zipline and (with the guides, who had caught up with us quickly) it was time to start the descent proper - on a sequence of ziplines.
Much easier and faster than walking or climbing down. And I like ziplines a lot, so I knew this was going to be fun.
The first zipline was 'a bit slow in the morning', so we did this one in pair to make sure that there's enough weight to counter the effect of any additional rope friction. (That suited me well - if there's one skill I possess it's adding weight.)
The other ziplines were done 'solo'. While there is a braking system at the end of each line, its capabilities are somewhat limited (it probably can't stop you safely when you hit it at full speed), so you need to do some braking along the way (which is why we were wearing builder's gloves over the climbing cloves) when getting a signal from the guide at the far end. And, to avoid getting our fingers squashed by the braking system, there was another signal to take the hands off the zipline and grab the ropes we were hanging from. Additionally, we got the advice to move our head to the side of the ropes to avoid banging out head against the carabiner or the pulley when stopping. (The guide explaining this had a plaster over his nose and noted "otherwise this happens".)
It was a lot of fun to zipline down and nobody had any problems. (Yes, I had fun on the ziplines. I was surprised myself how concerned and concentrated I look in the pictures. I thought I had a wide grin on my face all the time. But I'm really am enjoying the activity.)
A short time later we were back on the ground. Time for one last look up to the Skylodge, looking scaringly distant again.
After that things got (slightly) hectic. I needed to go to Ollantaytambo to catch a train to Aguas Calientes at Machu Picchu while everyone else needed a ride back to Cusco. So I had to jump into the minibus to be driven to Ollantaytambo as everyone else needed to wait until the bus was back to drive them to Cusco. So no goodbyes, but out of the harness and into the bus.
Getting to Aguas Calientes was easier than planning it.
Buying the ticket on the railway's website was easily done. But there was a note that you could only bring 'hand luggage', i.e. only a bag you could put under the seat in front of you.
The reason is that the train has panorama windows and there is no room for luggage racks above.
Which is ok for most travellers, as Machu Picchu is usually done as a day tour from Cusco (and you're not allowed to bring large backpacks into Machu Picchu anyway). So nearly everyone is carrying only a daypack.
But I would be staying in Aguas Calientes for two nights, so I wanted to have my stuff with me (and as I entered the train in Ollantaytambo and would leave it on the way back at Poroy, storing the luggage at Ollantaytambo wasn't an option either).
It is possible to take luggage with you, but formally only on special request. It took a couple of mails to the railway service department, stating how large my luggage would be and on which train I would be travelling until I got a formal permission to travel with luggage to Aguas Calientes and back.
(As sometimes with formal rules, nobody actually seemed to care. The form required to "approach to a representative of the storage at Ollantaytambo station, with a photocopy of this mail 40 minutes prior to the departure of the train", but when I tried to do that, he told me to just take the luggage on the train. And the train did have a luggage rack - although not one above the seats - and there was enough space for probably twenty pieces of luggage per train compartment. So, yes, nice to have formal permission to take the luggage, but in this case not worth the effort.)
The train ride itself was relaxing and the landscape was unexpectedly varied, looking partly Swiss Alps, partly like Canadian Rockies, partly southern Italy and then turning slowly into Jurassic Park-style tropical landscape, all within two hours of train ride.
I usually don't mention 'normal' hotel rooms (as opposed to more obscure ones on cliff faces, in lakes, in mines or on trees), but when I went to the hotel in Aguas Calientes, I got a strange one. The room was on the side of the building that was adjacent to another building and wedged between two other hotel rooms, so they couldn't add a window to the outside. Which is ok. It's nicer to have a view, of course, but I also have been in basement level rooms that didn't. But here, they had put in a window anyway - looking out into the hotel corridor, allowing anyone on the hotel corridor to have a nice view onto the bed.
And while there was a small window opposite the room window, that only went to a small shaft with concrete walls, so it's not as if there was any good 'second hand view' through there. So I kept the window curtains closed. But as probably everyone is doing that, there doesn't seem to be any point of having a window. They might as well have put up a concrete wall and added some painting to it.
But, besides that oddity (and maybe the window is for airing the room from time to time), it was a nice hotel. And after the Skylodge a shower was appreciated.
Aguas Calientes is mostly the extended bus/train station for Machu Picchu. A large portion of travellers arrive with the train, then get on the bus to Machu Picchu and return by bus the same day.
And most of the rest are the more adventurous travellers that hike the 'Inca Trail' and want to relax a day or two before returning to Cusco. And need hotels, restaurants and bars to celebrate.
Most people come individually or in small groups, so there are no large 'handle them by the busload' restaurants and the whole place is reasonably individualistic. (Except for the bit between the train station and the bus station, which is more or less one continuous souvenir shop.)
And there town seems prosperous and is filled with statues and artwork - some tacky, some more interesting.
As the place is wedged in a small valley, surrounded by mountains on all sides, the only direction to build is up. Which they are busily doing.
My permit for Machu Picchu was for the next day.
I got my bus ticket, got in line and after less waiting than I expected, I was in the bus and on my way up to the 'citadel'.
Machu Picchu feels a bit over-regulated at the moment, so even with a permit you can't just enter the site. You need to hire an official guide to accompany you.
Easily done. There are enough official guides waiting near the entrance, so I picked an English speaking one (most are) and sorted out the cost. Oddly enough, he didn't know. At least not in Peruvian Sol. He quoted me the price in US dollars. I didn't have those, but I did have the local currency. So I asked what the price in Peruvian Sol was. He had to convert the US dollar rate into Peruvian Sol with a calculator, which I found a bit strange.
Usually they try to wait until they have a group of five tourists, but for a price, they also do individual tours. I didn't fancy to go with a random group of tourists, so I went with only the guide.
That had an unexpected benefit of getting in early. The tickets are for specific time slots (on every full hour), which means that on the hour, there's a rush of people to the entrance gates. And I was half an hour early anyway, so I usually would have had to stand around with my guide for half an hour and then join the queues at the gates. But as he didn't need to wait for other tourists to join the group and didn't fancy standing around, he talked to someone at the gate and we were let in early.
The first stops were mainly photo stops.
We walked up to the guard house, which stands alone on an elevated position and provides a good view, basically the view of Machu Picchu.
Which is a bit of an issue since they made guides mandatory.
There are two or three popular photo spots in the vicinity of the guard house (or, officially, "House of the Guardians"). There are also good photo opportunities on the terraces above and below. But the guides lead you to the 'prime locations' to take your pictures there. Which means that these spots get crowded. I got slightly lucky, as I got in half an hour early, so I was there between the hourly rushes - it must be well packed at five minutes past the hour! (As it takes about five minutes to walk there from the entrance.) And when there are articles warning how overcrowded Machu Picchu is, they tend to use pictures of these crowds.
In comparison, there's a nice 'reverse shot' photo spot later, which looks over the terraces towards the guard house. That place is in the 'unguided' section and usually there were about five people there. Visitors passing by had a quick look and walked on if it got too crowded, presumably to take a picture from somewhere else.
But back to the gate house area...
On a terrace above is also a grazing llama, which seems to like to pose for pictures. It is less inclined to interact with visitors for any longer than it takes to take a picture before moving on to the next visitor.
Resting one level higher up the terraces was another llama. They pretty much gave the impression that they are doing the job of "photogenic animal" in shifts.
From the terraces around the guard house we went to the 'proper' entrance to Machu Picchu, namely the western part of it, which contains most of the 'important' buildings, like most of the temples. (The eastern side consist mostly of 'living quarters'.)
An indicator of the importance of a building is the building style. 'Lesser' buildings are built mainly from unhewn stones, at best flattened on one side. The stones were then used in two stone walls and some sort of mortar was poured between them to create the building walls.
In comparison, the temples are made from tightly fitting 'made to order' stones, like a huge three dimensional puzzle. Those stones are simply stacked on each other and no mortar is used at all.
So, if they fall down, archaeologists should be able to put them together in the original order. (As Machu Picchu was in a somewhat derelict state when it was re-discovered, I assume that, for many of these buildings, that is what archaeologists often already did.
There is surprisingly little known about Machu Picchu, so most of the designations of the buildings seem to be arbitrary. The site features various temples, like the "Temple of the Sun", the "Temple of the Moon", the "Temple of the Condor", the "Temple of the Three Windows", and the "Principal Temple", but beyond the knowledge that Incas worshiped sun and moon gods, so it's likely that some temples were dedicated to them, there's no real evidence for any of these names.
The places might as well have been conference buildings or squash courts, as far as anyone knows.
Which probably adds to the visual attraction of Machu Picchu.
The place is almost completely devoid of any kind of decoration. There are no statues, no carvings or symbols, which makes the whole site look timeless and a bit "Bauhaus" (in the sense that it favoured linear and geometrical forms, avoiding excessive ornamentation).
There seem to be only three decorative exceptions and even they are somewhat disputable.
One of them is the 'Inca Cross' at the "Temple of the Three Windows", which is a stone with two dents on both sides of the top. So if you take that stone, ignore the imperfections, level it properly and then imagine that the buried side looks the same - then you have a shape that resembles the Inca Cross. (Supposedly, if the sun shines from the right direction, the stone and its shadow together will form a proper cross shape.)
(It's also another one of the photo stops the guide recommends.)
But the whole thing is a bit doubtful. Given the precision with which some of the wall stones were shaped to fit properly, the edges of this (presumably important religious symbol) stone are more like arbitrary dents than rectangular corners. And the stone is sloping a bit, which doesn't give the impression that had any importance. And it's at a (more or less) random place along the wall, instead of being featured in a prominent position. And while the whole "and with its shadow it becomes a complete cross" carries nice poetic images with it, you would expect that they'd put the stone in some place where it is standing freely instead of putting stones around it and having a wall shielding it from the sun. (And the idea would be more convincing if there were other Inca places that use shadows to 'complete' a religious symbol. So the whole explanation seems fanciful. I would be more convinced if they had a little pool in front of it, so that the shape gets mirrored in that.)
I only listened to the explanation with half an ear, though. I got distracted by a little lizard on a stone next to it.
Another 'decoration' was a stone that is supposed to echo the silhouette of the mountain behind it.
Well, vaguely. Sort of.
Yes, it has a vague mountain-ish silhouette (but that is true for most stones), but if it was intended to mirror the mountain behind it, I would assume that they'd put in another couple of days of effort to make it more accurate. (And the fog makes it look better than it is. The mountain behind also has a much more pronounced 'spire' peak than the stone has, but that is hidden by the clouds.)
The third piece is the 'condor' at the "Temple of the Condor". I couldn't get a picture from the 'proper side', as the area was off-limits (they close some of the areas from time to time to direct visitor streams, so the "Temple of the Condor" could only be seen from the outside, but not entered).
But beside a stone representing a 'condor head' and two light grey stones presumably representing the frill of white feathers surrounding the neck of a condor, there are two, mostly unworked outcrops of rock to the left and right of the 'head', supposedly representing the wings.
The guide even showed me a picture of the place with the wings helpfully painted in.
Which, to me, looked a lot like those dubious documentaries where they go 'in search of' some mythical animal or place and show a underexposed picture with some blots in it and then quickly overlay a some graphic to 'highlight' that some blotches are the 'footprints of bigfoot' or some weather markings on a rock are 'a human face looking exactly east'.
So, yes, if I selectively highlight some of the cracks and features of the rock, I can suggest a wing-shape (although badly), but I might as well turn it into a turtle head or praying hands. (Well, I could, if I could draw. But you get the idea...)
To be fair, the picture shows the backside of the "wing" and the condor head and the other wing would be in a completely different place, so it is not representative of what it is supposed to look. But if you look at pictures taken from the front side they don't look any more convincing, even with the supposed condor shape painted in, as this image shows.
Also, if this is a temple, why are the walls double stone walls with mortar in it, as opposed to tight fitting shapes? So instead of the "Temple of the Condor", it might as well have been a stable for llamas. ("Don't bother shaping those rocks, it's only the llamas who will see them.")
Most of the 'facts' about Machu Picchu are guesses. Educated guesses, hopefully, but guesses.
The location is fantastic, though. And the place looks amazing.
With reaching the "Temple of the Condor", the guided part of the tour was over.
There is a one-way system in place, so once you leave the western part of Machu Picchu, you can't go back.
The eastern part, the 'industrial zone' or 'residential area' mostly consists of housing, which doesn't require guiding. So that is the place where the guide leaves you alone and you can walk around on your own, provided you don't try to go back to 'ceremonial area'.
So I spent an hour or so walking around, looking at Machu Picchu, taking pictures and enjoying the day.
In some corner, I spotted two small rodents, which turned out to be Viscacha, which live in crevices between the rocks.
I was also impressed by the way the houses were built.
In a way, they followed the same 'terrace' system they used for their agricultural areas.
About halfway up the building, there is a wide ledge along the wall, so that they could put wooden planks across it and create an upper floor. But there was no ladder to go from the ground floor to the upper floor. The upper floor was accessible from a path on the next level. So when you walked down a path, you had access to the upper floors of buildings on one side and to the ground floor of buildings on the other side.
A rather odd thing was the low number of windows. While there were many window-shapes in the buildings, most of them didn't go through to the outside, but ended in a brick wall. These alcoves were most likely some sort of shelves.
So without many real windows, the houses must have been quite dark, even during the day.
Without guides, the 'residential area' was unexpectedly uncrowded.
While this might have been partly because there were no "famous" places in that area, so some visitors who came this far with their guides might have headed straight to the exit, and, admittedly, to a certain extent it looks empty because most of the times I tried to take pictures when nobody was in the shot, the main reason is that there aren't that many visitors in Machu Picchu.
There's a lot of outcry about the overcrowding of Machu Picchu and the risk to the site, "conservation experts called upon Peruvian authorities to take 'emergency measures'" and newspapers were even using phrases like "the thunder of traveller footfall across it becomes too much for its delicate fabric to bear" (and I've rarely considered massive granite blocks a 'delicate fabric').
On site, that seems a little silly. There were about 1.5 million visitors in 2018, which means on average about 4100 visitors a day and, since the tickets are essentially either for morning or afternoon, a bit more than 2000 visitors on site at any time. And (except for the photo spots), they are distributed over a fairly wide area. Compared with that, the Louvre, which is a lot smaller than Machu Picchu, has about five times as many visitors, the National Air and Space Museum in Washington has about six million visitors, and Notre Dame had 13 million visitors, nearly ten times as much as Machu Picchu. And was a single building. (Ok, it burned down. But ironically not due to any tourists, but due to renovation work.)
While places like Pompeii (3 million annual visitors), the Cologne Cathedral (7 million annual visitors) or the Forbidden City in Beijing (17 million annual visitors) have mosaics, glass windows, statues, detailed stone carvings, paintings, roof decorations and other easily damaged parts, Machu Picchu is mostly massive rocks.
About the most durable material around...
The main point is, that there's not much at Machu Picchu that is delicate and in danger from tourists (unless they bring sledgehammers).
If there are dangers, they are mostly (as everywhere else) from environmental influences, like rain and earthquakes. So it might make more sense to allow as many tourists as possible to see the place while it is still intact.
Of course it's nice that there number of visitors is regulated and the place is more enjoyable if it isn't packed with people (which it isn't except around the guard house), but claiming that "emergency measures" are required seems like overreacting.
It's really not that crowded.
As I had been walking around more or less randomly around the 'residential area', there were various bits and pieces I noticed which don't necessarily fit together, so here are some unsorted observations.
There's one place that looks a bit as if the Incas had experimented with stone circles for a bit, before going back to more rectangular shapes.
Although there is one building that has curved walls - the "Temple of the Sun".
One building had two large bowls in the floor - the only possible functional construct on the whole site. Originally assumed to be mortars, there's now an assumption that they were used for sun observations. (And also moon and star observations - though this seems a bit odd, because it would surely have been much more convenient to lie down and look up at the moon and the stars, than trying to see them reflected in water. While it is beneficial for the eyes that during sun observations only part of the light is reflected by the water and a large part is absorbed by the bottom of the bowl, this is not that useful when trying to look for stars.)
There doesn't seem to be much evidence for that, except that it's a cool sounding idea and Incas did do astronomical observations. But if I would build a solar observation site, I wouldn't build walls all around it, severely limiting the observation opportunities. I'd probably put it on a more exposed location as well and not in the middle of the city. And I'd also put some well defined permanent markers (like rocks, of which there is a large number available) nearby to be able to compare and calibrate observations.
There's also no plausible reason why there are two 'observation bowls'.
If it had some practical function (for example in food preparation), having more than one makes sense. But why would you have two observation spots?
But it's a common theme in Machu Picchu - there's very little that is really known about it, so there are tons of speculations and it's almost impossible to figure out what is reasonably likely and probably sound and what is a crackpot fantasy.
For example, a lot is made of 'astronomical' features in Machu Picchu, and that the sunlight falls through specific windows during the summer solice or that buildings are aligned towards specific astronomical features. But there are a lot of windows, buildings and astronomical features, so it's hard to tell what is intentional and what is random. A bit like Manhattanhenge, where the rising sun is aligned with some streets in Manhattan. But Manhattan was not intentionally designed that way. Manhattan Island happens to be shaped in a way that causes a rectangular grid aligned with the shore of the Hudson river to point towards the rising sun on some days.
So while the sun does shine through "one of the two windows of the Temple of the Sun" through winter and summer solstice and "illuminates the ceremonial stone within", the sun probably shines through the window on many other days as well. And it's a normal window, not a small slit, so there's quite a margin of error. And it's not like the stone the light falls upon has any special markings or even appears to be sculptured into any kind of recognizable shape.
There's also the claim that a special stone, the Intihuatana must be of astronomical importance, as it "doesn't throw a shadow" on two days in the year when the sun is directly above it. And it throws its longest shadow during the winter solice and its shortest during the summer solice. Aehm, yes. Sure. But that's true for everything standing upright.
Any factory chimney in the tropics will not cast a shadow when the sun is directly above. And everything will throw the longest shadow during the winter solice, where the sun is lowest in the sky and the shortest shadow during summer solice, where the sun is the highest. That's not a meaningful astronomical marker - that's just being able to use a plumb-line.
Although this is more a case of incompetent reporting. The stone seems to have a 13 degree slant. So it does point towards the sun (and casts no shadow) during equinoxes. Which is, by definition, a time where the sun is not directly above it Machu Picchu, but above the equator. (If it would point straight up, it would cast no shadow around October, 26th and February, 14th.)
So the stone likely has a connection to the equinoxes. It's just not the same as the sun being directly above.
(But then again, it's not necessarily an indicator of deep astronomical knowledge. Wait for an equinox (count 91 days after a solstice), wait for noon, put a stick in the ground and point it towards the sun. Then carve a stone to point into the same direction. Done.)
Another "precise Inca astronomical observatory" is supposedly the Intimachay, a kind of small window (roughly to the left of the image center, beside the semi-natural rock formation) that goes through a wall about a meter thick.
Here, the sun supposedly shines directly through the 'tunnel' ten days before and after the winter solstice. It probably does. But it seems a bit questionable whether this has much significance, as the sun is likely to be aligned with most windows that don't point too far south (in the southern hemisphere) at some days. And there doesn't seem to be any plausible reason why ten days before and after the winter solstice should be significant. (Except that it probably isn't - while newspaper articles strongly imply that the sun shines through the window only on these two days, the original article states only that "the sun can shine into the cave ...for about 10 days before and 10 days after the solstice". So there's a window through which the sun shines about three weeks of the year, which I don't think indicates that Inca astronomy was "far more complex and precise than was previously believed.")
I know that it's not Machu Picchu's fault that it seems to attract outlandish theories (and since there is not much that is really known about the site, it's a kind of 'blank slate' that encourages projections), but it's annoying to read about the place and find all kind of strange things presented as 'facts'.
When walking around, it's hard to tell how much of Machu Picchu is 'historic'. Looking at pictures of when it was re-discovered in 1911, it looks like most of the larger structures were overgrown, but undamaged. But it's difficult to tell for the smaller buildings, as they are hidden by the vegetation on early pictures. But in most places the mortar between the stone layers looks a bit 'modern' and it in the early pictures, after the vegetation had been cleared away, there seem to be more fallen down gables than there are now.
So it's possible that some of what can be seen in Machu Picchu isn't more ancient than a hundred years or so.
Even today (where restauration efforts are supposed to be more subtle), there are new building materials stored in various locations on site.
It seems, however, that the basic structure had been mostly intact, so it's not as if they creatively added buildings or architectural elements.
Most of it probably looks now as it was supposed to be, but I assume more of it did look like this, before repairs were done.
Something that surprised me (because I was in Peru to spend a night in the Skylodge and didn't pay too much attention to Machu Picchu when planning the trip) is how 'recent' the buildings are.
Somehow I always had them in the back of my mind as 'ancient', somewhere between the Great Sphinx of Giza, the Tikal Maya Temple, Skara Brae or the Akropolis. The rough stone structure, absence of any 'polishing' and lack of ornamentation made me assume that Machu Picchu significantly predates the Colosseum in Rome.
So it was a bit unexpected that Machu Picchu is (more or less) concurrent with the Forbidden City of China, St. Peter's Basilica, Westminster Abbey, the Doges Palace in Venice or Brussels Town Hall.
Compared to that, the workmanship of Machu Picchu seems not that impressive. (But then, the Incas didn't have iron tools, so the stone was mainly worked with slightly harder stones.)
But regardless of whether it's ancient, timeless, a solar observatory or a 500 year old holiday resort for Incas trying to get away from the busy life in Cusco - it's a great location, it looks great, the layout is pleasant with lots of empty space (in comparison, Pompeii looks cramped) and it's fun to walk around Machu Picchu for a while and look at things.
But eventually I ran out of things to look at and it was time to head for the exit.
I had a bus ticket for the way down, but there's also a walking path that takes a much more direct route.
As there was enough daylight left, I decided to walk. (Which had nothing to do with the conditions of the bus road. It looks a bit scary at first, but it seems ok. Despite news from 2015 that it might "have only a year and five months of 'useful life' left".)
The path is well maintained and a relaxing walk.
With good views of the mountains along the way.
Although, of course, you need to get past the fierce guardian halfway along the way...
The path also contained (for five steps) the trickiest passage I had encountered during the trip - a (semi-)traditional Inca staircase.
Next day, my train was leaving in the afternoon, so I had some time to spare.
After watching the sun rise over the mountains, I decided to go to the museum, passing by the queue for the busses (which look impressive, but waiting time is much shorter than the queue seems to imply).
There's a 'hidden museum' at Machu Picchu. It's not really hidden, but it's not much visited, especially in the mornings.
The location is a bit inconvenient.
It's at the bottom of the mountain on which Machu Picchu is located, about 2 km from Aguas Calientes.
When you take the bus from Aguas Calientes, it will take you directly to Machu Picchu Citadel at the top, ignoring by the museum. So you either need to walk there from Aguas Calientes or walk down the hill from Machu Picchu (like I did on the previous day, but I didn't want to go to the museum then).
Most people don't do that. Especially not in the morning.
If you have a ticket to Machu Picchu, entrance to the museum is free, put only after noon. So the people who go to the museum tend to be those who visited the main site in the morning or early afternoon and then walk down the footpath the bottom of the mountain and then to the museum.
(Which created a bit of confusion when I got there. You need to enter the protected site of Machu Picchu (which includes the bottom part and the museum) and the guard there asked me for my ticket and pointed out that it said "Museum 12:00" and didn't want to let me pass, as it was around 10:30. But I knew that the museum was open and didn't want to stand around for 90 minutes. Luckily, helped by a smartphone and Google Translate, we managed to sort out that I was willing to pay the museum entrance fee and I got waved in.)
As people who had a morning ticket to Machu Picchu were still up at the citadel and people with an afternoon ticket were probably still on the train, heading for Aguas Calientes, there would have been few visitors at the time in any case. But as entrance would be free 90 minutes later, visitors were even less inclined to head for the museum at that time.
So there was only one other visitor in the museum. Not exactly a 'hidden museum' - but a slightly desolate one.
The museum is small, but tries to be informative. But the primary message, even in the museum, is still "we don't really know". There are some artefacts on display, but it's a small number. When the place was abandoned, not much had been left behind. (A couple of pins, a handful of copper knifes, some pieces of pottery and some shaped stones.)
But it was a nice morning. And there's a small botanical garden next to the museum (visited by nobody at all). So I walked along its path until I found a suitable place, sat down, read and relaxed a little and enjoyed the final full day of the short vacation in Peru.
Later I collected my luggage at the hotel and took the train back to Poroy. (Again, taking the luggage on the train was no issue.)
After about two hours ride on the train, there was a familiar sight through the upper panoramic windows.
I noticed that we were passing Skylodge at about the time of day when I was heading up to it two days earlier and assumed that some people would currently be on the Via Ferrata.
I did spot a group, but I didn't manage to get a sharp picture and some powerlines were in the way (the group is not really walking on gigantic tightropes). But the pictures still give an impression what it must be like to walk up to the Skylodge the usual way.
After catching a taxi in Poroy I went back to Cusco and spent the night there.
Next morning I took the plane to Lima. And from there, home again. (At least I did. My luggage sometimes likes to take longer vacations than I do, took the scenic route and arrived a day later. Although I quite liked the scenery my flight had...)
Taking the taxi to the airport was a bit odd, though. The drive was ok. But when we arrived at the airport, the driver had no idea what the ride should cost. (Which is a bit odd - town center to airport should be a common usual ride.) So he asked me whether I remembered what I paid for the ride to the hotel. Not only had I no idea, I also had a different hotel for the first night in Cusco, so the distance was different. It also seemed a bit like a trick question. In any case, he then quoted a price that seemed reasonable and I paid that. But it seemed an odd way to run a business. (If he'd asked an outrageous amount, I might have been less surprised. But unless he was hoping for me to say "Well, I paid $100 for the 15 minute right to the hotel, so why don't you overcharge me as well?" (and I might also have answered "Well, the right to the hotel was only a dollar."), there's little reason for asking me what the price should be. So it seemed more like genuine uncertainty than anything else.)
In any case - I went to Peru and manage to spend my birthday in a 'hotel room' on the side of a cliff!
A bit worrying before the trip, but well worth it!
As an addition, but that only occurred to me on the flight back, I experienced all four seasons within a single week, as I had been in Peru during the winter solice. So I left Berlin in (northern hemisphere) spring, arrived during (southern hemisphere) autumn, witness the change to winter and then flew back to the northern hemisphere, where it was now summer.
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