Our first solo international adventure: Machu Picchu!
Colin Dunham and Rachel Davenport
1. Don't die.
2. Don't get robbed.
3. Don't get scammed, swindled, conned, or otherwise cheated out of money.
4. See Machu Picchu.
5. Make it back to the airport in time for our flight.
As far as preparation goes, we bought our plane tickets to Arica (in northern Chile) a week and a half in advance, and the choosing of the dates went something like this:
"How about this one? It's the cheapest."
"Ohh, we have a final exam that day. What about the next?"
"Ok, yeah sure. When should we come back?"
"Well, it's usually cheaper to fly in the middle of the week."
"I hope that's enough time..."
"Me too. Let's do it."
And besides that very well-thought-out flight planning, we knew the names of the towns we'd probably have to take buses to to finally get to Machu Picchu. Period.
And so we set off.
Thursday, July 5th
Colin and I packed our bags and met at the bus station to catch a bus to Santiago. This was probably the least scary part of our trip, as it was the only part we'd done before. After a two hour bus ride and a shuttle to the airport, we checked our bags and settled in at our gate to wait. I pulled out my handy-dandy book of brain games (which my awesome mom sent me for my birthday!), and we got so lost in solving them that we didn't notice that they changed the gate for our flight and we almost missed it! Other than that, our flights to Arica were peacefully uneventful.
When we did finally get to Arica at 11-something at night, a nice man named Raul told us he was the last taxi left for the night, so we let him take us to the bus station. He told us all about Arica and lamented the fact that we didn't have more time to spend exploring it. He gave us his card for the return trip and dropped us off outside the bus station. And thus began the scariest part of our trip.
We stepped out of the taxi and toward the outdoor part of a now-closed bus station, in the middle of the night, filled with people milling about an assortment of cars and tiny ticket windows. Before we even stepped through the gate someone waiting there asked, "Tacna?" (the next step in our journey, a town just across the border in Peru). So I said yes and he whisked us off to the nearest little booth and told us to buy the 50 cent tickets they were selling. I have since come to find out that it was essentially a fee for using the bus station, called a tiqueta de embarque, but it was pretty confusing at the time. Then he ran over to what appeared to be his own car, took our bags and put them in his trunk, and asked for our passports. All the while, I'm starting to regret following him and wondering if there are any less-sketchy options available. But I handed him my passport anyway. Colin, however, was so hesitant to let it out of his possession that his actually fell on the ground as he was handing it over. Heightening our nervousness, he told us to "just get in the car" and ran across the dirt parking lot to another window. Needless to say, Colin and I did not get in the car, but rather watched nervously as our passports disappeared out of sight. He did eventually come back with them, and as far as I know our identities have not been stolen, so I think we survived breaking the cardinal rule of international travel: Never let your passport out of your sight! And the guy was nice enough, he helped us figure out what to do as we crossed the border in the middle of the night, and when we finally got to Tacna at 1am and everything was dark and scary and foreign, he drove us to a nice, relatively cheap hotel. Yes, you read correctly... we were so freaked out we opted for a hotel instead of a hostel. And it was a wonderful choice.
|In our safe, warm, cozy hotel room.|
Friday, July 6th
We woke up bright and early Friday morning to take what would be (unbeknownst to us) our last hot showers for quite a while. Then we proceeded to wolf down our free hot breakfast since we had forgotten to eat dinner in the confusion of the night before. We took a taxi back to the bus station (which was very slightly less intimidating in daylight), and bought bus tickets from the first guy who yelled "Arequipa!" and gave us a "reduced" price. Still convinced we were going to be robbed, Colin ventured one picture as we waited in the bus station.
|Tacna bus station|
On our first double-decker bus, we sat in the front row on the top floor: right in front of a giant windshield. We were excited to get to watch the south-Peruvian landscape go by on our seven-hour journey. This is what we saw:
Sand, sand, and more sand.
Fog, fog, and more fog.
When we weren't driving on the road so straight it looked like it would take us right over the horizon, we were whipping around tight curves in a thick fog, taking up a lane and a half, and narrowly avoiding semi trucks trying to do the same.
We did pass a few patches of green along the way, and of course that's where little towns had sprung up.
Despite the less-than-captivating landscape, we did have a mostly enjoyable ride. We were only stopped once to take all the passengers and luggage out at a drug checkpoint, and lucked out in the seatmate category. We ended up with Michael and Susanne, a lovely couple from England who for their fifth wedding anniversary quit their jobs to take a year off and travel the world. This trip was toward the end of their three months in South America, but they still have New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, and India to go before they head home. We shared jokes and stories and memories and plans with them for many of the seven hours we spent on that bus, and we are very grateful we had them there to help us pass the time.
When we did finally make it to Arequipa, we looked for the Oltursa counter (a great recommendation from our good friend Ronald), and bought tickets for the next bus to Cusco. While we waited, we bought a delicious and long-overdue lunch, which we ate for about $1.60 each. (Turns out we should have studied in Peru!) A few hours later, we loaded up once more, on a much nicer bus this time, and settled in for a 10-hour bus ride. They even served us dinner and played us a movie as we fell asleep.
Saturday, July 7th
Want to know the best way to travel? Go to sleep in Arequipa and wake up in Cusco. Granted, I do sleep rather better in an actual bed, and a shower would have been nice, but I'm not complaining. We saved whatever money we would have spent on a place to sleep, and what would have been an entire day of bus-riding. And on top of that, when you arrive at a bus station at 6am, the usual throng of taxi drivers and bus ticket-sellers has not arrived to accost confused travelers yet. So that was a plus. It gave Colin and I a chance to sit down and recover our groggy brains and try and figure out what to do next. I couldn't actually remember the name of the next town we were supposed to go to, and it was too small for any of the bus companies to go to, so we were kind of at a loss. On top of that, I was still worried about being scammed by taxi drivers or anyone else who might be able to make money off of us. We decided to ask a nice girl working for a bus company (that for sure didn't go to this town), what the best way to get to Machu Picchu was. She was very nice and wrote down the next two steps for us: a taxi to Calle Pavitos, and a carro to Ollantaytambo. No wonder I couldn't remember the name. So we grabbed a taxi driver and asked him to take us to Calle Pavitos.
Apparently everyone is very used to tourists trying to get to Machu Picchu, because before the taxi even came to a complete stop, the men at Calle Pavitos were pulling our backpacks out of the trunk and throwing them on the luggage rack on top of a van. We asked the taxi driver as we were getting out if this was the right way to get to Ollantaytambo, and he said yes, not looking phased at all by the speed with which everything was happening. So we loaded up once again and took a two hour ride through the (this time beautiful) Peruvian countryside. We skirted mountains and valleys until we made it to the far side of Ollantaytambo where the train station waited for us.
|The view on the way to Ollantaytambo|
By this point we were getting used to walking up to counters and asking strangers what to do, so we marched right up to the first window and asked for the cheapest and soonest train to Aguascalientes. It was only barely 9am, so we figured we'd have time to get there and get settled in and explore the town a little, so we could head to Machu Picchu bright and early in the morning. Then the man in the window said "We have no more spaces on the trains till tomorrow.”
Keep in mind step number five of The Plan: Make it back to the airport in time for our flight. We had absolutely not planned on losing nearly an entire day before even getting to Machu Picchu.
|Some ruins we saw on the way to Aguascalientes. Machu Picchu, here we come!|
But we arrived in Aguascalientes and there were indeed hostels, so we booked a room in the first one we saw. (A regrettable decision, but like I said, I was fighting a panic attack...) Once we had a place to leave our backpacks, we wandered around Aguascalientes for a while. We looked through the feria, found an ATM so we could take out money, and sat down to eat lunch at a place that offered us the "student discount:" anything on the menu for ten dollars. After some delicious pesto pasta and lamb stew, we went back to our hostel and prepared to face the shower.
|Yes, those are electrical wires running through our water supply...|
As far as I've ever heard, the combination of water and electricity is a bad idea. I felt like I was going to get electrocuted just looking at it! And if it doesn't look scary enough, vaguely remembering an explanation that involves an electric current running through the water right before it lands on your head made it no less than terrifying. Regardless, after two long days of travel, we didn't really have a choice. So Colin kindly risked his life first, and I waited for the verdict. And the verdict was: Cold. Like, ICE COLD. We tried everything. We flipped every switch and turned every knob, including (accidentally) the one that shuts off the water to our room. Defeated and frozen, we retreated to our beds and promptly crashed for several hours.
When the noise of extraordinarily loud music woke me, I dragged Colin out of his bed to explore the town with me. It turned out we had just happened to arrive the day that Machu Picchu was celebrating its 50th anniversary as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World! So we made our way to the square to listen to the music, and ended up dancing the night away with some Brazilian girls named Raquel and Camila.
Sunday, July 8th
We woke up bright and early (again), and set off to fulfill a dream. We bundled up and took a bus up the side of one of the mountains which encircle Aguascalientes, and after about 40 minutes of switchbacks, we arrived at the gate. Aside from being asked if we wanted a tour guide, we just showed our tickets and were free to go.
When we rounded the corner, the only thought that would fit in my head was "We're really here. This is real life."
Even through the clouds of the morning, the view was breathtaking.
We spent hours walking through every part of the ruins we could.
|Colin's Inca-sized too!|
|Look, I'm Inca-sized!|
We even met llamas!
And an interesting animal we don't know... some relative of the jackelope?
After a while we decided to try out the trek to the Inca Bridge. It ended up being only a 15 minute walk with a pretty cool view at the end.
Inspired, we set off to see the Sun Gate too. Only this was an hour long hike. Up a mountain. In the rain. When we finally did reach the top, it was just a few stone walls and a lot of clouds. We waited there under our tiny umbrella for the clouds to clear and for us to catch our breath, then we took a few pictures of Machu Picchu (which is breathtaking even from that far away, and which did indeed make the hike worth it), and headed back down.
By that time all the fog and clouds had finally burned off, so we found ourselves a spot and just sat down to soak in as much beauty as we could.
|And of course, by "sat down" I mean "took jump pictures."|
When my legs couldn't handle any more climbing and our eyes couldn't take in any more beauty and our stomachs couldn't go any longer without food, we headed back to the bus to go down. In Aguascalientes, we did what any starving American would do: we found a restaurant and ordered a family-size pepperoni pizza. And we ate the whole thing.
We rested much easier that night knowing that we had accomplished the second-most-important step in the plan: along with not having died (yet), we had seen Machu Picchu.
Monday, July 9th
The journey home was infinitely more relaxing than the initial trip since this time we knew how long things would take, what to look for, and that each step was indeed possible. We spent the morning on the train back to Ollantaytambo and then got in the first van that said he was going to Cusco. At the bus terminal, we bought our tickets for the overnight trip to Arequipa and splurged a little, opting for the bus cama (bed bus) instead of just the semi-cama (semi-bed).
We had nowhere to be from 1pm to 7:30pm, so we set out to explore Cusco. We found a decent looking chicken place and ordered the special, which turned out to be an appetizer, chicken noodle soup, and a pork chop with rice for $2.20. That's two dollars and twenty cents. We ordered drinks as well, and with tax and tip thrown in, Colin and I had a three-course meal for four dollars each. We should have studied in Peru.
After lunch, we wandered around for a while looking for the Plaza de Armas, the central plaza in Cusco. Along the way we ran into some ladies decked out in their traditional garb, one with a baby slung on her back, and the other with a lamb on a leash. My "tourist trap" radar is apparently not very good, because all I saw was a baby lamb I wanted to pet. As we walked by, they asked if we wanted a picture, so we took them up on it. I handed the lady with the lamb about a dollar to thank her for the picture, and then she stopped me from walking away and said "for her too?" The smallest thing I had left was a coin worth two dollars, so I may or may not have been swindled out of three dollars. But I got to pet a lamb. :)
We did end up finding the Plaza de Armas and spent a few hours walking around, people-watching, taking pictures, and saying "no, gracias" to shoe-shiners. Like, at least ten shoe-shiners told me in broken English that my shoes were dirty. Thanks. Unfortunately I do not have a heart of stone, so when 11-year-old Rodrigo came by and said it was for his school, I couldn't say no anymore. We found out while he was shining my shoes that he knows the capital of the US and our president, he learned to shine shoes from watching other people do it, and that he wants to be a tour guide when he grows up.
The two churches across the street from the Plaza de Armas were beautiful, and they had some interesting statues built into their walls.
It wasn't actually in the Plaza de Armas, but we stumbled upon this awesome mural of Incan history while meandering around Cusco.
When the sun went down and it got too cold to be outside, we went back to the bus station to wait. And that bed bus was worth the wait. The chairs were huge and comfy and reclined, they fed us dinner, dessert, and tea, and they gave us headphones for the movie. (My Name is Khan, a tear-jerker if I've ever seen one.)
Tuesday, July 10th
If the bed bus wasn't already on my list of recommendations, it would have made it in the morning when they turned the lights on just outside of Arequipa so they could bring us breakfast.
|Bus cama, so worth the wait.|
The bus from Arequipa to Tacna was not even comparable. We endured nearly six hours of kids alternately screaming, crying, growling, yelling, and singing, our only distraction being a bootleg copy of Ice Age 4 in Spanish. But we survived and immediately hopped in a car to Arica when we got off the bus. Thankfully, the car-across-the-border system felt significantly less sketchy the second time, in the daylight. When we did make it back into Chile, a taxi driver kindly took us to a hostel he knew of, and we spent a relaxed evening walking around Arica, eating our last Chorillanas in Chile, and watching Big Bang Theory. We finally knew we were going to achieve goal number five of The Plan: make it back to the airport for our flight.
Wednesday, July 11th
And make it we did. We got a ride back to the airport and flew uneventfully back to Santiago and then home.
All around, it was the trip of a lifetime, just like this whole study abroad experience. I wouldn't trade a second of it for the world.