The Magic Hour

Leaving Cañon del Colca after just two days seemed a shame, as this was a place that deserved much more exploration on foot, hoof, or by moto.  But we had tickets to Machu Picchu in just a few days, so it was time to pack up and go.  We managed to get the bikes successfully out of the hostel without me falling into the cactus again, and off we went towards the Sacred Valley.  We had planned that our route would run to the east a bit and then cut straight north, taking two days with a stop somewhere in between.  But when it was time to turn northward, we saw that our proposed route was used by tons of mining trucks forming up in trains, and the dust would be horrendous.  So instead we continued east toward Lago Titicaca for a few hours, and revised our plan to turn north on the paved road running up through the northern Altiplano.

The road continuing east was high, fairly flat, cold, and starkly beautiful.  The land is dry and mostly brown grass-covered hills and mountains, with low brush and few trees.  There are occasional lakes and rivers, and at times snow on the volcanoes and hills.  It looks like it should be hot here, but the elevation insures that it is quite cold and windy.  People live by herding alpaca and cattle, or by working in the mining industry.

For the first time on the entire trip, near the little town of Santa Lucia, I had a cop ask me point-blank for money.  Jalene and I keep our intercoms open at security checkpoints, and I overheard “her” cop ask only to see her passport, and so I, turning back to the other cop, said loudly “Dinero, o solo un pasaporte?” (“Money, or just a passport?”), at which point “my” cop instantly shouted that everything was okay, and we were cleared to go.  He couldn’t wave me out of there fast enough.  Having told this story, however, I must say that our experiences with cops and soldiers at checkpoints and such on this trip have almost always been friendly and professional, and very often end up with us taking group photos together.  One police officer in Peru even tore off the flag patch that was Velcroed to his uniform, and gave it to me – a treasure!

It was kind of frustrating having to head east further than we wanted, and we ended up staying in the busy town of Juliaca, not far from Lago Titicaca.  We managed to find a hotel in town with secure parking, threw our stuff into the room, and headed out to find an ATM and some dinner.  We were tired and unhappy, being pushed so far out of our way, and having to ride so far north tomorrow to get to where we needed to be.  Little did we know what a beautiful ride we had ahead of us.

We rose, found breakfast, and pointed the bikes northwest out of town.  On the way, we had to cross railroad tracks where the pavement was completely broken away around them, and heavy traffic forced us to cross them at the worst possible point.  Jalene’s kickstand caught on one as she went over.  It nearly tore the wide aluminum foot off the stand, but she made it across okay, and I pulled the mutilated foot off at the first gas stop.  Lowering a bike an inch comes with its perils when traveling in foreign lands where the roads can throw surprises.

Leaving Juliaca, we rolled northwest out onto the Altiplano grasslands.  We were on broad, flats plains, with grass fields on either side of us, and low hills in the distance to the right and left.  The GPS told me we were slowly and gradually rising.  The railroad tracks ran beside us all that day, sometimes on our left, sometimes our right, but we traveled together all day.  From time to time we would see a pond of water, and it was such a surprise to see flamingos here, at such an elevation and where it is so cold.  This is lonely country, and hard to describe here.  Things can be hidden in the monotone brown and tan of the fields.  We stopped for a break, and rolled a little ways off the road, out into a level field of stubble.  Once we had our helmets off, we noticed the person sitting on the ground not 50 feet away from us, keeping an eye on the llamas a little ways off.  With a nod, a smile, and a wave, we acknowledged each other, and returned to watching our own worlds.

As we moved north, the far-off hills slowly advanced on us, and we eventually found ourselves riding up a broad valley.  We stopped for the night in Sicuani, and rang the bell at the gate of Hostel Sicuani.  Inside the gate, to our surprise, we parked the bikes on a very nice lawn, and we were shown our room with a comfortable bed and hot shower.  We slept soundly, and enjoyed a nice breakfast in the sunshine the next morning before heading northwest again.   Again, we paralleled the railroad tracks up the valley, finally cresting gently over at about 4,300 meters (14,100’), and began our journey into the Sacred Valley.  The light had a yellow-gold feel, and the air was thin, cold, and crisp.  We caught sight of glaciers above us at times. Fences made of stacked stone ran everywhere on the mountainsides.  At times there must have been huge numbers of grazing animals, llamas and sheep, to be tended.  For us they seemed common enough, but not in overwhelming numbers, by any means.  It was difficult to see what kept people going in this land, but it was very obvious that they had been here a long, long time.  Houses and structures showed the wear and erosion of wind and weather.  Paint has a hard life here, and most all of it was pretty patchy.

At the end of the day we found our hostel in Ollantaytambo.  From here, we had tickets the next day on the train that would take us up to Aquas Calientes, the town that sits along the river directly below Machu Picchu.  We would stay the night there, and see the Sacred City early the following morning, returning to Ollantaytambo that evening on the train.  Walking up to the plaza, we found ourselves amidst many Europeans and North Americans.  Buses were pulling in and out, full of tourists, and we could hear the train whistle from just below at the station.  Locals were selling lots of knitted alpaca items, blankets, hats, and so on.  It’s always such a contrast to see a traditional Peruvian woman with her brightly colored handmade alpaca wares spread out on a table on the sidewalk, and the ATM machine on the bank wall right beside her.  It takes courage to approach a group of brightly dressed women all talking together, but if you are polite and use your best attempt at Espaniol to ask a question, it’s easy to get a photos of them, especially if you give a few coins “for the baby” that is always slung across the back in a big shawl-like cloth.

In the afternoon, we secured our motorcycles inside our hostel in Ollantaytambo and caught the train up to Aguas Calinetes, along the river.  Initially, we gently curved back and forth, passing farmland on either side.  The train rolls along narrow-gauge tracks, and even at the slow pace it goes, rocks back and forth along the uneven rails.  We followed the river, and while the ride only takes a couple of hours, we saw a huge change in the landscape.  As the valley walls closed in, the brown grasses and scrubland changed dramatically to a beautiful, lush green forest, with tall rock cliffs rising directly up from the river.  When we exited the train, we knew that an ancient city was perched right above us, but we could see no sign of it from the valley floor.

We found our hotel, and then wandered the tourist-laden streets for awhile.  We searched out some great stickers for the bikes, trying different stalls to find the best price, then rewarding ourselves with ice cream and a seat in a side-street park.  After returning to the hotel for a nap, we ventured out to find some food in the rain, but we didn’t like the prices at most places, so settled for cheap Chifa, which is Peruvian Chinese food.  After that we hunkered down for the evening – it was our first night away from the motorcycles in over a year.

We were told that the best time for seeing Machu Picchu was early in the morning, and that buses started running at 6am.  We got in line at about 5am, and the line was already at 500 yards long, at least.  The first person in line said they had arrived about 3am.  Our concern was unfounded, as buses were leaving as fast as they could load people, and we soon found ourselves bounding upward on the Hiram Bingam Highway, which is a good switchback road but you still feel like you are just putting your life in the hands of the bus driver and hoping for the best.  We’d made it this far, hadn’t we?  Sometimes it’s best to quit fretting and just enjoy the ride.

Machu Picchu was crowded with noisy tourists, waving selfie-sticks everywhere, and mostly concerned with finding great spots to take photos of themselves to post on social media.  It was loud, and swarming with people.  The magic was just not there as we imagined it would be.  We joined a two-hour tour right away, and that turned out for the best, because any photos would be full of tourists, our ears were already full of loud people, and meaningful contemplation was, well, unthinkable.  I enjoyed hearing our guide (and other guides) explain the history and culture for a couple of hours.  We hiked up to the Sun Gate after awhile to see what the place looked like from above, and to just get away from the crowd.  The Sun Gate is a point on the ridge above where the Inca Trail comes over, and you see the city for the first time.  In the morning, the sun rises behind it.  It was overcast, so the light was flat and had a bit of haze.  While we were impressed with the size and beauty of Machu Picchu, we were somehow left uninspired, disappointed by the crowded tourist-trap atmosphere.  After killing some time at lunch in the cafeteria, we went back in, and that’s when our ho-hum day started to change.

People begin to leave in the middle of the afternoon.  As we sat on an isolated set of stone steps, we noticed that the crowds had really thinned out, and that the late afternoon sun was slanting in below the high clouds above.  At about 4pm, I took the opportunity to climb back up the “Guard House”, which gives the classic picture-book view of the city from above.  The light had gone soft and golden, and there were only three of us, quietly taking photos where before there had been dozens trying to shoulder their way around.  The city below was near-empty, and finally the magic had returned to Machu Picchu.  My advice? Forget about sunrise, you’re just fighting everyone else who wants the same thing.  It’s already light by the time the buses start from the bottom.  Go up mid-to-late morning, take a tour, relax, and hang around for the crowds to leave.  Four in the afternoon was the magic time for me.  The park closes at 5, and it’s the last hour that I would never miss.

Machu Picchu is described in so many books and TV shows that I don’t think I need go into detail about it, but it is certainly an amazing place to visit for yourself.  We’ve all seen photos of how tightly the rocks fit together, but seeing it in reality is a shock.  There are some stones with many angles cut into them, and sure enough, you really can’t fit a piece of paper into the joints, they fit so perfectly.  There are hundreds of structures all packed together, and large, grassy lawns that suggest a central plaza area.  The surrounding mountains are stunning in their steepness, height, and beauty.  One can look down to the river below and see the train snaking along, secure in your near-invisibility from high above.

I had noticed people working diligently with small brushes and squeeze-bottles, and it looked like they were cleaning the stones, or working to conserve them in some manner.  Just before we left, I approached two fellows just gathering up their tools at the end of the day and asked what they were up to.  They were cleaning the stones of lichens, they explained, using only soft wooden tools, toothbrushes, and distilled water.  Lichens produce acid, and over time will erode the stone surface.  One showed me a stone he had cleaned that afternoon, and in about two hours he had cleaned the lichen off about two square feet of surface.  I understood that they are part of a team of about ten, and they work continuously to keep the lichens under control.  They have a job that will last forever.

Afterward, we rode back down in the buses, and splurged a bit at a nice pizza restaurant near the train station.  Just outside our window, the river ran by, and on the far side a granite rock wall soared vertically up out of the river, out of sight over our heads.  Air plants dotted it by the thousands, merging into a leafy green above.  Somewhere on top we had wandered around just an hour before, amongst the remains of the Sacred City, but now here we were back in white-tablecloth civilization in the blink of an eye.  It seemed a little dream like.

So yes, it’s a big tourist scene, but don’t let that throw you.  Go to Machu Picchu, hang out and relax through the afternoon.  I hope you will find your own magic hour.

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Lots of cool new photos here.