Part I: Machu Picchu
Take that, naysayers... I went to Machu Picchu five months pregnant in the rainy season and survived to tell the tale! Not only that, but I enjoyed myself quite thoroughly... thank you very much! ;)
Machu Picchu was everything it's cracked up to be and more. It is the cherry on the top of this trip. I am so very glad that we came. Cross another one off the bucket list.
We caught the bus and entered the park at around 6:30am, and didn't leave until 4:00pm. We hiked around most of that time, with only a 1-1.5 hour lunch break in between. I don't even know how many calories we burned, but I definitely treated myself to a Twix on the walk from the bus back to the hotel. I figured I probably burned at least that many calories and deserved a little sugar. ;)
I'm trying to think of how to even describe Machu Picchu for you. It's a much bigger complex than I had imagined. I mean, I knew it was big, but I guess I just wasn't expecting it to be SO extensive. We walked around for probably at least 8 hours and (with a few small exceptions) we didn't visit the same place twice. I think we got to pretty much everything in the main complex that didn't require a two hour separate one-way hike, but there's a chance we could have missed something even after eight hours of exploring. Wow.
The purpose of Machu Picchu is still debated by scholars, but the best guess is that it was built as an estate for the Incan king Pachacuti in the 1400s. It reminds me of the South American equivalent of a European castle and its grounds. It may have later served as a sort of Incan army base at the time of the Conquistadors, though the Conquistadors never found/looted Machu Picchu.
We started out by climbing the steps toward the higher parts of the ruins, and even ended up going onto part of the Inca Trail before turning back to the main site. We got some pretty incredible views from up there.
The only bummer to Machu Picchu is that the restrooms are located OUTSIDE of the entrance gates. You can re-enter the park, but it means going out, paying the 1 sole to use the restroom every time (yes, you end up having to pay to use the restroom at tourist attractions in a lot of foreign countries), then waiting in line to get back into the park, presenting your passport and ticket again, and hiking back to the ruins. I understand not wanting to disturb the site with restroom facilities, fine... but why not put them INSIDE of the gates? It would be a 20 foot difference. Also, it can be quite a long hike from some points of the ruins to the entrance gates and back. We had to put a lot of strategy into viewing different parts of the ruins, exiting, and coming back in to the park to maximize efficiency.
After our first 'break' if you will, we headed back to visit the main part of the ruins in more detail (rather than the upper trails). We saw the Temple of the Sun and bath houses, which were my favorite part. Did you know that they had running water at Machu Picchu? In both dry and rainy seasons, the water from a spring and condensation from the clouds runs down a series of ducts they carved that then cascade from bath house to bath house. The first was ceremonial, but the others were for domestic use. They were pretty cool. I'm sure they were running even heavier than normal with the off-and-on rain showers during the day.
We then climbed to another section with the sacred plaza and 'royal palace'. From the top of this area you can see over the other side of this wide yet narrow mountain, which is surrounded on three sides by the mighty Urumbaba river. We also encountered a cute little animal that is like all of our favorites in one... it looks like a rabbit-squirrel-chipmunk and is a bit larger than your average wild rabbit at home. We didn't know what it was at the time, but a little research tells me it's called a Viscacha. Simply adorable.
To exit the park again from there we had to go through the residential/industrial sector, even though we had intended to explore that part after lunch (for some reason, one of the park workers wouldn't let us go down the path that led to the exit and made us go around... even though it wasn't roped off and there were no signs, so strange). We went through them fairly quickly, but it still took quite a bit of time to get back to the entrance that way. Probably an extra hour (we might have stopped for some pictures, to be fair).
There is one place to have lunch up there... a buffet with Vegas prices at the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge just outside the gates. Again, it was okay... nothing to write home about, but it was sustenance. You're not supposed to bring food into the park (though we brought a few snacks just in case), though they didn't seem to enforce that... if we'd had any way to make a picnic lunch (there are no real grocery stores here that we've found) that might have been better if we could have gotten away with it. Oh well.
We explored the residential and industrial sector for the remainder of the afternoon. I know that saying 'it was really cool' is kind of lame, but it was... the amount of stone work in this place is incredible. I love how they worked with the large boulders already in the mountains, adding to them and carving them away. Simply amazing. We also met some friendly llamas (alpacas? something else?) that are apparently the residential 'lawn mowers' that eat the grasses to keep them trimmed.
I held off as long as I could, but by 4:00 I needed another 'break' and it turns out you can't re-enter the park after that time. So Jim an I said our goodbyes to Machu Picchu... just as well, we were both exhausted by that point and I think we covered just about everything.
All in all I really enjoyed the experience. It will be fun to tell my little Samuel that he climbed Machu Picchu in the womb, too, haha. I think he enjoyed it; he kicked around every now and again. ;) It did rain off and on through the day, though more off than on, but I was so glad that we were fully prepared with waterproof breathable hiking shoes, quick dry pants, rain coats, ponchos, and umbrellas. We used all of it. And the rain sort of added to the feel... it was misty and the clouds were low-lying giving everything a quiet, mystical feel. There were still lots of people there, almost too many for our tastes at the peak of the day, yet apparently it was still a lot less than enter the park during the high season. Once again, I prefer travel in the off season, apparently. Jim and I aren't really fans of big crowds; the ones there today were quite enough as it was.
Part II: Aguas Calientes Fails at Food
After such a long day of hiking around, a good dinner was essential. Unfortunately as it would turn out, Aguas Calientes doesn't have much of a food scene at all. I was polite yesterday when I said the "Mexican" food we tried wasn't anything to write home about... anyone who knows me knows that I'm not a super picky eater, but I couldn't finish these 'tacos', they turned my stomach, and the glasses they poured our drinks into smelled like they'd been dried with a musty towel. Yuck. Tonight, as we wandered around in search of food for dinner, we found that all of the restaurants are the same.
Don't get me wrong, I'm no snob... I'm perfectly content at hole-in-the-wall restaurants... they usually do their thing, and they do it well. The problem with these places is that they try too hard to cater to tourists. They try to make pretty much everything under the sun, and they do NONE of it well. I didn't know you could screw up pizza so bad, but this makes Dominoes look gourmet. Each restaurant serves pizza, Mexican food, Chinese food, Peruvian food, Italian food, soups, salads, everything... but they don't do any of it well. It's pretty bad when you walk up to two different restaurants and the people coming out of them tell you the food is not good. It's also a bad sign when the people on the street trying to get you to go into their restaurant literally try to barter with you to get you to go in... "okay, 30 soles and free drinks, any item on the menu... okay okay, 20 soles and free drinks..." you get the idea. Most of these places looked absolutely dead, either completely devoid of other diners or with one or two groups (the ones that came out and told us not to go). I've eaten at holes in the wall in southern China that hands down were waaay better... because they specialize in what they do well.
Not going to lie, I had a hormonal pregnant moment. It was dark, it was raining, I was tired and hungry, we'd been walking around for what had to be almost an hour finding 20,000 restaurants that all looked the same... not edible, jacks of all trades but masters of none. The last thing I wanted to get was food poisoning, and I was about ready to just go without dinner. I was nearly in tears (blaming the hormones) when Jim and I decided to go back to Inkaterra, where we had lunch yesterday. It's a hotel restaurant. I probably just killed a Semester at Sea angel, it's such a 'rich tourist' thing to do... but you know what, I tried.
This is where all the people were. The place was absolutely packed. And it may make me not a great traveler or whatever... but it was such a relief to see humanity; the mark of a good restaurant. This chef has to be trained well. They have a fixed menu; you choose an appetizer, main dish, and dessert for a fixed price. They have about 10 different dishes for each and they do those 10 dishes well. There are vegetarian options too. Every single thing we had (Jim and I always share bites to try one another's food) was exquisite, well presented, hot, and well-timed. I didn't question the cleanliness at all. They even have a guy whose sole job is to monitor tables and report on the radio (quietly) when a table needs attention. No waiting for more water and perfectly timed delicious dishes. They were also quick with the check... a rarity around here.
Jim and I decided to share dishes so that we could both try the cuy (guinea pig), which was on our 'bucket list' while also sharing some fettuccine. Both were great. Jim really loved the guinea pig. I thought it was good... I don't know that I'll add it to my 'favorite foods' list, but it was definitely palatable. It was prepared with candied orange rind and served on a bed of blended corn and potatoes.
All in all, I'm so glad that Inkaterra was there to 'save' me. While their prices are a little high, they aren't as outrageous as they could be; they are about what I'd expect to pay for a meal of the same quality in the United States. Highly recommended in a town without much of a food scene.