Travel & Food

Llamas and Nausea and Ruins, Oh My! My Trip to Machu Picchu.

My last post was a bunch of logorrhea and omphaloskepsis about my experience at Machu Picchu. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s cut out the five-dollar words and see some pictures!

I’m going to start in Cusco. If you’d rather skip this part and go directly to the sections about Machu Picchu, you can click here. Just go ahead. Jump over my carefully crafted, witty prose and wonderful photos. I don’t care. Whatever.

Getting There Wasn’t Half the Fun. It Was No Fun.

One does not simply walk into Machu Picchu. Getting there requires trains, planes, and automobiles, but not in that order.

Also a bus.

First, you fly to Cusco, which is 11,150 feet (3,400 meters) above sea level. Everyone warned the Complimentary Spouse and me about the lack of oxygen at that altitude, but I didn’t feel it one bit!

For about five minutes, anyway.

By the time we reached the baggage carousel, I was breathing heavily and felt a twinge of nausea. (Spoiler alert: Nausea will be a recurring theme in this travelogue.)

From Cusco, you need to get to Ollantaytambo, which is about two hours by car East-northeast. We had arranged for a driver to take us there. My half-assed Spanish was better than his nonexistent English, so Britt didn’t understand a word we said, and I’m not sure the driver and I understood each other either.

About an hour into the drive, I was severely nauseated. I asked the driver to pull over at the next shoulder, hopped out, and heaved for a few minutes.

Are we close to Machu Picchu yet, Dave? Not even close. Calm down.

Ollantaytambo is notable for only one thing: the Ollantaytambo train station.1 I got some water, and we boarded the train to Aguas Calientes. I instantly felt sick, as if someone had turned my nausea dial up to 11. I tried to focus on the landscape rolling past the window. Then I closed my eyes and listened to relaxing music on my headphones. This was interrupted by a rather loud and lousy Incan dance performance in the middle of the trip.2

From Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes

Two queasy hours later, I stepped off the train and into a maze of souvenir shops. Aguas Calientes is the town closest to Machu Picchu, and its sole industry seems to be tourism — hotels, restaurants, tour guides, and souvenirs. It’s the Kissimmee of the Sacred Valley: A place that’s only visited because it’s close to the place people really want to visit.3

A view of Aguas Calientes.
Not a Starbucks or Marriott in sight. That’s OK.
View of Aguas Calientes
The Urubamba River bisects Agua Calientes.
A view of the Urubamba River.
For dinner, we went to Full House Peruvian Cuisine. Our table overlooked the Urubamba River.
A dish of lomo salteado and a glass of pisco sour.
I ordered the lomo salteado with alpaca. Looks good, but how will it taste?
Dave bites into some lomo salteado.
Alpaca doesn’t taste like chicken. It’s very lean and somewhat sweet. Texture-wise, it’s somewhere between tough and chewy. I was a bit disappointed, but I was in a touristy restaurant in a touristy town, which often doesn’t equate to quality meals.

We spent the night in a hotel whose staircase was inspired by M.C. Escher. In the morning, we met our guide, boarded a bus, and headed at last to Machu Picchu.

And, since I know you’re curious, the road was indeed narrow, twisty, and nausea-inducing.

Morning at Machu Picchu

At last, we had arrived at one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World, the snack bar outside Machu Picchu.

Our guide, Mauro, suggested we wait about half an hour for the best views. Right now, he explained, the site would be shrouded in fog. Later, there would be no fog at all. In 30 minutes, things would be spectacular.

Boy oh boy, he was right.

After walking up about eight flights of uneven, rocky stairs, we turned the corner and saw this:

A view of Machu Picchu, framed by branches and leaves.
With all due respect to Carl Sandburg, the fog creeps in on little alpaca feet.

A few minutes later, Mauro offered to snap a photo. Who were we to refuse?

A panorame of Machu Picchu taken from the upper terrace with Britt and Dave on the left.
Our heads are in the clouds. As usual.

If you move those two handsome gentlemen out of the way, here’s what you’d see:

Machu Picchu in the fog, as seen from the upper terrace area.
A spectacular view from the upper platform as the fog begins to burn off.

The weather was pleasant — 65°F (18°C) with 68% humidity — but the trek was quite a workout and Britt and I warmed up quickly.

Machu Picchu is 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) above sea level — well below Cusco, but high enough to make breathing difficult. There was a lot of uphill and downhill walking, and the stairs were treacherous, so we had to walk carefully.

By George, There Are Some Animals Here

First, here’s a llama …

A single llama.

And a llama, llama, llama, llama …

Four llamas
… llama, llama, llama, llama …

And now a chameleon.

A lizard (or other reptile) peeking out from the rocks.
… chameleon.

Now, let’s all sing it together!

Llama, llama, llama, llama, chameleon.
You come and go, you come and go.
Loving would be easy if your colors were like my dreams.
Red, gold, and green, red, gold, and green.4

A Closer View

What can I say about the view from the upper terrace? This view is as iconic as the Mona Lisa — everyone on the planet has seen it — but it’s another thing to be there and experience it for yourself.5

The fog burned off quickly, revealing this view from the upper terrace.
Britt and Dave look at Machu Picchu. Their backs are to the camera.
This photo is in no way staged.
Dave and Britt sitting on a rock with Machu Picchu in the background.
Three of the Wonders of the Modern World.

Urban Legend

From the upper terrace, we slowly worked our way down to what’s called the urban zone. “Urban” simply means it is where people lived, worked, and congregated. It is not, as you probably thought, named after Australian country musician Keith Urban.

Main Temple
The stones in the Main Temple fit together so precisely that the Incas didn’t need to use mortar or fill in any gaps. Some spots look a little worse for wear, but that doesn’t make the building any less impressive. Let’s see how good your house looks after 500 years.
The Temple of the Three Windows
The Temple of the Three Windows also features precision Inca stonework.
The Temple of the Condor in Machu Picchu
The Temple of the Condor combines natural rock formations with Incan stonework.

Mauro said that it’s very likely that human sacrifices were performed at the Temple of the Condor, which makes it very unlike any of the temples I’ve ever belonged to. Our services usually end with a little nosh. As advanced as the Incas were, I don’t think they had mini black-and-white cookies.

Heading Out

You know how you can check out of the Hotel California any time you want, but you can never leave?

Machu Picchu isn’t like that. Visitors have a four-hour maximum limit, and you can leave. In fact, I think they’d be quite upset if you tried to stay.

Machu Picchu vista
From this angle, you can see where we began our Machu Picchu adventure. So many ups and downs.
Sacred Rock at Machu Picchu.
Sacred Rock was one of the last things we saw on our tour. Its shape matches that of nearby Yanantin Mountain, and it could be used to track astronomical and solar movements. It was also used for offerings and sacrifices. If you ignore the death stuff, it was basically the Apple Watch of its day.

Presented for Your Consideration

My short video about Machu Picchu won the Palm d’Or at Cannes.

By the Numbers

Here’s how long and far we travelled:

  • Time spent at Machu Picchu: 2 hours, 49 minutes
  • Total distance: 1.25 miles (2 km)
  • Total flights climbed: 109
  • Cumulative elevation gain: 252 feet (77 meters)

More Long and Winding Roads

Before heading back to Cusco, we had to return to Aguas Calientes. That meant, once again, a nausea-inducing ride on a bus along comically narrow roads with no guardrails. Would I throw up? Plummet to my death? Or both?

Fortunately, neither. So we were able to treat Mauro to lunch at a restaurant whose name I have forgotten.

Lunch with our tour guide, Mauro, after our Machu Picchu visit.
Lunch with our tour guide, Mauro, after our Machu Picchu visit.

I was still somewhat nauseated, so Mauro ordered me a glass of muna tea. Muna is similar to, but not quite the same as, mint. It settled my stomach for a while.

Muna tea
This is the teabag equivalent of going commando.

At last, the time had come to reverse our steps and return to Cusco. After receiving our bags from the hotel, we boarded the train to Ollantaytambo. My nausea returned as soon as the train started moving, and because I was facing backward, it was twice as bad as the previous day.

It took about 15 minutes to locate our driver in the chaos outside the Ollantaytambo train station. Less than two queasy hours later, we arrived at our hotel.

Our Machu Picchu adventure had come to an end, but there’s an old Incan proverb I learned that comes to mind when I think of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As they say in Quechua, the language of the Incans: “Ama kaypi wiksaykipi kaqta qarquychu.”

Rough English translation: “Do not throw up here.”

The Footnotes
  1. If anyone from the Ollantaytambo tourism authority is reading this, your town was full of culture, history, and entertainment. Don’t @ me. ↩︎
  2. If anyone from Inca Rail is reading this, your dance demonstration was full of culture, history, and entertainment. Don’t @ me. ↩︎
  3. If anyone from the Aguas Calientes tourism authority is reading this, your town was full of culture, history, and entertainment. Don’t @ me. ↩︎
  4. If Boy George is reading this, holy fucking shit! How awesome! You can definitely @ me. ↩︎
  5. Seeing Machu Picchu for real is incredible. Seeing the Mona Lisa for real is a huge letdown. Just buy a postcard from the Louvre gift shop. Also, if anyone from the Paris tourism authority is reading this, your big museum was full of culture, history, and entertainment. Don’t @ me. ↩︎