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Its 4:00 am in the morning, and it is dark and cold. About 50 folks are ahead of us in the queue at the bus stop at Aguas Calientes waiting for the bus to take us to the entrance to Machu Picchu, the first of which departs at 5:30 am. There are no limits on entry to view the ancient ruins, but only the first 200 at the entrance when it opens at 6 am get a pass to hike up the Wayna Picchu – the mountain in the background in most pictures of the ruins of Machu Picchu – a skippable add-on in hindsight, yet its exclusivity has us vying for access. The buses line up at 5:20, the first one leaves on time at 5:30, and after a 20 minute ride along switchback roads with breathtaking views of mountain tops surrounded by the early morning fog, we reach the entrance. By virtue of being within the first 200, we are given the coveted pass to hike up the Wayna Picchu.

The rising sun dissipates the fog that shrouds the ruins, revealing a site that is tranquil, timeless, and beautiful. The ancient walls with its roofs long gone, and the stepped farming slopes provide the framework with which to imagine how the Incas may have lived 5 centuries back. Along the edges of the ancient ruins, one can view the vast Urubamba valley with the Urubamba river appearing as a narrow stream from this great height. As I soak in the sights, I wonder if the Incas stared with similar wonderment at the vistas that surrounded them and contemplated on the beauty of nature.

At noon, we head back to the entrance to meet our guide. With our group we return to the ruins again. This time, thanks to the guide, the ancient structures take on a new meaning. We are told that the Incas built the city around the mid-1400s but abandoned it 100 years later during the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spanish conquistadors never found the ancient city and when Hiram Bingham, the Yale archaeologist and a possible inspiration for the Indiana Jones character, rediscovered it in 1911, it was covered in dense vegetation, unlike the clear sight that we view today. More details follow. The guided tour is essential to understanding and appreciating these ancient ruins.

After the tour and wandering around the ruins, we start on our hike up the Wayna Picchu, which I found quite exerting thanks to a 10 pound day-pack that I had been carrying. Parts of the trail have narrow steps leading up a fairly steep incline and passages through stone crevices that would not let me pass with a bag on my back. The view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding areas from the top of Wayna Picchu is worth the struggle up, though not exactly worth queuing up at the bus stop at 4 am in the morning. By evening we are back at our hostel in Aguas Calientes to pick up our backpacks and to catch the train back to Cusco, but not before eating up a pizza at one of the numerous pizzerias in this little town that seems to exist primarily to house and serve the many tourists drawn to Machu Picchu. Tired, we sleep through the 3-hour train journey.

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Cusco, with its dark gleaming cobbled streets and public squares made spectacular by cathedrals reaching out to the clear blue skies, reveals few signs except for the occasional Quechua name, of the having been the capital city of the Incas. Even Coricancha, supposedly the most sacred temple of the Incas that subsequently became the site of the Church of Santo Domingo built by the Spanish in the 17th century, speaks little of its Incan past. It is when one sheds the baggage of expectations that one begins to appreciate the finer nuances of this place – colored wooden doors on houses, narrow one-way alleys where one has to step off the 2-feet wide sidewalks to pass, fascinating Spanish architecture, delectable aji de gallina, and a welcoming people.

The day of arrival in Cusco was spent exploring the place, visiting its sights, and chewing on coca leaves to avoid the onset of altitude sickness. The dal chawal dinner that night is not something we had expected to find here – over the course of our wanderings, we had chanced on Maikhana, whose owner claimed that they are the only Indian restaurant in the city. A lack of appetite possibly caused by chewing the coca leaves and the onset of altitude sickness does not allow me to comment fairly on this meal . The next morning, we took the 3-hour train to Aguas Calientes, the closest access point to Macchu Pichu (more on this later), and returned back to Cusco the day after toward dusk. We had hoped to catch a bus out of Cusco on to the Peru-Bolivia border and across. But that was not to be. We missed the last bus and had to stay. The view of the Plaza de Armas that night from Bagdad Cafe – one of the many cafes that outline the plaza – would be the last image consigned to memory of this wonderful city.

Out of the airport in Lima and on the road, the less than perfect traffic flow: buses, cars, and their lesser companions moving in a general direction without the predictability of lanes, indicating their will and size by the intensity of their honks, reminds me of Bombay, makes me feel less of a stranger in this hitherto unvisited city. The cab drive up to our hostel in Miraflores – a relatively nicer part of the city, we are told – offers views of the seemingly boundless Pacific, lined by pebbled beaches and high-rises – fleeting views made shorter by a cab well over the speed limit. We have half a day in the city, enough time to try out two tipicos, local specialities – the cebiche, made of raw fish and lime with onions and chillies in the Peruvian version (countries in SA have their own versions of the dish), and pisco sour, made from pisco (a kind of liquor distilled from grapes), lime juice, egg whites, and bitters, and prepared by our affable host at the Backpackers Family Hostel. One is advised not to consume both of these in quick succession – their high acidity being compounded – online advice we flouted and got away with. An evening walk around the neighborhood takes us to the Parque Kennedy, a small park made memorable by a street play in a small amphitheater-like setting, El Parque del Amor (or love park) with its statue of two lovers in embrace, and LarcoMar, a shopping center overlooking the ocean, whose elevated view of the sea at night reminds me of the Queen’s necklace – the spectacularly lit night-view of Marine Drive in Bombay; another image drawn from a lexicon of the known to describe the unknown. Next morning we move on to our next destination, Cuzco – capital city of the Incas.

There is really one key pre-trip essential. It is often ignored in the process of planning the trip, and in our case, was put off till the last moment – visas. Two reasons why doing so is a bad idea – they take time, and they cost money. If you are not located close to a city, and one that houses a consulate at that, then will have to send your passport by mail. This takes at least a week at minimum counting 3 days for processing and a day each for overnight shipping back and forth. Three countries and you are looking at a minimum of 3 weeks to get the visas alone. Visas can be expensive – the visa for Bolivia costs a hefty $135 (more about this later). If you are an Indian passport holder, yes, you require a visa to visit most inhabited spots on the planet outside of des, with a few welcome exceptions. Friedman’s world may be flat, mine most definitely is not. There are unanticipated advantages, though, and I shall prolong the suspense a tad bit longer.

If you live close to Los Angeles and intend to visit Peru, Bolivia, or Argentina – the three countries on our list – you are in luck. The consulates are all located on one street – Wilshire Blvd. in LA. You may want to call up the consulate and check what documents they need, how long it would take them to process the visa, and whether one needs an appointment should one decide to show up in person. The list of documents needed for visa to Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina are listed below, quoted from memory and therefore prone to omissions:

  • completed visa application form
  • passport
  • work authorization in the US
  • 1-2 passport sized photographs
  • proof of employment
  • travel reservations
  • hotel/hostel reservations
  • last 1-3 bank statements.
  • proof of yellow fever vaccination (required only by Bolivia).

As regards visa fees, the visa to Peru is $30. Argentina waives its visa fees for Indian citizens. So does Bolivia, which waived the $135 fee for us. It is important to note though that the Bolivian consulate requires a proof of yellow fever vaccination (you can get one at the clinic where you get your vaccination). In addition to the discomfort of being pricked by a needle , the vaccination at ~$110 that is not typically covered by insurance, does burn a hole in your pocket.

We showed up at the Peruvian consulate first. We were asked to turn in the documents and pay the fees, and come back after 2 hours to get our passports back. Next we stopped at the consulate of Argentina. Since we had not made an appointment (we were unaware we needed to), we were asked to turn in the passports and paperwork and a self-addressed pre-paid envelope. We got our passports within 5 days. Since it was too much to make another 4 hour trip to LA from San Diego, we mailed our application to the Bolivian consulate with a self-addressed pre-paid envelope, and it was promptly returned with the visa stamp within a week. All in all a relatively hassle free process for us, though you don’t want this to cut to close to your travel start date.

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