We had been looking forward to spending a night in blissful luxury right at the gates of Machu Picchu, one of the best known, most exquisite, and, seemingly, most-visited archeological sites in the world. One thing we had all been led to believe about staying at this hotel was that we’d have access to the Machu Picchu citadel before the massing crowds arrived in the morning, and after they left at night. Some hikers from France who arrived as we were leaving were under the same false impression, so that wasn’t just our error. The Sanctuary Lodge is heart-stoppingly expensive—over $1,000 per room, per night—and we had three rooms booked. Granted, this one-grand covers not just the room, but everything: food, drinks (alcoholic as well as non, um, except for top shelf), the hot tub; but not the spa, not tickets to the park, and not even, as it turned out, a transfer from the train station in Aguas Calientes to the hotel itself.
We had arisen early in Cuzco, before 5:00am, to catch our train. Too early for breakfast or even coffee at our hotel, but not to worry because the tickets I had booked, on the Perurail Vistadome Hiram Bingham SuperExpress or whatever included vouchers for, upon arrival, the buffet at the Sanctuary Lodge. I knew that we’d have dinner, and breakfast and lunch the next day, included in our rate, but we’re eaters, always planning two meals ahead, and I knew we’d need to tank up before hiking out to sightsee. We figured that the three-hour train trip, arriving in Aguas Calientes at around 9:30am, meant that we’d be hungry but alive at 10:00am when we expected to arrive at the buffet.
After many emails and a couple phone calls to the concierge at the Sanctuary Lodge as well as agents at parent company Orient Express, and many worried conversations (me) with Ian (calmly reassuring) that we’d have trouble getting tickets to get into Machu Picchu—the Peruvian government has been limiting passes to 1200 per day, and those passes have to be purchased in Aguas Calientes—I made a final call, just before we left Seattle, and requested someone to meet us at the train, help us acquire tix, and give us a lift to the hotel. I was told to not worry, someone would be there. Ian echoed this, calmly asserting that such a hotel, at such a cost, would be sure to smooth the way for its well-heeled guests.
Here is what happened.
A “snack” had been served on the train. It was not a satisfying meal, and we were five ravenous and fragile English-speakers, exhausted from a week at high elevations, and the caregiving (and careneeding) of one of our number, who had been in a clinic for several hours the evening/night before (more on that in a later post).
We got off the train in quaint Aguas Calientes and searched through the crowds, finally locating someone with a Sanctuary Lodge sign. That person had a clipboard with about 20 names on it (including ours, but not exclusively ours). Another person with a SL sign appeared and asked me in Spanish to hand over my overnight bag. I said there were five of us, cinco. Both persons looked confused, looked around, saw the people I was waving at, looked back at me.
“We need to get tickets to Machu Picchu,” I said. “Five for today, and five for tomorrow. Cinco hoje, cinco mañana,” I said, mixing Portuguese in with my attempts at Spanish. One person and a lot of tall Westerners disappeared. My group straggled in around me, our bags were ripped away and put on a cart, and the cart disappeared down a hill. The person who was left, who did not understand English at all, said “Where are your bus tickets?”
I looked at him blankly.
“Where are your bus tickets?” he asked again.
“I don’t understand,” I replied. “Why do we need bus tickets? We need to get tickets to the park. For today and tomorrow. The concierge said someone would meet us at the train, help us get tickets, and take us to the lodge.”
Finally, after more blank stares, he turned and motioned us to follow him. The hot sun glared down on our tired, hungry forms. I shrugged my shoulders at my group and followed the man.
We arrived at the office selling tickets to Machu Picchu. We needed to pay cash, in Peruvian soles. 156 each person, each day. 624 soles for Ian and me. 624 soles for Mom and Marsh. 312 soles for A. We did not have 1560 soles. The most I could ever get out of an ATM at one time was 450. We could not pay with a VISA card. “Where is an ATM,” I asked the guard at the door of the ticket office, who hadn’t let us in without first seeing our passports. He pointed vaguely across a square somewhere.
We lurched outside, found our “helper” from the Sanctuary Lodge and said “ATM.” He led us down a different way from that just indicated, turned up a different street, and showed us to an ATM. I wrote above that the most I ever got from an ATM was 450 soles—about $175. That was not from this particular ATM. This particular ATM gave me nothing. Gave all of us nothing.
We all still had a few hundred dollars in crisp new $20s, though, so we were led a few doors down to a money exchange. The exchange agent proceeded to reject, as broken, more than 60% of the money we handed him. We eventually, amongst the five of us, managed to pull together the 1560 soles needed to visit the park. Back at the ticket office, we were called up one at a time, our passports were photocopied and our tickets were applied to us individually, our money—which we had just received from a Peruvian exchange—was inspected for legitimacy—and we were let out.
“Now, bus tickets,” said the “guide” from the Sanctuary Lodge. He led us back outside, back down to near where the broken ATM was, and pointed us at another window.
The bus company agent asked “return?”
“Yes,” I said, “return.” OF COURSE return. We were not staying forever at Machu Picchu.
“How many,” she said.
“Five,” I replied. “Cinco.”
“Eighty dollars,” she said. “U.S.”
“Can we pay with VISA?”
“No. Cash. Dollars.”
Shocked into silence, we hauled out our remaining, oft-rejected greenbacks and handed her the wad.
“Broken,” she said, paging through rapidly . “Broken . . . broken . . . broken . . . broken . . . okay.” She gave us our rejected money. “You owe 20 more.”
“Can we pay it in soles?” I asked through gritted teeth, my jaw beginning to burn, a red haze of starvation and rage clouding my vision.
“Yes. 57 soles.” We turned out our pockets, Ian handed over his “souvenir” bills, and we received our tickets. The agent from the Sanctuary Lodge led us down the street to a teeming bus stop, and told us to get in line and wait. One thousand per room per night, and we don’t even get a guaranteed spot on a bus. It was almost 11:00am. If you’ve ever met Ian or my mother, you know that they were about ready to gnaw off each other’s hands to stay alive.
The first bus left and another pulled smoothly into place and we climbed on and sat, Mom in an aisle seat across from Ian, me next to the window on the other side of him. My mother and I began an enraged, hissed conversation. “THOUSANDS of dollars!” we said, across Ian’s chest. “OUTRAGED!” “INFURIATED!” “FLABBERGASTED!” “Those motherf***ing bleepity bleep bleep GOUGERS!!!!”
“PLEASE!” begged Ian, who was just as upset as we were, but preferred to sit quietly and stoicly and harbor his last vestiges of strength. None of us had any idea when we would be fed, and Marsh had misplaced his buffet ticket anyway. “Please don’t do this right now.”
We shut up. I gazed blindly out the window as the bus turned off the paved road from Aguas Calientes and began switching back and forth up the narrow, steep dirt track to the park entrance. All around us loomed majestic,breathtaking, steep and gorgeous, lush green mountains. Cloud shadows played over the heights, throwing the singular landscape into stunning relief. It barely registered. Occasional tracks crossed the road, with stairs coming down from above and disappearing over the edge. I noted, bitterly, that return tickets for the bus were not, in fact, essential.
We arrived at the front stairs of the Machu Picchu Sanctuary Lodge and exited the bus.
Several hotel employees came out to meet us and usher us inside. I answered them with curt, one word replies, and said we were interested in checking in. It was just after 11:00am. “Check in is at 1:00pm!,” they said.
They ushered us into the bar, into a banquette in a corner, and hurried away. We muttered and grumbled and surmised and supposed and complained and groused and worried. We talked about what we would write in our reviews. Our stomachs yawned with hunger. A young man approached. We tensed.
“Hello, and welcome to the Sanctuary Lodge!,” he said. I sensed that our displeasure had not gone unnoted by the swarm of initial receivers, but they had no idea the depths of it. “Is there anything . . .”
I stood up. Straight up. I am forty years old now, I thought to myself. I speak my truth with integrity.
“I am angry,” I said, barely able to control the emotion in my voice.
“Oh, uh, yes, please, go on,” said the flustered young man.
“We are paying thousands of dollars to stay in this hotel tonight,” I said, my voice shaking, “and we have had a terrible time getting here. I have emailed and called the concierge many times over the last several months, and have had no response until two weeks ago, when I finally reached someone. I asked for an agent to meet us at the train, help us get tickets to the park, and bring us to the hotel.”
The young man, Jose, said, “but didn’t someone meet you?”
“Yes,” I replied, “but we had no idea what was waiting for us at the end of the train. We are traveling with three elders,” I pointed out. “This is a five star hotel. We spent over an hour, hungry, lost, being sent from office to office to change money—most of which was rejected—and buy bus tickets. No one told us we’d have to buy bus tickets.”
“I am sorry about the money changing,” said Jose, looking legitimately sorry. “It is the banks. Even we have troubles.”
“Regardless,” I said, “we have arrived in this amazingly beautiful part of the world and I have not been able to see any of it because of how angry I am right now.” I stopped.
Jose fumbled around for an offer—drinks? Anything else?, because our rooms truly weren’t ready yet, and Ian spoke up.
“We haven’t eaten yet today,” he said shakily. “Where is the buffet?”
“One of us doesn’t have his ticket with him anymore,” I added bluntly. “I assume that won’t matter.”
We were hurried in to the buffet. We found food and a glass or two of wine. We began to breathe again.
At 12:45pm, sated, calmed, we left the dining room and went to the front desk.
“I know it’s still early, but we would like to check in to our rooms,” I said to the clerk. He began to tell me 1:00pm, but Jose hurried out of the back.
“Your rooms are ready,” he said. “I took the liberty of upgrading you from Superior Rooms to Mountain View rooms. Please follow me.”
We followed him, and indeed the rooms had beautiful views. As I said in Part I, the only view of the citadel from the property was from the hot tub, not from our rooms, but we were able to enjoy sweeping views of green, cloud-crowned peaks. We split into two groups for our afternoon in the park, and I have to say, perhaps because I was drained from the arrival experience, but I don’t think so—that seeing Machu Picchu in the flesh was a little like finally seeing that blockbuster movie everyone you know has been raving about. Nice, but a bit of a let-down.
Ian and me, it’s not our style to travel to blockbusters. It’s our style to travel to hidden gems. Yeah, it’s interesting to wonder about the Inca masons and just how they did their work, but in Cabo Verde, real live humans are still living in precipice-built stone villages and growing their livelihoods on steep, narrow terraces.
As hotel guests we were not allowed into the park any earlier or any later than anyone else, and hordes of people were already waiting at 6:30am when the gates opened. The one park-based benefit was that, on day two the weather was mostly rotten, rainy and foggy, and from our room’s vantage we were able to gauge the best time for our second visit. None of us was interested in staying much into the afternoon, though, so we got into line for the bus trip down the hill soon after lunch, and spent some time in Aguas Calientes shopping and looking at the town before boarding our train back to Cuzco. As I said to the group, I had been so enraged the first time through I hadn’t been able to see it, and it turned out to be a charming little hamlet with a fine market of handicrafts.
Our train journey back to Cuzco was the best transit of the entire trip, complete with a traditional dance up and down the aisle by a freakishly masked Peruvian who pulled three ladies—I was first—out of their seats to dance with him; followed by a fashion show which was an obvious play for our tourist dollars, but which was so charmingly and entertainingly executed by our adorable young attendants that they succeeded quite easily with us. Ian bought me a gorgeous baby alpaca poncho, which I have with me in the clinic today.
Also on that train we finally learned the provenance of A’s counterfeit 20-sole note. One of the ironies of the money in Peru was that their own notes were tattered, smelly, crumpled things, while they wouldn’t take anything other than mint-fresh from us—and yet somewhere, at a bank or an exchange or a shop or somewhere, someone had given A a 20-sole note that she couldn’t spend. We had finally noticed a line of white-out on it, after the fifteenth time she tried to buy something with it and it had been rejected, and on that train trip back to Cuzco, her seatmates, lovely Miamians who spoke Spanish as well as English, finally figured out the words that had been covered up: “dinero afortunato”. Lucky Money.
We all broke into slightly hysterical laughter.