Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Peru and Machu Pichu

April 6, 2008

Our first tour was a 9 hour, butt numbing, motion sickness inducing roll down to the Sacred Valley around Cusco. The first stop was at Pisac, a typical Andean village where a Sunday market, all merchants selling the same items, winds its way through the small town and up the hills. Further up the hillside are the ruins, a defense area where the farmers could take cover. The hills are crisscrossed with the old Inca trails which visitors (not us) can walk up and down. At the top of the mountain are several Inca temples, the sun, the moon and other old buildings. Unfortunately, no one knows what all the buildings were originally used for and the names we have were given by the Spanish and may have little or nothing to do with the actual buildings.

The Sacred Valley of The Incas is a wonderfully pastoral place with fields planted and cared for, with grazing cattle, sheep, pigs and llamas, surrounded by snow capped mountains and watered by numerous rivers. The great Urubamba River begins here, rushes madly down to the Amazon basin and eventually feeds into the Amazon River on its way to the Atlantic Ocean. We stopped here, at the town called Urubamba, for a delicious buffet lunch, eating in a lovely garden, warmed by the sun.

On the way up the mountains toward Machu Pichu is the old town of Ollantaytambo, 2600 meters above sea level, (8500 ft.) one of the main defenses of the Inca Empire. It is impressive because it is built going straight up the side of the mountain. Looking around, houses and temples are built on adjoining mountains, half way up the sides. Visitors (again, not us) climb up a very steep hill on pathways set on the terraces. At the top is the temple of the sun, formed by six rectangular monoliths with a weight of 50 tons each. All the stones were brought from a quarry 3 ½ miles away by humans. A very cold wind was blowing and after climbing through a few streets, we took refuge in a restaurant. The last part of the trip consisted of going back to town and the hotel.

On Wednesday we took the city tour, visiting the cathedral built on the bases of the Inca Palace. Some of the palace rooms were incorporated and used to house the clergy. The Spanish were convinced that Spanish construction methods were better than the Indian, so they built the church, courtyard and other rooms in the European manner. The Inca walls were built to form a 15 degree slant and withstood the constant tremors for at least 600 years. A large earthquake in 1650 demolished the church but left the Inca portions undamaged. A second earthquake in 1950 finished off several other churches in the area -and the Inca palace still stands.

About a mile outside and above Cusco are the ruins of Sacsayhuaman (known affectionately as “sexy woman”). Three massive walls running parallel to each other on ever higher levels were laid in 22 zigzags in such a way that any attacker could be detected immediately. The biggest stone is 25 feet tall and weighs 361 tons. According to archeologists, it took an army of 250,000 men to drag the stones, place them and cut and fit all the adjoining stones during the 75 years of construction. Under some of the stones there is a tunnel that connected the walls to the fortress. The name Sacsayhuaman means “head of the Puma”, and from above, it does look like a Puma head with the zigzagging walls being the teeth.

Local Indian women in traditional dress, with a small herd of Llamas and Alpacas will pose for pictures, hoping to get a few cents from visitors. Of course, I had to pet the animals, take pictures and paid my few Soles for the privilege. Alpacas have fuzzy faces and Llamas have clean faces. Both kinds are not as soft as the cleaned and brushed skins for sale in all the shops. And both kinds will spit in your face if you try to get them to do something they don’t want to do, just like their cousins, the camels.

A few miles away and 3715 meters above sea level (12,260 ft.) is the “red fortress”, Pucapucara, an Inca military fort constructed on red earth, with terraces, stairways and enclosures where travelers and their animals could rest.

The last stop was at Tambomachay where the Inca took advantage of natural caves and rock formations to create a cult place dedicated to water with a fountain bubbling out of the hill into three Inca built falls and stone channels.

Our final trip was to the famous Machu Pichu. The first part of the 4 hour train ride was an engineering marvel, a set of remarkable switchbacks which enabled the train to rise several thousand feet from the station in Cusco to the top of the surrounding mountains before plunging down to the Sacred Valley through a series of narrow gorges and defiles cut by the Urubamba River, with sheer cliffs rising on either side for several thousand feet, and the river itself a swirling mass of white water roiling down the precipitous slope and around massive boulders fallen from the heights above.
From Cusco’s elevation of 3700 meters (12000 feet or so), we dropped down to about 2000 meters (6000 feet) into a cloud forest filled with orchids, bromeliads and ferns. It was a rainy day and clouds hid the tops of the mountains; the lushness of the valley as wonderful as any we’d seen in Costa Rica (or anywhere else for that matter). When we finally disembarked in Aguas Calientes it was raining a fine spray. Hundreds of hawkers met the train, each holding rain ponchos in every color possible. We declined the ponchos and boarded a bus for the final climb to the top of the mountain and Machu Pichu, a 30 minute ride winding up more than 2000 feet above the Urubamba river which flowed around between gigantic, roundish peaks, each thousands of feet high and looking like nothing so much as titanic stalactites (or stalagmites, we can never remember which is which.) These peaks are a biological wonder. Isolated from each other, the smaller fauna of each are developing into separate and distinct species.

Arriving at the top we looked for our guide who quickly passed us over to an English speaking guide. Following her through the entrance gate, we worried that we might have to hike some distance but were delighted when a short walk brought us right into the ruins. Looking around at the ruins, some covered by clouds, and then the surrounding mountain tops, one could only stand in awe at the location.

Built sometime around 1400 AD, in an almost inaccessible location, the city was abandoned only about a hundred years later, possibly to make sure that it was never discovered by the Spanish Conquistadores, which it never was, and for 500 years it lay in ruins, overgrown with vegetation and invisible. It wasn’t until July 24, 1911, when the American historian Hiram Bingham, taking a shortcut to the Inca ruin of Vilcabamba, stumbled upon some building stones rising above the jungle. Intrigued, he started digging around – and the rest is history, not to mention Peru’s single biggest moneymaker, hosting 1500 visitors a day and more than 3000 during the high season at an average cost of some $200 per day per visitor, not including hotels, meals, souvenir sales, etc.

The ruins themselves scale right up the mountain with several large buildings perched on adjoining mountains. We followed our guide as she explained that Machu Pichu was only a religious center where about 500 priests lived. The Inca kings lived in Cusco, probably visiting only for religious ceremonies. Of course, this is all rank speculation. To this day, no one really knows what Machu Pichu was really for.

After climbing up and down the ancient stairways to various parts of the ruins, we were completely exhausted and happy to re-board the bus back down to Aguas Calientes and lunch. . We wandered around the small town which seems to be 50% restaurants and 50% souvenir shops. Every thing is set up for the million visitors; clean and orderly. Lunch, a buffet, was good and, now rested and full, we walked back to the station to wait for the train home which, after having seen the ruins, was an interminable 4 hours through the darkness of night.

Our final day in Cusco was spent visiting the beautiful plazas and the charming, narrow, cobblestone streets of the center of town, the large churches around the plazas, the high end shops and the many small tourist shops along the side streets. While we were eating lunch, a group of unhappy workers marched through the streets, around the plaza and finally stood on the city hall steps, calling for something or someone. We never did figure out what they were demanding and after about an hour, they melted away.

Cusco is a very charming city and the tourist industry is very well organized, leaving nothing to chance and ensuring that the visitor has seen it all in comfort. (except for the lack of sufficient oxygen.) Happily though, the next day we boarded our flight to Lima and blessed Sea Level.

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