A Travellerspoint blog

Peru

Magical Mythical Machu Picchu

and this journey ends...


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Low-lying cloud at sunrise

Low-lying cloud at sunrise


Our final stop as a group – the fabled lost city of the Incas – Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu, which is actually pronounced Machu Pictchu, means old mountain in Quechua, the Incan language. This is important to know folks, since our usual pronunciation of Machu Peechu actually means old penis!

Llama grass control at Machu Picchu

Llama grass control at Machu Picchu


After an early morning and long train and bus journey, we finally arrived at this stunning site, which was rediscovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham. Nestled high in a depression between two mountain peaks, and surrounded by imposing and starkly jagged peaks, Machu Picchu is still not visible from below, even though it is the most popular and visited tourist destination in South America. In fact, even after arriving at the main gate, following a narrow, winding road up the peak by bus, you still cannot see the site until you walk on a narrow path, around a large boulder, to finally find it laid out below you.
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The train ride was lovely too and surprising. I was not prepared for the barren Andean scrub to slowly give way to a dense cloud forest, as we approached Aguas Calientes, the completely tourist-dominated town in the valley below Machu Picchu. So many orchids and other air-rooted plants were hanging from the massive trees as we wound through the valley following the Urumbamba River, with huge snow-covered Andean peaks providing a backdrop.

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This lost city was the only significant site to escape the devastations of the Spanish Conquistadors in the 16th century and was lost to all but a handful of local farmers in the jungles of the cloud forest till its rediscovery early last century. Experts still argue over the purpose of the site – astronomical scientific site; ceremonial city to the gods; sacred sanctuary for the Incan emperor; or any combination of these, and other ideas. The mystery is compounded because it appears this city was built, lived in and then abandoned all within less than a century – most believe it was built in the mid-1400s. The stonework and architecture is some of the best seen in the Incan and pre-Incan history in Peru, which spanned a 4000-year period.
Incredible stonework - possibly the astronomer's house

Incredible stonework - possibly the astronomer's house

The classic view, from the guardhouse

The classic view, from the guardhouse


The only thing that is certain is that it is incredibly stunning. One of, if not the, most stunningly beautiful places I have ever been. Steep stone terraces and stairs (I believe these stairs were built so steep as a joke to torture future tourists!) seemingly carved out of the cliffside; towering temples, store houses, and terraces; stone aqueduct systems and fountains still running with water; and all surrounded by thickly forested mountains, and drifting clouds and mists.
Machu Picchu looking up to the guardhouse

Machu Picchu looking up to the guardhouse

Sunrise over the peaks

Sunrise over the peaks


The mornings were especially beautiful, before the crowds became too thick. We spoiled ourselves and stayed at the only hotel on top of the mountain, the Sanctuary Lodge. This meant we were able to walk to the site each morning at dawn to watch the sun crest the ridge, seeming to shine a spotlight on the temples and terraces one by one. Climbing to the top of the main site, you are able to see it all laid out below you. The condor city laid out with windows and instruments to track the summer and winter solstices.
Christa reading on our patio at the Sanctuary Lodge

Christa reading on our patio at the Sanctuary Lodge

Inca bridge

Inca bridge


One morning we hiked further along one of the Incan trails to see an old Incan bridge. You can can’t help but wonder how, or who, laid the first supporting stones of the terraces, trails or buildings perched upon impossibly steep and sheer mountain sides. Climbing over the stairs and terraces is a sometimes intimidating, often vertigo inducing exercise. At one point, coming down from the rear of the sundial temple, you are so close to dropping off into nothing, and the staircase so small, that it took a huge amount of effort to take the first step, which was actually onto a relatively wide first stone. Very strange feeling!
Insane stairs leading down the back from the Sun Dial

Insane stairs leading down the back from the Sun Dial

Watching the sun play on the terraces.

Watching the sun play on the terraces.


For all the exploring, climbing and wandering we did here on our three days, some of the best moments were simply picking our way down to a terrace, away from tour groups, and quietly sitting. Watching the changing light, drifting backlit clouds and wonderfully agile swallows swooping past. Sublime!
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So here I am, in Mexico City visiting with a friend from Delhi, and about to head out for a Mexican dinner… with Margaritas of course! We head back home tomorrow, and as usual, this trip has gone by so fast. I had looked forward to seeing the Galapagos, Amazon and Machu Picchu for so many years; it is a strange feeling to be coming to the end of this journey. It has brought so many new experiences though, and exceeded my expectations, which is no small feat. So am excited to head home and see what happens next!
Sunset in Machu Picchu

Sunset in Machu Picchu

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 16:26 Archived in Peru Tagged peru machu picchu inca incan Comments (1)

Heavy Breathing in Cusco

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Arrived in Lima with everything we owned soaking wet from the humidity and sweat of the jungle, so first thing, a jumbo laundry bag sent out. Lima was OK, but like any big city. It was really cold though, especially when compared to the jungle. It’s their winter, which means the city is covered with a low hanging cloud, lasting for several months. At night, the cloud/fog descends to the city and moistens everything. It apparently never rains in Lima? A local told us he has never seen rain in the city in his lifetime. He was only about 25, but still… just strange. We spent the day wandering the streets and ocean front, constantly expecting the skies to open up on us; it was that dark and threatening, but, nope. Bad news for the umbrella industry I’m thinking.

Next day we flew into Cusco. The airport is filled chok-o-blok with tour operators, touts and stores – absolute crazy chaos. We were told that 600,000 people come through Cusco each year to visit Machu Picchu.

Inca foundations in the streets of Cusco

Inca foundations in the streets of Cusco


Our hotel, Casa San Blas sits on top of a hill in the old town. We spent the rest of our first day following the experts’ advice – doing didly squat. Lazing about, knitting, reading, and drinking a ridiculous amount of water to try to help adjust to the altitude of 3,400 metres or 11,150 ft above sea level. In the Amazon, I wished I had brought my tape recorder to capture the amazing sounds coming from the forest, especially at night. In Cusco, I thought the same thing, this time to capture the sounds coming from us after we climbed the rocky streets up to our hotel. Quite the symphony of gasps and pants, trying to get some oxygen into our lungs!

On the road in the Urumbamba Valley

On the road in the Urumbamba Valley


We ventured out the next day for a full day tour of the Urubamba Valley – the Sacred Valley of the Incas. Driving through this valley was a trip back through time. It is an incredibly fertile area, with rolling hills of gold and iron-rich red soil. Towering peaks backdrop these fields and villages, some crested with snow, others with clouds and mist. The local peoples are out walking or working in the fields with their wonderfully colourful outfits accompanied by donkeys, llamas and alpacas. And seemingly every corner you turn as you wind through the valley are remnants of the incredible sophisticated and elaborate Incan civilization. The Incan farming terraces are still being used today as are many of the aqueducts and remarkable watering systems, all built between the 1100s to 1534, when the Spanish came in search of gold. This unique and advanced civilization was wiped out in a relative instant by the Spanish numbers, guns, horses and devastating diseases.

Corn in Pisac Market

Corn in Pisac Market


Our first stop was to Pisac market, which was much nicer and more fun than Otavalo. Especially the food market. Peru has over 1000 species of potatoes, 600 of them in this region of Peru and the sacks of potatoes in the market were fantastic. The variety and colours of the corn, natural dyes, peppers and other foods were exceptional.
Mounds of potatoes in Pisac Market

Mounds of potatoes in Pisac Market

We found a nice quiet corner of the market for a drink, that had a really nice house/pen for a bunch of really cute guinea pigs… right next to the huge oven :-o We’re going to try this Peruvian specialty later on, but really didn’t need to see the little cuties like that before eating them!
Guinea Pig house, Pisac Market

Guinea Pig house, Pisac Market

Ollyantaytambo Incan Ruins

Ollyantaytambo Incan Ruins


Our next stop was the last settlement in the valley before Agua Calientes and Machu Picchu called Ollantaytambo. The fortress/temple is built into the Cliffside at the end of a narrow valley and surrounded by towering mountains, the sides of which were lined with Inca farming terraces and stone sarcophagi. The perfect canals still carrying rushing water from the mountains to the town below. The Incas were actually able to successfully defend this site against the Spanish in 1537 and protected the Manco Inca. The site was originally thought to be built as a site of worship to the sun and moon and its temple entrances are aligned with the sun as it crests the mountain peak opposite the temples during the solstices.
Ollyantaytambo Village still serviced by Incan acqueducts running through the streets

Ollyantaytambo Village still serviced by Incan acqueducts running through the streets

We climbed the steep 200 steps to the upper temples showcasing the typical incredible Incan stone engineering – massive granite stones transported from 7 kms away, and fitted together with such precision there are no gaps or mortar on the surface, yet filled with gravel and small stones in the interior so that they are the only structures in the valley to regularly and reliably withstand the many earthquakes of the region. We walked around the main structure and onto an Incan trail (one of several trails that eventually winds its way to Machu Picchu), to storehouses and other buildings that the archaeologists still debate about. The site appears not to have been completed with construction ramps used to bring up the massive construction blocks still in place.
Face carved into mountain, suns rays shine from the crown, to the temple entrance during the summer solstice -- can you see it?

Face carved into mountain, suns rays shine from the crown, to the temple entrance during the summer solstice -- can you see it?

After Ollantaytambo (pronounced oleeyantaytambo – say that 3 times fast) we visiting the town of Chinchero to see an old colonial church, built of course on top of an old Incan sacred site, so the foundation is wonderful Incan construction and then on top the primitive construction methods of colonial Spain.
Donkeys going out for the day in Chinchero

Donkeys going out for the day in Chinchero

The Catholic Church seems interestingly open and flexible in this part of the world. Sunday services are always full, with Spanish Catholics sitting in the pews, and the Quechuas sitting on the floor. The Quechuas are actually not coming not to celebrate catholic mass (in fact they don’t participate in the rites the priest delivers). They are coming instead to sit on the floor to be closer to their God – Pachamama, the earth mother – and because this site is one of their holiest places. The surprising thing to me was the tolerance and acceptance the priests and church have for this. It’s also interesting the views the Quechuas have on religions. The Quechuas or Mestizos (Spanish Incan mixed peoples) still worship in the old ways, ultimately to Pachamama, but they consider any and all religions as simply another possible path to help an individual to achieve enlightenment. This view seems to have allowed them to continue to worship and believe the way they always have, despite attempts to wipe out their culture.
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Chincero also has an interesting version of a tuktuk. It looks very similar to the Indian style, but the cart is simply mounted onto a motorcycle, which is used to power the vehicle.
Peruvian style TukTuk

Peruvian style TukTuk

Monday we took a city tour of Cusco and nearby monuments. We had a wonderful guide for this tour – Fernando with a great sense of humour. Our first stop was the cathedral in Plaza de Armas. Completed in 1659 it was built, of course, on the foundation of an Incan Palace. In fact, if you look out over the town from the surrounding hills, every church you see was built on top of a sacred Incan site in an attempt to wipe out the religion and culture of the peoples.

The cathedral is beautiful but same old same old for Spanish colonial religious stuff. Carved wood leafed in gold, usual themed Catholic paintings, etc. Of course, all the artwork and construction was done by local ‘volunteer’ artists. This made for some really funny (and missed by the priests working so hard to build new Christian churches at every turn, all over the land) inserted Incan symbology throughout the church. There is a beautiful painting of the last supper but Christ et. al. are drinking the local corn drink chicha and eating roasted cuy (guinea pig)! Three major symbols of the Incans are the Condor, the Puma and the Snake. These are found throughout the church in paintings and carvings, which are surprising for the snake in particular, since Christian’s refer to the snake as an instrument in the fall from grace. The female/male balance, and all balance in nature, is extremely important to the Incan faith. On the arms of all the elaborately carved cedar choir-stall chairs, are the bare breasts of a woman, over the Incan phallic symbol. Wonder what happened when the priests finally realized? All in all, it was one of the more amusing and interesting church tours I’ve had in a while.

Sun Temple foundation, Cusco

Sun Temple foundation, Cusco


Ancient Incan Cusco was the centre of the Incan civilization and was laid out in the shape of a Puma, the head being the Temple of the Sun – the remains of which we visited next. It was originally covered in the metal of the gods – gold – and of course destroyed to make a Catholic convent. Machu Picchu is laid out in the shape of the condor. Lost Billyantambo is said to be in the shape of the serpent. But, it has yet to be discovered and is believed to be in the Amazonian jungle between the borders of Peru and Ecuador.

Sacsayhuaman

Sacsayhuaman


Just outside of Cusco is Sacsayhuaman. This massive structure is referred to as a garrison or fortress and is constructed of 3 stacked zigzagged massive stone walls. Only the bottom wall is still complete. It was most likely a religious temple, though most experts believe it had military significance. Many of the base stones are huge – some are 3.6 metres tall.
Lower wall of Sacsayhuman ruins

Lower wall of Sacsayhuman ruins

Also within this massive complex is Tambomachay, a small complex of terraces and pools fed by an underground spring that still runs. The waters are said to aid in fertility as well as being a fountain of youth! Must be true, because Fernando told us he was 89 years old! Cusco_2010..4llamas.jpg

Our last full day in Cusco was free, so we went exploring and shopping. Was fantastic and long, but we are becoming used to the altitude. Still huffing and puffing, but don’t feel like you’re going to die now. That’s good! Our final meal in Cusco, and we had the local delicacy Cuy – roasted guinea pig. For my non-western friends, this is probably not a big deal, but in the west, guinea pigs are a very common children’s pet, so it was a bit odd to be gnawing on the bones of Fluffy. Still, it was delicious! And rather like a cross between duck and rabbit. Hope my nephew will forgive me :-o Oh yeah, and the Pisco Sour, with coca leaves – the best yet.

Next stop, one of the new 7 wonders of the Ancient World – Machu Picchu.

Posted by LisaOnTheRoad 23:28 Archived in Peru Comments (0)

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