Cuzco, Cusco, Qosqo
However you spell it, it has been one of my favorite cities. The people I have met, the archaeological splendors, the colonial and pre-colonial aesthetics of the historic district, my favorite vegetarian restaurant (Prasada, AMAZING!), the night life, and so much more! It is a city that continues to surprise me and provides endless entertainment (especially with all the new people I meet while working at a hostel). I love this city and now understand the Cuzco time warp. 🙂 My Cuzco experiences…
Part One: Like a Good Tourist
For the last month I have been working in the bar at a party hostel, so I cannot deny that most of my time is spent at the bar, going to clubs and sleeping all day to recuperate. However, Aaron and I did take full advantage of the fantastic archaeological sites within and surrounding Cuzco, as well as the beautifully gorgeous historic district that we have been living in. Thus, I will commence my adventures of the last month with Cuzco and the sites we saw.
Cuzco is situated in the valley of the Watanay River at 3,360 m.a.s.l. Cuzco is at an elevation of approximately 3,360 m.a.s.l. This is not an unbearable elevation but even after a month here, I am still winded when I run up and down the stairs too many times. Therefore it was pretty entertaining when we first arrived and had to fight labored breathing just to walk along the streets and see the city. But it was worth the effort because the historic district of Cuzco is fantastic. It was founded by the Inca Manqo Qhapaq between the 11th and 12th centuries C.E. (though archaeologists now think more so in the 12th century), as the capital city of the Tawantinsuyo. Then on 15 March 1534, the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro founded a Spanish city over the Inca one, allowing until now the same Incaic setup: temples, palaces and residences from different times, as an architectural example of an important cultural fusion. “Cuzco” originates from the Quechua word “Qosqo,” meaning “navel” or the center of the Tawantinsuyo. Once the capital of the Inca Empire, now an UNESCO World Heritage Site, I can walk the streets for hours and never become bored with all the little neighborhoods. After the Spaniards arrived in 1533, they destroyed many Incan buildings, temples and palaces, then used the remaining walls as bases for the construction of the new city. Thus, many buildings constructed after the Hispanic invasion have a mixture of Spanish influence with Incan indigenous architecture. Everything is brick walls and roads, cute little plazas nooked every couple blocks, and endless streets and walk-ways filled with shops, restaurants and homes, always with small inner courtyards offering more craft stands and shops. The first two weeks here I would just start walking without a planned destination to explore and discover all the nooks and crannies of the historic center. When we first arrived, we were staying at Pariwana Hostel which has this map with a recommended walking path to see the major plazas and sites. We of course started the tour the first day, but my map skills were incredibly awful that day. I took us down the wrong streets or mixed up which street we should go down first. It could have turned out unpleasantly except it caused us to stumble upon my gem of Cuzco, the all vegetarian restaurant Prasada. Even my carnivorous companion, Aaron, thinks it is a good place with delicious food. I have gotten him to eat there like five or six times. He fancies the burgers (which, yes, are vegetarian). Cuzco is not as expensive as Lima´s Miraflores district but definitely second most as compared to the rest of Peru. So you must understand the bliss I found in Prasada when I discovered that they have 8 sole lunch deals of delicious [actually] vegetarian food. Yes, there are places that have 3.50 to 5 sole dishes that can be made vegetarian, but I can only eat so much rice before I want variety and flavor. This is especially true when considering that at any tourist restaurant you are looking at prices starting at 15 soles. Outside of finding this magnificent eatery, I also really love all the plazas. Plaza de Armas is the main plaza with two churches. It is always packed with people. Then San Blas has all the artisan and craft workshops down narrow, winding streets. Plaza Kusipata is less talked about but aesthetically really appealing. It has a cute little grassy area around the benches and fountain, as well as most of the door ways and shutters on the surrounding buildings all painted a bright blue. Plus it is the location of the free chocolate museum… 🙂
Part Two: Archaeological whirlwind
We purchased the Boleto Turístico del Cusco, to have access to 16 locations for the duration of ten days. On our first day of sight-seeing, we caught the sites in Cuzco. We went to the Museum of Contemporary Art of Plaza Kusipata. It is inside the Cuzco City Hall building, which is interesting because you never quite know exactly where you are allowed to enter and whether the art you are seeing is actually a part of the exhibition or long term office decoration. I did like some of the pieces though, and the displays are from contemporary Peruvian artists. Next we went to the Museum of Regional History, also in Plaza Kusipata. These exhibits were quite interesting and included English information plaques which aided in my ability to enjoy the history. There were items from as far back as the Pleistocene up to Inca Times, including European influences from when the Spaniards came. There were items from pre-Incan cultures such as the Chanapata, Kilque and Marcavalle. There is Incan pottery, metalwork and textiles, as well as 16th and 17th century colonial paintings. I liked the setup and flow of the museum. Each exhibit “theme” was divided into separate little rooms. We also went to the Museum of Popular Art, which exhibits famous or renowned contemporary craftsmen from Cuzco. I was surprised by how uninterested and unimpressed I was by this museum. Overcrowded rooms and shelves with no apparent organization. I did really enjoy the few photographs on display, though. They showed pictures of Cuzco´s historic center during the 1920´s through 60´s. These were incredible to see how different and how similar some parts of the city are as compared to today.The last site we went to that day was the Qorikancha site museum, in the Qorikancha Temple basement, along Avenida El Sol. It has fragments of Inca pottery, metalwork, textiles, paintings, sculptures, and musical instruments. There is a scale model show how the site may have actually looked, and is has replicas of pre-Incan and Incan items found during on-site excavations. The coolest items were in the display on how they used to deform their skulls to be more long and conical. Instead of round craniums, they wrapped young children´s heads to deform them while they are still forming. They also did surgeries to cut bone away in the skull to have certain shapes or patterns of missing bone. The crazy part is that they only had about 65% success rate on these surgeries. Since these deformations were only for the high class or important people, I do not know if I should be startled at how many would have died or impressed at that level of success. Especially considering they were conducting cranial surgeries. My absolute favorite part was right at the entrance where there was a civilizations timeline showing cultures and events globally through time compared to cultures in Peru. It really put things into context for me. It was a good first day to exploring Incan culture.
Our next sight-seeing adventure took us on a walking tour to the four sites surrounding Cuzco to the east. We walked a mile up hill to the remains of Saqsaywaman, which overlooks the historic edge of Cuzco. There are remains and foundations of a colossal structure, featuring three-tiered defense walls made of stones that fit with razor sharp precision. Sacsaywaman mean “Satiate Falcon,” and was built in the 77 years (1431-1508) under the rule of Incas Tupac Yupanki and Wayna Qhapaq. From 1537-1561, the Spaniards used stones from here like a quarry to build a cathedral, several temples, and their own houses. There are four main sections. The first is the fortress or Walls built with cyclopean stone masonry arranged in zig-zags that face the Chuquipampa Square. The zig-zag patterning is quite impressive because of the scale of the walls and the size of the stones making them up. The second section, the Chuquipampa Square, is actually an open, grassy leveled ground. Aaron harassed some llamas that were peacefully grazing there. 🙂 The stones are the most impressive. The largest one weighs approximately 70 tons! This is added to on how astonishing it is in the other two sections, the Fortified Towers and the Suchuna hill, located opposite the Walls. Among the towers are these two tunnel passages, which are quite extensive in actuality. I do not know if they are entirely made by the Incas, completely natural, or, more likely, a combination of the two. Then, the hill is the metamorphosed limestone and other rocks. Clearly a bit of metals, but you can still see fossils remaining in the rock. On the back of the hill, the beds have been folded and smoothed to a polish into what can only be viewed as a natural slide. There was a large crowd of people waiting for their turn down the slide with lots of picture-taking. Aaron was extremely eager for his turn. We must have caught field trip day because we fought large groups of local Peruvian high school children for territory among the first few locations and the road between them as they worked their way in the opposite direction that we were walking (thank goodness).
The second place was Q´enqo, “labyrinth,” a sacred sanctuary of worship to fertility. The presence of a main amphitheatre, a central natural monolith, underground galleries, and pottery vestiges indicate to archaeologists that important ceremonies must have taken place at this site. There is a 20 foot stone monolith, carved on-site, was vandalized and defaced by Spaniards when they attempted to remove idolatry. There was also this little semicircular cave with two entrances that has a table or alter-like structure. It is thought that sacred rites took place there. On top of a rock outcrop there are sets of carved seats and staircases, and a winding water channel ending in a circular depression that represents a snake, jaguar, and bird (typically a falcon). Those three animals are the sacred elements of religious connotation for the Incas. There were also two circular/cylindrical shapes which may have been used as an astronomical observatory. We also walked down the hill a wee bit and saw the remains of a large rectangular building or fortress type structure. Mostly I just enjoyed all the natural formations in the limestone that the Incas were clearing utilizing for their own purposes.
After Q´enqo we snagged a tourist van up to Puka Pukara. This place seemed deserted except for the small group of people doing excavation work in the back. There was not even an official to check our Boleto Turìsticos. I really liked Puka Pukara. It used to be a road control and administrative center, a military headquarters, and food warehouse (“tambo”). When the Inca visited the Tambomachay baths, all of his retinue and dancers lodged at Puka Pukara. Puka Pukara means “Red Fortress.” It was built on a buttress and surrounded with a wall and containment hillside terraces. Its core is made up of a small square with several rooms. In these rooms we found a small group of workers undergoing excavations. Several areas have not been dug up yet. It also has hillside farming terraces and water channels, as well as aqueducts and roads. Some remarkable architectural features include water springs arranged in cascade and a double-threshold entrance to the site. They use these characteristics to determine that the site was a military fortress and watchtower to control access to Tambomachay.
Tambomachay was our last stop for the day. It was a place where the Inca lodged regularly. Also known as “The Baths of the Princess.” Two aqueducts provide spring water all year round. It has a ritual fountain and three terraces built with stones of irregular polyhedral shape that fit perfectly with no mortar of any kind. Tambomachay means “Resort.” It is on a road that splits from the Kapak Ñan or Great Road to the Antisuyo, as this place was key to communicate with other peoples in the Tawantinsuyo. It was built around 1500 c.e. with limestone found nearby following polygonal patterns. There are two main sectors: on top, water fountains with hillside farming terraces and a superb hydraulic system; at the bottom, a main fountain with two channels that were used as ceremonial streams, as water was worshipped as the source of life. More excavations are underway continuing up the river valley. The whole place seemed quite small to be a “resort” of any immense size. I wonder how much is not uncovered, not restored, or completely lost forever. The Inca empire during its prime had a very short reign and yet they left these immense ruins of architectural splendor. They are amazing. And the irrigation and water-way systems are mind-blowingly brilliant. I often found myself referring to the Incas as ingenious, resourceful, industrious bastards. They built these huge bloody fortresses and endless farming terraces out of huge stones carved with immaculate precision and always put them up high on mountains. Sometimes they were transporting the stone over long distances from other mountains just to complete the structures. I do not think that the Inca are fully given their credit when it comes to how advanced and ambitious they were as an empire and a people.I cannot imagine how far they would have gone as a people if the Spaniards never conquered them.
The following day we went to Pisaq. I had stopped by a travel agency to get the locations of all the local buses and conveys so we did not have to take expensive tours. We happened to go on a Thursday and caught the fair of craftsmen in the town. There was everything from pottery, textiles, silverware, and all the items in between that are typical to the little markets. We walked the three miles up the hill to the archaeological site. There are taxis and such that will take you, but I think that experience is better walking because there is so much to see. We walked up through agricultural terraces to a main area of stone buildings. The we realized that on the other side of the hill, it is completely covered with more terracing and other building sections. This a because Pisaq used to be a large city made up of numerous wards such as Intiwatana, Antachaka, Aqchapata, and the Tanqana Marka cemetery. The whole complex is massive and you can see more remains of structures higher up or further into the valley that do not even have paths leading to them they are so numerous. The Incas were seriously industrious. Pisaq is covered in perfect and interesting stone masonry buildings and never ending terraces. And they never fail to have some mesmerizing water supply system. I think is was in Pisaq when I saw the first setup of the Inca having built complex water flow paths where the walking ground was built over the drainage/flow paths. That is seriously advanced technology.
On another day we went to Pikillaqta, which consisted of a bus simply dropping us off on the side of the road. When we left later, we had to wait until a random car came and picked us up. People here really utilize car-pooling to their advantage when it means they can charge a couple soles to take people in the same direction they are heading regardless. Two buses had passed and did not even pretend that they were going to stop for us. Anyways, Pikillaqta is actually the only pre-Incan site on our journey. It was a city built with stone slabs and mud mortar, during the heyday of the Wari culture (500-900 CE). The museum has several artifacts found at the site, but it also had two different types of dinosaur skeletons which were found on the site. I cannot imaging what the Wari thought of the skeletons, whether they even know about them (the display did not explain much), and why no one found the skeletons until the modern when archaeologists uncovered them. There are these constructed streets that are very straight and run all around the structure, with a few interesting streets through the city. They are very long and even elevated. There were two- and three-storey buildings, and some perimeter walls were as tall as forty feet. The site is located on a hillside facing the Wacarpay Lagoon. It is on the left bank of the Vilcanota River and the town of Lucre on the west. Pikillaqta means “city of fleas,” and may be he oldest pre-Incan archaeological site that resembles a military facility. It covers an area of about 25,000 acres and is made up of a citadel surrounded by embankment and walls as high as twenty-five feet. There are also numerous warehouses and barns built with small stones and mud mortar. This facility was really impressive and I did not find myself calling the Wari ambitious bastards, but then I think about the fact that the Wari prime lasted 400 years; only the prime, not the entire reign. They had 400 whole years of dominance. The Inca were around in any noticeable sense (except Cuzco) for approximately 400 years in total with less than 100 years of dominance. That means that in less than 100 years, they built many sites of long-standing structures, as well as the fact that the Inca sites are also grander, more impressive architecturally, further spread out throughout the valley, and in more strategic locations (Inca always built up in mountains). In addition, the Inca sites also always have high levels of aesthetics and advanced planning techniques for construction and water systems. I cannot express enough how I feel that the Inca are not given their due credit for advanced skills and technology in the scheme of ancient cultures. Some European civilizations may have had arms technology at the same time, but European development also had millenia more of time than the Americas. I am very intrigued to think about what the Inca would have accomplished had they been given more time.
After Pikillaqta we headed to Tipón. We decided to take a taxi to the site because we were running short on time (it was Halloween day and I needed to be back to my hostel for promotional activities) and the site was 4 km uphill from the town. Though we did walk down, I was not prepared for the walk up. This site is a wonderful complex of hillside farming terraces, long stair cases, and water channels carved in bare stone. This place is one of the royal gardens built under the Inca Wiracocha. It is made up of twelve terraces surrounded by stone walls perfectly polished and huge terraces that shrink as they reach the top. There are also gorgeous ornamental waterfalls and the most complete and largest known hydraulic system made by the Incas, who combined aesthetics and technique to symbolize that water is clearly the main source of life. I did not make this connection until Machu Picchu when our guide explained the Inca religious symbol, sort of like the cross to Christianity. However, all the building and terracing patterns of the Inca typically follow this stepping pattern in a square with four edges. The whole time I thought it was just to follow an aesthetic plan, but it is actually following the shape of their religious symbol. They were also very aware off the movements of the sun and positioned windows and certain structures to show the passage of time, such as at equinoxes. The Inca were such an intelligent culture.
On our next day of archaeological splendor, we explored Ollantaytambo and Chinchero. Ollantaytambo is the furthest site from Cuzco that we visited and is actually the city that most tourists leave from for Machu Picchu. The town is beautiful and actually preserves Incan urban planning of streets, houses and waterways. All the modern layout is constructed on the foundations of the original remains, providing a vivid picture of an Incan urban setting, safeguarded by a breath-taking fortress with temples, hillside farming terraces and wall up the hillsides surrounding the town down at the bottom of the valley. Squares and streets follow a purely pre-Colombian architectural layout and style. The urban layout follows straight, narrow streets with houses inhabited to this day by direct descendants of the people who lived there from Inca times. Of course now there are newer buildings, too, built at the front of the town to cater to the tourism industry Ollantaytambo now relies upon. The site was built on top of two mountains, a strategic place that dominates the entire valley. It was a military, religious, administrative, and farming complex. The military structures are easy to identify on the southern hillside with structures for watch towers and archery windows. On the northern hillside are all the farming terraces with a distinct religious area where the natural rock has been carved into for an alter placing. Then there are the typical ingenious water channels and other buildings with could have been for military and administrative purposes. The Patakancha River divides the town in two parts: one where houses are found, and the other where the ceremonial buildings were erected around the Mañay Racay square. The Inca being their devious selves, siphoned off water from the river into a large and smaller channels running directly along the ceremonial area for more direct access. This would have been quite the strategic military headquarters.
After Ollantaytambo, we skipped Moray and went straight to Chinchero. Moray is approximately 13 km off the main road and taxis charge ridiculous prices to take you there to see the concentric farming terraces. They will also take you to Maras/Salineras to see the immense salt flats. Even tour agencies charge a ridiculous amount to go to these two locations. I still do not fully understand why. Aaron went to them the following day with a bargain price through a friend of a friend at a travel agency. I missed out due to an afternoon work schedule.
Chinchero is probably the least impressive of all the sites we went to, but it was still interesting as always. Especially when considering the landscape. While we were walking around the terraces, it was like a scene from the Lord of the Rings, or Middle-earth for those more familiar with J.R.R. Tolkien´s fantasy land. It is in the superb landscape of the Vilcanota Mountains, the snow-capped Chicón and Waquay Wilka. Green, overgrown, a river valley stream, and no people or modern buildings in sight. The beginning section of the ruins are colonial buildings erected in the foundations of the originals and then a church was built on the edge of the hill on the original Inca structures. The remains were part of the Inca Tupac Yupanqui´s royal estate. It was a farming center, hence there were lots of terraces, some of which are still in use today. Though the remains of Inca Tupac Yupanqui´s palace; the colonial church, built on Incan foundations; and the perfect hillside farming terraces were a sight. We found some large limestone outcrops where stones were clearly quarried from and other features such as chairs have been carved into, as the coolest part. There has been a fair amount of restoration to the site. You can see several layers where slightly different styles of rock building have been used in the walls. Some sections even have a year marker denoting the restoration date. I mostly saw 200, 2003, and 2007 on the newest-looking sections. However, there are areas where the terraces have neither been kept up nor restored. I thought it was a beautiful contrast to see the like-new walls, the tumbling down ruins, and the oxidation-stained church structures all juxtaposed together. Chinchero marked the end of are archaeological tour, except, of course, Machu Picchu!
Part Three: The moment you have all been waiting for…a detailed account of our four day/three night jungle biking, Inca trail to Machu Picchu.
We were picked up from our hostel with five other tourists and driven to Abra Malaga, a town a little further into the mountains passed Ollantaytambo. Our first day was a downhill biking adventure. It was mostly on paved road, but we still had a few off-road opportunities. We rode 45 km in total, starting at an altitude of 4,350 m.a.s.l. (meters above sea level) and ended just before the town of Santa Maria at 1,400 m.a.s.l. In case your math is slow, we traveled 45 km going down 3,000 meters. It was a good time. We stopped about halfway at a great overlook to eat lunch. We were basically riding down the front side of a mountain into the valley below. Our guide let us go as fast as we wanted! Toward the end of the route, there were almost ten or so sections where water just drains across the road down the valley. These were always fun to speed across, except they never failed to spray water up and drench us. We did not ride all the way to Santa Maria because the road construction becomes to difficult to maneuver past the village we stopped in. It is a bore to think that we were mostly on a road the whole time, except our guide told us that before there was a road, almost every tour ended with a broken bone or two or some other injury due to the steep and unpredictable terrain. A lot of fun, but I would not be as excited if I knew the first day of four I would need to be rescued away to receive a cast or stitches. However, the road is not paved for the entire duration of our route. The last twenty minutes are along a single lane, dirt road that is ripped up in most places. There was the occasional exhilarating moment when opposing traffic met the exact spot you were riding at while trying to turn hairpins in the road. 🙂 And Peruvians are the most behaved and most excellent drivers too. It is almost like watching Frogger… We ended with no injuries though. The agency provides mountain bikes with mostly reliable brakes, dirt bike helmets with front guards, elbow and knee pads, and bright florescent rain jackets. We were driven the rest of the way to Santa Maria where we stayed for the night.
That first day our group consisted of our main guide, Abeladra; two assistant guides who left after that first day; three Argentinians (one guy and two girls), whose names I never caught except the youngest girl, Paola; and two guys from Spain, Jose and Nacho. The three Argentinians were only doing a three day tour and thus left our group after that first day to join the group one day ahead of us. We did see them again in Aguas Calientes as they were waiting for their train to arrive and take them back towards Cuzco. Jose and Ignacio were only on a short trip to Peru, mostly just to see Machu Picchu. They were with us the whole tour.
On our second leg of the journey, we started our first of two days of trekking. Our small group of five started an uphill portion and stopped to take a rest at this place called Monkey House. Apparently only males live there, but there was an elderly lady there selling food. They have a monkey leashed to a tree and two giant guinea pigs. The monkey apparently suffers from machismo and females literally cannot go near it. The guy warned me about this just before the monkey freaked out and tried to run at me (luckily he was leashed). Then Aaron just walks up and it sits on his leg. Stupid machismo! Anyways, the guy told us about the local plants, fruits, and animals. We got to try cocoa beans in honey, very tasty. The he told us about the plant achiote, which has seeds inside that are used for dying things red. He painted each of our faces with a symbolic Inca design. I had a crown thing on my forehead with represented the queen, Pachamama, water, the serpent (one of the three sacred animals), and fertility. I think that my design was one of the more complex ones. Though I was the only female in the group. Aaron had lines down from his eyes that made me think of Gene Simmons pre- black and white paint. Then the guy explained moves and dances that would have been performed by the Inca. They dressed us up in traditional Andean clothes. Nacho and I were dressed as females. Poor Nacho. As we continued trekking, we were walking along an old Inca trail. Which was quite easy to discern as it involved a million stairs… We were walking through mountains, valleys, rivers, and crossing small villages, coca plantations, coffee and other fruit plantations. There were great views and spectacular scenery. We stopped for lunch in a little town and had fresh guacamole! and took short siestas (naps) in hammocks. It was a long day. We started at 1,250 m.a.s.l., went up into the mountain, then came back down to end at 1,500 m.a.s.l., for a total of about 13 km of walking for the day. We ended the long day down by the Rio Urubamba at the hot springs to relax our tired joints and wash the grime from our bodies. It was actually too warm for me, so I made a couple visits to the freezing freshwater “showers” to cool off. That night we stayed in Santa Teresa. There we met two new companions to our group, Jean and Stina. They were doing the same three day tour as the three Argentinians, so they were driven to Santa Teresa from Santa Maria without the long day of trekking. Many tourists take advantage of the few club/bars in Santa Teresa to go out, but all of us were too exhausted and just went to bed. Plus we all had to think about the trekking on the following day.
Our new companions, Jean and Stina, were exchange students studying in Lima. Stina is from Denmark and Jean from France. Jean lived in Spain for three years and thus speaks Spanish (quite accomplished to be 20 years old and fluent in French, Spanish and English, with some understanding of German and Danish…), but Stina did not know Spanish. It was a sudden change when we all stopped speaking Spanish and mostly spoke English. I really liked them. It was especially nice to have two new people to chat with on the third day when Jose and Nacho left us in the morning.
On the third day, Jose and Nacho left us to go zip-lining. They got to skip out on three hours of walking for this. The rest of us set out walking. The first three hours were not particularly taxing, as it was mostly level and just along the river. However, it was on a loose rock path and without shade (of course the sun was out with a vengeance). We did stop and take a dip at a waterfall, though; that was a nice little break. By the time we met Jose and Nacho for lunch at the hydroelectric dam, the rest of us were quite sun exhausted. After a nice lunch and a NAP, we set off for Aguas Calientes. This second half of the day was also not particularly taxing. We actually had some shade! and we were mostly just following the passenger train tracks along the river. We stopped at a lovely river spot to cool off. We started seeing a lot of people during this portion. We walked all the way to Aguas Calientes just in time for it to start raining as we “strolled” into town hot, sweaty and tired. The day´s accomplishment was 1,500 m.a.s.l. to 2,000 m.a.s.l. and 6.5 km. This is when we saw the three Argentinians again, as we crawled into our hostel for the night. That evening we had supper, stocked up on food for the next day, and went to sleep.
At this point I have failed to mention how along our journey we continuously see the same people. On the very first day there was a second group of cyclists following just behind our group (our pace was faster). Then we saw them again the following day at the Monkey House, where we also met a third group. While trekking you continuously cross paths as you stop for breaks and they catch up, or the fact that we often dined at similar locations. The third day we especially frequented the same people as we met even more at the hot springs.
On our fourth and final day, we left the hostel at twenty past FOUR A.M. to walk the thirty minutes to the Machu Picchu entrance. There was a crowd of about fifty or so people waiting for it to open to begin the ascent. Walking up the stairs to Machu Picchu was the most exhausting part of our entire trip. You go from 2,000 m to 2,425 m.a.s.l. via uneven, stone stairs, straight up to the entrance. This is not a particularly easy feat. We all made it though. Aaron and our guide were the very first two people to arrive. I am proud to say that I was never passed the entire way except by an old man, until I made a toilet pit stop. I would say that I still beat half the group though. Our little tour group were the very first people admitted inside. We even beat the first bus of employees!
Our guide was brilliant, as he had us close our eyes and finish the walk into the park so that we all saw Machu Picchu at the same time as a sudden scene before us. And it was right at sun rise! It was so gorgeous. I cannot imagine going and not arriving for the breath-taking view at sunrise. He lead us around the fantastic ruins and told us the history and interesting facts about Inca culture. For example, I never realized that Machu Picchu was never discovered by the Spaniards due to its high and out of the way location. Therefore, when the U.S. explorer, Hiram Bingham, started excavations at the site in 1911, there was still a significant amount of artifacts, possessions, and idols to find there. The people left Machu Picchu because after the Spaniards started taking over, the Inca emperor went to Machu Picchu and gathered people to make a final standoff at the last Inca capital. Abeladra, our guide, gave a fantastic tour. He knew a lot of information and I think he may have even gone beyond his normal tour for us as we skipped things due to lack of time rather than lack of things to explain. He took us to one of the quarry sites and explained how they carved the stones. He explained the Inca cross, bestowing a whole architectural revelation on me for all the previous sites Aaron and I viewed. He told us about special locations with windows, protruding rocks, or other structures, they play particular roles in revealing solstices, equinoxes, or other significant times of day/season/year by casting shadows or shapes in certain patterns or in certain locations. He told us about the theories behind the uses of Machu Picchu, detailing how the most accepted description is a farming, administrative and worship center. Hiram Bingham found an equal ratio of male to female skeletons buried on site, so the original description of a sacrificial virgin site is not well supported. Also, there is an ingenious spot, like a pulpit, where the acoustics are perfect for amplifying sound from that spot to the grounds below, making it an ideal spot for leaders to give speeches. It is also amazing how the Inca used in situ rocks and formations to built structures around. There is a jutting out rock used as a sun and solstice dial. There is a rock left naturally which closely resembles the mountain containing Machu Picchu with the two adjoining peaks of Huayna Picchu. There is a rock near the Huayna Picchu entrance which mirrors the mountain range further away down the valley. Then there is a small formation resembling the wings and body of a falcon. The falcon (one of the three significant animal figures) represented the messenger to the afterlife. This room had one entrance at the head of the bird. Then you pass between the wings into the stomach where the sacrificial and ritual areas were. Then you exit out of the anus to the small walkway out of the sacred room. There was also an interesting fact that there used to be a natural monolith in the center of the court opening, but it was cut down and moved so the queen of Spain could land her helicopter there. Then years later it was moved again and completely destroyed so the president of Peru could arrive by helicopter and give a speech. It is a wee bit disgusting that such things are (or were) allowed. Machu Picchu is now an UNESCO World Heritage Site and a protected park. There is so much information that I know I am forgetting some small bits of knowledge that I would love to relay but cannot remember.
After our tour, Abeladra said goodbye. We had to go outside the entrance to eat lunch and use the toilets before our 10 A.M. Huayna Picchu entrance time. By this time the sun was in full blaze, bearing down on us. The site was also beginning to become overrun by tour groups. Each day only 2,500 people are allowed into Machu Picchu and only 400 are allowed on Huayna Picchu (200 at 8 A.M. and 200 at 10 A.M.). It is about 40 minutes trek up to the top of Huayna Picchu. I went with Aaron and Jean (Stina had had enough and took the bus back to Aguas Calientes and we could not find the two Spanish guys). After the previous three days and the trek just up to Machu Picchu, my body was exhausted and repelled any notion for more physical activity. Thus I only went to the top of Huayna Picchu and did not do the whole 2.5 hour circuit around that peak. Huayna Picchu is the side peak overlooking Machu Picchu that all the famous photographs are taken from. Well worth the effort and the vantage point. At the time, though, all I could think about was the fact that I still had to walk back down all the stairs and then to Aguas Calientes. In the end I really felt like I accomplished something and had earned my visit to Machu Picchu after all that trekking. All the build-up of Cuzco and the archaeological sites was worth the final victory to see Machu Picchu. It really deserves its “Wonder of the World” title.
We all worked our separate ways back to Aguas Calientes and waited until our train that evening. I took a shower when they sent me to the bathroom to change and did not realize that I was supposed to have paid for that privilege. Oops. The water was freezing and I did not even have soap, so I cannot say that I gained much from it. After putting clean clothes on, we lounged on the couches and watched the television. The roles had changed from the mere 24 hours prior when we walked into the hostel exhausted from trekking and saw the clean and relaxed faces of the Argentinians the day before. When our train time finally came, we went down to the station and awaited our departure. We were on the “expedition” train, which was pretty nice. We had our own seat and a good sized table in front of us. We even got a little snack, though I did not like it. When we arrived in Ollantaytambo, a man with our names on a paper met us at the station and led us, along with 30 other tourists, to a really nice charter bus to take us back to Cuzco. Once back we said our goodbyes to our new friends and wandered back to our hostels to crawl into bed and drop easily into sleep from our long trip. It was an amazing adventure! And at an unbelievable price. $170 U.S. for being picked up at our hostel and driven two hours, then given bike and gear, three nights lodging, four days worth of meals, entrance to Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu, the train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo, a bus from Ollantaytambo to Cuzco, and topped off with a really cool guide. I do not think such a deal can be beat.
Alright, that is the end of our tourism escapade. Next installment will be about life in Cuzco. Until then,