Asthma attacks, 5 hours uphill & tourists galore!

Trip Start Mar 16, 2010
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Trip End Sep 11, 2010


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Flag of Peru  , Sacred Valley,
Friday, June 18, 2010

The Lost City of the Incas. Machu Picchu. Simply the name inspires pictures, fairytale like in appearance surging to the front of your mind, your imagination kicks in and the dreams start flowing of the possibility of one day visiting this mystical place. For us, that dream was fast becomming a reality, and we were in the least bit prepared for it. Leanne for one had not recovered her strength from a bout of food poisoning endured in La Paz and both of us had had several nights of fretful sleep waking up at 6am in the morning with barely 3 hours sleep a night to keep our eyes open. And so it was that we awoke on that fateful day, yet again at 6am to start climbing and clambering along the Inca Trail that would eventually lead us to the place our dreams resided.

Second in height only to the Himalayas the Andes loom straight ahead of us cutting jagged shapes into the morning sky. We are at the first post, the gateway to the Inca Trail and where we hand over our precious passes to be stamped and registered. After we are introduced to our new American friends, Brett and Jim, who will be joining us on our journey, Darwin our guide leads us over a Bridge which looks precariously unstable and we start the first climb of the day. Luckily this only lasts for 30 minutes or so and the view one we reach the top is worth it. From there it is an easy couple of hour hike to our lunch spot going accross īInca Flatī terrain!

After a fabulous lunch of battered chicken, rice and salad we continue on our way. All four of us are tiring by this point when suddenly Darwin stops and we all look up wondering why we have stopped. Darwin simply points to the ledge we are standing in front of and we carefully pick are way accross the rough ground to the edge. From there our breath catches and we find ourselves staring wide eyed at the first of the Inca sites we will come accross en route to Machu Picchu. This site, wayllabamba is bigger in terms of site area than Machu Picchu itself and posisbly even more important than its more famous big brother in terms of trading. It sits below us in a lush valley enclosed on several sides by steep mountian faces and circled by a small river. The sun is streaming in from behind a mountain making the air appear misty as if we are viewing this wonder through foggy glasses. There are several points of interest here Darwin explains, and three main areas to the city. The first one is the residential area which consists of tiny square houses and is close to the backdrop of the closest cheer rock face, outward from that lies a religious area where only one temple remains today and down from that leading to the river is a terraced region, its sole purpose for agriculture. After a long stare at this site we move on again.

Inca flat is a term for going neither uphill or downhill for a long period of time. Afterall what area of land in the Andes is generally considered flat! The next part of our journey was definitely not to be regarded as Inca flat. As Darwin explained, the first day was training day, getting us prepared for the hardship that would come on day two of the trek. This training involved climbing up a steep path cut into a rock face overlooking the valley and fast flowing river below, clambouring around cattle including one particular overprotective mother who tried to headbut us out of the way when we came too close to her calf, followed by an even steeper segment downhill to reach our camp for night one. Not sure which is worse, uphill or downhill, but we certainly have more in store for tomorrow with a 5 hour solid uphill climb, followed by an hour and a half downhill!

5:30am was our wake up call, with the porters offering coca tea outsides our tents. With a little bit of sugar this definitely worked as a good wake up call, certainly better than the beep beep beep of an alarm. Leanne in particular was dreading this day as it involved a vast number of steps whihc was definitely not a good idea on a bust up knee!

For James the idea of climbing for 5 hours uphill seemed like a piece of cake and sure as a mountain goat he almost ran up the mountain side leaving a stricken and struggling Leanne behind. (Is it obvious who is writing this particular blog!?) James did however redeem himself for bouncing off ahead when Leanne had her third asthma attack of the climb and was stuck just 20 or so steps from the summit struggling for breath. Seen as we know realise who is writing this I will revert to the first person to explain how it felt. It seems as though the obvious procedure is not to panic. Try telling that to your body when your lungs close up, and there is no oxygen in the surrounding atmosphere due to the altitude. Even though you tell yourself, donīt panic, donīt panic it will be ok, your brain switches into automatic mode and you start hyperventilating and the panic seeps through your body like a poison. Dawrin was quick on the scene followed by a heroic James who bounded even faster down the mountain than he did up it as soon as he saw me sat on the steps with Darwin leat over me trying to calm me down. However it was only once James arrived that I truly managed to breath again and once he had seen to it that I was ok, he took hold of my bag, swung it onto his back and bounded off one again to the top shouting encouraging comments to me as I started up again.

I think its about time I get to a doctor at home and find myself a nice inhaler! After all whats the point of having a father who has worked his whole life in the field of asthma and not take advantage of his inventions!

Next on the agenda was an hour and a half downhill. Time to decide which is worse, downhill or uphill! Even taking into account my bust up knee I think going downhill was the lesser of the two evils. At least all of us had no problems breathing!

Day three involved a wake up call at 5am. Not a good idea after another fitfull nights sleep. However both myself and James were in good spirits as today didnīt involve much uphill, at least not 5 hours solid of clambouring up steps reaching as high as my knees! The first section of todays trek unfortunately was uphill, and Leanne once again had an asthma attack, however this one was nowhere near as bad as the previous one and James was right there to help me out. All I can say is that after recovering from it, and looking at where I was, there really was nowhere else in the world I would rather have had an asthma attack. We were stood in the middle of a circular stone temple with wonderful stone masonry that was absolutely astounding. Darwin had told us that the Incas used two types of stone masonry. The ones reserved for the temples where stone blocks that are so identical they could have been punched out one by one from the same mold are stacked up next to each other with no room inbetween for even a piece of paper. This was a classic example of that sort of design. The walls of the temple were also built to be earthquake proof, with slanting walls and trapezium shaped holes for windows and doorways. As we stood at the top of this mountainside overlooking the valley deep below us it surprised me at how content I was despite the hardships involved.

The rest of the day passed without any major problems, and was mainly Inca flat with the exception of a few long sections downhill. We discovered that bounding down these fast, reminiscent to a rabbit or chinchilla was easier than being careful. A bit of a paradox if you ask me, but it worked! However we did come accross a couple of ancient Inca sites. One of being a temple complex completed with the same stone masonry reserved solely for temples buildings. What was interesting was the fact that the temple was surrounded by terraces. These terraces are deisgned to grow crops on, however in this case they were only used to cultivate flowers, particularly Orchids which they picked to decorate the temple and use as offerings for the gods.

We covered roughly 16km one the third day, but it seemed to be over almost as soon as it began because before we knew it we were having hot showers in our third and final camp. The last night was time to say goodbye to our amazing cooks and porters who ad carried all of our belongings including the food and tents along this rough terrain which we found difficult without the extra added weight of 20 odd kilos on our backs. There are no words to describe just how amazing these porters are in terms of what they can manage. Their physical strength completely astounded all of us in the group and because of their help we tipped them generously as is custom.

3:30am was wake up call on the last day, however this time we didnīt have coca tea waiting for us outside our tents. The porters had to make us breakfast then carry everything down the mountain to tyhe nearby town of Agua Calientes for the local train going back to the start of the inca trail at km 82 at 5am!

From our camp it was only a 2 hour walk on Inca Flat then 10 minutes up steep stairs to the entrance to the sun gate or Intipunku. By this time the sun had risen and as we sat on a rock looking down on Machu Picchu in the distance I felt oddly unsatisfied. I guess that isnīt what most people say when the finally get a look at Machu Picchu but in my case I just simply didnīt feel anything as I looked into the distance at the ancient city itself. Who knows, maybe if i had been in better spirits I would of sat there wondering at the amazing city nestled on a plateau high inbetween two mountains, breathless at the though of heading down to explore its architecture, temples and housing. In my opinion, the sungate was a bit of an anticlimax.

I had to wait for another half an hour before I could truly appreciate the beauty of Machu Picchu, and the reasons why it had become so famous. We finally reached the postcard picture point. From here you could make out the individual houses, terraces and temples within the city and the complexity of its design is what finally took my breath away. For years I had dreamed of this place, seen thousands of pictures plastered over books and read stories about the myths and legends it holds. It was easy to look bac in time, at this view point and imagine how it must have looked 1200 years ago - people tending crops, weaving cloths, children playing. Our gaze swept across the sheltered mountain glen. Wisps of fog rose through the surrounding green-clad mountains, adding an ethereal quality to the already fairy tale setting. A calm settled over me as I gazed upon this lost city of the Incas, never found by the Spanish. Finally we were here. Machu Picchu.

It was time for a history lesson - and I have to say I have never enjoyed a history lesson quite so much as this one with the back drop of Winu Picchu. Surprisingly, we learned that not everyone in the empire was considered an Inca, this was just the name for the upper class. Amidst many different tribes, the Incas rose to capture and assimilate millions of people between about 1200 1500 A.D. to create an empire that stretched over 2000 miles down the west coast of South America, through the modern day countries of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. Legends say this this occured in the Inca capital of Cusco. The name Cusco, literally means "navel of the world" in the native Quechan language. The Inca built roads from here that led to the four corners of their empire. Runners would race between stations delivering news via quipus, strands of yarn knotted to provide numerical information, like crop size, etc. It took specially trained people to both make and read the quipus. The Spanish never captured even one of these experts.

Scholars say the Incas were a very spiritual people, worshipping many gods that represented all areas of nature. Their major god was Inti, the Sun God, father of the first Inca (king) and his descendents. Inti nourished the earth and the people with his rays, and gold represented Inti's tears. Gold was not rare in the Andes and therefore was not considered to have any value to it apart from to be used in decoration and in ceremonial procedures. The Spanish however knew Goldīs true value and for that reason ramsacked every Inca site they came across, shipping the gold back to Spain where it still resides in the Monarchy. Luckily however, as stated before the Spanish never reached Machu Picchu and therefore never got hold of the wealth that must of been stored here.

Rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 who was at the time leading a Yale expedition for El Dorado and instead found an overgrown city filled with vegetation that resembled nothing like the Machu Picchu we now know and recognise. Rediscovered is possibly the wrong word to use for this expedition because although it was discovered for the first time by the Western world with Hiram Bingham as a pioneer, it was never lost to the locals. When Hiram Bingham arrived, there were two families living in the city in exile form the Peruvian government who was trying to track them down. Needless to say that these familes became famous and never had any problems with the government again!

There are many spectulations to what Machu Picchu was actually designed and built for. The first speculation was that it was a religious sanctuary, but upon later inspection a few more theories have evolved. One of them the likely case that it was a university and schooled the wealthy in the art of astronomy and mathematics. One other theory is that is was a royal retreat. The university theory is the most likely due to the evidence found in the form of skeletons. 80% of the skeletons found were young men roughly between the ages of 18 and 25 with only womens bodies being found rarely. In those days women were regarded as secondary beings, their worth being devalued to simply being child bearers and workers.

As we walked around the city itself, Darwin our guide told us more about what it was like to live as the Incas did. He told there the Incas believed in three levels to the world, the underworld, the present and the future. These were represented by the snake, the llama and the puma respectively. These worlds were represented by a pyramid shape, with the snake at the bottom, the llama in ther middle and the puma at the point of the pyramid. There was is one temple in Machu Picchu honouring the Puma, but neither the Llama or the snake were honoured in the lost city. We passed other temples including the temple dedicated to the sun. This temple itself was a marvel to look at. The stone work was the best we had come accross. We gazed up at it and our eyes rested on two small windows. Darwin explained that these windows corresponded to the exact points the sun would come in and light up two separate altars on either the winter solstice or the summer stolstice or equinox. It isnīt just the temple of the Sun that shows the Incas dedication to the art of astronomy, Machu Picchu is filled with features that point to the solstice and equinox- Temple of the Sun, Sacred Rock, Intimachay. The Incas highly developed science of astronomy linked their worship of nature to agriculture, for example, determining when to plant and when to harvest their crops.  

One other temple we passed and spent a great deal of our time in was a temple of which the name eludes my memory, but I do remember the main feature within the temple. A Chakana. The Chakana is a religious and spiritual symbol in the Andes and is often referred to as the Inca cross.

The stepped cross has many levels of meanings, pointing to the numbers, 2, 3 and 4. The four points indicates the four cardinal points of a compass. The three steps indicate the three levels of existence - Hana Pacha (the upper world inhabited by the superior gods), Kay Pacha, (the world of our everyday existence) and Ucu or Urin Pacha (the underworld). In the temple there is only the top half of the cross present, but at certain times of the day when the sun shines through it creates a mirror image of itself in the form of a shadow, completing the Chakana symbol. This light a shadow world represent the two sides of humanity. The hole through the centre of the cross represents Cuzco, the center of the Incan empire, and the Southern Cross constillation, indicating South in the night sky in the Southern hemisphere.

Well, now you all know as much about Machu Picchu as both of us do, except for one important fact. Machu Picchu is one of the most famous Inca cities in the world, and its name inspires awe and fairytale like pictures in the minds of people throughout the world. But how many of you know that when the inhabitants of Machu Picchu left (most likely scared the Spanish would find them) that the entire city itself wasnīt finished? There is no much arcitecture left here that wasnīt completed. Machu Picchu may be the most famous and possibly best preserved lost city of the Incas, but it was also one of the newest cities in the civilisation.

However the story is far from complete. James, being James wasnīt satisfied with completed a gruelling four day trek and had set his sights on climbing Winu Picchu, the rather steep mountain seen in the background of all the famous Machu Picchu photos. While he climbed up this beast, Jim, Brett and I decided to have a congratulatory beer and waited for a surely half crazed with exaustion boyfriend of mine to climb down the mountain so we could continue on our trip down into Agua Calientes for a spot of lunch and a sad farewell to Darwin and our other guide Hubert. A train, a bus, a rebuliding of a road and 6 and a half hours later we were back in our hostel in Cusco.

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye. The sound of Andean music reached our ears as we drifted off to sleep back safely in our beds in Cusco unsure if our adventure was just a dream.







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