In the Land of the Incas

Trip Start Mar 09, 2003
1
Trip End Mar 20, 2003

Flag of Peru  ,
Tuesday, February 10, 2004

We rounded the high stone wall and gasped as the vista opened out before us.

Machu Picchu.
Lost City of the Incas.
The city the Spanish never found.

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. Rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911 while leading a Yale expedition seeking the last city stronghold of the Incas, Villacamba...but I'm getting ahead of myself...

We landed in the capital of Peru, Lima, and weren't out of the airport before our first surprise - we needed some ready cash in the local currency but the ATM popped out US dollars. It turns out that that's the common used currency here. The next surprise came as we stepped outside the airport. We were awash in balmy ocean breezes - Lima, on the Pacific Ocean, feels just like southern California with its sunny and dry atmosphere, palm trees waving everywhere. We had an afternoon to stroll along the beach before turning in early for a 4 am pickup the next morning. Flights to Cusco (the jumping off city for Machu Picchu trips) are early to ensure good weather as you fly over the Andes. (Luckily Peru is the same time zone as New York, so the jet lag isn't bad.)

Second in height only to the Himalayas, the Andes boast several peaks over 20,000 ft. From our airplane window their snow-capped tops looked like meringue drops, resting on the cloud cover. (Another pleasant surprise - everywhere we flew in South America, even on flights as short as this sixty-minute one, we were served a hot meal!)

Cusco, the capital of the Inca empire, 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 (Inca's didn't have the wheel) 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. Lately there's been conjecture that the quipus may actually contain a language, if we could only find "quipo rosetta stone" to decipher them.

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.
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 plentiful in the mountains, and all gold was given to the Inca royalty, who valued it only in its use as part of religious ceremonies or in temples and tombs. Craftsmen turned the ore into many intricate artifacts - one room in Cusco reportedly contained a golden garden, complete with golden shafts of corn! (Peruvians still mine gold from these same mountains and their artisans create beautiful jewelry.)
The legend of all this gold reached the Spanish, who eagerly sent expeditions to find this El Dorado. In 1532 the Spaniard Pizarro came in search of the gold, and, armed with the 'high-tech' weapons of horses and guns, managed to overwhelm an Inca army of thousands with less than 200 men. The Inca leader, Atahuallpa, was captured and the Spanish demanded a huge ransom his release - one room full of gold and two full of silver. One source estimated that this would be worth over $200 million today! The ransom was paid, but there was the inevitable political intrigue and the Spanish executed Atahuallpa anyway.

It didn't take the Spanish very long to overrun the entire Inca empire. Besides sending riches home, they sought to destroy the Inca civilization and infrastructure, as they'd just done with the Moors in Spain. A real testament to the Inca architects and laborers is that while in many cases the Spanish built on top of Inca foundations, earthquakes since the late 16th century have shattered their buildings, while the Inca stonework - many "building blocks' of well over one ton - are still intact.

Because Cusco is over 11,000 feet, we decided to descend first to the neighboring Sacred Valley and work our way back as we adjusted to the altitude. Throughout our trip we were served coca tea, made from leaves of the coca plant (NOT chemically treated as in cocaine!), a natural herb to reduce altitude sickness. We tried to chew leaves as the natives do, but since to me it was like chewing on dried grass clippings, I think it's definitely an acquired taste.

The Sacred Valley is a 45 minutes drive west from Cusco, about 6000 feet in altitude. It's a lush, fertile valley with beautiful rolling hillsides, perfect for farming. At roadside stops women had laid colorful woven blankets on the ground to hold the crafts they'd made and were offering for sale. Children added their marketing skills by dressing in colorful native costumes, standing with a llama or two, for picture-perfect photo opportunities ($1US, please).

Our first stop was Pisac, the Inca's largest fortress-city, which has a huge open-air market where locals come from miles around to buy and sell their handicrafts and foodstuffs. Peruvians enjoy a cornucopia of agricultural products - some of the foodstuffs we know through Quechan words include coca, jerky, and lima [bean]. Their corn was a special treat, kernels twice the size of our American ones, very sweet and flavorful. Street vendors roast the ears in the husk and sell it as a snack for pennies- we bought it whenever we could!

At the far end of the market, tucked into a side street, was the local baker, working out of an ancient open-air oven. Using our broken Spanish we managed to buy fresh, hot loaves of bread - some made from quinoa, a staple grain that's more nutritious than corn or potatoes. It comes in many forms like flour, flakes and little pearls, which we'd add to our cereal every morning.

We happily munched away as we ran the gauntlet of vendor's sales pitches. Tourists are always mobbed, but politely. We were continually impressed with the 'no begging' maxim, just a tug at one sleeve or another with something always offered for sale. And if we'd shake our heads 'no' they'd turn away with a smile and a 'maybe later" - a phrase obviously picked up from English-speaking tourists.

Rural roads are just wide enough for two vehicles to squeeze past, and animals were tethered to posts mere inches from the road to graze on the greenest spots (first time I'd ever seen a pig on a leash!). The houses - huts, really, were only a foot or two back from the road and barefoot children raced back and forth, squealing with delight (as children the world over do) when they found a puddle to stomp in.

In Ollantaytambo, a living Inca village with its original pre-Columbian street plan, and a wonderful Inca fortress above it, we were invited into a home, a walled compound with barnyard, and mud walls. This one-room house had a 20' ceiling and formed a 20' by 30' rectangle. To the left as we stepped in was a wood-burning cook stove and a treadle sewing machine, being used to sew clothing from the exquisite textiles they weave. On the adjoining wall hung hammock bunkbeds, complete with sleeping children. Provisions and farm implements were piled against the wall opposite us, and little guinea pigs were running free, housed in openings carved into the wall at floor level. But the wall to our right immediately caught our attention.

One-foot square niches had been carved at eye level in the wall, just as we would see later in the ruins at Machu Picchu. Human skulls rested in each niche, with a small candle placed before each skull. We learned that these were the skulls of our hosts' ancestors, and this display is a custom that shows respect for ones' elders.

We left a few dollars in the bowl by the door in appreciation for the honor of visiting. Guinea hens roosting outside the door seemed to cackle their thanks as we left - all I could think of was how they'd be the family's next meal!

We boarded the train at 8am in Ollantaytambo the next day bound for Aguas Calientes, the town in the valley below Machu Picchu. This was the "autowagon" train, a very comfortable train with observation-style cars. Meals are even included in the ticket price. (It originates in Cusco, departing at 6am daily.)

The train runs along the Urubamba River, a wild and tumbling torrent, part of the headwaters of the Amazon River system. There's even one stop for hikers to disembark and walk to Machu Picchu along the Inca Trail, along original Inca stone steps. This hike requires a Peruvian guide and takes four days.

We pulled into the Aguas Calientes station about 10am and boarded buses for a rather harrowing 30-minute ride up the narrow mountain road - it didn't seem to be wide enough for two buses, and with no railings we were left wide-eyed when another vehicle would make an impossible pass.

We got off the buses at the entry gate and met our guide. Once we passed the guard gate outside the ruins, he led us on a steep climb through a maze of ancient stone stairways. The less patient in the group kept asking "where are the ruins?" "Patience", he would say, "patience". Sure enough, after 20 minutes of this oxygen-limited climb at 8000 feet, he led us through an archway and around that tall brick wall that opened to an incredible vista.

Words can't describe the impact as we gazed upon this site nestled on the mountaintop, sheltered by surrounding peaks that kept it safely hidden from the Spanish Conquistadors. Covering over five acres, the site includes worship areas, living areas - separate ones for royalty and commoners, stone terraces for crops and an open grassy area about the size of a football field. The entire site is so large it can be seen by the naked eye from the space shuttle!

Hiram Bingham was looking for the last city stronghold of the Incas when a local farmer showed him these then vine-covered ruins. He didn't even realize what he'd found - a really lost city - until later research. His analysis of skeletons at first led him to believe this was a religious sanctuary, but recent research indicates it was a royal retreat, something like our Camp David.

Our guide was extremely knowledgeable and thorough, leading us through the site's highlights in just a few hours. You'll love the new names, some simple, some strange: Temple of the Moon, The Three Doorways and Artisans' Wall, Temple of the Condor, Paccha Mama, Intiwatana.

The stone masonry was absolutely astounding. Most of the stones are irregularly shaped, but they marry up absolutely perfectly with the adjoining stones, with no room between for even a sheet of paper. The Temple of the Sun, however, has stone blocks that are so identical they could have been punched out one by one from the same mold. Hiram Bingham called this "the most beautiful wall in America."

The Incas also demonstrated a great mastery of astronomy. - Machu Picchu is filled with features that point to the solstice and equinox- Temple of the Sun, Sacred Rock, Intimachay. Little windows or markings are cut to capture the sun's rays at just the right time. 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.

Most people visit Machu Picchu for the day, so they have to head back to the train after lunch, giving them only four or five hours to tour the ruins. We arranged to spend the night in Aguas Calientes so we could return to the ruins after lunch and have them practically to ourselves - a wonderful experience that I'd highly recommend.

Sitting on a rock overlooking the site it's easy to imagine how it must have looked 1200 years ago - people tending crops, weaving cloths, children playing. And it was fun to see the llamas and alpacas roaming at will - another great (and free) photo opportunity!

We stayed in Aguas Calientes at the Pueblo Hotel, a charming 13 acre village with individual bungalows and cloud forest gardens. Be sure and sign up for the staff-led tour of the grounds, even if you're not staying there. Brightly colored hummingbirds swarm amidst over 200 different species of orchids. The orchid tour is a must do - you're even issued your own little magnifying glass...made me feel like Sherlock Holmes, bending over and examining little orchids only one-quarter inch long.

In addition to lingering in the quiet of the afternoon our first day at Machu Picchu, by staying overnight we were able to again visit in an uncrowded atmosphere the next morning, catching an early bus before the daily rush of tourists arrived by train. We did an easy hike from the main ruins to Intipunta, the Sun Gate, where you have a complete view of the site. The Inca Trail ends at this arched gate, and you can just imagine how awe struck a dusty, tired traveler from somewhere in the empire would have felt when finally cresting the trail ridge and laying eyes on this beautiful city for the first time.

Alas, eventually we had to take a long last look at this magical site we'd traveled so far to see. It was our turn to descend to the train station. We climbed through the valley and over a final mountain before descending into Cusco via switchback tracks on a hillside too steep to permit normal railway curves.

Cusco also offers many sights and delights for visitors. We loved the local market across from the train station. Spread out like a huge covered flea market, there's everything from flowers to grains to live animals. Hundreds of merchants, mainly women, are set up in the tin-roofed hall. We even saw four entrepreneurs lined up elbow-to-elbow on the sidewalk, each standing behind a small wooden stand on which rested an old manual typewriter. The price for typing a letter - two soles, about $0.50 US.

The Inca ruins are plentiful here, as you'd expect for a capital city. The Temple of the Sun, Coricancha, where Atawallpa was held prisoner, was the most sacred Inca site. This is where that golden field of maize was, with silver stems and corn ears made of gold. Even the walls were described as being covered in gold in Inca times. Never found was the holiest symbol of the empire - the golden Sun Disc.

Not far from the city are two more sites you should definitely see. The first is Sacsaywaman, which has the largest ruins of any Inca site. There are three concentric stone walls, each stretching for more than a thousand feet. Again, one stands in awe of the Inca's stonemasonry, as every stone, no matter how large, is finely chiseled to fit with its neighbor. There are stones almost 20 feet high and estimated to weigh almost 100 tons! The Incas staged from this site when they rebelled against the Spanish in 1536. Some believe its underground tunnels contain that missing Sun Disc!

The second site to see is Tambomachay, called 'the Inca's Bath'. A spring emerges from the hillside, and the Inca built a series of three waterfalls, channeling them in an intricate manner through the stones. It's hard to understand how so much water could be coming out of the channels when the Bath sits on the top of the hillside.

In Cusco we stayed at the Hotel Monasterio, a beautiful restored colonial seminary with "oxygenated" rooms available upon request, to help with the altitude. It's ideally located, just a block off the Plaza de Armas. It's fun to imagine what the monks were doing in the rooms where we had breakfast or cocktails. And I'm sure their bedrooms were much more spartan than the luxury we experienced.

The visit to Cusco and Machu Picchu was a wonderful experience. You'll love the friendly people, the delicious food, the fascinating history and the beautiful scenery. And the easy transition to the local time zone makes Peru high on the list of international travelers, especially North Americans.

And who knows, maybe you'll be the one to find the Sun Disc.
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