Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Peru Trip Part I: Machu Picchu

I spent two weeks over Christmas visiting my lifelong friend Alana, who is currently serving as a business development volunteer in Peace Corps Peru. We began studying Spanish together in high school and have remained close throughout the years, despite our different paths to college in Alaska, Washington, and South Carolina. I had never before been to South America, so I jumped at the chance to visit Alana before my time in Nicaragua was up.
Traditional Peruvian woman and child
Another friend from my hometown named Emily also joined us for the first part of our trip where we went to Cuzco and Machu Picchu. A Bosnian/Austrian volunteer named Ena who works with Alana at a soup kitchen/community center in her Peace Corps community also came along. Emily and I arrived in Lima and Alana and Ena met us there (their town is a three hour bus ride south of the capital). I was impressed by Lima’s large buildings, modern highways and downtown shopping area. Having been in Nicaragua for so long, I’d forgotten what a city felt like. To give you some perspective, the city of Lima has about 8 million residents, while the entire country of Nicaragua has 5.5 million residents. There were foreigners everywhere – it was nice not sticking out. Alana told me that Lima is “like being in America. But once you get out of the city, there is still real poverty.” She also explained that Lima’s economy is one of the world’s fastest growing. Natural resources like minerals, seafood, as well as tourism seem to be the main industries.
After spending one night in Lima, we flew on Peruvian Airlines to the city of Cuzco (it was more expensive than the 14 hour-long bus ride alternative, but because of time limitations we decided to fly). Cuzco is located at 11,000 feet (about twice the altitude of Denver) and the side-effects of the altitude really got to some of us. I had taken some medicine to help with the effects, but Alana said she felt the altitude the minute we stepped off the plane: headache, fatigue, an odd feeling of floating, and difficulty breathing when walking or hiking. We arrived at our hostel and drank some Coca tea which has been used by the Incas for centuries as a natural remedy for the negative effects of altitude.

Me and Emily enjoying Coca tea
  We spent one night in Cuzco – a street of cobblestone, winding streets, and steep hills. There were many tourists, all on their way to or coming back from the infamous Machu Picchu. We spent our time wandering around and shopping in the markets. Items made from alpaca wool were the specialty of the area – prices ranged from $4 for a scarf to $400 for a boutique sweater. Silver jewelry was also crafted there and featured the Inca calendar, the Pachamama (or Mother Earth) symbol, and llamas.

A woman in traditional Inca clothing and a baby llama!

Dolls for sale at a market stall

  From Cuzco, we left on a bus for Ollantaytambo (try saying that five times fast!) to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the base camp for seeing Machu Picchu. The drive was breathtaking. From Cuzco we started our winding descent among green vertical hills lined with terraces, cows, sheep and the occasional llama. We followed the river valley which eventually led to Machu Picchu, located at about 8,000 feet. The snow-capped serrated peaks of the Andes were visible in the distance, yet the sun and a warm breeze coming in the windows made this feel surreal. On the way, we stopped for chicha, a fermented drink made from corn (also made in Nicaragua) that is mildly alcoholic. When we arrived in Ollantaytambo, which was a few thousand feet lower than Cuzco, my friends instantly started to feel better; headaches lessened and breathing became more regular.

Emily, Alana, me and Ena on the drive

The view we had of the Andes on the drive
We caught a night train to Aguas Calientes which was pleasant although expensive - they have a monopoly on transport to Machu Picchu. Peruvians get a discount however and sit in their own cars, separated from the hoards of foreigners who visit Machu Picchu. During the two hour ride we were served Coca tea and we talked excitedly (and loudly) and played card games (as Ena commented, entertained by us three gringas, “We are being like…how do you say it? Typical Americans right now!” probably annoying the other travelers….but hey, you’re on your way to Machu Picchu – get excited!) 
Aguas Calientes is a town built on tourism – it serves little more than as the starting and ending point for visitors to ascent Machu Picchu, and afterwards to relax in the hot springs and grab some pizza or Chinese food (the restaurants all advertised these gringo favorites). After settling in to our hostel, we set our alarms for 3:30 AM and packed our bags with snacks, rain jackets, drinking water and our cameras. We slept fitfully, afraid of over-sleeping the alarm. Our hostel started serving a light breakfast at 4 AM (they’re used to travelers who get up early to arrive at Machu Picchu first). Still groggy from sleep, we walked briskly in the pitch darkness about 20 minutes to the gate leading up the vertical mountain to the Machu Picchu ruins. We had forgotten a flashlight and were a little intimidated by the dark shadows of the surrounding mountains and the rushing river noises. Weren’t there also wild cats in this area?? At the entrance gate we found other travelers already waiting who were also planning on doing the hike up the mountain (the first buses up the mountain start at 5:30, so a few motivated, in-shape tourists like to hike up instead, leaving at 5). At 5 AM the gates opened and we sped off in a crazed rush towards the peak like the beginning of a race.

Me on the hike up

Mountains in the early fog
 The hike started out fast like any other hike I’ve done in Alaska – steep and slippery with mist and mud. The trail skipped the switchback road and ascended straight up the mountain. There were few breaks, if any, and we strained our eyes to see the stone steps of the trail through the darkness. It was very foggy out and moist – rainy season was beginning in Peru and the probability of having sunshine during our visit was unlikely. After the first 30 minutes or so of straight uphill hiking/running (we just had to be the first ones there!) my lungs started to feel funny. As a child I had asthma, but recently it hasn’t been a problem. After hiking at high altitude for a while, I started to feel the familiar feeling of my throat closing up and my lungs straining. I couldn’t tell if it was my asthma acting up or if it was simply the thin air of the altitude. Either way we had to push on, and with short breaks it was bearable. We made it up the mountain in under an hour and were there when the gates were opened. We were planning on climbing Mount Waynapicchu (the immense dagger-shaped peak that rises above the ruins), so we had our entrance tickets stamped for that since they only let 400 people climb the mountain daily.

It was daylight by then, but the clouds were thick and the wind was strong. Visibility was extremely low. We raced into Machu Picchu, but were slightly disappointed when we realized that we couldn’t see much more than 50 feet in front of us. Mount Waynapicchu was covered in clouds and we couldn’t even make out the ruins. Ena and Emily became separated from Alana and me. We felt disoriented by the fog – we studied the map and tried to figure out where to go. Then it started to rain, hard. There were few places to take cover, but Alana and I took refuge in a cave that was part of the ruins for a bit. I found a plastic bag tucked in a corner that the maintenance staff uses for trash and made it into a makeshift poncho. Alana’s guidebook on the ruins turned into a wet pulp and our rain jackets became soaked.

Alana and me hiding out from the rain in a cave.  We got a few weird looks from passing tourists -
we think they were jealous of our spot!
 After an hour or so the rain cleared off and the fog began to slowly lift. I became dizzy looking around me at the peaks surrounding Machu Picchu (which means “Old Mountain”). It really rests on the narrow edge of a mountaintop and is surrounded by dozens of green, jagged peaks. We had been tired from our hike up and I couldn’t imagine how the Incas had lived here and hiked around the city daily, hauling food, building, and farming.

We wandered the ancient city for hours – it was very well-kept and preserved. We had surprising freedom and could walk virtually anywhere unattended and unobserved – since it was so early there were relatively few tourists present. I’ve even heard of people who get naked at Machu Picchu to take a memorable photograph… We chose not to hire a guide, but in hindsight it would have been beneficial. We did however talk to one of the Machu Picchu caretakers for quite a while – he showed us the Condor temple/prison area and the King’s palace (complete with his own urinal). The Incas had made an intricate water system that ran throughout the city providing irrigation and disposing of waste which still worked! The terraced land at the entrance to the city was also still in good condition. Workers wandered the grounds throughout the day collecting trash (Yes, apparently even at Machu Picchu, one of the world’s greatest wonders, people still throw trash on the ground).
I was blown away at the way the Incas had made the stone walls before modern machinery. Immense rocks weighing many tons had been cut in straight lines and fit together exactly without mortar.
During the downpour, the rainwater flowed easily through the water system which acted as a gutter – we never stepped in puddles or in excess water. I think modern city planners in Nicaragua could take a note from the Incas – my house there overflows every time it rains and the streets fill with water.

The water/irrigation system
We saw the famous Temple of the Sun (we were there just two days before the Winter Solstice, when the sun is supposed to shine through one of the temple’s windows, marking a specific area on the temple floor), the Temple of Three Windows, the fountains, and the astronomical observatory. 
The Temple of the Sun
The astronomical observatory - these circles of water served as reflecting pools for the night sky.

The dwellings
As we eavesdropped on various tour guides and read our own information, we learned that despite all the research that has been done in the 100 years since it was discovered by an American professor, Machu Picchu remains one of the world’s greatest mysteries. It is not known exactly what the city was used for or who lived there, but it is speculated that it was used for important religious ceremonies, although as we were told by a guide, they did not engage in human sacrifice. More than 100 mummies were found in the ruins, mostly women, leading some to speculate that it was used as a convent.
It was breathtaking just to sit and look at the ruins and think of the lives the Incas used to lead here. The fact that there is so much mystery surrounding Machu Picchu makes it more interesting – you can invent your own history for the place, your own ideas for what it was used for.

Terraced farming area (and llamas)

The only beings that permanently live at Machu Picchu now are chinchillas (there were droppings everywhere!) and llamas. The former were hiding out during the day, but the latter were obviously accustomed to humans so we were able to get quite close for some photos. They’re soft and friendly, but they can also get annoyed and spit at you. I was almost run over by one large female who sprang down the stone steps unexpectedly towards me, her ear bells jangling and her enormous rump bouncing under her thick, matted white wool. I moved quickly out of the way. The Incas decorate llamas with bells, ribbons and woven fabrics for special ceremonies to show them off and make them beautiful, and the llamas residing at Machu Picchu were no exception.

Lounging llamas
When we were getting ready to head back down to town at about 1 PM, the weather was finally beginning to clear up. Sun was trying to shine through the clouds, and Mount Waynapicchu finally emerged from the clouds (we decided not to climb it due to the low visibility and our own exhaustion). At last we were able to get pictures with the image of Machu Picchu that everyone has seen before, with the mountain looming in the background.

We opted to take a bus down the mountain since we were so worn out (it was worth those $7!) and we went straight to the hot springs that gives the town of Aguas Calientes its name. They were located right beside the rushing river. Most travelers come to the hot springs after a long day hiking around Machu Picchu, and we were glad we did too. The warmish to mildly-hot water soothed our muscles and brought us back to life again.

For dinner, we walked up and down the hilly streets of Aguas Calientes, being harassed by hostesses who stood outside restaurants and called to us, grabbed our hands, and offered us free drinks if we’d pick their restaurant. The nice thing about this is that you can negotiate your price, and the restaurant we finally decided on gave us a good deal. Alana, Emily, and Ena ordered Alpaca meat (they were going to get guinea pig, the traditional Peruvian delicacy, but it was too expensive), and I ordered a stuffed pepper made with rice and potatoes. The traditional aj√≠ chile sauce was included and I fell in love with it. In Nicaragua, the principal spice used in food is salt, and the only condiments are very sweet ketchup and mayonnaise. I was impressed by Peruvian food and their use of spices – it revived my taste buds.

We ended our trip with another night in Cuzco and by going out dancing at a discotheque (once again we were harassed by the workers of the clubs who grabbed our arms and tried to charm us with free drinks). We were up until the wee hours (amazing considering what a busy four days we had had).
Cuzco plaza at dusk
After just a couple hours of sleep, we had to wake up to catch our flight back to Lima (note: Peruvian Airlines is consistently 3-5 hours late. Be prepared to wait in the airport for a long time). From Lima, Emily left back to the U.S. (with only two hours of sleep to go on, she had to wait until a standby flight at 1 AM), and Alana, Ena and I headed to Alana’s community in the department of Ica, on the southwest coast of Peru. We were so exhausted, we could barely muster the strength to say goodbye to each other. The past five days had been a blur of short hours of sleep and lots of exertion and fun at high altitudes. We had bought matching silver rings in Cuzco featuring the Coca leaf to remember the trip and each other and vowed to exchange pictures as soon as we had access to internet. However, my trip was just beginning – I still had nine days left in Peru. My next blog entry will be about the second half of my trip in the more rural area of Alana’s site in Chincha, Ica.


Yalicita said...

Sounds awesome, about the use of spices in Nicaragua, you should try eating out a bit I imagine that you live in a poor rural area where ppl cannot afford the use of many spices, there are many good nicaraguan dishes you should try before leaving :)

kold_kadavr_ flatliner said...

Pass this around
to save their souls, P.
You very well could
be someone's catalyst:

Let this be your catalyst to Seventh-Heaven:

'The more you shall honor Me,
the more I shall bless you'
-the Infant Jesus of Prague
(<- Czech Republic, next to Russia)

Love him or leave him or indifferent...
better lissen to the Don:

If you deny o'er-the-Hillary's evil,
which most whorizontal demokrakkrs do,
you cannot deny Hellfire
which YOU send YOURSELF to.

Yes, earthling, I was an NDE:
the sights were beyond extreme.
Choose Jesus.
You'll be most happy you did.
God bless your indelible soul.

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