Andy Carvin's Waste of Bandwidth

September 15, 1998

Back from Peru and Bolivia

Filed under: Peru — Andy Carvin @ 12:59 pm

Andy's Machu Picchu sketch
Hi everyone. Susanne and I have just returned from a two-week trek across the Andes Mountains from Cusco, Peru to La Paz, Bolivia. The first word that comes to mind is exhausting: though neither of us contracted altitude sickness, the high elevation gave us both sinus infections and kept us huffing and puffing a lot. (And thankfully neither of us had stomach problems, or as I liked to call it in Peru, Aguirre: Wrath of God…) Overall we had a great time, though. Machu Picchu is beyond words – I wish I could have spent weeks there instead of three days. Cusco was a fascinating town, with its blending of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture. We also visited the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca, which was beautiful but frigid – there is no heat whatsoever in the town of Copacabana, so it’s impossible to ever get away from the freezing temperatures. We warmed up by wrapping up the trip in La Paz, Bolivia’s lively capital. Everywhere we went in La Paz there seemed to be a political protest or rally. I’ve never been to a city that was so politically active, and I even live in Washington DC!

On the whole Peru and Bolivia made for a fascinating vacation, though I’ve got to say I’m glad to get back to work…

September 6, 1998

Cusco to Puno journal

Filed under: Peru — Andy Carvin @ 12:59 pm

Hi everyone. In January 1998 I posted the first of several journal entries from my September 98 trip to Peru and Bolivia. I promised I’d post the rest of my journal in January. Well, it took a little longer than expected, but I’ve finally wrapped up typing it all up. The following messages will include my journal entries for Puno, Copacabana and La Paz. If you’d like to see my previous posts, visit and search for “High Plains Backpacker.” [or search my blog now that they're archived here.-ac]
So, without further ado, here’s my entry for Cusco to Puno.
ps – please excuse any typos or minor errors. I’m still editing the text.

September 5, 1998

Machu Picchu, Day Three

Filed under: Peru — Andy Carvin @ 12:59 pm

Hi everyone. Below you’ll find the latest chapter of my travel journal concerning my September 1998 trip across the Andean Altiplano from Cusco to La Paz. My first chapter, Cusco, was posted in early November. Hopefully I’ll have chapters three and four – Lake Titicaca (Puno, Copacabana) and La Paz – available in January.
Because of length restrictions, I’m dividing this post into day by day sections. This is Machu Picchu, Day Three.
Thursday, September 3
Hasta Luego, Machu Picchu
Once again we were up before dawn to eat breakfast and catch the 7:30 bus to Machu Picchu. Unfortunately there’s no bus between 7:30 and 9am – otherwise it would have been tempting to sleep in a little late and further recover from yesterday’s ascent of Huayna Picchu. After giving it a minute’s thought, though, we realized that our time at the ruins was now more precious than ever. In six hours we would have to depart for the tourist train to Cusco. As Francisco said, we may never come back here – not a moment’s time to waste.
Nevertheless, Susanne managed to catch a few minutes’ extra sleep as I sat downstairs with a lively group of Japanese tourists eating breakfast. Susanne asked me to bring up some bread to the room, so I grabbed a couple of rolls and headed upstairs. Susanne was now up and packing her backpack; in order to avoid having to return to the hostal later today we planned to bring our bags to the ruins and check them at the gate. At only two soles per bag for a day’s storage, it’d be well worth it.
For another five dollars, Susanne and I enter Machu Picchu for the last time. There seem to be more people here at this time than yesterday – perhaps a large tour group spent the night in Aguas Calientes. Either way, the visitor population here is still nothing compared to the throngs that will arrive on the first morning train in about two hours. We’d better take advantage of the time we’ve got left. Since we’ve visited most of the major ruins at least two or three times at this point, we decide to have some fun with a roll of black and white film Susanne’s brought with her. We usually don’t take B/W pictures on our trips but there’s something about Machu Picchu that calls out to be captured without color. The contrasts of the gray stones and black shadows, the hazy mountainous backdrop: we should have no problem capturing some great moments on film.
We started our day by spending some time among the houses of Machu Picchu, most notably the priest’s house. The perfection of the stonework practically cry out to be photographed. Susanne had her wide angle lens on her camera, and at one point she gives the camera to me to see if I can get any interesting pictures. I spin around with the camera, trying to imagine the scenes around me in black and white. It’s not particularly hard to do since there’s so little color here. If anything, the black and white might capture the more authentic Machu Picchu, for as Francisco noted two days ago the plazas and pathways here only became covered in green grass after sod was imported to South America. I still can’t picture Machu Picchu in anything but verdant, lush surroundings, though.
Susanne and I briefly returned to the Temple of the Condor to see if we could somehow capture the condor’s image. It’s a daunting task – without the actual context of being here, seeing the geometric shapes of the stone and their abstract connections, I don’t see how any picture could convey the nature of the temple. Frustrated, we climbed through the temple cave and upward to the so- called Prison Group, where Francisco had so humorously mocked the notion of these buildings being jails. Two long ropes blocked off the square niches in which Francisco placed himself as a model prisoner. He had allowed our group to cross under the ropes to get a better view, so today I decided to try the same, climbing under the barrier to squeeze myself into the niche. As I mounted the niche and jammed my hands through the supposed handcuff holes it became even more apparent how ludicrous it was for archeologists to suggest that these niches were used for housing prisoners. As I squatted in the niche Susanne somehow managed to get a picture of me in between fits of hysterical laughter.
It was now well past 9am – one hour and counting before the tourist brigade. I’ve been meaning to get back to Intihuatana at some point before we leave; considering the hitching post is a major stop on every tour, I suggested we visit it as soon as possible. We walked past the rock quarry and the Temple of Three Windows to the small hill on which Intihuatana has called home for over five centuries. There was a small group of European tourists with plastic hiking sticks standing around the hitching post, but by the time we reached the top of the platform they had begun their exit down the other side. Perfect, I thought – we’d have Intihuatana to ourselves. Every documentary I’ve ever seen of Machu Picchu has shown Intihuatana as a solitary object, disconnected from the rest of the world as if it were sitting on a lonely mountaintop. Having seen it for myself two days ago I now knew this was just good filmmaking technique, but I at least wanted to capture the polished stone post without the distraction of other visitors.
A young Hispanic man had been standing around Intihuatana with the Europeans a few minutes before. I had assumed he was their guide, but now he was on the platform alone, his left hand glued to the top of Intihuatana. What on earth was he doing? I stood to the east of the stone, positioning myself with my camera, yet the man wouldn’t move. “Permiso, senor,” I said to him, trying to give him as polite a hint as possible. The young man stared at me for a moment, then squatted to the ground, his right hand still planted on top of it. Susanne and I realized he was probably one of those guys Francisco had warned us about – mystics trying to pull energy from the magnetic forces around Machu Picchu. I guess this guy thought he would hitch himself to the hitching post to get some karmic action. Whatever his reason, his hand was still in my photograph. “Por favor, senior,” I begged, pointing at his hand. Without removing it from the stone he slid his hand behind it, out of view but still planted squarely on the rock. I got my picture, so we left the man to whatever it was he was up to and climbed down from the platform. “You know,” I said to Susanne, “even if this picture comes out perfectly, without him in it, I’ll always picture that guy squatting behind the hitching post…”
Back in the rock quarry we notice three our llama buddies were grazing in the uncut grass around the boulders. “Don’t we have enough llama pictures?” I ask myself out loud. No, maybe not. Perhaps we were going overboard with these guys, but there was something so attractive about photographing llamas we were immediately sucked back into it. Susanne climbed around the boulders to get a shot of “aesthetic llama,” the white one with black spots. A middle-aged American woman approached us from behind, having spotted the llamas herself. “Buenos dias, Pancho, buenos dias,” she said to the small brown llama. The llamas actually had names? Why not. “Where did you find out their names?” I asked her. “Our guide told us.”
“This is Francisco,” she said, pointing to the brown llama. “And over there, that’s Mathilde.” Aesthetic llama was Mathilde? I would have never guessed. “And the pure white one, that’s Clothilde. Hello Clothilde!” she hollered. I felt like Jane Goodall was giving us an introductory tour of her gorillas. “Francisco, Mathilde, Clothilde,” I smiled. “I think we can remember that. What about the other brown one?” “Oh, I have no idea,” she laughed. “He never seems to come down and say hello to us.” The three llamas started to climb through the quarry and work their way towards better grass. As always, they had little patience for us and our cameras and went on their merry way down the rocky path.
Once again we returned to the terrace below the Caretaker’s Hut in order to get some black and white golden shots (I suppose that might be a bit of a contradiction; so be it). The sun continued its upward track in the sky; I wondered if the light would be to hazy. Susanne experimented with her color filters. “Will the filters provide contrast in black and white?” I asked. “I sure hope so,” she responded. As Susanne took her pictures I noticed that the llamas were now in the middle of the main plaza, far below the terraces. “Smart llamas,” I said. “Lots of yummy grass there. I hope they don’t get swamped by tourists in a few minutes.” Indeed, they better have been prepared, for I could see the first tour groups of the morning entering through the main gate and walking along the path far below us.
“Let’s go sit under the tree,” I suggested. A lone tree stood amongst a grassy area not far from the main plaza. On most occasions I’d noticed groups of contented visitors napping below the tree. It seemed like a great spot. Susanne agreed so we retreated down the stone path, descending to the plaza level. The tree, indeed, provided needed shade, especially during the humid haze of late morning. Unfortunately the grass played host to thousands of gnats and blackflies which began to swarm around our heads as soon as we got settled against the tree. “This isn’t going to work,” I said, swatting black flies away from my eyes. In the last two days I had managed to avoid any bites save a couple on my left wrist and elbow; I didn’t want to give these buggers any more opportunities than they deserved. Susanne seemed even more annoyed with the flies than I did, so she happily agreed to move on as quickly as possible.
Meanwhile, the three llamas occupied center stage in the main plaza. Several groups of about 25 people had settled around the edge of the plaza to watch the llamas’ antics (or lack thereof). Francisco, though, became eager to put on a show with the arrival of a stray dog. The dog appeared to be a collie mutt of some sort; he enthusiastically demonstrated his genetic predisposition for herding sheep by charging around the llamas, barking out orders every few seconds. Clothilde and Mathilde were content to ignore the dog but Francisco was in no mood for such bossiness. The brown llama lowered his neck until it was parallel to the ground and trotted quickly towards the dog. The collie, not anticipating a fight, backed off for a moment but then charged Francisco in a show of bravado. Francisco was not amused; once again he lowered himself in a threatening post and hissed at the dog.
Francisco and the dog’s game of brinkmanship continued as the crowd grew larger. No one knew exactly what to do; many of the tourists were probably here on a day trip and wanted an obligatory pose with a llama, but it’s hard to get the llamas to perform on queue when they’re busy sparring with an irate mutt. “When llamas attack!” I mocked. “I wonder how many tourists get killed getting in the way of a llama scorned.” Susanne got into the action, stalking both animals like a veteran wildlife photographer. Clothilde and Mathilde, sadly, were subjected to the whims of the crowd as each tourist tried to get their prized llama picture. Seymour!” I heard one woman yell with a heavy Long Island accent, “take the goddamn picture already! Take the picture of me and the llama!” The chaos was too much for us. We retreated to a large boulder on the far side of the plaza and relaxed in peace, knowing full well our time at Machu Picchu was nearing an end.
Our train wouldn’t depart for Cusco until 4pm, which meant most people would depart on the 3pm bus back to Aguas Calientes. We had seen how chaotic things got when all the tourists try to catch the last possible bus, so Susanne and I agreed to return to the village a little early, perhaps around 2pm, so we could avoid the last minute rush. Noon was approaching, so there was just enough time for one last climb up to the Caretaker’s Hut to bid farewell to Machu Picchu.
I stood atop my favorite boulder, the spot where I had sat yesterday and sketched my pastel drawing of the ruins. It was the same view I had seen at least half a dozen times over the past three days, but now something seemed different. Machu Picchu carries itself with a sort of intangible timelessness, a perfect blending of earth and sky. With so much of the ruins hewn out of the living rock, I can only imagine how long into the future these structures will last. As long as the mountains themselves, I hope. But as far as my experience was concerned, each passing second was just another lost moment until the time when I would have to say goodbye to this view, when Machu Picchu as a living and breathing experience would come to an end.
Saying goodbye to a magical place is never easy. I had struggled to stretch out my last glimpse of Angkor Wat last year just as I had done previously at the ruins of Petra and Thebes, or the great temples of Bodnath and Swayumbunath in Kathmandu. The memories will last forever, of course, but the moment in which you can feel yourself as a part of these surroundings is fleeting at best. Susanne and I stared out upon Machu Picchu as we made our way down the terraces, practically walking backwards along the stone path leading to the park exit. Sometimes you just have to walk away, I guess. I took one last look, my mind embracing it for eternity. Until next time, Machu Picchu.
Out by the hotel snackbar, I once again buy a hamburger and coke for lunch. At least today I don’t have to scrape the grime of Huayna Picchu off my hands before eating. Susanne settled down inside the restaurant, where a band of Andean musicians have been performing. They’re pretty good, performing with a variety of zamponas (pan flutes), guitars, charangos and flutes. As I sit down with Susanne they break out into “El Condor Pasa,” perhaps the best known Andean tune thanks to Simon and Garfunkel. It’s a pretty song that I’ve always liked but in only four or five days I’ve heard at least a dozen different interpretations of it, from classical strings to traditional pan flutes to marching brass band. And no matter how authentically Andean a particular version is, I’d immediately regress to Simon and Garfunkel: “I’d rather be an hammer than a nail, yes I would…” I kept expecting to hear the Quechua musicians to start singing “Aqui esta a usted, Senora Robinson; Jesus le ama mas que usted sabria (wa wa wa)…” Instead they broke into a slow rendition of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” which worked surprisingly well with the pan flute accompaniment.
Not long after the musicians passed the hat and packed up their instruments we bumped into Francisco, who appeared to have just finished giving another guided tour. Susanne proudly told him we climbed Huayna Picchu. “You see,” he said, “I told you that you could do it!” We neglected to tell him how long it took us, of course. Francisco asked if we were “on honeymoon,” but we told him we were just traveling for our annual vacation. “That’s good,” he said. “Machu Picchu isn’t really a honeymoon place. Go to the Caribbean, or to Colombia.” Colombia?, I thought. “Lots of dancing, lots of salsa,” he continued, shaking his hips as he closed his eyes, biting his lower lip as if he were in the midst of a brief flashback of some sort.
“Have you ever visited the United States?” Susanne asked him. “No, not yet, he replied. “It’s not easy for Peruvians to get a US visa. You must get it through a travel agent, so you need a credit card. I don’t have a credit card, so it’s very difficult for me to get a visa. It’s too bad; I’ve always wanted to visit your Indian reservations, in the Dakotas, in New Mexico…” I was somewhat surprised by his interest in visiting the reservations; perhaps the Quechua in him wanted to compare Peruvian Indian life to native American life in the US.” I gave him my business card with our addresses written on back, just in case he’d ever visit America or wanted a reference. We then said goodbye to Francisco, thanking for his insight, before boarding the 2pm bus to Aguas Calientes.
Susanne and I talked about Francisco as we waited for the bus’ departure. “I wonder what kind of reception he would receive in America,” I asked. “His English is excellent, he’s smart, but you’ve got to wonder if he’d be treated as just another immigrant.” I had told him after his Colombia comments he would probably like Miami for its lively pan-American cultural scene, but Susanne later said, “It’s really a shame that there are so many places in the States that would treat him like an outside, and that he might only feel welcome in Miami or New York.” I really hoped that wasn’t the case, but knowing our country’s attitudes towards Hispanic immigration, I wouldn’t be surprised if he encountered problems as a tourist there. “I still hope he gets the chance, though,” Susanne said.
As the bus drove us down from the top of the mountain we were once again greeted by a small Quechua boy yelling “Oooh-paah!” on the side of the road. Most of the people on our bus were probably taking their first trip down the mountain because they were surprised by his appearance at each bend along the road. A Norwegian man next to me pulled out his video camera halfway down. “Why not?” he said to me with a shy smirk. Once we reached the bottom of the road our driver invited the boy on the bus to collect tips. I don’t think he was the same kid as yesterday – we’d have to get a picture of him for comparison. As the boy made his way to the back of the bus, the members of a large group of Japanese tourists each pulled out one or two dollar bills for the boy; I think I even saw him get a five-spot from someone. “This must be an age-old tradition for local kids,” I said. “Great way to make some money and stay fit.”
Susanne took a picture of the boy as we exited the bus. A small crowd of Quechua women and girls quickly surrounded us, offering us last minute purchases of t- shirts, postcards, and framed butterfly collections. Susanne and I squeezed through the crowd and made a quick visit to the village’s Plaza Manco Capac so I could get a picture of Avenida Pachacutec, the ever-rising pedestrian boulevard where we had spent our free time at night. We then walked along the train tracks to one of Aguas Calientes’ many outdoor cafes. We had about an hour to kill before going to the train station so we each ordered a soda and relaxed on a picnic bench. A large grasshopper shaped like a green leaf jumped onto my backpack and joined us for a while. “A little piece of the Amazon,” I said. Soon we spotted Angus once again, walking our way with his luggage. He joined us and talked about his morning adventure up Huayna Picchu. I couldn’t believe he climbed both local mountains in two days. “You’re a braver soul than we are,” I told him.
Around 3pm we walked over to the Aguas Calientes train station. The orange and yellow tourist train was already there but we weren’t allowed to board for another 15 minutes. As we settled into the train Angus offered us a copy of a recent issue of Newsweek, a Bill Clinton Scandal Special Edition. “Keep it,” he said. “I’ve already read it.” “And probably already sick of it,” I thought to myself, smiling.
The train departed on time at 4pm. The trip should take us about four and a half hours, which was unfortunate because I really wanted to get back to Cusco before 8pm in or to talk with our travel agents. We had purchased tomorrow’s Cusco-Puno train tickets at the same agency that handled our Machu Picchu tickets. We hadn’t actually received our Puno tickets yet; considering the minor foul-up we had during our departure from Cusco three days earlier, I was more than a little nervous about securing our arrangements for tomorrow. If we got in after 8pm, the office would be closed and we’d just have to hope for the best Friday morning.
The late afternoon passed quickly on the train. Susanne and I both had some fun with our cameras by hanging out the window and getting pictures of each of us doing the same from another window. The rest of the train probably though we were being a little silly; I certainly felt so after I bumped the top of my head on the window after ducking in to avoid a fast approaching tree branch. Around 7pm we suddenly saw the bright lights of Cusco’s Plaza de Armas below us. I wondered if we were arriving a little early. We soon began the series of four switchbacks that would zig-zag us slowly to the valley floor. The switchbacks during our first departure from Cusco hadn’t taken more than half an hour – perhaps we would have time to stop at the travel agency before 8 o’clock after all.
We pulled into Cusco station just after 7:30. There were no signs of our free ride back to our hotel, probably because we were so ahead of schedule. Not wanting to waste any time, Susanne and I jumped into the first available minibus to catch a three sole ride to the Plaza de Armas. In our haste, though, we neglected to say goodbye to Angus, who was standing on the train platform looking for his ride. I felt bad about that, but considering his next stop was Easter Island I figured he’d not lose too much sleep about it.
The minibus dropped us along the southern edge of the plaza, a few storefronts away from the tour agency. I was relieved to see they were still open so we went inside and enquired about our Puno tickets. Don’t worry, they told us, Carlos will come by tomorrow at 7:15am with our tickets. Unfortunately that’s the same thing we were told for Machu Picchu. There was little I could do since no one at the agency had our tickets onhand, and Luis Guillen wasn’t anywhere to be found. As we departed the agency to return to Hostal Loreto, though, Luis appeared out of nowhere and came running after us. “Don’t worry about Puno,” he said. “I have your tickets at home. I’ve been out of the office all day on a Sacred Valley tour.” I will come by with the tickets at 7:15am.
Now that the ticket issue was settled, Susanne and I returned the hotel. Our friend the manager was there to greet us. “You like Machu Picchu?” he asked. “Yes, very much,” we both said in unison. We dropped our bags in our new room before returning to the Plaza de Armas in search of a nightcap of mate de coca and some breakfast snacks for tomorrow’s train ride. Next to the Loreto we entered Norton Rat’s, a popular local pub. We relaxed to the sounds of the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour as an American expat brought over our teas. All the other customers were Peruvian but the pub had a decidedly North American feel to it: a wall covered with Arizona license plates, Green Bay Packers and Fighting Irish stickers, a “Leo Koetke in Concert” poster. Small world – one of my closest friends from college was hometown best friends with Leo Koetke’s daughter. I’d have to tell her about the poster.
After leaving Norton Rat’s we returned to the plaza to shop for tomorrow’s breakfast. Our favorite morning cafe was still open so I purchased four carmel pastry sticks as well as what appeared to be a cone-shaped puff pastry filled with chocolate. “Oh, that looks sinnnnfullll,” I drooled. We didn’t plan to get dinner so I gluttonously concluded that the puff pastry could serve as an acceptable substitute. My sweets craving got the best of me, though, when I discovered the “chocolate” inside the puff pastry was actually a huge, gooey glob of carmel. Delicious, but I could feel the button pop off my pants as I finished it.
We had only intended to step out to buy our breakfast snacks, but as we walked across the plaza we realized this would be our last taste of Cusco. “Let’s walk around the market one more time,” I said. The perimeter of the plaza was packed with campesinas selling wool goods, shopping tourists, strolling couples stretching out a romantic evening, hordes of kids heading to the video arcade. We turned south from the plaza and continued along another row of market stalls. I found a Quechua woman selling alpaca hair slippers. “Those look so warm,” I said. I asked her how much she was selling them for. “Treinta soles,” she said, about 10 dollars a pair. None of the pairs had American shoe sizes listed so I tried on two sets before finding ones that fit well. “Very nice,” I said, “but too expensive. Diez soles.” “Diez soles!” she laughed, mocking at my offer in a string of Spanish. “Veinte soles.” Twenty, not bad. We bantered back and forth for a few moments before finally settling on an agreeable price. “Diez-y-ocho, senor.” “Ok, 18 soles.” For six dollars I’d have the most comfortable slippers on the north side of the Andes this winter, if they only lasted that long. Susanne also discovered a small Quechua rug hanging which she also bought from the same woman.
Further around the corner we discovered an artists’ cooperative in which a dozen or so artesenas sold their work. Though I had no real intention of buying anything inside I discovered an amazing piece of pottery depicting an old campesino drinking from a ceremonial cup. “For drinking chicha,” said the shop owner, in reference to the local Quechua homebrew found all over Peru and Bolivia. I had promised my mom I’d try to find her some native pottery in either Cusco or La Paz, and this pottery was the piece I’d seen that had struck me with real interest. After some brief haggling the campesina wrapped up the pottery in a neatly tied roll of string and newspaper. “I have no idea how I’ll get this home in once piece,” I wondered aloud. “Wrap it in a t-shirt,” Susanne said, which reminded me I needed to buy a t-shirt or two just so I’d have an extra set of clothes along the way. Most of the t-shirts I had seen in town featured crude cartoons of llamas spitting on campesinos or gaudy prints of Machu Picchu, but I soon found one shirt with a trio of llamas and “Cusco, Peru” tastefully printed on the bottom. I grabbed up the t-shirt for eight soles. “We better get going before I spend any more money,” I said.
As we settled into the Hostal Loreto for the night, Susanne and I pondered what time we needed to be up in the morning. “Luis is picking us up at 7:15, right?” Susanne asked. “Actually, I thought he was just dropping off our tickets at that time,” I said, admittedly confused, since our Lonely Planet book listed the Cusco to Puno train as departing at 9am, not 8am. “I’ll get up before 7am and check with the hotel staff,” I promised. “How do you say, ‘What time does the Puno train depart?’” “Cuando el tren para Puno sale,” Susanne said, rolling it off her tongue as if she was expecting to ask the question herself at that very moment.
“Cuando el tren para Puno sale. Cuando el tren para Puno sale,” I repeated. “I can remember that. Hope you don’t mind me waking you up if I forget.”
“Cuando el tren para Puno sale….” I said to myself as Susanne shut out the small light on the bed stand.

September 4, 1998

Machu Picchu, Day Two

Filed under: Peru — Andy Carvin @ 12:59 pm

Hi everyone. Below you’ll find the latest chapter of my travel journal concerning my September 1998 trip across the Andean Altiplano from Cusco to La Paz. My first chapter, Cusco, was posted in early November. Hopefully I’ll have chapters three and four – Lake Titicaca (Puno, Copacabana) and La Paz – available in January.
Because of length restrictions, I’m dividing this post into day by day sections. This is Machu Picchu, Day Two.
Wed, September 2.
Mountains, Llamas and Friends from Afar
I woke up to the sound of rooster just after 6am. Our alarm had gone off a few minutes earlier; Susanne had hit the snooze button. We planned to catch the 7:30am bus up to Machu Picchu from Aguas Calientes, so we had until 6:30 to get up and then eat a quick breakfast at the hostal. I intended to sleep in a little later but the cock-a-doodle-doo’s of the rooster cajoled me into getting out of bed.
In the lobby of the hostal the staff set out bowls of fresh rolls and jam on wooden benches. I grabbed a table with a view of the TV, which was broadcasting the news in Spanish. Apparently a Swissair jet had crashed off Canada the day before; apart from that I couldn’t understand the details in Spanish. Susanne joined me around 6:45, with Angus coming downstairs a few minutes later. The hotel owner’s daughter sat on a couch across from us, wrapping up her homework before hurrying off to school. It seemed no one was quite ready to get the day started as we peacefully sipped our coffee and mate de coca to the sound of the rooster wrapping up his morning routine.
Leaving the hotel soon after 7am, we walked downhill along Avenida Pachacutec stopping briefly at a shop to buy some bottled water. Each time we had walked by the shop the woman who owned the place would call out to us, “Agua sin gas? Papaya juice? Pina juice? Very good bananas…” The price of water was much lower here down in the village compared to the tourist-trap snackbar at the ruins, so I purchased two aguas sin gas while Angus picked up some fruit as well. He intended to climb Machu Picchu – the mountain, not the ruins – later that morning so he was stocking up on provisions. Susanne and I had no such intentions so we figured two half-liter bottles of water was enough to get our day started.
At the small bus station along Aguas Calientes’ train tracks I got in line to buy our round-trip bus tickets for the ruins. Francisco had mentioned to us the day before that you’d get a small discount on your second day’s worth of bus tickets but the man behind the counter at the station seemed to be blissfully unaware of such discounts. I hoped this wouldn’t be the case for entering Machu Picchu itself – supposedly the per-day entrance fee dropped from $10 to $5 after your first day – I guess I’d find out up top.
Susanne, Angus and I grabbed the last available seats on the 7:30 bus. I was a little concerned we might miss the bus due to a lack of seats, but as we boarded the bus we overheard someone say they were ready to send up a second bus if necessary. For the next 20 minutes we drove along the winding road, up and up the mountainside. Yesterday’s ride was full of suspense – with each curve of the road I anticipated my first glimpse of Machu Picchu. Today, though, my anticipation turned into an unnecessary spat of impatience as I eagerly awaited to get to the ruins before the trainloads of tourists arrived in three hours.
We entered the ruins just before 8am, $5 dollars as promised by Francisco. Once again we snuck water into the park, which seemed wise considering the morning was already heating up and becoming humid. Today we planned to spend as much time as possible inside the ruins; while we would have the entire morning tomorrow before catching the train back to Cusco, this was to be our only full day at the ruins, dawn til dusk. We really didn’t have an agenda for the day, just some basic goals: take some classic “golden shot” photos of the ruins at different times of the day, revisit our favorite spots, perhaps sketch some pictures. Actually, I was quite excited at the prospect of drawing Machu Picchu. Though I’ve never been much of an artist, over the past several years I’ve sketched out some quick scenes in India, Nepal and Cambodia, and they came out better than expected. This year we decided to make an effort of capturing the sights on paper so we brought with us a small collection of sketch pads, color pencils, pastels, sharpeners and erasers. I had never attempted anything with pastels before but I was intrigued by the medium: unlike pens or pencils, pastels allow you to blend colors, to create abstractions, to emphasize mood over detail. Considering my biggest frustration in drawing has always been my lack of ability to create details – people, architecture, etc. – I liked the idea of using pastels to create landscapes. I had no idea whether or not I’d be any good at it, but at least Machu Picchu gave me one hell of a first subject.
The sun hovered above the mountains to the northeast, the morning humidity creating a translucent haze in the air. Perhaps these weren’t ideal conditions for photography but Susanne and I knew we only had so many opportunities to capture Machu Picchu on film. Our first goal was to climb up the terraces to just below the Caretaker’s Hut to our self-proclaimed Golden Shot. Even though the light wasn’t perfect the sun was still low enough on the horizon to create dramatic shadows – dramatic enough for my photos, anyway. We wound along the stone path we had discovered yesterday as being a shortcut to the spot. Though we were better acclimated to the altitude the walk wasn’t any easier. “Even if we were doing this at sea level this climb would still be awful,” Susanne commented. We were careful not to overexert ourselves as we made our way upward – we had another day and a half of climbing here so we’d better get used to it.
Within 10 or 15 minutes we made it to the lookout point. A large group of Israeli trekkers had just completed the grueling three-day Inca Trail and were resting near our favorite spot. For those folks brave enough to make the trek, the third day is the easiest, getting up early for the short walk around the side of Machu Picchu mountain before descending into the ruins. It’s a strange site seeing exhausted backpackers making their way out of Machu Picchu just as we’re getting our day started. The 20 or so Israelis looked beat, to say the least, many of them covered with the tell-tale blood blisters of black fly bites, though they clearly seemed ecstatic to be finally at their end goal. If anything their presence served as a healthy reminder to us that trekking isn’t a romantic romp across the hillside, and made be more pleased than every that we chose to take the train instead.
The Israelis and their porters eventually exited the ruins, leaving the entire terrace to ourselves. Machu Picchu was deserted apart from the 50 or so tourists scattered throughout the ruins (compare that to the 1000 or so people who will be hear after the late morning trains arrive). Susanne and I got comfortable on the terrace’s boulders and began to take pictures. Susanne especially was prepared for the moment, having hauled along her wide-angle lens and a variety of color filters to get the perfect shot. Further above us I could see our llama friends munching on the terrace grass. If we could only get them to move close to the edge of the terrace…
After saturating our cameras with Golden Shot photos we slowly made our way down the terraces along a cobblestone path. The ruins just below the terraces are largely residential: modest homes of the lower-level priests and workers of Machu Picchu. Large stone doorframes greet us as we entered the houses, some of which were no larger than eight or ten feet square. We quickly descended even further down to the main plaza, several hundred feet below the Caretaker’s Hut. Susanne and I couldn’t decide where to go next so we started to scan the area to generate ideas. A moment or two later Susanne grabbed me by the arm and pointed upward. “Look!” she shouted. “The llamas are in our golden shot!” Indeed, high above us, in the very place we had just left, two llamas stood at the edge of the highest terrace facing the ruins while a third actually made its way down the stone steps to a lower level. What nerve, I thought to myself – after all the effort we made to get them situated for the perfect photo, these woolly beasts were now mocking us by modeling themselves at the least opportune moment. “We’ve got to get back up there now,” Susanne insisted. “You’re crazy,” I said. “If we run up, we’ll die before we get there, and if we take our time, the llamas will be back to hanging out in their pasture and we’ll have missed the shot.” “I don’t care,” she responded. “We’ve got to try.”
She was right, of course. We had talked about getting the most Golden of Golden Shots – a proud llama overlooking the ruins of Machu Picchu. Granted, the end product might be funny rather than powerful, but we still wanted to get the picture. Susanne and I turned upward and began to climb. It was difficult to pace ourselves; we wanted to get there as quickly as possible but each time we charged up a terrace or stairway we’d end up hacking and wheezing to the point of almost seeing stars in our eyes. The higher we climb the more skeptical I become: there’s no way these animals are going to hang around for us. But Susanne is determined. “We’ve got to keep going. This might be our only chance.” Step by step, we retraced our way up the terraces until finally we reached the far end of the tier where we had taken our earlier photos. For whatever reason that day, Pachamama took mercy upon us and allowed us to get to the top before the llamas retreated: we would have our photograph.
Chances are we could have taken our time getting to the top of the terraces – once we got there we knew these llamas weren’t going anywhere any time soon. Nonetheless, we were both thrilled to find them there, despite our exhaustion and nausea. Our breathing and heart rates returned to normal as we took our time positioning ourselves behind the llamas. Not unlike yesterday, they appeared totally indifferent to our presence and to our strong desire to use them as photo models. These creatures certainly had minds of their own, but at this particular moment their minds told them to stand right here, right now and hang out. “Say cheese,” I say to one of them.
“Queso,” I could hear it say back to me.
While the llama-chasing episode was well worth the pursuit, it sapped us of much of our energy. Susanne and I needed a carbohydrates boost, so we briefly left the ruins to purchase a couple of granola bars from the snackbar. Five soles each – I knew I should have packed some Nutragrain bars for the trip. While I walked off to use the men’s room, Susanne bumped into Francisco, our guide from the day before. Francisco was glad to see we were sticking around the ruins for a couple of days. “Are you going to climb Huayna Picchu,” he asked, referring to the mountain behind the main ruins. No, not exactly. “But you must climb Huayna Picchu,” he insisted. “You’re young and healthy. It’ll be easy for you – less than two hours round trip. You may never come back to Machu Picchu. How can you not climb Huayna Picchu?”
Francisco’s rhetoric worked wonders on Susanne, who was now ready to tackle the peak. I, on the other hand, initially resisted the idea, but as Susanne repeated Francisco’s argument I soon realized they were both right. How could we not climb Huayna Picchu? I’m not very good when it comes to heights, but this was a chance to do something I’d be proud of for a long time – assuming I didn’t slip off a precipice and fall 1500 feet to my death on razor-sharp rocky outcrops. It was now 11am, and if we wanted to make the climb we had to get started soon, for at 1pm they’d no longer allow people to make the ascent. Acrophobia be damned, I was ready to climb that rock.
We purchased a 1.5 liter bottle of water and smuggled it into the ruins. Once again I didn’t feel great about breaking the no-water-bottle rule at Machu Picchu, but it seemed almost criminal to not allow intrepid climbers to bring along proper hydration. Fortunately no one ever seemed to want to search our bags each time we entered the ruins so there was no problem shlepping the water bottle along with us. Susanne and I made our way across the plaza to two small thatched huts that mark the entrance to Huayna Picchu. Beyond this point, you must sign in at a sentry’s shack in order to let them know when you start your climb and, perhaps more importantly, if and when you make it back alive. We sat on a bench in one of the huts for a few minutes psyching ourselves up for the climb. “It’s not difficult,” I could hear Francisco say over and over again. We’d just have to see for ourselves.
We signed in at the sentry’s shack, where two sleepy guards sat around listening to a portable radio and ogling at girlie pinup calendars on the thatched walls. I looked at the sign-in book and saw an international list of climbers ahead of us: Australia, Holland, Yugoslavia, Israel, Russia were all represented. Most of them had just gotten started a little earlier than us (we signed in at 11:35), yet some of them had put down their names as early as 8:30am and had not signed out yet. Was this a sign of things to come?
The climb began with a slow descent down a flat stone path. “Why do we have to go down in order to go up?” I asked. “In order to make our final return as merciless as possible,” Susanne responded. She was right – it may be nice to have an easy descent at the beginning of the hike, but two or three hours from now we’d be hating every last step upwards. The path continued its downward slope for several minutes, then curved upward again before making an even steeper drop down. We hadn’t actually reached Huayna Picchu yet – we were beginning the climb on a smaller hill over which we’d have to go up and down before beginning the main ascent. The sandy path hung close to a steep edge that dropped off several hundred feet below. “If this is the bottom of the climb,” I said, “I wonder how steep the drop would be from the top.” Perhaps I really didn’t want to know the answer to that question.
As we reached the knoll between the peaks and started our ascent, a group of four middle-aged Americans came down from ahead of us. “You’re going to love it,” one of them said, breathing hard. “Have a good time.” Susanne and I looked at each other in mild despair. If this quartet of 50-somethings could make the climb so easily, we had no choice but to put up a good fight. With that thought in mind we began to go up.
Huayna Picchu isn’t a technically difficult climb, you’ll hear people say. That may be the case: we didn’t need equipment to make the ascent, apart from our sturdy hiking boots. But this assurance didn’t make our jobs any easier as we lumbered over jagged rocks and slippery sand, working higher and higher up the mountainside. Occasionally we would find rope-like handrails to help lead us along, but they always seemed to be placed arbitrarily, assisting you in one spot but ignoring your upward plight in another spot. We paused every 30 feet up or so to catch our breath for a few moments – perhaps 10 or 20 seconds each time – before tackling the next set of rocks. These breaks didn’t prevent us from requiring superbreaks, though. With every five minutes of climbing there were at least one or two minutes of coughing, water chugging, cursing, and questioning of our sanity. “This will be worth it, this will be worth it,” so the mantra went through our minds. Of course it would be worth it. “I can already tell that my appreciation for this climb will increase exponentially with each passing minute after we get back down and have a hamburger in our hands,” I wheezed.
As we climbed along we would occasionally see other people approaching us from behind. At first we said to ourselves we wouldn’t allow anyone to pass us. Right. As the climbers got closer we could tell they were much more prepared for this than we were – intrepid climbers who probably spend one half of the year in the Andes and the other half in the Himalayas walking up and down mountains. I didn’t let it get to me as each person made their way up, reaching our location and eventually surpassing us. More power to them – this wasn’t going to be a race. I just want to come down in once piece, not set a record pace.
About 45 minutes into the climb we saw a pair of Australian women lowering themselves down a steep path with the assistance of one of the rope handrails. “Please tell us it’s worth it,” I begged them. “It’s worth it, don’t worry,” they said. “How much further do we have to go?” I then asked. “Oh, I’d guess you’re about halfway up now. Just be sure to take a right when the path splits up ahead. It’s a nicer view that way. Have fun…”
Halfway up?!? Did I hear that correctly? As slow as we were going I honestly thought we were making good time. Apparently this was going to be as rough as I had initially expected. We continued our pattern of climb-rest-climb-rest-rest- climb for the next 20 minutes, occasionally marveling at the incredible views beyond us. The ruins continued to get smaller and smaller with each step, just as the sharp precipice down to the main valley floor increased at a similar rate. Finally we began to see what appeared to be ruins of stone terracing above us. Indeed, the path ahead of us split in two directions: one steep path going up and to the left, and another, more tolerable path cutting far to the right around the edge of the mountain. We cut right and followed the path, leading us to a superb view of the entire valley. The ruins of Machu Picchu sat peacefully down to our right, while the village of Aguas Calientes seemed so small and distant, half a mile straight down to our left. Linking these two images we could see the dusty bus path we would take each time we went up and down the mountain, a winding snake that stretched up and down for miles. For the first time since our arrival at Machu Picchu we had a real overview of our surroundings. Even if our climb ended right here it would have been worth it. But we still had another 100 feet to go.
We had been told that we’d encounter some dark caves when we neared the top of Huayna Picchu. I had nearly forgotten about the caves until our counterclockwise path brought us to a series of large boulders in the shape of a mouth. We had nowhere to go but inside, so we arched our backs as low as possible and squeezed through the dark rocks. I pictured sacrificial Incan mummies lurking in the shadows but in reality I knew there were only abandoned water bottles to be found here. Exiting the other side of the cave the path continued to snake upward until we reached a second cave. Unfortunately this grotto had no apparent exit; while there were indeed spaces to squeeze through they didn’t seem to go upward. I poked myself between several boulders but each time found myself going nowhere.
Finally we noticed some light shining through some of the large rocks above us. I pulled myself up to see where it led and realized that the boulders themselves marked the top of Huayna Picchu. Squeezing through the rocks I saw a young Peruvian man in a dusty park uniform sitting peacefully atop a large boulder. This must be the top. We looked at each other and he motioned with his hand as if to say, yep, you’ve finally made it. I told Susanne this was where we’re should go, so we both squeeze through until we found ourselves propped atop these multi-ton boulders, each sitting precariously on the mountain’s peak. We had finally conquered Huayna Picchu.
The view was truly spectacular, but it was difficult to experience the full 360 around you because each boulder was leaning at an angle, preventing you from standing up without fear of falling to your death. I made myself as comfortable as possible and admired the scene before me. It was truly a marvelous experience to be sitting at the peak, but the better part of me kept saying to myself, “Let’s get the hell off this thing.” Susanne and I lingered for about 20 minutes before beginning our descent. It was now just after 1pm, and the sun suspended itself high in the sky, baking us a little crisper with each passing minute. We were ready to return to stable ground.
The descent was much easier on our lungs in the sense that we didn’t have to pause every other minute to catch our breath. This didn’t mean there wasn’t a tradeoff, though: the steep steps which were difficult to go up were now even more difficult to go down. “Incas must have had small feet,” I said at one point. “I can’t even get the side of my boot to fit on this step.” Part of me wanted to rush down the mountainside as quickly as possible, but common sense told me that this would only lead to into a tumbling avalanche. We had to take our time. One great pleasure of going down, though, was watching people go up: exhausted and wearing, several climbers passed us in the other directions as we cheered them on. “Only 20 minutes to go,” I smiled devilishly. No wonder all the people we saw going down seemed happy to see us: each person going up served as a powerful reminder that the worst was over for us.
The last laugh went to the mountain, as I had earlier feared. In order to make the final exit we again had to descend to the knoll between the two peaks and then end on an upward climb back to the sentry’s shack. We probably had less than five minutes to go but again we were stuck pausing every 30 seconds, cursing the tectonic forces that made this place. “I have only two words for the managers of the Machu Picchu park,” I said. “Cog railway.” Sure, a comfortable ride in a rail car would have been all the easier for us to get up top, but as we made our final steps back to the sentry’s post I scoffed at my own joke. Two and a half hours after we began, we had conquered Huayna Picchu. We stumbled into the thatched hut with the benches and collapsed. “Assuming we don’t die right here,” I said, “I think it’s time to head outside and get some food.” “Sounds good to me,” Susanne said. We stood up, wiped the sweat off our faces and stumbled back to the park entrance, where overpriced junkfood and swarms of stinging black flies would be our well-earned reward.
Down at the snackbar I spent 15 minutes scraping the grime off my fingers. The bathrooms here didn’t have any soap so I had to rely on Susanne’s collection of wet-wipes and a small bottle of Purel hand sanitizer. I turned three wet-wipes into a dark, coalminer’s black before I even bothered to use the sanitizer. There was no way I’d ever get my hands clean – the challenge, therefore, was to get then clean enough. Soon enough hunger got the better of me and I purchased a greasy hamburger with ketchup and onions, which I held carefully under several layers of napkins as I ravenously consumed it.
Susanne, meanwhile, elected to sit in the shade over at the Machu Picchu Hotel restaurant. I told her I’d join her after I cleaned up the mess I had made with my wet-wipes and hamburger. After I had the chance to throw away my trash I walked over towards the restaurant. A few feet to my left I passed a woman with long dark hair sitting on a rock. She looked familiar to me, but I assumed I had just seen her on my tour the day before. I then noticed she was wearing a Chicago Field Museum t-shirt, which had me thinking that I knew her from my days at Northwestern.
When I got to the restaurant I began to tell Susanne about the woman. Just as I was about to tell her how familiar she seemed, my mind flashed back to the many education conferences I’ve attended over the years. The woman bore a striking resemblance to someone named Bonnie Thurber, who I’ve seen regularly at numerous conferences. I turned towards her and yelled out “Bonnie!” to see if she’d react. She immediately turned her head and looked at me, confused in a sort of “Why do I know you” way. “Hi Bonnie, Andy Carvin.” “Andy!” she yelled. “Hi! What are you doing here?”
As it turned out Bonnie was in Peru for an international educational conference and many of the attendees had opted to take an excursion to Machu Picchu. So here I was, high on a mountaintop in the middle of the Peruvian Andes, bumping in to someone I usually see at conference dinners. We talked for a little while, each relaying what we were doing in Peru. Susanne was finishing up her second round of granola bars so we eventually parted company, saying goodbye to Bonnie as we returned to the ruins. It really is a small world sometimes.
The crowds were thinning out so we decided to spend a little time wandering the stone house of the high priest and the Inca’s residence. Unlike many of the other houses here which appear cobbled together, the royal houses were impeccably made with the sort of high precision stonemasonry you’d expect in an Inca structure. It was nice to get a look around without the throngs of visitors everywhere; when we first visited the houses on our tour there must have been 30 of us jammed into the small room. Now we had the residence to ourselves and could marvel at its layout, including a separate bathroom. The Inca must have lived in style here.
By 3:00 or so we climbed once again to the terrace below the caretaker’s hut for our marvelous view of the ruins. This time, though, instead of whipping out our cameras we got comfortable and found our drawing supplies. We had plenty of time to kill, so we sat there for about an hour sketching the scene before us. My pastels were a bit of a challenge at first but I became adept at blending colors with my fingertips, appointing each finger to work with a given color as to not accidentally blend the wrong hues together. As I sat there a dog appeared out of nowhere and settled next to me. It was a strange site, as if we had brought our pet with us and he was patiently waiting for us to wrap up our work. At one point a group of tourists climbed the terrace and settled directly above us to admire the view. I overheard one of them say to another, “Look, honey, artists!” I couldn’t believe they were actually applying that label to me, considering my complete and utter lack of skills, but I nonetheless enjoyed the compliment.
4:30 came and went so we packed up our supplies and headed down to the entrance to catch the last bus to Aguas Calientes. We had considered staying later than 5pm to watch the sun set and then walk the six kilometers back to town, but after having conquered Huayna Picchu earlier that day we were ready to call it a night. Not long after our bus began its descent we approached a young Indian boy waiting by the edge of the road. As we passed him he waved his right arm and shouted what sounded like, “Oooh-paaaah!” He must be saying hello, I thought. A few minutes later we turned a curve, reaching further down the mountain, and there he was again, just ahead of us, yelling “Oooh-paaaah!” Apparently he was racing us down the mountain. With each curve down the cliff the entire bus anticipated his appearance. Like clockwork, he was waiting for us with another “Oooh-paaaah!” As soon as we would pass him he’d race to a steep set of stairs that would allow him to take a shortcut and get ahead of us.
After seven or eight Oooh-paaaah’s we reached the bottom of the cliff. The boy, of course, was ahead of us once again, and now waved down the bus to catch a ride into town and collect whatever tips he could. The bus crowd gave him a round of applause as he climbed on board and gave us a final Oooh-paaaah. Susanne and I looked at each other, both impressed with such a clever way to make money. His method was most successful; many people on the bus handed him one dollar bills for his effort. Assuming he made the trip only a couple times a day, and with 30 or 40 people per bus, there’s a good chance he was making more money than his parents. Not a bad racket.
Our Canadian friend Angus was on the bus as well, so we joined him for the walk up to the Hostal Cabana. Angus apparently spent the morning climbing Machu Picchu mountain, so we compared notes as he noted he planned to climb Huayna Picchu as well the next day. One mountain was enough for us but we wished him good luck. He said he’d be going to a pizza restaurant called Chez Maggie later that night and invited us to join him. We told him we’d swing by in an hour or two. Back at the hotel we climbed up to our new room on the fourth floor (hotel management asked us to switch rooms because a group needed a block of rooms, including our triple). The room had a nice view of the village and what appeared to be a large avocado tree growing just outside, but for some odd reason there was also a large piece of wood missing from the bathroom door. It didn’t seem to be an accident; from the cut of the hole it appeared to be an artistic choice that just happened to eliminate any chance of bathroom privacy. We’d have to get around to asking the management about that.
Susanne and I both showered and cleaned up before meeting Angus at Chez Maggie, about 100 feet below the hostal on the sloping road leading back to the center of town. We had the place to ourselves and sat across from a roaring adobe wood oven. Angus had arrived early so his pizza arrived a few minutes after we did. It smelled delicious so we ordered the same: a large Hawaiian pizza with garlic bread. Our pizza appeared 30 minutes later, piping hot with two bowls of sauces. “This one is a creamy garlic sauce, and it’s not bad,” Angus said, “but be careful with the other one. It’s got a bit of a bite.” I immediately spread the hot sauce all over my first slice and sighed as the taste buds exploded in my mouth. Meanwhile, our waiter came by and showed us a map book for tourists he had designed on his computer. It was an incredible piece of work, both in terms of artistry and in the amount of useful information each map provided. He probably will do well once he’s ready to go on sale with them.
We lingered at Chez Maggie for a while, talking about Angus’ experience living in Chile as well as Canadian stereotypes of Americans versus American stereotypes of Canadians. It was quite the politically incorrect conversation – the perfect chat over pizza and beer, right? Back at the hotel Susanne and I got organized for the next morning. We’d have four or five hours at the ruins before we would need to catch the afternoon train back to Cusco. Our long day at Machu Picchu had been a draining experience, but I already knew it would be hard to leave this mystical place.

September 3, 1998

Machu Picchu, Day One

Filed under: Peru — Andy Carvin @ 12:59 pm

Hi everyone. Below you’ll find the latest chapter of my travel journal concerning my September 1998 trip across the Andean Altiplano from Cusco to La Paz. My first chapter, Cusco, was posted in early November. Hopefully I’ll have chapters three and four – Lake Titicaca (Puno, Copacabana) and La Paz – available in January.
Because of length restrictions, I’m dividing this post into day by day sections. This is Machu Picchu, Day One.
Tuesday, September 1
The Jewel of the Andes
I must have gotten that one hour of sleep last night: Susanne had to wake me after our alarm went off at 4:45am. We had a long day ahead of us – after a bumpy four hour train ride to Aguas Calientes we’d have a two hour tour of Machu Picchu around 11 o’clock. Only after 1pm or so would we have time to ourselves. My stomach still ached from dinner at the Inka Grill; I hoped I wouldn’t get sick on the train. My lack of sleep at least almost made me too tired to be nauseous, so I packed up my things and hoped the morning would go smoothly.
At 5:45am we stood outside with the manager of our hotel, who was kind enough to make sure we got off to the train station okay. By 6am there was still no sign of Luis but then a large bus pulled up in front of the hotel. The manager urged us to get inside. “Donde esta Luis?” I asked. He replied in Spanish, but Susanne and I both got the sense that Luis had telephoned earlier and said he wouldn’t be available today. Assuming this was the case, we climbed onto the bus. As we drove away from the plaza a woman inside the bus began to call out a list of names. Our names, to our chagrin, were not among them. We looked at our hotel manager friend, who had thankfully joined us for the ride, and he examined the list, confirming our worst fears. He and the woman conferred for a moment, trying to figure out what to do with us. He then turned to me and said in broken English, “Which Luis? Hotel Luis?” Uh oh, there was a Luis who worked at the Loreto. “No,” I replied, “Luis Guillen.” “Luis Guillen!” he laughed. ” Okay, no problem.” I wasn’t sure what he was going to do to help us but I kept my fingers crossed.
The train station was a chaotic scene of tourists, police, travel agents and last-minute food sellers. The hotel manager grabbed me by the arm and said, “Follow me, senor.” As we entered the main part of the station he began to shout “Cecilia! Cecilia!” Within a few seconds a woman with a handful of tickets waved at him and motioned for us to come over. They talked for a moment while she shuffled through the tickets. “Su-sahn Cornwall?” she asked. The woman had found our tickets, which included our train reservations, day passes to Machu Picchu, bus transfers and a hotel voucher. Somehow everything had fallen into place despite all the confusion. We graciously thanked our hotel friend before boarding the tourist train to Machu Picchu.
The orange and yellow narrow-gauge train carried four passenger cars, each seating around 30 people. Even though we were traveling in Pullman class – a full step above regular 1st class – conditions were cramped as each pair of seats faced another pair, leaving little leg room for any of us. Two young Chilean women were seated directly in front of us. At 6:25 the train departed exactly on time. There were many empty seats in our car – perhaps more people would get on at Ollantaytambo in tour hours. Until then at least we could spread out and get comfortable. Despite my lack of sleep and stomach pains I felt well enough to enjoy the complimentary meal of cheese sandwiches and mate de coca. Susanne slept like a log.
The first half hour of the ride was comprised of an arduous series of switchbacks. In order for the train to ascend Cusco’s steep valley it zigzagged left and right, switching tracks a total of four times before the train was able to continue straight along a single track. Once we were out of the Cusco area the train slowly descended into the Sacred Valley in order to hug the Urubamba River for the rest of the four hour journey. Because the train was on a narrow gauge line we bounced and bobbled like an amusement ride the entire way. Once you got used to the rolling the train trip was quite enjoyable. The scenery along the Urubamba was reminiscent of southern Colorado: thick red clay, sagebrush, cacti and agave plants, boulders the size of houses.
Across the river the valley rose upward into steep, green hills, often covered with tiers of evenly spaced farming terraces. This valley was the breadbasket of the Inca empire. It amazed me to think that after 500 years these same terraces were still being used by the Inca’s Quechua descendants. Along the hillside I could also occasionally see a faint gravel line cutting across the terraces at different angles. This was the remnant of the Inca highway that linked Cusco with Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu. The trek would usually take seven days for the Inca to complete. At regular intervals along the trail were huaman – rest houses for weary travelers not unlike the caravansarai of the ancient Silk Road. Most of the huaman are long vanished but every now and then I could spot the ruins of one. We passed such a ruin just as we entered Ollantaytambo to pick up more passengers. A large group of German trekkers got on board and filled every available seat, forcing us back to our original assigned spots.
By 10am the train had descended to around 2300 meters. What had once looked like the Old West turned into Disney’s Jungle Cruise – lush, dense forest, jungle plants, high levels of humidity. We were now in the transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon basin. We were getting close to Machu Picchu – I could taste it. We pulled into Aguas Calientes station at 10:30. The train used to stop at the Puentes Ruinas station, two kilometers further, but landslides courtesy of El Nino closed the track up ahead. About 50 of us were under the charge of Willie, a Peruvian tour guide with gold teeth whose every other sentenced always seemed to be “My name is Willie.” As we gathered at the station Willie said there was time to use the restrooms before we caught the bus to Machu Picchu. Many people heeded his suggestion and went for the toilets but less than 30 seconds later Willie said, “Okay, we go to the buses now,” and started to walk the rest of the group to town. This struck me as extremely rude, leaving so many people abandoned in the lavatories. Willie was now on my bad side as far as I was concerned.
The bus terminal was in the heart of Aguas Calientes, a quaint jungle outpost that was booming from all the tourist activity. We didn’t have time to drop our bags at the hotel so we lugged them onto the bus with the plan to check them at the ruins. The bus drove down a gravel road until reaching the bottom of a steep mountainside. We then proceeded to curve slowly up an S-shaped road in order to ascend the 1500 ft peak. With each turn the anticipation grew, the suspense reaching a fever pitch as we climbed higher into the clouds. Just before we reached the top I could see stone terraces and ruins of what appeared to be houses hanging over the edge of the mountain. This must be it – Machu Picchu, one of the most mysterious places on earth.
The bus pulled into a dusty parking lot next to what appeared to be a large motel with an open air restaurant: the Puentes Ruinas Hotel. We had considered staying here until we discovered the $200/night price tag. Willie gathered up the group and announced that we would split up into two tours, one in English and one in Spanish. Thank God. A bilingual tour of this size would have been intolerable. Willie introduced his friend Pancho, a tall, thin mestizo whose mannerisms bore an eerie resemblance to the British actor Tim Roth. Pancho reintroduced himself as Francisco (only his friends call him Pancho, I guess) and said he would lead the English tour. His English was layered with a think accent but he seemed to have a powerful grasp of grammar and vocabulary. I wondered where he learned to speak it.
Once we entered the gates we followed a sandy path along the edge of a cliff and eventually climbed a stone passage that continued to curve around the size of the precipice. Then out of the blue the scene unfolded: we were now standing in front of Machu Picchu, the greatest archeological ruins of the Americas. Ahead of me I could see a series of stone terraces and houses in neat rows, with additional ruins high above on a small hill. A large grassy plaza occupied the center of the ruins. And behind all of this soared a jagged, mystical mountaintop: Huayna Picchu, perhaps the most marvelous backdrop of any ruins on earth. “This was the habitation, this is the site,” Pablo Neruda wrote of this image in his epic Heights of Machu Picchu:
This was the habitation, this is the site: here the fat grains of maize grew high to fall like red hail.
The fleece of the vicuna was carded here to clothe men’s loves in gold, their tombs and mothers, the king, the prayers, the warriors….
This was the habitation, this is the site, and now I am here. I am in awe.
While the members of our group snapped pictures like paparazzi, Francisco began to explain the origins of the ruins. “In front of you,” he said, “you can see a mountain. This is Huayna Picchu, or Young Peak. Behind us there is another mountain: Machu Picchu, or Old Peak. Do not ask me if the ruins are named for the mountain or if the mountain is named after the ruins. We do not know. As you will see over the next two hours there is much we do not know about the ruins of Machu Picchu…”
Francisco could not have said it better. The one thing we do know for sure about Machu Picchu was that it was rediscovered by the explorer (and future senator) Hiram Bingham on July 24, 1911. Bingham, a Yale Professor of Latin American history, had received funding from the university and the National Geography Society to find Villcabamba, the lost Inca fortress believed to have been built down the Urubamba River after the fall of the citadel at Ollantaytambo. After weeks of trekking downriver Bingham met an old Quechua if he knew of Villcabamba. The campesino replied he had never heard of it, but he’d be happy to tell him about Machu Picchu instead. Intrigued, Bingham paid the old man one sole to take him to this Machu Picchu. After an arduous climb up a steep mountain Bingham found a series of ruins covered in dense jungle. As he cut away the growth it seemed the ruins kept going further and further along the mountainside. At last, Bingham concluded, he had found the lost Villcabamba. After clearing the ruins and taking thousands of photographs, Bingham reintroduced the world to Machu Picchu through a special issue of National Geographic.
“This is where the truth ends,” Francisco noted, for practically everything else you hear about Machu Picchu is mere speculation. For example, current theory suggests that Machu Picchu was probably a religious retreat for the Inca. Hiram Bingham, thanks to his clouded Villcabamba obsession, was convinced the ruins were a military stronghold, describing much of the site in military terms. Archaeologists also now believe that Machu Picchu may have been built by the Inca Pachacutec in the early 15th century, and that it had probably fallen out of use by the time of the Spanish Conquest. Again, it’s difficult to be sure because the Inca civilization left no written records and there’s no evidence the Spanish ever learned of Machu Picchu’s existence.
I seem to hear that a lot – people saying how amazed they are that the Spanish never found this place. To be honest, this doesn’t surprise me at all. What surprises me is that the Inca ever found this place and had the gumption to make it into a permanent settlement. Machu Picchu sits high atop a mountain peak with a sheer cliff drop on two sides. It’s near the Amazon in a climate far more temperate than the Quechua were used to, having lived high up in the Andes. Put perhaps that’s exactly why the Inca built Machu Picchu – if I were a ruler of western South America and was looking for a religious retreat far away from both my friends and enemies, Machu Picchu is the perfect spot. Its giant terraces support a variety of crops and offer plenty of room for wool-generating alpacas and llamas to graze. The high mountaintops provide a natural clean water source that continues to run today – Francisco pointed out a series of cascading fountains carved into the living rock of the hillside. The Inca channeled intricate waterways that controlled flow and allowed for the separation of sediment. Machu Picchu is one with the mountain, one with its surroundings – indeed a magical and holy place any royal Inca would have appreciated.
“If you want to see what the people of Machu Picchu produced, go to Connecticut,” Francisco continued. “That’s where all the relics are now. If you want to see pictures of Machu Picchu, read National Geographic. But if you really want to understand the magic of Machu Picchu and what this mountain meant to the Inca, stay right here for a week and you’ll see. Better yet, stay one month, maybe two or three. You can only understand Machu Picchu by experiencing it for yourself.”
If you read the books, watched the documentaries, all you’d be left with would be a series of disconnected, contradictory impressions. Machu Picchu feels more like a natural park that an archaeological zone, for so many of the temples and structures here were carved out of the living rock: caves, hillsides and streams metamorphosed into living space. To me it seemed the Inca made Machu Picchu a celebration of nature, a celebration of life.
Francisco brought us to a small house with high quality masonry, the type you might see in and around Cusco. “This was perhaps the residence of the high priest, or even of the Inca himself when he made the seven-day journey from Cusco,” he explained. “The other houses here are strong and sturdy but here the walls are perfect. Nothing less than perfect would be acceptable for the Inca.” Connected the main room were a bathroom and two side rooms – amenities fit for royalty. On the floor the stone surface had been carved low and rounded until it was in the shape of a mortar. Perhaps the high priest once created ritual powders here.
We climbed up through the ruins of a residential area before reaching a stone quarry full of huge boulders. “As you can see there is enough rock here to keep the Inca building for a long time,” Francisco pointed out. “Why did they stop? Again, we don’t know.” Below the quarry’s edge lay a large boulder that appeared to have been cut in half. “A scientist several years ago wanted to test a theory as to how the Inca cut large stones,” our guide continued. “After chiseling a line of evenly spaced holes with a piece of rock, he filled the holes with wood jammed in by a stone mallet. The wood was wet, and wet wood expands. In a short amount of time the scientists split the boulder in two. So you can see it does not take magic or magnetism or aliens to build Machu Picchu. To say such things insults the intelligent people who built it.”
Francisco’s comments had a healthy tinge of skepticism. He seemed to be troubled by any supernatural or paranormal notion of how Machu Picchu came to be. Near the Temple of Three Windows, famous for its three identical portals, Francisco said, “There are a lot of people now who believe this place holds mystical powers. They pay $200 to come here as part of a special mystical tour of the ruins. You see, it is said there are magnetic channels running through the earth connecting Machu Picchu with Kathmandu, in the Himalayas. So some people come here and practice their mantras, to become one with themselves or something like that. You see, over here there are niches in the wall that were once used to hold sacred items. But to the mystics, they’ve become places where you can chant and feel the vibrations around you. Try this…” Francisco then proceeded to stick his head in a niche and droned in a low tone, “Omm…. Omm…” The sound resonated across the plaza along with our laughter. “See? I feel better now that all my sacred chakras are in alignment. Now you know. I just saved each of you two hundred dollars…”
Adjacent to the Temple of the Three Doors we found a small botanical garden. “Here you can see what the Inca grew at Machu Picchu,” Francisco explained. “Avocado, papaya, coca – these were all very important. What the Inca didn’t have, though, is grass. Look around you – all the grass you see here didn’t come to the Americas until after the Spanish. It’s not native. Try to picture Machu Picchu without it and you’ll have an idea of what it once looked like.”
Francisco led us atop a small hill containing several stone plazas. In one corner sat a peculiar carved rock, one that I recognized immediately. “This is intihuatana, the hitching post of the sun,” Francisco said. “To Hiram Bingham and his fellow scientists it was simply a sundial. A sundial! Only an American would come up with such a small scale of time – time is so important to you Americans, right? The intihuatana was a clock of the universe. It’s precisely aligned with the points of the compass so that the high priests could calculate solstices, equinoxes, the cycles of the seasons. High priest, chief astronomer, there was probably little difference at Machu Picchu.”
We descended the hill behind intihuatana and crossed the grassy plaza to a pair of thatched roof huts. “These huts are the start and end of your climb to the top of Huayna Picchu,” Francisco said. “There is no time to climb it today – it is an hour or so each way – but if you spend the night here I would highly recommend it.” I looked at Susanne and said, “Forget it.” She seemed surprised. “I had already convinced myself to climb it since I assumed you’d insist on trying it.” “Hell no,” I replied. “Not with my fear of heights.” I could hear Francisco explain to someone, “Oh, it’s not difficult; just be careful as you go around each precipice. It’s a steep drop…” That sealed it. There was no way I was climbing that rock, no matter how sacred it was.
We again crossed the plaza towards the house of the high priest. “This we call the Cave of the Condor,” Francisco explained. “Several mummies have been found inside. The reason we call it the Cave of the Condor is below you. The triangle shape is the body of a Condor. The circle above it is its eye. The small triangle next to the circle is its beak. And the entrance to the cave is its wings.” It was a wonderfully abstract concept; who knew if it was intended, but I hoped he was correct.
“And now for some caving adventure,” Francisco smiled. “Watch your heads.” We squeezed through the cave to a set of steps that led to a new group of ruins. “Hiram Bingham called this the Prison Group. Again, this shows us his bias.” Because Bingham was convinced he had found the Villcabamba fortress, his perspective caused him to assume these rooms were prison cells. “Take a look at the niches in the walls,” Francisco continued. “They were probably used for holding gold statues. But watch this…” He climbed into the niche and squatted inside, sticking his hands through what appeared to be holes for wood support beams. “What does this look like to you, from your American or European perspective?” Francisco asked. “A colonial stockade!” The Quechua of South America had no such concept of a public jail. Hiram Bingham judged the culture from his own historical perspective. This building was no jail. You see this everywhere. Tour books refer to one building as the Sacristy. Sacristy is a Christian concept. The Inca would have no idea what that meant.”
We exited the so-called Prison Group as Francisco wrapped up the tour. “I now pronounce you as condors. You are free to fly away and explore Machu Picchu by yourself.” Francisco was certainly one of the best guides I’ve ever met. He had an immense knowledge of the history of Andean culture as well as the healthy skepticism of a anthropologist. Susanne talked with him as we exited the ruins for lunch. Apparently he learned his English in Cusco and had practiced it as a guide, he told Susanne. We thanked him again as he headed off to guide another tour. I’m glad we got a chance to meet him, as brief as it was.
For lunch I ate at the hotel buffet – a $15 a plate feast of cold soup, cold vegetables, stale bread, and unidentifiable meat. I would not make the same mistake twice. Susanne wisely munched on a pack of biscuits and a coke from the snack bar. We re-entered the ruins around 2pm, just as most visitors were departing for the afternoon train. The majority of Machu Picchu’s visitors come on day trips from Cusco. Because of the length of the train ride each way they only have three or four hours to see the ruins. By 4pm, Machu Picchu is supposedly deserted. I hoped we’d have the park to ourselves now.
Once making our way along the cliff path entrance we tried to trace Francisco’s original entry route by climbing a small flight of stone steps. The steps then diverged in two directions; we were pretty sure Francisco had taken us to the right, but we were overtaken with the urge to explore some new ground and go left. We quickly regretted that decision. The path rose at an increasing rate in the form of a zigzag path. Because of the thick scrub on both sides of the walkway we couldn’t see where we were going. Meanwhile the steepness of the walk and the high elevation caused us to huff and puff, pausing every couple of meters to catch our breath. “This better be worth it,” said Susanne, sputtering for oxygen. The path eventually flattened and the bushes thinned. I could here two or three voices ahead of us. Suddenly I realized where we were: Susanne and I had ascended Machu Picchu’s grassy terraces from behind and were now just below what’s known as the Caretaker’s Hut. This could only mean one thing: we were about to encounter one of the greatest views on earth.
And there it was, the entire field of ruins dotting the landscape with the glorious peak of Huayna Picchu rising from behind. This was the “golden shot” – the place where all photographers seek out the perfect picture of Machu Picchu. On the terraces above us I could see several large rocks and boulders that looked stable enough to sit on, including one boulder that had a wedge cut out in the shape of a bench. Someone was sitting on the bench so we climbed to the terrace and leaned on a smaller rock, our feet dangling over the edge of the terrace.
“This is why we came here,” Susanne said. “I know I say this every time we go somewhere amazing,” I replied, “but I can’t believe we’re actually here. I mean, I knew we’d get to Machu Picchu eventually, but this place is so out of the way I never figured we’d see it this soon.”
We sat awhile on the terrace, admiring our golden shot. Susanne brought several filters and a wide angle lens for her camera, so she experimented with a variety a photos. I climbed higher to a spot next to the Caretaker’s Hut, a stone house that was recently re-thatched after a fire last year to show people what it might have looked like in Inca times. My camera didn’t have as wide a lens as Susanne’s did so I had to keep going up further to fit the entire scene in my camera window. I then climbed beyond the hut to take a shot with our panoramic camera. As I looked at the terraces beyond the hut I noticed several llamas grazing in the grass. “Susanne!” I yelled. “Llamas!”
She quickly mounted the terraces to see my discovery. Three llamas, one pure white, one brown and another white with dark spots were noshing on grass and weeds a few yards away. A fourth llama, also brown, was much further away on a higher terrace. I cautiously approached the spotted llama, which we affectionately called aesthetic llama since it looked like a postcard perfect llama. (We considered naming them Panchen Llama, Llama Dorje and Dalai Llama but decided against it in deference to the plight of Tibetans.) The llama didn’t seem to mind me getting closer or, even petting it. In fact it didn’t seem interested in even acknowledging my presence, Eating grass, apparently, was clearly higher a priority than worry about privacy-invading gringos. Susanne and I took some pictures of us with the llama. We then wondered if we could get them to stand by the edge of the terrace and pose for a shot with the rest of Machu Picchu. “Haven’t you heard the expression ‘as difficult as herding llamas?” I asked. Susanne laughed. “Of course not,” I continued. “I just wonder if there would be any truth to it.”
At first we tried yelling, “Hey llama, over here.” We snapped our fingers, gave them a polite tap on the rump, but each time they would either sit there or walk away in the wrong direction. This truly was as difficult as herding llamas. Having accepted defeat I sat next to aesthetic llama, who was now squatting in the sand, soaking up the sun. I scratched its neck for a while until it made a high- pitched “Mmm” sound. I had never heard llamas before so the sound caught me off guard. As I stared at it in amazement the llama whined again. Susanne and I burst out laughing. The llama didn’t sound angry or scared – perhaps a little annoyed or bored, though. The next thing I knew, the llama belly rolled to the right, landing right on top of me. As I fell over in shock the camelid got up and walked away. Apparently the llama decided to use me to boost it back up. Nothing like feeling useful.
Susanne and I watched the llamas for a few more minutes, hoping one of the would wander over to a better spot. “Green grass!” Susanne said. “Yummy grass! Come over here – please!” She pleaded to no avail. This wasn’t going to work so eventually we bid the llamas goodbye and moved on. We descended a stone pathway, passing through ruined houses and temples. Not far from the main plaza Susanne climbed down to a grassy terrace and made got comfortable. I soon joined her; there we sat, staring at the ruins, staring at Huayna Picchu, staring at the misty peaks beyond. There’s no greater pleasure at Machu Picchu than staring at your surroundings and wondering.
Just before 4:30pm I suggested we return to the bus and check into our hotel. The last bus for Aguas Calientes departed at 5 o’clock but I was pretty exhausted from our full day, early wakeup and all-night insomnia. Susanne didn’t seem thrilled with the idea of leaving until the last possible bus but I convinced her my body was about to give out on me.
I should have heeded Susanne’s wishes. After exiting the ruins we discovered that the 4:30 bus had left early and we were now stuck waiting for the 5 o’clock bus after all. They wouldn’t let us on the bus just yet so we had to stand about as hundreds of tiny black flies swarmed around our faces. Fortunately we had brought an ample supply of bug repellent – there were dozens of travelers here pock marked by the black fly’s evil blood blisters. Around 4:55 we boarded the bus and began the 20 minute descent down the mountain. As the village of Aguas Calientes appeared to grow with our approach I thought about our day’s visit and was glad we had two more days to explore the ruins. It makes no sense why anyone would spend only four hours here after coming so far. Francisco was right – you’d need months to fully appreciate the magic of this place. Hopefully another two days inside the ruins would give me more than just a shallow glimpse.
We exited the bus in Aguas Calientes and attempted to get our bearings. I knew the Hostal Cabana was a 10 minute walk from the bus station – but where to walk? I then overheard a blonde man ask in Spanish, “Donde esta Hostal Cabana?” Once he got directions I asked him if we could tag along. His name was Angus and he was a Canadian who had worked for a mining company in Chile. He had just left his job and was now traveling around before returning to Toronto. We crossed the village’s small plaza de armas and hung a right, reaching a long pedestrian street heading up a moderately steep hill. La Cabana, to our chagrin, was near the top of the hill. As we struggled upward, children played in the street, rolling toy trucks down its slope. Open air restaurants invited us in with the smells of pizza, hamburgers and fries – the staples of the trekker’s diet. I didn’t like the idea of having to climb this hill each time we returned from the ruins but at least this was the only time we’d be lugging a lot of weight upward.
After passing a brightly decorated eatery, the Manu Restaurant, we found the Hostal Cabana on our left. At first we couldn’t track down anyone working there but a few minutes a short Mestizo woman came running down the stairs. I handed her our voucher and asked, “Tiene un doble con bano privado?” “Yes,” she replied in English. “You have a reservation, yes? My name is Martha. Please follow me. Angus, Susanne and I trailed her through the building, climbing up back to what appeared to be a new three story building. This must be the new addition to the hotel, I thought. Martha gave us a spacious triple on the second floor before taking Angus further upstairs. “Tonight you can have this triple,” she said, “but tomorrow I will have to move you.” We offered to take a double tonight but she explained there were none available. The triple would be just fine. As Angus went upstairs he said he planned to go to the Manu for dinner. “Maybe we’ll see you over there, then.” I said.
Susanne and I relaxed for awhile and cleaned up before walking next door to the restaurant. There were plenty of tables available outside, so we sat out front, ordering some mates and an egg sandwich. Susanne wasn’t too hungry so she ate some of her leftover biscuits purchased at the Machu Picchu snack shop. A few minutes later Angus appeared so we invited him to join us. He ordered a trout platter and a bottle of Cusqueno beer. We sat around and chatted as the sky darkened, bringing a slight chill in the air. One of the young boys playing by street came over to the table and poked her head up by Susanne, staring at her shyly. “Hola,” Susanne said, offering him a cracker. He took it from her hands, shoving it in his mouth as he went back to play. A few minutes later he returned, eager for another snack. In between visits a small dog also appeared, cautiously approaching the table. Susanne tried offering it a cracker as well but the dog jumped back nervously. Eventually it leaned forward and took the cracker.
By 7:30 or so I felt like I was going to fall over and collapse, so we said goodbye to Angus, who stuck around for a second beer. Back at the hotel I dropped to the bed, having no desire to get back up until tomorrow morning. Today was as grueling as I had expected, but well worth every ache and every yawn. Our adventure at Machu Picchu was just beginning.

September 2, 1998


Filed under: Peru — Andy Carvin @ 12:59 pm

Hi everyone. I’d like to post the first installment of my travel journal concerning my recent trip across the Andean Altiplano from Cusco to La Paz. I wrote a lot on this trip, so I’ll post my journal as separate installments: Cusco, Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca (Puno, Copacabana) and La Paz. Below you’ll find my journal entries for Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas.
ps- I’m still editing the journals, so please excuse any typos or grammatical snafus…
Saturday, August 29
The Andean Adventure Begins
“Mate de coca, senor?” asked the smiling young campesina, brushing her two jet black pigtail braids over her left shoulder. “Si, si, gracias,” I replied. It was around 11am; Susanne and I had just arrived in Cusco at the Hostal Loreto following a 12-hour trip from Washington DC to Peru. At over 10,000 feet in elevation Cusco is higher than anywhere I’d ever spent any length of time, and altitude sickness is common among gringos arriving here from the flatlands. The local Quechua indian descendants of the great Inca empire continue the tradition of offering weary travelers a cup of mate de coca – herbal coca tea – to help deaden the effects of two miles’ elevation.
Susanne and I sat on the terrace of the colonial Hostal Loreto sipping our first taste of mate de coca. Our visit to Peru was barely ten minutes old and I’m already struck by the cultural differences between the US and the Andean highlands. At home my steaming cup of herbal tea would be considered contraband, despite its accepted harmlessness, yet here in the Andes it is a custom of friendship and generosity to share coca, no different than inviting a neighbor in for coffee. I suppose such differences shouldn’t surprise me, though; the mountains of Peru are a whole world away from my realm of experience.
The city of Cusco (also spelled as Cuzco, though the locals actually prefer the spelling Qosqo) is a living center of ancient Peruvian culture. According to legend Cusco was founded in the 12th century by the first Inca, Manco Capac. The term Inca, despite popular misconception, does not connote an ethnic tribe like the Cherokee or Lakota Sioux. The Inca was actually the royal line of a tribe of Quechua indians first proclaimed by Manco Capac as well as the term used to describe the king, much like Rome’s emperors could be referred to as caesars, or Russia’s csars for that matter. As the ancient story goes, the gods sent Manco Capac to the earth, rising him out of the azure waters of Lake Titicaca. They gave him a divine rod with which he was to mark the spot for his capital city and proclaim as the home of his chosen people, the Quechua. When Manco Capac found the perfect spot – a beautiful valley high in the Andes – he planted the rod in the ground, designating the spot as the Navel of the Earth – Qosqo in the Quechua language.
The legend of Manco Capac is a great story but unfortunately the archaelogical evidence suggests the Quechua weren’t in control of the Cusco valley at that particular time. However, the 9th Inca, Pachacutec (pronounced Pacha Cootie), initiated a period of swift military expansion during which his armies captured much of the Andes from Columbia to Chile. By the 1430′s Cusco became the capital of this new empire, Tawantinsuyu (the Four Corners), which were divided into the regions of Chinchaysuyu (the north and northwest), Kuntisuyo (the south and west), Kollasuyo (the south and southeast) and Antisuyo (the east), all of which radiated from the navel of the world, Cusco. Tawantinsuyu and the Inca dynasty thrived for all but one hundred years until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
At first, Francisco Pizarro’s small group of soldiers struggled against the Inca’s armies until a civil war erupted after the death of of Huayna Capac in 1532. Two of the Inca’s sons fought over their right of ascension, dividing Tawantinsuyu into two rival subkingdoms. Prince Hu*scar ruled his lands from Cusco while his half-brother Atahualpa ruled from Quito, the capital of the northern enclave of Chinchaysuyu. During the civil war Atahualpa defeated Hu*scar, killing him in at the battle of Huancvelica. When the Spaniards arrived two years later, Atahualpa Inca wrongly believed that Pizarro was actually the coming of Viracocha, a powerful god of Inca legend, and concluded that Viracocha had come to support him.
In what proved to be a most fateful move, Atahualpa agreed to meet with Pizarro at the stronghold of Cajamarca. Pizarro and his men ambushed the Inca and held him for ransom, demanding that an entire room be filled to the ceiling with gold and treasure. The Inca’s people faithfully responded to the demand, gathering all the sacred relics of Chinchaysuyu in the ransom room. But when Pizarro got word that one of the Inca’s armies was heading to Cajamarca he executed Atahualpa on the spot. This betrayal marked the end of indigenous rule of the Andes and the beginning of Spanish control. During the chaos that ensued Pizarro sacked Cusco, eventually capturing the capital. The Spanish looted the city, melting down its gold in a matter of weeks. They also took advantage of the Quechua’s superb masonry skills and built their cathedrals and churches on top of Inca-period structures. This architectural blend of native and colonial elements remain in place to this day, making Cusco a historical gem of the Americas.
After finishing our mates we gathered our cameras and daypacks and headed for the Plaza de Armas, about ten paces from the Loreto’s door. The Plaza de Armas is an immense public square that serves as the center of historic Cusco. While having a Plaza de Armas is common throughout colonial Latin America, Cusco’s plaza stands out because of the immense Inca foundations surrounding it. Buildings such as the Cusco cathedrial and the Iglesia Compania are built on mounts of Inca masonry, including the Hostal Loreto. Our room even has a 500-year-old Inca wall inside! The plaza itself contains a central fountain, cobblestone paths and countless benches surrounded by beds of flowers – a perfect spot for people watching. As soon as we stepped out into the plaza we were taken aback by its grandeur: a colonial town frozen in time with the Andes as its infinite backdrop. We were quickly hounded by boys offering to shine our shoes – well, Susanne’s shoes actually, since mine weren’t made of leather – as well as older campesinas trying to sell us wool and souvenirs. But we hardly noticed them as we stood in the plaza, gazing in all four directions of the Inca’s Tawantinsuyu, silently telling ourselves, “We’re in the Andes now.” No doubt about it.
As tempting as it was to break out our cameras – there were even llamas standing in front of the cathedral – we resisted the urge and opted for a rest at a local cafe. Susanne and I had little choice but to make our first day in Cusco a lazy one, since overexertion in the first hours of arrival at this altitude often leads to severe cases of altitude sickness. We both carried a bottle of Diamox, an epilepsy drug also used for controlling altitude sickness (yet with the curious side effects of dehydration, tingling extremities and a constant taste of iodine in the mouth). Still, if we rushed about all day we’d certainly be asking for trouble. To avoid the pounding headaches and nausea that accompany the illness we planned to do as little as possible today: drink tea, read and make travel arrangements to Machu Picchu, nothing more. Our first foray into prescribed inactivity began at the Plus Cafe, a precious little balcony restaurant with a perfect view of the cathedral and the Iglesia Compania. Having quickly developed a taste for mate de coca (taste, mind you – this stuff isn’t addictive) we both ordered two cups and some sesame rolls with jam. The day had become rather overcast so we continued to resist using the balcony for lots of pictures. I do, however, take advantage of the opportunity to test out my new 300mm telephoto lens which allowed me to get some great candid shots of local benchgoers. I couldnt’ decide if I felt like a voyeur or Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. Either way I enjoyed it.
After having our fill of rolls and mate we returned to the plaza and ambled along its perimeter, visiting shops and tour agencies. Susanne and I needed to make arrangements to get us to Machu Picchu this Tuesday as well as to find a good day tour of La Valle Sagrada del Incas – the Sacred Valley of the Incas, home to several notable villages and ruins along the Urubamba River. Most agencies offered Machu Picchu packages for $50 to $100, depending on the class of train service you wanted for the four hour ride to and from the ruins. Sacred Valley trips run from $7 to $70 depending on whether you want to go in a large group or on an exclusive private tour. One particular agency on the southern side of the plaza, La Compania de Servicios Turisticos, seemed to stand out over the other. We told their senior tourguide, Luis Guillen, that we would get back to him by 6pm that night. Susanne and I then returned to the hotel for 30 minutes to relax and talk through our options. While we both would have preferred to hire a private car for our tour of the valley (as we had done in more affordable locales like Cairo and Delhi) it was clear that there were no bargains to be found in Cusco. Seven or seventy bucks, you get what you pay for. For both the valley tour and Machu Picchu we decided to deal with a larger tour group in order to save some money but we would spend a full three days at Machu Picchu in order to take in as much as possible by ourselves.
As we departed the hotel we walked east along the Calle Loreto towards a local crafts market. The entire street was walled with Inca masonry; I felt as if we were going back in time as we paced further down the ancient road, especially as we passed another campesina tending to her llama. But the Inca gods chose to frown upon us that afternoon as the skies opened up and rain fell hard on us. Rain in the middle of dry season? There was little we could do except get out of the showers; continuing to search for this craft market would not prove to be a wise solution. We concluded it would be best to save the mercado for another dry day – assuming every day in Cusco wasn’t this damp. Susanne and I doubled back to the plaza in search of another round of mate de coca.
As we approached the plaza we could hear the sounds of a brass band echoing down the stone walls of Calle Loreto. Across the plaza by the cathedral we spotted a procession of uniformed police and musicians carrying what appeared to be a statue of the Virgin Mary – or was it Santa Rosa de Lima? Today was her festival day in Lima. I immediately had a flashback to The Godfather Part Two, a sombre procession carrying a statue of Mary through the crowded streets of Little Italy. Same idea, different script, I suppose. The rain now began to fall even harder so Susanne and I ducked for cover under a plaza archway where numerous children and campesinas were keeping dry. Following the archway we crossed over to the western perimeter of the plaza and climbed to the top of Cafe Kero, another popular balcony hangout. I relented and ordered hot chocolate while Susanne stuck to a reliable cup of mate de coca. We loitered there until 4pm when we decided to buy a pair to tourist ticket passes, which we would need to enter the major attractions in Cusco and the Sacred Valley. It should have been as simple as making a single stop at the local tourist office, but recent changes in the office’s address coupled with schitzophrenic office hours sent us on a wild goose chase in the drizzling rain. By our fourth stop we finally found a place to buy our passes: the Museo de Arte Religioso. As we left the museum we noticed our tickets had already been marked for entry into the museum – I guess the ticket man had assumed we would stay awhile.
Susanne and I briefly returned to the tour agency to book our tours of the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu as well as our train tickets to the city of Puno, along the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca. It was now past 5pm; I hadn’t slept much on our overnight flight from New York to Lima so I was eager to get some supper and call it an evening. We ate dinner at D’Onofrio’s, a pleasant enough Italian joint best known for its ice cream. We ate the lasagna and roasted chicken instead.
Sunday, August 30 The Sacred Valley of the Incas
Today we’ve hired a tour service to guide us around the Valle Sagrada del Incas – the Sacred Valley of the Incas. The valley is a wide expanse north of Cusco stretching over 100km east-west. The road to and from the valley are notoriously treacherous, some with drops of over 1000 feet, so it’s wise to have an experienced chauffeur when circumnavigating the area.
The tour included a group of 25 people; we were transported in a comfortable, yet slightly cramped bus. Before reaching our first stop the bus climbed steadily to an altitude of 4100m, driving past the Inca fortress of Sacsayhuaman. Our descent into the valley was swift; soon we found ourselves dropping to around 3000m, significantly lower than Cusco. The bus pulled over for a brief visit at a roadside market in a Quecha village to small to be on our tourist map. Inside the market campesinas sold typical Andean wares – alpaca sweaters and scarves, clay pottery, zampona pan flutes and tapestries. I was tempted to buy a sweater but I concluded the trip was still young and there would be plenty of time to find bargains elsewhere. Susanne discovered a Quechua man with four llamas charging one sole to photograph them. The llamas were much shorter than I expected – their heads only came up to my chest. Their wool is magnificent, though; I gently stuck a pointed finger into the back of one of the llamas to see how deep it would go before hitting the skin. My hand disappeared under matted wool up to my wrist.
Once back on the bus we drove another 30 minutes to the eastern end of the Urubamba Valley, where we paused to take photographs of the postcard-perfect terraced hillsides, the Urubamba River flowing far below. Along the roadside campesinas sold more sweaters and souvenirs, including plastic packets of the two dozen varieties of corn that grow in the valley. Several young girls dressed in traditional Quechua costumes. I offered one of the half a sole for a photograph. Reboarding the bus we descended further into the valley until we reached Pisac, an ancient Quechua village famous for its Sunday market. Our guide Alfred recommended we leave our jackets in the bus – a wise suggestion since the drop in elevation had also meant an increase in temperatures to the mid 70s. We’d have about an hour to wander the market before our noon rendezvous at the bus.
After briefly checking out a local adobe-oven bakery Susanne and I split up so we could each go at our own pace. She paused to take photographs of local children while I worked my way down Pisac’s narrow (and occasionally treacherous) cobblestone streets. The haunting sounds of zampona pan flute music emanated from all directions as local merchants demonstrated their many instruments available for purchase. Many of the hawkers called out to me as I passed: “Comprame amigo!” Buy from me, friend. Each time I would shake my head with a polite, “No gracias, senora,” a strategy that usually worked save for the random aggressive merchant.
I soon began to hear a cacophany of noise coming from ahead – music, shouts in Quechua and Spanish, laughing and singing. Turning the corner I discovered Pisac’s Plaza de Armas crowded with over 1000 people, mostly Quechua women in tradition dress buying and selling from scores of carpets of produce laid out along the cobblestone. My mind flashed back to Cairo, Varanasi and Kathmandu – the glorious chaos of the morning market. While the previous section of Pisac’s market had obviously been dedicated to tourists and souvenirs, the plaza was truly a local affair. Young campesinas sold dozens of varieties of corn and potatoes. Old men weighed cups of powdered dyes on tableside scales, selling the brilliant colors to campesinas wishing to dye their newly spun alpaca wool. Grandmothers argued over the quality of a freshly slaughtered pig as a teenaged butcher’s apprentice enthusiastically pointed out the finer cuts of meat. The sights, sounds and smells of the morning market: nothing in the US seems to come close to the sensations felt at these decidedly exotic, yet inherently mundane events.
With less than 15 minutes until our appointed return to the bus I spotted Sussane entering the plaza. I quickly squeezed through the crowds to reach her. “Time is getting short,” I said. “You’ve got to see this.” Her excitement surpassed mine as she raised her camera, carefully selecting her subjects and executing each shot like a master assassin. Soon enough, though, our time had run out and we had little choice but to leave the market and return to the bus. I quickly purchased two pieces of freshly baked pitas from the bakery for 10 centavos each before we climbed aboard and departed Pisac.
The drive to the Inca fortress of Ollantaytambo was over an hour from Pisac so we broke for lunch in the village of Urubamba. Urubamba has apparently cornered the market for tour group lunch stops with practically every restaurant charging seven to 20 dollars for a fixed price, luke warm buffet. Nothing like reaping the benefits of a captive audience. The food was terribel by any standard save a tasty quinoa soup. Quinoa, an indigenous Andean grain with superlative nutritional qualities, has been a favorite of mine for several years so I had been looking forward to my first taste of it in South America. I’ve always prepared it like a rice dish but here it worked well in chicken soup. I also sampled a strange, dark purple pudding that tasted like nutmeg. A retired Peruvian couple explained to us it was a popular local dessert made from a dark blue corn. As Susanne and I tried to eat our meal, several restaurant employees walked the room stalking countless flies with swats from dirty rags. My apetite lessened with each frustrated swat.
After wasting away the hour in Urubamba we finally embarked for Ollantaytambo. Ollantaytambo is a massive citadel located at the confluence of three valleys, a scant 50 kilometers from Machu Picchu. The citadel served as both a temple and a fortress, the latter becoming of most importance upon the arrival of the Spanish. In 1536 Hernando Pizarro and his cavalry of 70 men attacked the citadel. Manco Inca, who had holed up his army at Ollantaytambo after the fall of Cusco and Sacsayhuaman, successfully halted Pizarro’s initial siege as the Spanish horses were easily repelled by Inca warriors pelting them with rocks and arrows high atop the citadel’s stone terraces. Pizarro retreated in humiliated defeat but Manco Inca’s victory did not last; Spanish reinforcements eventually arrived and forced the Inca to retreat with his men further into the mountains, initiating the beginning of the end of Quechua rule in the valley.
Directly below the citadel’s eastern slope sits the village of Ollantaytambo, a museum relic of a town if there ever was one. Quechuas continued to live in houses built by their Inca ancestors, using their ancient irrigation and plumbing systems as well. After squeezing tightly through the village’s narrow cobblestone streets the bus reached the citadel. High along the mountainside I could see tiers stone terraces climbing hundreds of feet into the air. Near the top I spotted a complex of of immense stone blocks interlocked in typically Incan, yet mystifyingly precise patterns. Our guide led us slowly up the main terraces. He pointed out that in times of peace Ollantaytambo served as a waystation along the Inca highway system, with the three local valleys converging at this very point.
We climbed further up towards the massive stone walls. Huge granite blocks of 30 or 40 tons each were interlocked perfectly with no mortar or glue holding them together. The Inca empire possessed a lost art of stonemasonry in which they could manouver multi-ton blocks, carve them into precise jigsaw-like pieces and fit them together, all without metal tools or even the wheel, let alone modern technology. Perhaps even more incredibly, all of these giant blocks were somehow transported from the mountainside ten kilometers away, across the valley and beyond the Urubamba River.
Because the Inca left no written records of their techniques scientists have hypothesized how the process might have worked. In terms of transporting the stones the Inca laid down an extended zigzag path from the quarry down the mountainside, allowing hundreds of men to drag the rocks with ropes, perhaps with the assistance of wood rollers or sled-like sliding beams. Some people have even suggested they may have diverted the Urubamba around the boulders, allowing them to drag the stones across the river without getting them stuck in the water. To fit two stones together the masons might have first carved the desired shape out of the first rock, fitting it in place, and then somehow suspended the second rock next to the first one on scaffolding, in order to begin tracing out the second rock’s necessary jigsaw shape. The Inca masons might have used a straight stick with a hanging plumbob to trace edge of the first rock and mark off exact points for carving on the second rock. Again, this is merely scientific speculation. In theory this method might have worked but that doesn’t mean this is how the ancient stonemasons did it. In my mind, our lack of knowing the truth can only add to our respect for this lost art.
Near the top of the citadel Alfred pointed out a huge lintel stone that he claimed weighs over 400 tuns. I’m not sure how much of an exaggeration that might be, but I estimated its dimension being 20 feet by 10 feet by 10 feet, all solid granite. No matter its actual weight I can’t but admire Incan tenacity for dragging this monolithic bohemoth down and up the mountainsides in order to position it at this very spot. Not far from the lintel stone we found the Temple of the Sun, a row of equally sized granite slabs separated by tall, thin sheets of rock. Five hundred years ago the Inca maintained this temple so that those slabs were covered in sheets of gold. Gold was seen as the tears of the sun, just as silver was considered the tears of the moon. When the sun rose in the east, the temple would face west and thus greet its creator each morning.
Before departing Ollantaytambo Susanne insisted we explore a series of stone watchtowers on a cliff high above the Temple of the Sun. I wasn’t too thrilled with the prospects of climbing this precipice but I didn’t care for the idea of Susanne going solo, either. Ignoring my fear of heights I followed her up the stone crags. In hindsight I admit it was a thrill to stand on the edge of a cliff with nothing protecting me but a two foot-wide, 500 year old stone path; I just won’t go looking for this sort of adventure on a daily basis.
The sun began to sink behind the mountainside as we returned to the bus and continued to the village of Chinchero, high atop the valley at 4000m. The temperature had dropped at least 30 degrees; Susanne and I donned our layers of sweatshirts and jackets before visiting Chinchero’s modest, yet popular Quechua market. The market was much smaller than Pisac’s, spread generously across Chinchero’s Plaza de Armas, but it was also less touristed; apparently our group had the market to ourselves. With the sky darkening further the market was obviously winding down for the evening, though the locals seemed happy to see us nonetheless. I found one campesina selling alpaca scarves. I was getting chilly at this point so I decided to shop. I picked up a grey scarf for which she requested six soles, around two dollars. Ever eager to haggle, I offered two soles. The campesina laughed. We spent a minute or two haggling back and forth, both of us using broken Spanish. Eventually I convinced her to settle for three and a half soles, about $1.15. We both seemed pleased with the outcome.
After visiting a small, dark chapel perched above the plaza Susanne and I rejoined our group on the bus before beginning the 45-minute drive to Cusco. At first I was a little weary at the thought of our bus careening down hairpin turns in the Andean darkness – “Busloads in India are killed this way,” Susanne joked – but I was comforted by the appearance of stars high in the eastern sky. As I spotted three, then five, then a dozen stars glittering over the mountains I came to the modestly profound realization that this was the first time I had ever seen these particular stars. As a kid I used to love the night skies. I would pour over my astronomer’s star charts before dragging my telescope outside in the wee hours of the morning, marveling at the crisp Florida sky. I knew exactly what stars would rise and fall depending on the time of year. But now I was in South America for the first time, eyeing stars for which I had no reference. I’d thought about this before coming to Peru but now it struck me world was so large there were entire constellations and galaxies I would never have had the pleasure of seeing without crossing thousands of miles first. I wondered where the Southern Cross was – my trip to South America wouldn’t be complete without spotting it at least once.
Back in Cusco Susanne and I sat inside a dark cafe with a roaring fireplace. Many local cafes are essentially all-day breakfast joints, but that suited us just fine. Our lousy lunch had killed our apetite for the day and we munched on a roll of mint Mentos (the freshmaker) throughout the afternoon, so we ordered a light meal of yogurt with fresh fruit and meusli. It was a refreshing way to wrap up what had been a hectic, yet fascinating day.
Monday, August 31 Sacsayhuaman: Flying Kites Along the Ramparts
Today we had a free day in Cusco. Our primary goal before departing tomorrow for Machu Picchu was to visit Sacsayhuaman, the magnificant Inca fortress high above the city. When the first Incas expanded Cusco they envisioned their capital being in the shape of a puma, the South American mountain lion they so revered. Cusco itself served as the puma’s body while the fortress of Sacsayhuaman formed the lion’s head, its neck a stone highway leading down to the center of town.
We ate breakfast at 7am inside a cafe along the northern side of the Plaza de Armas, just to the left of the cathedral. We had discovered the cafe the morning before; while its menu was basically the same as every other cafe on the plaza, this one opened early (7am instead of 8am) and piped in an assortment of classicl music while we ate. Susanne and I fortified ourselves with a hardy American breakfast of eggs and toast (well, at least I did – Susanne was more healthful with her yogurt con meusli). We’d need the calories, though; Sacsayhuaman lies several hundred meters above Cusco, and the hour-long ascent has demoralized many an unprepared (and unacclimated) traveler. We were determined to take our time no matter how long the ascent. Both Susanne and I very much wanted to enjoy Sacsayhuaman; if we got to the top in record time, nausea and hyperventilation would surely ruin any chance of adventure and fun.
After breakfast we walked northeast from the Plaza de Armas along Celle Suecia. The cobblestone road rose slowly – certainly less steep than your average San Francisco hill – yet we could already feel the effects of the altitude. About five minutes into the walk we reached a pedestrian stairway known as Calle Rebalosa. We had to pause every 20 steps or so in order to catch our breath but the picturesque views down the stairs and across the hillside gave us ample excuses to pause. Rebalosa terminated at the Iglesia de San Cristobal, a pretty church with a vast courtyard. Yesterday we had driven by the church on our way to the sacred valley and there had been sereral Quechua campesinas posing with their llamas for photographs. Today the plaza was deserted save a young boy playing a solitary game of soccer with an empty plastic water bottle.
A paved road stretched up the hill counter-clockwise until we reached the entryway to the Sacsayhuaman ruins. A tourist policeman greeted us with a subdued “buenos dias” as he punched a hole in our Cusco tourist tickets. We now had a steep 20-minute climb up the old Inca road (the puma’s neck) leading to the fortress itself. In its heyday the road must have been a masterpiece of Quechua engineering; today it’s a jumbled mess of insurance- premium-rising rubble. An elderly campesina in her traditional long skirt, sweater and bowler hat entered the site about the same time we did. She soon passed us as Susanne and I tripped over the stone pathway with heavy breaths. Her strong longs were designed for climbs like this, I thought as she took each step, taking her time while maintaining a determined pace. Occasionally we caught up with her but we’d always fall behind as we stopped to catch our breath. Eventually the campesina veered right towards an unpaved rocky path with an even steeper incline – vaya con dios. Soon we reached a classic Inca wall extending far along our left – this must be the edge of Sacsayhuaman. Moments later three Quechua kids appeared out of nowhere with their llamas, each animal decorated with coloful pierced earrings. We knew they wanted us to photograph them for money so we gladly jumped at the opportunity. Susanne snapped away as I paid them 50 centavos each.
After saying goodbye to the kids and their llamas we entered the main fortification of Sacsayhuaman. Even though the Spanish dismantled the majority of the fort in order to use the stones for new construction in town, the remains of Sacsayhuaman are still a magnificent testiment to Inca engineering and ingenuity. The fortress is comprised of three tiers of 22 zigzagging ramparts. Strategically it’s an excellent defensive design, taking advantage of the pointed ramparts in the same way that their European counterparts used star-shaped forts to repel cannon fire. It’s hard to comprehend what Sacsayhuaman would have looked like in its prime 500 years ago: three great towers once stood over the 22 ramparts while as many as 5000 Quechua warriors called the citadel home.
We climbed to the top of the fortress and discovered a stupendous view of our valley around us. To our north lie Sacsayhuaman’s grassy plaza; beyond that stood Rodadero, a giant rock hill with numerous stairwells and benched carved into the rock. Off to the northeast I could see another hill with a giant statue of Jesus. And below to the east and southeast, Cusco appeared as a vast, quiet expanse of Spanish architecture as far as the eye could see. Climbing the hill just behind Sacsayhuaman we found an even grander view. A woman sat in the grass sketching the scene below while a young cyclist, probably exhausted from conquering the mountain, contemplated the vista in silent solitude.
Susanne and I scurried down the hill back into the fortress, making our way to the first tier of ramparts. The walls of the lowest tier were made out of gargantuan granite stones, many weighing well over 100 tons, interlocked with such precision it almost appeared as if a giant, flat wall had lines carved into it to create the illusion of individual blocks fitted together. I didn’t realize how massive they were until Susanne had me pose leaning against a wall. I walked towards a stone shaped like the state of Utah. As I got closer and closer the giant block seemed to grow as if it really were the size of Utah, towering well above my head. And all of this was somehow built without the aid of modern machinery. Incredible.
I could feel the sun bear down on the back of my neck as we crossed the grassy field to Rodadero hill. Somehow I had neglected to put sunscreen there this morning and I was now paying the price of it. A group of schoolchildren, perhaps in the 1st or 2nd grade, were picnicking at the base of Rodadero with their teachers. Each student had a kite kit with them. The grassy plaza below Sacsayhuaman seemed like a great place to fly a kite – I hoped the winds would be in their favor.
The main reason to climb Rodadero is to take advantage of its strategic view of the 22 ramparts. The rock is smooth and rounded so it’s difficult to climb the hill but the view still makes it worthwhile. Four British tourists were sitting in the Inca’s Throne, a large stone bench carved into the hillside. After a while we got our chance to occupy the this popular spot. As we settled into our stone throne we could see that the young students had finished their picnic and were now starting to fly their kites. Most of the youngsters could only get their kites a few feet off the ground but their teachers proudly applauded each attempt. A little further up the hill a young father was teaching his son how to fly a kite as well. It seemed so ironic, yet so marvelous, that a place once heralded for its strategic capabilities was now the best place in the valley for a child to fly a kite. I bet neither the Inca nor Pizarro ever fathomed such an end result for this sacred warrior place.
By the time we climbed down from Sacsayhuaman it was mid- afternoon. Susanne and I wanted to stop by the tour agency that had planned our Sacred Valley trip to see what arrangements had been made for our excursion to Machu Picchu. Luis Guillen, the man who had helped us previously, wasn’t around so they suggested we come back in 20 minutes or so. Susanne and I decided to walk to the Iglesia Santo Domingo, a Dominican church built over the Incan temple of Coricancha. In its time Coricancha was one of the greatest temples of the Tawantinsuyu empire. Coricancha, Quechua for Golden Courtyard, proved a fitting name for this place since its outer walls were covered with a staggering 700 sheets of gold, each weighing in excess of four pounds. Sadly, the Spanish melted down every ounce of gold in a matter of weeks after capturing the city. None of the riches of Coricancha survived the conquest. Francisco Pizarro’s brother Juan was given the temple as his private estate but he soon died in the battle of Sacsayhuaman in 1536. Juan’s will stipulated that the temple be given to the Dominicans, and they’ve occupied it ever since in the form of Iglesia Santa Domingo. The outside of Coricancha/Domingo is a testiment to the history of Cusco. The lowest level of the structure represents architecture of the early Inca period. The middle layer is a grand example of classic Inca architecture at its peak. The top layer is, of course, Spanish colonial. Just as layers of earth can represent epochs of time, the layers of Coricancha tell a story of imperial birth, growth and collapse.
Coricancha lies at the end of Calle Loreto, not far from our hotel. The last time we walked down this long street of Inca stone, the skies opened and poured rain on us. Today seemed to be no exception: as we penetrated further down towards the church the skies clouded over. By the time we reached the ancient temple a forboding blue- black cloud blotted out the sun. Today would not be a day to fully appreciate Coricancha. We contemplated its exterior layers of Inca and Spanish architecture for several minutes before retreated back down Loreto. Like clockwork, the closer we returned to our familiar surroundings at the Plaza de Armas, the sooner the the skies cleared, return the sun to dominate above us.
Having returned to the plaza we figured it was as good a time as any to visit Cusco’s cathedral. It’s hard to give an impression of the cathedral’s interior except to say one thing: darkness. As far as cathedrals go, this one was unusual for its utter lack of windows, be they stained glass or otherwise. The darkness made it very difficult to appreciate what was probably a beautiful church. The Quechua artisans of Cusco had little to go on when the Spanish set them out to paint Catholic churches; apart from a resident Van Dyke and some Spanish renaissance paintings the local artesenas had never seen European religious art before. This ignorance led to the evolution of a unique style of painting: the Cusqueno school. Cusco cathedral is perhaps the world’s best collection of Cusqueno religious art, but sadly the interior of the church was so dark I found it difficult to apperciate it. Perhaps one day I’ll return on a major holiday when the entire cathedral is awash with the flicker of candles. That might make all the difference.
After sending emails to our families from a local Internet cafe we returned to the tour agency to find Luis. Alas, he still wasn’t there; his assistant said he was stuck at the airport. Another agent, Carlos Quispe, promised us that Luis would pick us up at 5:45am the next morning to catch the 6:30am tourist train to Machu Picchu. Luis would have our tickets and vouchers to visit the ruins and to stay at a hotel in Aguas Calientes, a small jungle village 1500 feet below the ruins. I didn’t like the idea of not having our tickets until the morning of our departure but I realized that’s the way the game was played here in Cusco. Tour operators control the whole Machu Picchu tourist trade; it’s extremely inconvenient to put together your own plans without their help. A case in point: in early August Susanne had telephoned a popular hotel in Aguas Calientes affectionately known as Gringo Bill’s in order to make a reservation for our stay. Today we called them to reconfirm but they changed their tune and now insisted we go to a specific tour operator in Cusco and purchase hotel vouchers from them. Of course, this operator wasn’t the same agency we had been dealing with, and our guys could only get us the vouchers at an inflated rate. To make matters worse, each time we ran by the other tour agency it was closed, a large padlock latched defiantly to the door. Eventually we concluded that Gringo Bill’s must now be managed by jerks, so we grugingly accepted a hotel voucher from our agents. The hotel, La Cabana, received grim reviews from Lonely Planet – “stark” and “basic” comes to mind. Carlos promised us that the hotel was now much nicer and swore we would have a private bath with hot water. We’d just have to see about that.
After finally settling our hotel situation I was in bad need of a beer. We visited the Cross Keys Pub, a quasi-British hangout on the southern end of the plaza. Susanne started with a Coke while I tried the local cerveza, Cusqueno. I sat on the balcony writing in my journal until it became too chilly to sit outside. Susanne had resettled inside the pub next to a roaring fireplace. We were in no rush to leave so I ordered a coffee while Susanne snacked on a small plate of cookies.?The remainder of the afternoon passed by as I continued in my journal, hoping to get caught up with the day’s events.
Around 6pm we decided to get an early dinner at the Inka Grill. The restaurant appeared to be a recently refurbished place that played up a nouveau cuisine atmosphere, even though the menu didn’t stray far from standard Cusco fare. Susanne and I both ordered a bowl of quinoa soup as well as lomo saltado (sort of a beef teriyaki with fries) to split. We sipped our mate de coca as the bartender channel surfed on the resident TV: Beastie Boys on MTV (“Intergalactic”), local soap operas, the evening news. He eventually settled on the Discovery Channel, which turned out to be showing a thorough summary of our last two years of travel. As a program featuring Bangkok’s Wat Po wrapped up, we were then treated to the highlights of India, including Humayun’s Tomb in Delhi and the majestic palace of Fatehpur Sikri. I’ve rarely seen any of these monuments on TV in the US before so it was a little odd to catch them while in South America. The quinoa soup was really a fish soup – trout, I think – with only hints of quinoa sunk to the bottom of the bowl. Nonetheless it was quite delicious. Our lomo saltado soon arrived and we ravenously devoured it. Not long after finishing dinner, as I paid the bill, I felt a disconcerting rumble in my intestines. I took this as fair warning for possible trouble over the coming days.
Along the perimeter of the plaza we stumbled upon the evening market, a nightly cavalcade of Quechua art, trinkets, candies, wool goods, and pratically anything else a Gringo might desire while passing through Cusco. I considered buying an alpaca sweater, for the sweatshirt I had packed for the trip had proven to be poor protection against the chilly Andean night. Most of the market stalls had similar sweaters, each with a checkered pattern around the neck hole. I didn’t really care for the style so I ducked into a shop to check out its selection. I soon found a nice sweater Susanne and I both liked, though it appeared to be too small for my build. Susanne encouraged me to try it on anyway; to my surprise, the sweater fit perfectly. I asked the shop owner how much she wanted for it. “Cinquenta y neuve soles,” she replied, just under 20 dollars. Inwardly I was ready to buy it, but ever the negotiator, I removed the sweater and said, “Cinquenta y neueve? Mas barato. Too expensive.” Wanting to recover the sale the owner grabbed a similar garment and said, “Treinta soles – cinquenta perciento alpaca.” Fifty percent alpaca wool for 30 soles, but what was the other half made out of? “Acrylic,” she replied. “Forget it,” I shook my head. “Ok, senor,” she said. “How much, mister?” “35 soles,” I answered. The woman began to spout something in Spanish I could only imagine meant “But sir, even the wool and workmanship alone are worth 40 soles. How can I stay in business for 35 soles?” I knew I was lowballing, but it got the reaction I wanted. “Okay,” I said. “45 soles.” “No, 50 soles,” she replied. Sole by sole, I went up as she went down. Finally we both settled on 48 soles, about $16, for the 100% alpaca sweater. I was quite happy with the purchase.
My happiness soon faded as I attempted to go to sleep. My stomach growled with displeasure from eating the lomo saltado. What was I thinking? I don’t even eat red meat in the States. Worse still, the coffee and Cusqueno I had guzzled at the Cross Keys Pub earlier that afternoon had left me simultaneously feeling wired and dehydrated. My dehydration was probably exacerbated by the Diamox, which acts as a diuretic in its own right. I spent the entire night tossing and turning, my pulse racing as fast as my mind was from one useless thought to another.
The last time I checked the clock it was 3am; I have to get up at 4:45am to catch the train to Aguas Calientes and begin three potentially grueling days at Machu Picchu. I hope I can get at least an hour of sleep tonight.

Powered by WordPress