Cusco and Machu Picchu

Cusco and Machu Picchu
14-19 march 2015

14 march 2015
I staggered off the night bus and into a crowd of taxi drivers screaming like football fans on the morning of my first day in Cusco, Peru. At the time I was too dazed from an inexplicably sleepless night on a bus to appreciate Cusco’s fascinating mixture of Inca and Spanish colonial architecture; but later, after I’d downed three or four cups of coffee and eaten an enormous American-style breakfast in a touristic cafe, when I wandered the polished stone streets and little alleyways of the historic center of Cusco, I was struck by the history written on the buildings in Cusco. All around the historic center of the city, Spanish colonial buildings were constructed on the demolished foundations of Inca palaces and temples, made of stone blocks crafted so carefully that you can’t fit even a sheet of paper between them, blocks which they say seem to jump back into place after an earthquake – blocks fashioned into gently slanted walls which end abruptly where the fragile, white walls of their conquerors were built on top after the Spanish wiped out the advanced civilization that once thrived here.

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This morning I wander central Cusco thinking dark thoughts about colonialism until I can check into my hostel for the night and meet Roman, the Swiss guy I traveled with previously in Bolivia. In the afternoon we do what practically every other visitor to Cusco does : we plan our trip to Machu Picchu.

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When I left for South America, Machu Picchu actually wasn’t on my list of places to visit. People usually say it’s best to go as part of a trek through the mountains, and I knew I wouldn’t have time or money to do a trek like that, so I originally thought I would skip Machu Picchu and come back on a different trip. But by chance I’d done some research and found out it’s possible to get to the town called Aguas Calientes, at the base of Machu Pichu, by public transport and walking, and for a small fraction of the usual cost and in less time than you normally need for a trek. Roman and I do a little asking around at tour agencies around town and eventually find a company that runs minivans from Cusco to a hydroelectric plant on the river, the site from which it’s possible to walk along the tracks of the ridiculously expensive tourist train that goes to Aguas Calientes, a walk of a few hours. The round trip cost is 75 soles, about $25. To ride the train would be at least $150.

In the evening we meet Gemma, an English girl I’d met in a hostel in Puerto Natales, and the three of us take a walking tour of Cusco. We walk to the Plaza de Armas as the sun sets and look down on the grave of Atahualpa, the last Inca emperor, who was executed by the Spanish conquistadors after he lost his value as a hostage. This is the first of countless places in Cusco where the tragic history of the Spanish conquest is written: here was an advanced, powerful, intelligent civilization living and working and reigning, and the Spanish conquistadors came in to their land, stole their finely crafted golden treasures and melted them down into bars, raped their vestal virgins, and murdered their citizens. The tore down their temples and used the blocks to make cathedrals and palaces. We climb a hill above Cusco and look down on the city of this violent conquest, the city which was built shaped like a puma, the city that was once the seat of power of the Inca empire.

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15 March 2015
Roman and I are up with the sun. Minivans leave for Hydroelectrica between seven and eight and we negotiate a couple of seats on one of them and soon we’re climbing Cusco’s steep stony streets and winding our way into the mountains as the sun is breaking through the morning fog.

We bounce through the outskirts for a while and soon we’re in the mountains, following huge slow curves around the contours of massive, steep hills. I’m stunned by how beautiful the landscape is here. The mountains are steep but green, covered in soft-looking brilliant green grass. Near the town of Ollantaytambo we pass a valley where the mountains must rise two kilometers or more above the floor where a tiny, humble village is nestled. After a break we enter a road weaving its way through those high steep mountains, in between those high green and impossibly beautiful slopes.

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We stop briefly at a small town along the side of a river gorge. Our driver exchanges a few words with some guys running a kiosk by the side of the road, then tells us it’s an hour and a half to Santa Teresa, the town just by the Hydroelectric plant. I can’t tell you what the scenery looked like for this part of the drive, readers, because I kept my eyes closed for most of it. When I opened them for a few brief seconds I saw glimpses of the narrow dirt road we were traveling along, high up on the side of a steep gorge carved out by the river. I would open my eyes again and see that the tires of our minivan were about a foot from the edge of the unpaved dirt road, wet and muddy from the rain, where there was a sheer drop of about 500 meters straight down. No guard rails, readers – it’s not that kind of road. Sometimes we crossed wide concrete channels where runoff water flowed over the road, nearly covering the tires of the van. At one crossing three rows of passengers got out of the van at the driver’s request and walked a little wooden bridge across a sharp bend in the road, to keep the bus from becoming too heavy for the flooded road. Other times when the minivan would lean toward the cliff and I felt fear surge up in my chest and tried to breathe through it, I told myself, There’s no sense in being afraid. Being afraid won’t keep you safe. The bus driver is the one who will keep you safe, and he drives this way all the time. Don’t be afraid.

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I kept breathing and closing my eyes and the driver kept guiding the minivan around those sharp, tight turns high above the river, along a road that could probably crumble in a landslide at any time, and I wondered if this was one of those times when I was trying too hard to be tough and independent and brave and had really gotten myself into a dangerous situation. But finally I felt the motion of the bus level out and become solid and normal and I cautiously opened my eyes and saw that we were coming into a rundown, concrete town and pulling up to a restaurant and all the other tourists were getting out of the bus and stretching and sitting down to eat.

Roman and I eat at one of the nearly identical lunch spots in Santa Teresa, serving a fixed-price menu of surprisingly juicy pork along with the ubiquitous rice and french fries. After an hour we’re back on the van for a soothing, easy 45-minute ride to the hydroelectric plant. We come to the plant – a grey concrete industrial building by the side of a roaring, swollen river, chocolate brown from sediment and foamy white where it gushes past huge boulders. The minivan lumbers to a stop next to a few other minivans. A handful of backpackers, guides, and industrious taxi drivers amble around. Everyone else in our van waits for a guide, while Roman and I shoulder our small backpacks and follow the line of other backpackers across the river and past the line of kiosks where the train stops, and on to the train tracks.

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I’m worn out from the ride from Cusco, which took us nearly six hours in the end, so I walk slowly and it takes us three hours or so to arrive at Aguas Calientes. The path by the train tracks is pretty well worn – this alternate route to Machu Picchu has definitely been discovered, and we’ve got company with other backpackers along the way. Once we hear a horn and step off the tracks to let a sleek-looking blue train go past. A little later our path takes us off the tracks and onto a steep dirt road that leads up to a little collection of hotels and restaurants – Aguas Calientes.

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We stop at the tourist office to buy tomorrow’s passes to Machu Picchu – $50 including a pass to climb Machu Picchu mountain – and settle into our hostel for the night.

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16 march 2015
4:15 – almost every hostel in Aguas Calientes advertises breakfast starting at 4:00 or earlier, because this is when you have to get up if you want to climb the stairs to Machu Picchu in time for sunrise. Our hostel advertised breakfast starting at 4:30, but the cook slept in so it’s nearly 5:30 by the time we’ve eaten and left the hostel to start the gentle walk down the dirt road leading out of Aguas Calientes. There are a few other hikers up early, and after a few minutes the buses start to rumble past, too – a road has been built up to Machu Picchu and for $25, buses carry those who can’t or won’t climb the nearly 1500 stone steps up to the ancient city.

We cross a swinging wooden bridge across the roaring river and then we’re there, at the base of a stone staircase that seems to lead straight up. “Un”, I say, putting my foot on the first step. I’m practicing French. “Deux, trois, quatre…” And so on and so on, up and up and up, counting in French and checking my pronunciation with Roman (who is from the French part of Switzerland), putting one foot above the other up this steep staircase of chiseled stone, a little slippery from the moss and the light rain dripping down from the overhanging palm leaves, rising up through the morning fog. “Mille cinq-cent” I gasp fourty-five minutes and 450 meters later, and there we are next to the honking buses and the confused-looking tourists in wet ponchos at the big pavilion at the entrance to the city of Machu Picchu.

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The ruined city was an Inca town whose function isn’t clear to modern archaeologists – maybe it was a special, sacred site; maybe a refuge for aristocrats from Cusco; maybe just a regular city. It was abandoned only about 100 years after its construction, when the Incas fled the smallpox epidemics that the Spanish had brought with them. They say it was never really a “lost” city, since the locals always knew about it, but it wasn’t “discovered” again by westerners until 1911.

The entrance here has a little bit of a Disneyworld feel to it (there’s even an outrageously overpriced restaurant with big menus printed only in English), but once we’re inside it’s just us and the ruins and maybe 1000 other tourists all spread out through the remains of the city. There are discreet signs pointing to temples and other notable sites, but for the most part you can wander the ruins on your own like it’s a regular city.

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It’s foggy and rainy this morning as Roman and I walk about a half hour away from the ruins of the city toward the Sun Gate, which is an eastern entrance to the city along the ancient Inca road. Sadly, there’s no sun when we reach it – practically nothing is visible through the thick morning rain clouds. We make the most of it and take a bunch of pictures and eventually the clouds clear out a little bit, enough that we begin to see the mountains around us.

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The ruins are impressive – beautiful and interesting – but I think the mountains surrounding the city must be what makes this place special. I never heard anyone talk about the way the high, steep mountains form a ring around the hill where Macchu Picchu is located, but being there, surrounded by these enormous high sheer mountains, this was as impressive as the ruins themselves.

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We have tickets to climb Machu Picchu mountain, which is a high sharp peak behind the city from which you can look down on Wayna Picchu, the smaller of the two mountains that shelter Machu Picchu, and on the ruins of the city. This is another grueling hour or so of me and Roman counting the steep, difficult stone steps in French (“mille huit-cent”) and sweating through our layers of warm clothing. It’s still raining at the top of the mountain, but the view is amazing: we’re at eye level with peaks over 3000 meters high, ringing Machu Picchu and by turns visible and obscured by the patchy clouds. The ruins themselves are mostly hidden by billows of fog that rise up from the valley floor and pour over the mountain ridges like a waterfall, or like dried ice.

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Back down those grueling steps (quicker than going up, though not much easier) we explore the ruins, walking through a residential district of simple stone walls that were once houses and hearths. I try to imagine living here, imagine going to markets in the morning and gossiping with neighbors and carrying on with daily life in this incredible landscape. We wander past stone temples and rocks aligned with the sun and the compass. We watch llamas grazing on narrow, green terraces cut into the steep hillside.

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Machu Picchu is the most visited site in all of South America, so it’s no surprise that we’re bumping into other tourists all day as we navigate the ruins. I see more Americans here than I have in any other place on my journey – lots of middle-aged men and ladies in expensive north face jackets, in large tour groups. You can’t criticize people too much for traveling like that – I think that, in a general sense, the concept of international travel in the states does revolve around the idea that you go places as part of a tour group and you stay in hotels and you have to pay a lot of money to go anywhere. There are lots of places in the states where that’s the only way to do it. But maybe I pity people a little when I see them traveling like that, because I wonder if they realize you don’t have to travel like that.

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Eventually we’re hungry and worn out from the hike and the day of wandering. Roman, who has a knee injury, takes a bus down to aguas calientes, while I count another 1500 steps back down to the valley floor. In the evening I eat two enormous meals at the hostel and go to sleep early, exhausted from the day.

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17 March 2015
We’re up and having breakfast around 9:00 and leaving Aguas Calientes around 10, walking back along the train tracks to Hydroelectica, where we share a minivan back to Santa Teresa with a few other backpackers. Here Roman and I find a cheap hotel room for the night – 20 soles each, about $7, for a pretty basic room with two twin beds. We nap (both of us are still sore from hiking yesterday) and find the road leading out of town to a little resort complex with hot springs.

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We’re there as dusk is setting in but there are lights all around the pools and the hot spring stays open until midnight. Unlike the pools I went to in Yura, which were indoors, and cold, these are outdoor rectangular concrete baths as large as swimming pools, full of clear, very hot water and covered on their floor by smooth black stones. There are three pools of slightly different temperatures and sizes, fed by a source I’m not able to see but which feeds the pools with sufficient volume that from the last pool in the series flow four torrents of hot water, gushing from outflow holes that create the cascades that bathers use to rinse off before entering the spring. There are a few other bathers resting silently along the edges of the pools, relaxing as the faint dusk fades into night. Roman and I soak for a while (I find the small, natural pool that’s fed directly by a source and is piping hot) and we talk with a couple from Findland whom we met in town.

Later we walk back to Santa Teresa as it begins to rain. We say goodbye to the Finns, eat dinner in a little Italian restaurant, and head back to our hotel.

18 march 2015
We visit the hot springs again in the morning and eat lunch at the little restaurant there. By daylight I can see the setting where the pools are located: tucked at the base of a steep hill, on a steppe overlooking the river and the high mountains. Far away in between two huge hills we can see a distant waterfall. We soak for hours in the pools, swimming laps and relaxing by turns. Soon it begins raining again, and if you’ve ever sat in a hot spring in the rain, readers, you’ll know how much I enjoyed it.

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In town we wait in a little touristic restaurant for the van that will take us back to Cusco along the same terrifying dirt road we came in. I’m ready for it this time and I keep my eyes firmly closed for the first hour and a half. We somehow manage to avoid dying again and from there it’s another five hours back to Cusco. It’s dark when we return.

19 march 2015
Roman’s off in the morning for Lima. I decide to stay another full day in Cusco and explore a famous ruin site called Sachsayhuaman, on a hill above Cusco. Things seem to be going well until I arrive at the gate and find out the cost is much higher than I had read – 140 soles, over $40 to enter. This is more than I can afford for a trip to ruins. I’m hanging around the entrance trying to decide whether it’s worth it, or if I should try to convince the lady at the entrance that I’m a student, when one of the many random men selling tours comes up to me with a tour leaflet. We chitchat for a few minutes and I tell him my dilemma, and finally he suggests a different set of ruins which can be toured on horseback for much cheaper, about $7. I agree and we take a taxi to a little horse corral while he tells me about some of the old stone walls we pass along the way.

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The rest of the random tour group arrives and soon I’m on an old white horse that keeps dozing off while we wait for everyone else to climb into their saddles. I worry I’m going to have trouble motivating the horse to actually walk – I don’t know anything about motivating horses, readers, I’ve only been on a horse once before – but he perks up and paces steadily behind the lead horse as our group moves up into the hills. There are six of us – a pair who live in Switzerland but are originally from Portugual and France; a fantastically annoying middle-aged woman who has an American accent but seems to be Israeli, and her quiet, terrified boyfriend; our tour guide; and me. David, our tour guide, leads us up a gentle hill into green farmland. We tie up the horses and go on foot to a large complex of boulders, caves, and sturdy Inca walls. David shows us a network of caves among the boulders where the Inca army would hide from invaders, luring them into the labyrinth of tunnels where they would become lost and divided, easier to defeat. He shows us flat indentations in the boulders where they would have placed sheets of polished metal intended to reflect light into the tunnels, or in some places, intended to reflect the stars and make astronomical observation easier. The American woman in our group translates David’s explanations into English for her boyfriend, adding in peculiar comments like “they loved the stars like brothers” that aren’t part of David’s explanation. Occasionally as David is explaining some facet of Inca philosophy to us she’ll interject a “correcto!” loudly in response, like a professor. I gather that she’s already studied the Incas.

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We enter a tunnel between the boulders – just a narrow path, really – where David shows us sacred inca formations in the shape of a chakana, which he tells us is the symbol for the sun. He tells us the Inca believed in reincarnation, and would bury bodies mummified in the fetal position, to symbolize their return to the womb of the earth to await rebirth. I’m not clear on how this relates to the sun symbol but it’s an interesting compliment to our walk through the caves.

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We’re back on the horses for another 20-minute ride through more tranquil green pastures, watching the landscape above Cusco open up into brilliant green hills. Close to another large rock pile we dismount again and climb up to what David tells us was the Inca moon temple here. There are figures of pumas, snakes, and condors – animals that represented power – carved into the rock. All of them are missing their heads. When the Spanish conquered this civilization, they waged war on their religious sites, too. In Inca philosophy it was believed that a person could not be reincarnated if their head had been cut off. So the Spanish cut the heads of the symbols sacred to the Incas, to indicate that their beliefs and their civilization could never return.

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We make our way slowly around the rocky temple ruins, coming up to a set of shallow steps. David shows us how they’re cut in the shape of a chakana – but the shape is incomplete. “The other half of the chakana is formed by the shadow of the sun,” he tells us. All over this temple we see places where negative and positive space are used to create a sacred shape – the Incas loved duality, he tells us. “It’s not really a religion, it’s more of a philosophy,” David says. (“Correcto!” shrieks the American woman). By the entrance to the temple David explains the meaning of the chakana to us. The symbolism is supposed to incorporate four sacred animals (the snake, puma, condor, and llama), planes of existence, points of the compass, months of the year, and a creation myth to booth. The symbolism is rich and sophisticated and at the time I was quite moved by it, but since researching the Inca philosophy, I’ve learned that there’s no respectable scholarly basis for these interpretations and probably no historical basis either, which disappoints me.

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We circle the rock pile and come to the entrance to the temple. According to David, girls would come to the temple around the time of their first menses and remain until the full moon, when they would participate in some kind of ritual involving the sacrifice of a llama (the American woman is very excited by this and jabbers to her boyfriend about animal sacrifice, talking so loudly I have to strain to hear David) and a symbolic rebirth from the earth, before leaving their families to attend university (so David tells us) and enter obligatory military service, like their male counterparts. I’m now skeptical as to the veracity of this information as well, but the temple itself was fascinating in its own right.

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After we leave the temple the obnoxious American and her boyfriend leave the tour (without giving David a tip). The Swiss couple and I continue on to another temple called the Temple of the Monkey, where there are some stones set to align with the sun at specific times of day and indicate times and season on a rock wall.

David leads us back into Cusco (a walk of about 30 minutes) and takes us to a restaurant serving typical Peruvian food : I eat an incredibly tender slow-cooked cut of beef. The Swiss couple sticks around – David is kind and interesting and knowledgable about Peruvian culture, and I’d like to stay too, but it’s getting late and I plan to take a night bus to Ica tonight. I give David as much of a tip as I can manage to try to make up for the rudeness of the other American on the tour, say goodbye, and speedwalk back to the hostel to grab my back and jump in a taxi to the bus terminal.

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