30 May 2011

mmm. . . machu picchu

In hindsight, I'm so glad I elected to take that bus up the mountain, rather than walk. It took probably twenty minutes to wind our way up the hairpin turns of the dirt road (I've heard it called a highway but I don't know what that's about. . . unless they're trying to be literal, because it is pretty high up), and I've heard the walk takes at least 45 minutes, going up stairs the entire way.

I wasn't part of a guided tour, of course, but there were plenty of guides waiting at the entrance, trying to entice travelers to join their group at the last minute. Because I didn't have money to spare for that, I'd done as much research as possible on the site and was counting on my semi-eidetic memory to make sure I knew where everything was. I was also armed with a little brochure and map from the tourism office.

The whole concept of Machu Picchu made me a little bit nervous. A stone city, with stone walkways, on top of a mountain, in a perpetually damp area? Seemed like the perfect recipe for Lizzie falling to her death. I can hear you right now, saying, "But Lizzie, haven't you been blessed with incredible natural grace and balance?" And to you I say, "No." That's why I opted not to attempt to climb Huayna Picchu, the steep peak at the east end of the site, which offers an incredible view, not to mention bragging rights. I had a couple of friends get up the mountain in less than 20 minutes or something like that, and they would not shut up about it.

The entrance to the ruins snaked along the side of the mountain, with only a rickety wooden fence there to protect me from my own potential clumsiness. On my left were two plaques commemorating the re-discovery of Machu Picchu: the first read, "A tribute to Hiram Bingham, on the 50th anniversary of the discovery of Machu Picchu, 1911-24 July-1961." The second plaque painted a slightly more accurate picture of Bingham's 'discovery': "The Cusco National Cultural Institute pays tribute to Melchor, Arteaga, Richarte, and Alvarez, who inhabited Machu Picchu before Hiram Bingham, October 1993." (Bingham, an American explorer, believed he was the first to discover the 'lost' city, when in reality, the site was known to the locals and a few families even lived on the side of the mountain.) I got a little bit of a kick out of this.

To the right of the path was a spectacular view of the neighboring mountains and the valleys between them. I had to stop and take a few pictures, but tried to keep moving so I could see the good stuff.

Finally I came to the main ruins. I checked the map and thought that it might be a good idea to check out the Sun Gate first, which was off the west edge of the map. It was probably just right there, not too far out of the way, right?

Wrong. I walked for an hour and a half along a narrow stone walkway with no rail, passing llamas and scattered ruins. My worn-out trainers slipped out from under me a few times, and I came dangerously close to falling off the side of the mountain, but I continued on until I reached Intipunku, the Sun Gate.

It was cool, but maybe not worth all the walking I did to get there and back. There were some terraces, and some structures, and a doorway which basically led from one side of the mountain around to the other side. I spoke with an Aussie couple who suggested that the respiratory stress I was exhibiting due to the extensive walking at high altitude was actually pertussis, which concerned me somewhat. After they left, I had a nice chat with Cesar, the park official tasked with watching over the site from around five am to five pm. Pretty cool cat.

The walk back offered me some fantastic views of the city of Machu Picchu, with Huayna Picchu in the background. I slipped and fell a few more times, and my bad knee started clicking, but I really couldn't have cared less.

Because Machu Picchu is located above the Urubamba River, there is almost constantly mist rising up around it, obscuring the view. But sometimes, the sun cuts through this fog and shines down on the old stones, and the sky is a perfect blue and grass is a perfect green and llamas wander around the ruins and it's all just perfect. I tried to capture these fleeting moments with my camera.

Once I was back to the city, I took a few obligatory pictures from the guard tower, which is where almost all of my friends had taken their Facebook profile pictures. Their pics featured them jumping, pulling super pensive faces, or posing naked. Because I was traveling solo, I didn't have anyone to act as my photographer, so I had to work some self-timer magic and find a couple of fellow travelers to take relatively boring pictures of me standing over the ruins. I found a couple of boys who had been staying at Loki, but it took them a while to recognize me with my hair in braids and under a wool hat, wearing no makeup, and with my chest flattened under a couple of sports bras. Not how I generally look while working behind the bar. There was also an older couple from Madrid, to whom I spoke for a few minutes about that amazing city. I reveled in the brief opportunity to work the classic Spanish accent.

Let me take this chance to explain the history of Machu Picchu. Because it was pretty much abandoned when Hiram Bingham arrived in 1911, no one is quite sure when or why it was built. Some people think it's a sacred site, because it is nestled amongst mountains that were spiritually very important to the Incas (the whole area is called the Sacred Valley), but the most popular theory is that it was built as a residence for an emperor. Its gardens could produce four times as much food as necessary for the number of inhabitants, and it was in such a position as to be almost impossible to attack, and very easy to defend. In spite of this, the emperor and his entourage appear to have abandoned the site when the Spanish arrived in the area, although there's no evidence that the Spanish were ever aware of Machu Picchu. We'll probably never know a lot of important details surrounding the site and its history.

As I stood looking out over the ruins, considered to be one of the new Wonders of the World, I was flooded with a sense of accomplishment. I had walked much of the way to Machu Picchu, planned my own expedition with no help from a travel agent or anything like that, dealt with adversity and problem-solved effectively, and I kept my head up even when people said, "But you're a girl. Are you sure you want to go alone?" In short, I did it, and I think the picture to the above left captures the sense of relief and satisfaction that I was experiencing.

When my little moment of triumph had come to an end, I decided to do a brief tour of the main ruins. That Incan stonework is really pretty amazing. Like the 12-sided stone in Cusco, the walls in Machu Picchu were well-carved, and everything fit together impeccably. There's a reason they're still standing after 500 years. I took plenty of pics, got into an altercation with a security guard, and watched a woman attempt to absorb the energy of the Intihuatana, a sacred stone which is designed to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. The Inca believed that it kept the sun on track, and its name means 'Hitching Post of the Sun.' I checked out the Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows, and then I ran out of time. My attempt at a quick, inconspicuous exit was foiled by the maze-like structures, but I eventually got myself un-lost and onto a bus headed back to Aguas Calientes.

My encounter with the vicious dogs, coupled with the torrential downpours a few hours prior, had convinced me not to try walking back to the hydroelectric plant. I wanted to be home before dark, so I headed back to the train station and shelled out $50 for a ticket back to Ollantaytambo, where I planned to catch a bus home. Then I hurried to retrieve my backpack, change, grab lunch, and catch my train.

I foolishly decided to try 'Mexican' food again. It was more or less Chinese food with tortillas. Still, it was flavorful and filling. Inca Rail was a pleasant surprise (get it? It's cute because it sounds like the Inca Trail), with luxurious seats, complimentary beverage and snack service, and great views of the river and valleys.

In Ollantaytambo, I discovered that there were no buses back to Cusco, only car service. Drivers wait at the train station, shouting the price for a one-way trip, and you decide if it seems like a good value to you. I ended up in a van with a few Argentines and an Asian man, and we picked up a few locals on the way. As usual, I was the only girl traveling alone.

The highway also followed the path of the river much of the way, and I saw firsthand the destruction caused by the recent flooding. When I say that the highway followed the path of the river, what I mean is that it sort of hugged it or spooned it. Basically, there was the highway, and that gave way immediately to a steep cliff, at the bottom of which was the churning, grey river. There was no shoulder, and guard rails were rare. In one spot, the road was down to one lane, because the rest of it had simply collapsed into the river, leaving a gaping, abrupt edge. Add to that the driver's insistence that 80 mph was an acceptable speed for turns and it was a pretty interesting ride. We stopped briefly for gas, but the driver filled up only a quarter of a gallon, so I'm not really sure what that was about. Probably a drug deal or something. (And if you're wondering, gas in Peru is every bit as expensive as gas in America, if not more expensive.)

After a couple of hours, we arrived back in Cusco. I realized that the driver's route was conveniently taking me right past the Loki, and so I found myself back home, ready to enjoy my last few days as a cusqueña.


hayley j said...

great photos! so jealous, i need to get to south america one day soon!

Lizzie said...

thanks Hayley! you definitely need to go--it's even more amazing in person!

Uncle Dave said...

Thanks for describing your journey to Machu Picchu. What a magical place!

gadabout said...

this looks amazing! the pictures are great and your insight on machu picchu is perfection- thanks for sharing :)

Lizzie said...

Dave and gadabout, thanks so much for your feedback! I really appreciate it!