Monday, September 26, 2011

Cuzco & Machu Picchu

We arrived in Cuzco far too early in the morning and began negotiating with an extremely enthusiastic taxi driver.  After deciding that we couldn’t really wait for Tim as we weren’t sure if he had already arrived or how long he would be we knocked him down to half the original price to one that was closer to being fair and we made our way to find a hotel in the early hours of the morning.  First impressions of Cuzco were that it appeared extremely chic and upmarket.  Even at this time the plazas were beautifully lit up to reveal exquisite stonework often reaching thirty foot high into the sky and it became clear that we were in a city of some significance.  Cobbled streets and roomy plazas were the order of the Inca days with Cuzco being the capital of the Inca Empire and whilst the Spanish plundered and destroyed much of the city very little since then has changed with the city even having survived a major earthquake in 1950.

Cuzco by night

Streets of Cuzco at night
The first hostel we visited in the early hours was over budget so we took a chance and let the driver take us to his recommendation which turned out to be a pretty good deal.  They didn’t even charge us for the first night even though we had arrived not long after four in the morning and went straight to bed for a few hours.  It turned out that Tim had the same taxi driver about half an hour later and made his way to the same hostel which was a fortunate coincidence so after a few hours rest we were ready to hit the streets of Cuzco.

The city is nothing short of amazing.  It has the usual buzz of a big South American city but with a touch more class and a lot of history.  It caters very well for the tourist especially the upmarket tourist as there are plenty of comfortable hotels, western pubs and restaurants around the place which is nice when you have been off the beaten track for a while or if you are only there for a holiday with limited time to enjoy yourself, time that you don’t want to spend on the toilet.  There are lots of the usual street sellers but unique for Cuzco were the massive amounts of people walking round with portfolios of art which they were selling.  Also at one point I was offered to purchase a charango guitar which was quite different from the usual offerings of friendship bracelets, hats and jewellery.

Cobbled streets

Although I didn't buy this necklace it felt right

Amongst the city’s novelties were the traditionally dressed women holding traditionally dressed baby llamas for photographs after which they encouraged a ‘donation’ for the privilege.  Whilst we had our reservations towards animal welfare the llamas actually looked pretty happy so we proceeded to take a few snaps with the ladies and the llamas.  It was also a Friday and we were all craving a night out so the plan was to book a tour of Machu Picchu today and enjoy the weekend and begin the treck on Sunday (the best day for doing excursions as nothing much happens on this day of rest in most parts of South America).

Kate and the llamas

We searched a couple of offices to find out about their tours but without much in the way of a successful pitch we headed to the Cuzco branch of the well-known Loki hostels which cater well for the traveller.  They offered a four day ‘Jungle Trek’ tour which encompassed a little more than just the usual walking up mountain sides which experience had taught us wasn’t really our preference nor was it our forte.  The trek involved a half day of mountain biking which we had enjoyed in La Paz along with optional white water rafting and zip lining but at an extra cost.  We signed up to leave on Sunday and including the optional entrance fee for Huayna Picchu (the mountain that towers above Machu Picchu) we paid around one hundred and ninety dollars each.  That evening we hit the town and made for a cocktail bar looking over the Plaza des Armas and the amazing building which surrounded it.  I think happy hour lasted all night and we had our fair share of what Cuzco had to offer in the way of cocktails before having a little dance and heading home.  The following day involved lots of relaxing along with a bit of shopping for provisions that we would need on our trek like a few energy bars (chocolate bars) and some fruit, water and snacks.

Kate and Gaelle with their poison

Tim and me being equally shameful in this city of culture

The first day of our four day trek to Machu Picchu began with us being collected in the company minibus and driving to collect the bikes before loading them up and climbing up the winding mountain road.  It was like the La Paz Death Road take two as there were similarly good views heading up to the starting point and when we arrived there it was just as foggy and chilly.  Even the road looked really similar from the high viewpoint aside from the drops thankfully not being as steep.  The ride was all downhill and a lot of fun, it was on sealed road for the most part.  A couple of times we had the opportunity to take a steeper ‘shortcut’ which was a bit scary but nobody had any problems.  Every now and then we would have a break to let people catch up and after three and half hours or so we reached the point where we would load up the bikes and drive to Santa Maria town where we would have lunch and also be spending the night. 

Death road memories at all?

The trekking gang

Riders catching up after the shortcut

Kate with all the gear

After lunch we claimed our beds and had a wander round.  Once the sun dipped behind the mountains I got to play a bit of football with the locals and an American which was great fun and we gave them a good run for their money at three goals up, but then the heat and altitude took their toll and it became apparent why they were playing a passing game without much running as we huffed and puffed away our lead.  Kate and some of the girls went for a swim in the river whilst this was going on, (it was a bit of a harem as there was only one other man in our group of twelve) so unfortunately there were no photographs but there were lots of people watching so I’m glad we played well.

The 29th was to be the hardest day so far as it actually involved some walking!  We set off at around six thirty am from the town, walking along a beautiful riverside walk albeit by a dirt road which cars drove upon once in a while.  Our guides Hugo and Edwin were really easy to get along with and knowledgeable too, at one point they pointed out a plant that indigenous tribes use to paint spiritual markings upon themselves so of course we were all over it and began decorating ourselves and each other with the red goo that came out of the seeds.  This was a lot of fun but very soon we were plodding on again under the hot sun.  We walked  a small path along the river for a couple of hours until there was another educational opportunity and chance to rest for a bit whilst Edwin talked to us about the coca leaves and their role in Peruvian life and South American life in general.  He mentioned how that in order to legally grow the coca crops it was necessary to be registered with the only licensed company that manufactures (legal) products using them.  This same company was the chief buyer of commodities in general for example the coffee beans that are grown and processed on these hillsides.

Edwin showing off the plant that provides the war paint

Looking positively Scottish

Kate looking more Indian than cat

A photo of the gang without bike gear on this time

Walking the trail route

Edwin explaining the farmed coca leaves

Hugo discussing coffee

After a bit of a steep climb we had an opportunity to rest in a small café which was home to a couple of porcupines and a monkey.  Whilst Samantha the Aussie to her full credit questioned the patron on their ethics of keeping a monkey tied up on string we hit the hammocks with Tabatha from Iowa in the states and enjoyed fifteen minutes with our feet up.  Having had a well needed rest, we continued along a cliff path on a genuine Inca Trail built in yesteryear which was amazingly well built as it would have had to have been to last this long.  It was great being in the knowledge that we were walking the same trail that would have at one point been used by the Incas to relay messages and get between places of significance.

A couple of porcupines helping to bring the Peruvian New Soles in

Wild pineapple growing

We reached a summit and it was here that Hugo told us the history of the Inca trails.  The trails connected the regions of the Inca empire from the northern provincial capital in Quito, Ecuador to all the way down past the modern city of Santiago, Chile in the south.  The Inca road system linked together an astounding 25,000 miles of roadway.  These roads provided easy, reliable and quick routes for the Empire's civilian and military communications, personnel movement, and logistical support.  The prime users were imperial soldiers, porters and llama caravans, along with the nobility and individuals on official duty.  In times of Spanish invasion, runners were sent along these trails to warn other parts of the Empire that they were under attack, I find it hard to believe that people would have been able to run along these high altitude paths as many of the steps were steep and the path was often narrow.  

Photo opportunity atop of a large valley

A good example of the Inca trail

Our route - no wonder a girl was literally holding on to one of our guides

The peak where Hugo told us the history of the trails

The route was really interesting and we negotiated our way over rickety bridges and past remote houses enjoying the never ending beautiful surroundings until we reached a novel ‘cable car’ over a fast flowing river.  It consisted of a wooden pallet which had a bit of a cage around it that was manually pulled across a wire.  It was good fun and a bit of a rush when dangling over the river.  We were soon at our goal of the thermal pools where we could have a relaxing dip before heading on to the town of Santa Teresa where we would be stopping for the night.  We had the option of walking the last hour along a road or taking a bus for five soles, in hindsight I probably should have walked but after the relaxation that the pools had to offer it seemed silly to get hot and sweaty again in the dark.  Unfortunately, now wearing my flip flops in the dark I managed to leave my boots behind without realising until the next day.  That evening we played with some of the children in the street before sitting down in the restaurant for our llama steaks.  There was even a small nightclub in the town which of course we went to and it even had a pole which was great fun. 

Guinea pigs, probably for someone's dinner

Kate confidently negotiating a rickety bridge

Kate and Gaelle decending to the valley floor

Kate on another bridge, this time made of logs

The two of us amongst the interestingly rust coloured stone cliffs

Pulling back the cart so we can cross the fast flowing river!

Enjoying the ride across

A well earned break at hot springs
Gaelle playing with other kids

Sitting round the table for dinner in Santa Teresa

Showing my pole dancing skills in the 'nightclub'

The afore mentioned realisation about having lost my boots kicked in once I attempted to set off the next day walking only in flip flops.  I told the guides who hailed a cab for the short journey back to the thermal pools, my hopes were understandably low and as expected somebody had snaffled them over night.  Although I really liked the boots they weren’t ridiculously expensive as I had bought them in Bolivia, plus I’m sure they went to a well-deserved home and the biggest issue now was getting something else I could walk in.  The taxi driver said that he had a second hand pair so we took a trip to his house and whilst they were only just big enough and a bit worn I took them off him for a small fee.  Problem solved, I had time to guzzle down a banana before we began the days walk. 

Today’s walk was in the most part flat and along a dirt road which eventually met with the hydroelectric power station.  When passing the power station we entered the protected area surrounding Machu Picchu where we stopped for lunch.  Walking alongside the railway line we had our first glimpse of Machu Picchu although be it a long way away and high up in the hills.  It was a beautiful walk down a country lane until we reached the touristy settlement of Aguas Calientes in a gorgeous setting of mountains and a river filled with gigantic boulders.  Having had a very cold shower we had our dinner and received our entrance tickets for Machu Picchu the next day.  We decided that we wouldn’t walk up to Machu Picchu and would instead take the four thirty am bus up as my walking shoes weren’t great, it was currently raining, it would be dark and we also had our entrance to Wayna Picchu which would require a lot of energy and we didn’t want to be too tired to explore the site to its full potential!  Having secured out tickets we went to bed early ready for a nice early start the next day.         

One of the better bridges we crossed

The three Spanish 'amigas' about to cross the river

At the hydroelectric power station

Hugo and me walking by the train tracks to Aguas Calientes

Our first (sort of) sighting of Machu Picchu ruins at the peak

Arriving in Machu Picchu 'Town'

The alarm clock went off at four in the morning to get queuing for the buses heading up to Machu Picchu.  The queue was already two buses long by the time we got there and it unsurprisingly filled up rapidly behind us.  After about twenty minutes waiting the buses began to leave and we were soon on ours making our way up the winding path to the top.  Once we reached the entrance point the site itself wasn’t yet open so again more queuing whilst we waited to enter.  There were still walkers arriving up the hill looking proud and relieved to be at the top long after we were at the front of the queue.  Just inside the entrance we waited for Hugo and then waited some more for other members of our group, who were walking up, to arrive before we could start. 

Our first glimpse of the site was spectacular.  The first and perhaps the most striking thing for me were the amount of terraces lining the steep cliff slopes on either side where farming would have taken place.  Then you have the background of Huayna Picchu and the countless other mountains which frame the setting in awe inspiring fashion.  The combination of the green flat areas amongst the aged but quality stonework really stood out too.  We sat down and listened to Hugo tell us the history of the site and its discovery whilst we looked it over.  Historians believe that Machu Picchu served as a royal estate populated by the ruling Inca and several hundred servants.  It required regular infusions of goods and services from Cuzco and other parts of the empire in order to fully function as it wasn’t self-supporting.  This is evidenced by the fact that there are no large storage facilities at the site and a study in 1997 concluded that the site's agricultural potential would not have been sufficient to support residents, even on a seasonal basis.  It is therefore unsurprising that the site was abandoned and left to the ravages of time when news of the Spanish arrived until its ‘rediscovery’ in 1911 by Hiram Bingham when looking for the fabled lost city of El Dorado, the still undiscovered site where Incas resettled with their loot upon invasion by the Spanish.

Our first photograph at Machu Picchu

Photo taken from one of the terraces

The view up to the Guardhouse from the bottom of the terraces
The place evoked such feelings of space and timelessness that it seemed to have an aura.  At about 2,500 meters above sea level we were high but we had been higher and altitude sickness wasn’t a problem.  Hugo took us around to various important areas of the site including the Temple of the Sun, the most important religious part of Machu Picchu that only the priests and high ranking Inca could enter.  It would have originally been laden with gold and precious stones during the time of its use, yet no artefacts were recovered from the entire site of Machu Picchu by Bingham other than one gold bracelet suggesting that the inhabitants departure wasn’t too hurried and like my walking boots, somebody forgot their bracelet and probably didn’t expect to get it back either.  Animal sacrifices took place inside this area and the priest would use the bloodied entrails of the animal by ‘reading’ them to assist in the making of important decisions for the empire.  Below this is another great example of Inca stone masonry, the condor themed tomb supposed to represent the outstretched wings of the bird in flight.  The condor was precious in Inca culture as it was deemed to carry messages to the gods because of how high it could fly.  On the floor of the temple is another rock supposedly shaped like a condor with a funnel from the head down into the ground that historians speculate was used to drain the blood of sacrifices.

Hugo explaining that we were in an Inca Kitchen

More views of the residential area of the site

The rock (foreground) are supposedly carved to represent Huayna Picchu

Below the Temple of the Sun

Another of the areas of importance here is the 'Intihuatana', believed to be at the very least an astrological calendar and apparently a triangular beam appears at summer solstice.  Whilst we were there it was mentioned that the stone was ‘lucky’ and lots of people were clambered round trying to touch it!  There is also damage from where a crane took a big chunk out of it whilst filming a beer commercial commissioned by the Peruvian government, what a shame.  Whilst we are on the topic of calamities, the Spanish also managed to do a bit more damage when the prime minister and his aids arrived by helicopter.  Wanting to land directly onto the site, the Peruvian government happily sanctioned the removal of some of the ruins in order to make a feasible helipad for the visitors!  Afterwards Hugo showed us the rather unoriginally named Temple of the Three Windows made with large stones and bordering a plaza where ceremonies and rituals would have taken place. 

The view from the edge of the site

Originally named 'Temple of the Three Windows'

It was then our allocated time slot to climb the daunting Huayna Picchu.  Again more queuing but we were soon through the gates and making our way up the steep slopes of the hill.  Even from half way up the views were phenomenal, Machu Picchu turns into a surreal maze-like image of lines and shapes.  The steps were incredibly steep and narrow in some parts and you definitely needed the help of the supplied rope or something to grab on to in order to successfully climb onto the next one.  We even had to climb through a small cavern at one point but eventually we made it to the top.  In order to get to the highest point we had to negotiate our way onto a rock where we were treated to some spectacular views and we really felt on top of the world. 

I think we could have stuck around a lot longer but after about half an hour or so we started to feel the rain so in order to avoid slippery steps we began the slow descent to the bottom of Huayna Picchu.  It was a slow process but we made it down after about forty five minutes and after chilling out and eating some lunch on one of the ramparts at Huchuy Picchu (although it was a bit naughty as you’re not supposed to), a smaller mountain, we arrived back amongst Machu Picchu in time to see the fog descend to the point where you couldn’t see the guardhouse.

Lizard scaling the walls of Machu Picchu

The view of Machu Picchu from way up in Huayna Picchu

Kate scaling the steep steps of Huayna Picchu

Another great view of Machu Picchu

Crawling through a small gap towards the summit

Posing at the top of Huayna Picchu with Machu Picchu in the background

The slippery climb down

Not a bad view for a picnic on the terraces of Huchuy Picchu (shhh..)

The rain was also coming down a lot heavier now and we were soaked through and cold but undeterred.  We still needed to see the view from the guardhouse and make the trip to the Inca bridge.  Throughout the site people were huddled in shelter as we trundled on past the guardhouse, taking a quick photo before continuing the twenty minute walk or so to the Inca bridge.  The route to the bridge was excellent and similar to the Inca trails that we had previously been walking.  The area around the bridge was constructed using some incredible stonework that went all the way down to the valley floor.  The bridge itself was made of logs which I assume had been placed there to replicate the original crossing.  The logic of this would have been that the Incas could remove the bridge if they were threatened.

The Inca Bridge

After making our way back from the Inca bridge the llamas were out in full force.  They were making their way along a stretch of bushes eating the flowers as they went without the least bit of interest in the people walking around them and taking photographs.  I decided that my ticket to getting close without getting spat at would be to help them by pulling down the flowers that were too high for them to reach.  The big ones were quite intimidating close up but feeding them seemed to be working and I got my photo.  We walked a little further down the terraces until we found that we had a spectacular view of the site and we asked a French passer-by if he would take a couple of photographs of us which he did.  We stuck around this area and finally the sun came out again as we sat in awe of the spectacular vista, birds flying surprisingly close to us and swooping and diving like they didn’t have a care in the world.  We had enough time to take a couple of shots on the way out before, very satisfied, we took our places on the bus to go back down the hill to civilisation. 

In front of Machu Picchu

The Guardhouse

The sun Gods finally shone down on us to take this photo

Spot Kate and win a prize

Photograph showing the curvature of the right side of the site

The others were already waiting in the hotel lobby when we returned; many had gone back when it started to rain.  We rallied people together for a quick celebratory beer before we needed to board our train out of Aguas Calientes prior to getting our bus connection back to Cuzco.  It had been a breath-taking experience and without a doubt one of the highlights of the trip so far.  The trek was pretty much what we were after in terms of our abilities and preferences yet we still got to see lots of beautiful scenery and have some fun with great people.  Before we left Cuzco there was still time for a little more culture.  We visited the Pre-Inca museum which housed an excellent collection of artefacts although wasn’t overly engaging.  Our plan was to spend the next day looking into what options we had for visiting the Galapagos, for which we would need to make our way to Ecuador and this would dictate our next moves in Peru.      

Kate's Machu Picchu Stamp celebrating 100 years since rediscovery

Train chaos in the dark back to Cuzco

Last lunch in a bar overlooking the Plaza des Armas in Cuzco

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