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Machu Picchu

Guatemala Journal
Wanderings

 

 machu picchu

2 agosto
My traveling partner, my son Adam, met me in Lima in the middle of the night. After a day of sightseeing including a parade of school bands in a nearby park, we flew on to Cusco, high in the Andes mountains of Peru. A charming city of tan adobe structures with red tiled roofs, old Spanish churches, winding cobblestone streets up steep hills. On our first night, we sat on the narrow wooden balcony of the Baghdad Cafe overlooking the Plaza de Armas watching small taxis circle around and around the square, little lights blinking on over the hillsides where the residents live, trying interesting sounding dishes on the menu, and enjoying the cool mountain air. Lima's cloudy skies are hazy white, but the Cusco sky is the clear deep blue of Colorado mountain skies. At 3326 meters (10,900 ft), we were advised to take it easy the first few days to acclimate before strenuous hiking at even higher altitudes.

We stayed at Hotel Los Niños, started by a Dutch couple who adopted many Cusco street children. There are now two clean and attractive hotels that finance care of dozens of children, their medical and education expenses, and feed hundreds of local school children two meals a day and provide help with homework after school. The rooms are named for children, and we had the pleasure to visit one of their living homes and meet several cheerful young students first hand.

Unlike most of my travels, where I usually plan and reserve ahead of time, I did not book an Inca Trail trek in advance, having heard that it's easy to do when you arrive. As in Antigua (Guatemala), the streets are lined with travel agencies anxious to sell you a trip that starts the next day. However we quickly learned that, in March, the government decreed you must book at least 30 days in advance and the trail is limited to 500 people per day including porters, guides, cooks, etc., limiting the amount of tourists considerably. Undaunted, we booked a 5 day trek by way of Salcantay mountain, ending at Machu Picchu. Although there are not ruins dotting that trail, the scenery was spectacular and less traveled. We planned a couple of day trips to other ruins in the area.

Our last afternoon in Cusco, we had a delightful conversation with Richard, a trekking agency salesman, in the park. He taught us a few words in native Quechua, asked Adam about his interest in Cusco girls, then we compared life in the US and Peru. Upon parting, he advised Adam to "remember the land of the poor when you are a professional."

Those of you who have heard me say such things as "I like hiking but I don't need to get the top of anything anymore" or "Camping is ok, but I'm in a much better mood the next day when I have a bed and shower", or know that I don't downhill ski and avoid heights, will be amazed that I even attempted this trek. If I had seen pictures of some of the more difficult spots beforehand, I might well have chickened out - narrow rocky and eroding trails etched into mountainsides with precipitous drops. As one hiker in our group once said "If I put one feet the wrong way, I am going down!" (Her English, by the way, was much better than my Spanish.) I gratefully accepted our guide's steadying hand more than once. But it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed, and I found the courage to commit, taking things one step (literally) at a time.

We started our trek with a pre-dawn bus ride to Mollepata, the jumping off point for the Salcantay trail. Our guide, a young man named Elvis who introduced himself with the words "and I can sing too, only kidding", gathered our group for breakfast in a small restaurant. Our trailmates were mostly European - a Belgian couple, an American/German couple living in London, a woman from Argentina, a German couple that discovered later that they were actually with another group - they joined us on the trail for part of each day. Johanna, a guide in training, joined us as well. After we secured our pack horses, Elvis grabbed my day pack, grinned and said "I'm young". I looked around and realized I was the oldest in the group. Armed with just my camera, I began walking.

We climbed steadily the first day. Like Guatemala volcano hikes, there are few switchbacks, the trails are steep and relentless. Elvis kept us entertained with details about the flora, and stories from the Inca days of gods and battles and myths. We camped at the dramatic base of Salcantay (goat mountain) in the shadow of the 6270 meter (20,565 ft) peak, our coldest night. Our support group, 4 Peruvian men, had tents pitched and dinner cooking when we arrived. Three substantial meals a day - cookies and popcorn to keep us occupied while cooking, delicious soups, a typical Peruvian main dish, and mate de coca or tea from coca leaves, which helps ward off altitude sickness. During dinner we talked about Peruvian and Argentinian politics, problems with right wing Toledo, Peru's new presidente. Conversation turned to the limits on the Inca trail, which most of us had come expecting to hike. The changes are especially detrimental to the small tour guide agencies and effectively close them out of that trail - the larger companies mentioned in the guide books and on the Internet have better access to advance bookings and have larger support teams in their entourage.

Our most demanding day began with mate de coca delivered to our tents. The Germans appeared with packs ready to join us for the day's trek. The towering white, rugged peak in the not too distant vista was ours to conquer. We would hike up the steep west shoulder in the snow. One of our party suffered from altitude dizziness, another struggled with a pulled leg muscle. Blocking the snowy trail was a horse down with a hurt leg, and the porters worked at moving his equipment to other animals and getting him on his feet. We had to break trail across the switchbacks through the deep snow to get past. As we neared the last few turns in the trail, Elvis handed us each a rock to carry to the top, to ask the goat (Salcantay) for permission to cross. At the top of the pass (4600 meters, 15,088 ft), amid misty snowflakes, were dozens of cairns, little rock piles that mark trails, sitting on top of larger rocks like so many offerings to an Inca god. We added our stones to the diminutive sculptures. Elvis had us each throw a handful of coca leaves into the wind for luck on our journey.

The trail downhill was steep and sharp, we hiked on and on for two hours after dark until we reached the meadow (pampa) filled with tents. Dinner conversation had a lighter note tonight, we were exhausted but feeling good about having made it this far - Elvis and Johanna told stories of children kidnapped by dwarves, a dog in the form of a woman, and more, with strong morals to the tales.

Day 3 took us through the village of La Playa along the Salcantay river, with a stop at a fruit stand selling grenadias kept us eating the sweet yellow fruit for the rest of the hike. We reached a point beyond which the horses could not continue, so they headed back and four local porters, including two small women, carried our bags. Each was trained to carry up to 50 kilometers, and made light of our load. At one point we hopped a ride on a truck (we joked about the bus that looked like a truck) to Santa Elena. In the back of the truck were railings - our friends draped themselves over and around every rail, hanging limbs bouncing over a bumpy dirt road ride along cliffs, and called out to lower heads when passing branches - "cafe!", "bananas!", "plantano!", "palta!" (avocados), reaching out trying to grab fruit. There was a local party planned in the field where we were to camp, so we set up tents in a schoolyard. After a failed attempt at finding a trail to the local hot springs, we dined late and several of our group went in town to check out the party later.

At breakfast we played a language game, naming things on the table in Spanish and repeating the list each time. The school children lined up to watch us take down the tents and hungrily gathered around the remains on our breakfast table. When the bell rang, they ran in and we listen to their sweet voices singing the national anthem as the flag was raised. This day we crossed the river in a tiny open cage way above the white water. Three of us in the cage at a time, the first half of the ride was a slide to the middle of the river, then we were yanked across to the other side by a rope pull. There was no way around it, I had to cross - without looking down, I climbed in and held on tight. Further up the trail we marveled at a powerful waterfall rushing out a hole in the rock under the road ledge, arriving there from some mysterious underground place. We were walking along a dirt road now, and a truck passed loaded with standing passengers - we waved to our German friends as they went by. The enormous back of Machu Picchu rose in front of us as we approached, its treasures hidden from view, stalls lining the sides of the trail offering lunch.

Walking down the railroad tracks, we stopped at Mandor. Elvis negotiated with a woman who owned the land so we could enter. A cool, tranquil pool lay at the base of a tumbling waterfall. Our guide and two of our hikers took a swim. Others (me included) dipped our feet in, so refreshing, then walked back out to catch the train to Aguas Calientes, the town closest to the ruins. As you might guess if you know any Spanish, there are hot springs in Aguas Calientes (hot water). We soaked our tired muscles in the natural hot pool before dinner and stayed in a hostel.

At 4:30am, we met to begin the hike from Aguas Calientes to Machu Picchu (old peak) and climbed the endless stone stairs to the ruins arriving just as the first buses pulled up. Continuing up to the top, below us the view of the city under Wayna Picchu (young peak) which you all have seen in photos, we gathered at the edge facing the dark silhouette of mountain peaks against the lightening sky. Elvis handed us each a small cup and filled it with red wine. We flicked wine towards the mountains in a tribute to Taytayinti, god of the sun, spilled a little wine to the ground for Pachamama, mother earth, and toasted "salud" to each other. At that moment, as if choreographed, the sun appeared between two peaks and slowly flooded the stone walls with streaks of light.

There are so many descriptions of Machu Picchu, I could not do it justice. I prefer to let the photos speak for themselves. It is humbling to tread along the walkways and into the buildings of an ancient city, and imagine the depth and complexity of life that once filled it - laughter of children, sweat of labor, joy of love, tears of grief.

Our train left in early afternoon - we hustled back to Aguas Calientes by bus just in time to board. I survived the trek in good form, my most serious injury was the loss of a few toenails. Back in Cusco, we met the German couple for dinner. Henrik had left us a note to meet in the Plaza de Armas under the Peruvian flag. When we arrived, we wondered which of the many Peruvian flags he could have meant until Adam noticed the empty flagpole near the fountain. In daylight the next morning, we admired the huge flag that flew there. They told us at dinner about growing up in East Berlin, the wall came down when they were in their teens. Before then travel was restricted to Soviet Union and certain eastern European countries. They both ordered Mexican dishes and switched plates mid meal, as was their custom.

While on the trail, Elvis and Adam had made a bet on the America Cup (soccer/futball), so as a result they met the following day and went bungee jumping. I spent the day wandering around the San Blas area of Cusco filled with artisan shops and visited Museo Inka, a museum of Inca and Spanish treasures, painting, pottery, textiles. We treated Elvis to dinner and tasted cuy (guinea pig), a Peruvian delicacy (not one of my favorites). The boys went to a Cusqueño discotheque till 1am.

We took several day trips to visit additional ruins in the Cusco area. The most notable were the jagged walls of Sacsayhuaman - temple and fortress, considered the head of the puma (Cusco is built in the shape of a puma) - and cities at Pisaq and Ollantaytambo. Each had its own unique fascination, and helped provide informational pieces to fill in the historic puzzle.

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