One hundred years ago, Machu Picchu, my final
destination on a South American tour last fall,
was unknown to Western scholars. Then, in 1911,
a lanky Connecticut Yankee, Hiram Bingham III,
rediscovered the lost Incan city. Bingham, the
son of New England missionaries, had married the
heiress of the Tiffany fortune. Well financed,
he set off for Peru to make a name for himself
as an explorer and archeologist. He interviewed
natives and searched through the ancient libraries
of the once great Incan city of Cusco. Trekking
through Andean jungles, he found the mountaintop
city of Machu Picchu, overgrown with vegetation,
but untouched by the Spanish conquistadors who
had pillaged most of the Incan empire four centuries
earlier. Bingham was a turn-of-the-20th century
Indiana Jones. His discovery not only launched
his career as an explorer but his fame led to
a successful political career as well and he later
became governor of Connecticut and a U.S. senator.
"In the variety of its charms and the power
of its spell," Bingham wrote, "I know
of no place in the world which can compare with
it." Machu Picchu retains that charm, power,
and mystery to this very day.
To get to Machu Picchu, you must first set off
for Cusco. I got up early for my one-hour flight
from Lima to Cusco and popped another Diamox.
I had been taking the drug for three days in preparation
for going to Cusco which at 11,800 feet is at
an altitude that can cause, in those not acclimated,
symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). Diamox
is most often prescribed for glaucoma but it is
also useful to help the body acclimatize to the
lack of oxygen at high altitudes and alleviate
the symptoms of AMS which include headache, nausea,
dizziness, and a general ill feeling. The drug
has to be taken for about three days before going
to altitude and for about three days after, until
one adjusts. I think the medication helped because
shortly after arriving in Cusco I witnessed other
tourists succumbing to the altitude with significant
Once I had left Lima, my trip to Peru began to
feel like a trip back in time. There were the
Indian women wearing their classic costumes of
colorful sweaters, billowing dresses, and derby
hats. And the same ancient stones that remained
as dramatic ruins of once great Incan cities also
existed in Cusco and its surrounding towns as
still functional irrigation systems, agricultural
walls and terraces, and walls of portions of churches,
commercial, and government buildings.
There are two official languages in Peru - Spanish
spoken by 73% of the population and Quechua (ketch-wa)
spoken by 24%. Once outside of Lima, the Quechua
language, with a heritage reaching back to the
Incas, seemed to be the preferred language of
many natives. Cusco is a Quechua word which means
navel. In the Incan civilization, Cusco was the
"navel" or "center" of the
world. It was from there that Incan kings ruled
an empire that extended from Columbia to Peru
to Bolivia. And, while Catholicism is the official
religion of Peru today, that practice is frequently
melded with ancient Quechua beliefs that include
a communion with Mother Nature's trinity - the
sun, water, and Pachamama or mother earth.
We checked into Cusco's Hotel Jose Antonio, a
modest but comfortable 124-room hotel just seven
blocks from the city's historic center, the Plaza
de Armas, and directly across the street from
its largest artisan's market. Newly arrived guests
were encouraged to drink the coca tea set out
in the lobby. This local legal brew is made of
the leaves of the coca plant (the base of cocaine)
and helps alleviate the symptoms of AMS. You can
also have an oxygen tank delivered to your room
for a $25 fee. I settled for the tea.
Not long after our arrival, we met our guide,
a cheerful fellow extremely proud of his native
Quechua culture and its emphasis on Pachamama.
As we walked through his city, he made sure we
knew we were walking on cobblestones laid by the
Incas and alongside walls erected by them.
Cusco was laid out by the Incas in the shape of
a holy animal, a puma. At the head of the puma
was Sacsayhuaman, which sounds like and is most
easily pronounced as "sexy woman." It
is a unique monument of carved and fitted massive
stone blocks set in a zigzag wall and is often
described as the most important Incan site after
Machu Picchu. It is unknown whether it once was
a fortress or a religious complex. Peruvians celebrate
the "Fiesta of the Sun" at Sacsayhuaman
on June 24th of each year to celebrate their Incan
In 1533 Francisco Pizarro entered the city of
Cusco and began to plunder its wealth. Incan palaces
were converted into churches, monasteries, and
homes for the conquerors and the Spanish used
Sacsayhuaman as a stone quarry. In the historical
center of town, around the Plaza de Armas, the
Dominican Cathedral of Cusco was built over an
Incan temple. The cathedral which replicates the
great Baroque cathedrals of Spain has grand gold
and silver alters, statues, and carved wooden
choir stalls. Paintings by native artists show
biblical scenes with a mix of Quechua culture.
Mary is painted in billowing dresses - homage,
our guide explained, to the mountains and Pachamama.
The Jesuits built their church, The Company of
Jesus, in 1570 over the Incan king's palace.
At the foot of the puma is Koricancha, the most
famous temple of the Incan empire dedicated to
worship of the sun. The Convent of Santo Domingo
was built over the site. Many of the convent's
walls, hallways, and towers were built by the
Incans and serve as the best preserved examples
of their masonry skills.
Tourists often buy a 3-day, 2-night tour of Cusco
and Machu Picchu. But within Cusco and the area
around it called the Sacred Valley of the Incas
there are innumerable archeological sites that
can warrant hours or days of exploration, all
leading up to the grand experience of Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu is located on a high ridge in a heavily
forested part of the Andes. You get there by first
flying into Lima, then on to Cusco, finally taking
a train from there about 75 miles. Our guides
picked us up at 5 a.m. for a 6 a.m. departure
from Cusco's train station. The train switches
back and forth, up then down steep terrain on
its three hour journey.
Enroute the view included beautiful landscapes,
agricultural plots on steep hillsides, pigs and
cattle, sheep and llama, lots of mud brick homes,
amazing hard working people, and glimpses of Incan
ruins. The train was packed with tourists from
around the world. Several of the younger, more
fit, and more adventurous variety got off early
to hike the Incan trail which, if done in its
entirety, is a 6-day trek from Cusco requiring
a guide and native pack bearers.
Several years ago, we were told, the train actually
stopped at the foot of Machu Picchu but a rock
slide cut the tracks and the route now ends in
the town of Agua Calientes. There was pandemonium
as a crowd of eager tourists disembarked at Agua
Calientes onto train tracks with shopping stalls
on one side and a river gorge on the other. Miraculously,
luggage and people seemed to find their way to
the correct awaiting tour buses.
It was still early morning. Mist still hung over
luxurious green mountaintops. But looking up,
there was no city in the sky to be seen. Our bus
took us up a narrow winding road, treacherously
close to cliffs, and finally stopped among several
other tour buses at a clearing just below the
peak. The Sanctuary Hotel and Restaurant are there.
There are also some souvenir shops and an outdoor
café with great views of the verdant terrain.
But still the city could not be seen.
The Sanctuary Hotel costs $500/night. It is small,
well appointed, and right next to the entrance
to Machu Picchu - but I don't believe there is
an advantage to staying there because they close
the entrance to the site at night and you can't
wander from the hotel through the mystic ruins
in the dark.
There's a ticket entrance to the site, and after
a brief walk through a walled entry, you are finally
there, gazing at this ancient city nestled atop
a mountain surrounded by dramatic peaks. The site
is breathtaking and made the entire trip to Peru
worthwhile. We walked first with our guide who
described the palaces, temples, agricultural terraces,
plazas, streets, baths, and dwellings that were
once home to the Incan elite. After a fine Peruvian
buffet lunch at the Sanctuary restaurant, we resumed
our exploration. We would climb up hundreds of
steps, pet the local llamas, and at the highest
structures stop to rest and meditate on the scene
before us. Machu Picchu in Quechua means "Old
Mountain" and we stayed atop the old mountain
until the site closed at 5 p.m. and the last bus
left for the town of Agua Calientes.
Our hotel in Agua Calientes, the Inkaterra Machu
Picchu Puebla Hotel, was set on a hillside overlooking
the river below. The rooms were stark but comfortable.
But the colonial hotel's setting, with buildings
sprawled throughout a sub-tropical rain forest
with streams and tiny waterfalls everywhere, was
beautiful. There was no TV but they had internet
access. There was a bar and a first class restaurant.
Exhausted from our day on the "old mountain,"
we slept and missed dinner. But we enjoyed late
night beers and listening to the adventures of
another couple and their guide who had just arrived
after trekking the Incan Trail.
The train returning from Machu Picchu to Cusco
left at 8:30 a.m. We got off at the first stop,
Ollantaytambo, where we were met by another guide.
Ollantaytambo is a small village that is still
laid out with its original Incan streets, plazas,
and water channels. We visited a busy and colorful
vegetable market in the center square and then
we climbed some more. A series of terraces leads
up to more ruins with particularly unique polished
and fitted great rocks what once formed another
Temple of the Sun. There's also an astronomical
clock atop the site that calculated the solstices.
Our guide took us into a local home to show us
how the villagers lived. Four mud huts with thatched
roofs surrounded a common area where dogs, chickens,
and pigs all lived in harmony. Inside one home,
a woman was preparing stew in a great pot over
a wood fire. The dirt floor was alive with guinea
pigs, a delicacy. As she prepared potatoes for
her stew, she threw the peels to the ground and
they quickly disappeared amidst a living guinea
pig garbage disposal. There were niches in the
walls with symbols of Christian and Quechua deities
and the skulls of her ancestors meant to watch
over her home.
Further on we stopped at Pisac, a town with its
own archeological heritage - an Incan fortress
and largest known cemetery - but more renowned
for its Sunday market. Here on display were all
sorts of Peruvian handicrafts, everything from
alpaca sweaters to silver llamas, from intricate
pottery to painted gourds.
On our last day in the Sacred Valley of the Incas
we stayed in the village of Tucay. The Hotel Posada
del Inca in Tucay was quaint and comfortable.
Our room was cave-like with old fashioned latchkey
wooden doors. It faced an inner courtyard garden
with a small square in front of the hotel's personal
church. Native women had their wares laid out
in the square - selling knit goods, hats, clay
pots and figurines.
Walking through the town at dusk I was greeted
by a Quechua man, Mr. Puma, who invited me into
his small souvenir store where he sold tourist
postcards and self made art. Several other locals
came by to chat and celebrate. This was the grand
opening day of Mr. Puma's humble store. He asked
me to toast his success with Chicha beer, a home
grown brew made from corn. It was horrendous and
clearly an acquired taste but I drank it anyway
not wanting to be the "ugly American."
The next morning, before departing for Cusco airport,
Lima, and America, I met Mr. Puma again. He wanted
to walk me through his town and show off its historical
Incan ruins. About 800 people live in Tucay, mostly
farmers. We walked a dirt path past several planted
fields. Definitely a city boy, I tried to avoid
stepping on a great variety of excrement - horse,
dog, bull, pig, donkey. We came to the town's
main water system, built by the Incas 500 years
ago and still functioning with mothers and their
young children busy filling containers of water
for their daily needs. Mr. Puma pointed out a
great wall surrounding the town's agricultural
region, also built by the Incas. Atop the hillside
were Incan burial sites. He plucked a plant here
and there showing off the local medicinal herbs
growing wild - this one an insect repellent, another
for colds, another for nausea. We returned to
the hotel, my car arrived, and I soon returned
to my world.
The people of Peru that I met on my way to Machu
Picchu were considerate, friendly, cheerful, and
exceedingly proud of their Quechua and Incan heritage.
The Incan civilization has been dead for 500 years
but in Cusco, the Sacred Valley of the Incas,
and the Lost City of Machu Picchu it remains very