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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Peru :
Cusco, Machu Picchu, and the Sacred Valley of the Incas

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 discomfort.
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 heritage.
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 much alive.