Traveling is a highlight of life, in my opinion. I inherited my itchy feet from my parents, and the love of adventure has been transferred to my daughter, who also desires experiences offered by new horizons. To commemorate her graduation from UNC Chapel Hill, we saved for “the trip of a lifetime”, a seventeen day jaunt through South America. Machu Picchu, the spiritual center and “Lost City of the Incas” in Peru, has been high on my list as a place I “must-see”. The Galápagos Islands, according to a National Public Radio broadcast, was in a state of jeopardy, its fragile ecosystem threatened by an influx of non-indigenous animals and plants. The broadcast recommended seeing it within the next two years. Overseas Adventure Travel offered exploration of both places, as well as a visit to the Amazon rainforest of Ecuador.
Peru is a poor country by our standards, but filled with bright, colorful Andean woven handicrafts. On our first day in Lima, a city of 8 million people (the majority of the country’s population), we hired Juan and his taxi for the day. He took us to El Museo de Larco Huerrera which has one of the largest collections of pre-Incan and Incan pottery in the world, as well as feathered and woven garments dating from 1100AD. In the old city we viewed the Plaza San Martin, the National Presidential Palace and the Catacombs of San Francisco. Juan returned us to our hotel, Jose Antonio Exeutivo, to refresh for our evening dinner at La Rosa Nautica Restaurante, which resembled a garden gazebo of massive wood joists and windows constructed on a pier extending out into the Pacific Ocean, where waves broke underneath. The seafood was some of the best we have ever eaten.
The next morning our group of nine flew to Cuzco, which lies 10,909’ above sea level. After checking into the Hotel Don Carlos, Ed forgot to ‘take it easy’ to prevent altitude sickness and ran up three flights of stairs, which made him queasy and lightheaded for the next few days. Coca tea and altitude pills helped us all combat the effects. Cuzco had been the center of the Inca Empire for over two centuries, an empire of such magnificence 500 years ago that it reached from Columbia along the entire western coast of South America from Quito to Santiago. Its intricate paved road system (including woven bridges over huge gorges) connected all of the conquered peoples under one great nation. Waterways followed the roads, and still bring water from the Andes to many of the cities.
Cusco’s Qoricancha Sun Temple was the religious center, and is composed of various smaller temples. Its interior walls were covered with gold plates, blinding to the eye when the sun hit full-force, which led to the downfall of the empire once Pizarro’s forces saw that bounty. In the Temple of the Stars emeralds, turquoise, and semi-precious jewels were embedded to represent the night sky, which the priests studied. The gardens held full-sized gold llamas and trees. The massive stones that form the edifice were cut and fit without mortar, and could not be duplicated by the Spanish after they seized the city in 1538. Some of the doorway stone blocks have as many as sixteen angles. Tiny keystones held the blocks in place, and the Temple of Rain, Rainbow, and Lightning were built so that their windows form a straight line from one room through the next. In the Temple of the Sun, a large stone semi-circle held a massive gold disc, which the Sapa Inca Atahualpa lost to the Spanish in a card game, before the Spanish stole the 700 wall plates of gold to melt down and send to Spain. While the Spanish held the Incan king Atahualpa, he learned to read and write their language in twenty days, no small feat when you consider Pizarro was illiterate. Because the Inca had no written language, our knowledge of their world comes through the Spanish chroniclers such as Garcilaso and Sancho, who marveled that such wonders could be built by human hands. The walls, niches and windows were all built as trapezoids, creating stable structures that have withstood earthquakes, unlike the Spanish construction which mostly collapsed in the 1650 quake. The Spanish allowed waste and garbage to fill the waterways, making them unusable. We also toured the Church of the Merced (Mercy) where Francisco Salam (1684-1732) lived in underground tombs which he painted, six days a week, with images of heaven and hell. On his day off, he came out from underground to carry a massive cross around the gardens.
After visiting the San Pedro Market, we experienced a curandero healing ceremony. The shaman, Pedro, chewing coca leaves the entire time, collected (in a cloth) colors representing the directions, gold for men and silver for women, a condor feather for the heavens, coca leaves, rice, corn, beans, sacred animal shapes, an image of St. Nicholas for the soul, shells, etc.—pretty much an image for every aspect of life—to which we added leaves to represent our wishes: one for the future, one for those we love, and one for our personal happiness. After burning cleansing herbs he prayed with his package of goodies above our heads and said he would burn it, offering it to Pachaymama, or Mother Earth.
Cusco was built in the shape of a puma. Sacsayhuaman, the Incan ruins above the city, represents the head of the puma (Incan--Saqsay=zig-zag uman=head). The fortress walls are double zigzags and represent the teeth of the puma, sixty feet high and sawtooth in appearance, which made it harder to breach the walls. The straight street that connects the head with the city body, Puma Cuku, represented the puma’s spine. The Spanish conquistadors called this structure the ninth wonder of the world. Many of the larger stones making the ramparts weigh 125 tons. All were notched together after being brought to the site on rollers and pushed into place with logs and rope (60% of the stones were brought from a quarry twelve miles away, the rest were local). The grass esplanade hosts 150,000 people each year on June 24th for the Sun Festival, where 680 actors portray the rule of the Incas. It was the center of the Incan administrative, military (it garrisoned 5,000 troops), and political rule from the 11th through the 15th centuries. The Incas believed in reincarnation and saw life as a series of levels: Hana Pacha (god—represented by the condor) Kay Pacha (living currently—as depicted by the puma) and Ukhu Pacha (the underworld, shown as a serpent). Machu Picchu is shaped as a condor as it was dedicated to god. Those that died in these constructions, and there were thousands, were vaulted to the next life, so to give one’s life in the building was not considered a bad thing. There was no slave labor. A llama was sacrificed yearly at the wall to determine if the next year’s crops would be good. (If the heart kept beating as it was put into a hole in the wall the crops would flourish.) A ‘guardian’ of the site did another healing for us. Lyric was suffering from traveler’s diarrhea and it boosted her flagging energy—so that she was up for our home-hosted lunch of guinea pig! Guinea pig is considered sacred and ceremonial, and as we had already sampled the alpaca and purple corn pudding at lunch the previous day, we were game. It was a bit dry and bony, but not unlike dark meet on chicken. Ed won good luck by drinking a shot of rum with the inner ear bones of the guinea pig (which look like running foxes). Later that evening, our dinner entertainment was folk music and Peruvian dances of the Andes and Amazon.
The next day we journeyed through the Sacred Valley by bus to the town of Ollantaytambo, built by a general of Pachakuteq (Inca #9) on the edge of the jungle. He ran off with the head Inca’s daughter when dad wouldn’t let them marry. The rock-laid water system built in antiquity still carries fresh water from the Andes and grey water and sewage in separate systems, some of it underground. Above the town stands the fortress built with stones from a quarry in the far distance. Ancient grain depositories flank the opposite mountain. It is a charming town. After a walking tour, we boarded the train for the trip up the Urubamba Gorge to Machu Picchu, viewing ruins of the Inca Trail along the way. I was glad we were not scaling the Inca Trail heights as it takes four days to hike.
We arrived in Auguas Calientes (Hot Springs) in time for lunch and took the half-hour bus ride (multiple switchbacks with roaring busses passing one another on a very narrow road) up to Machu Picchu in the early afternoon. Machu Picchu means old mountain, whereas Wayna Picchu (or young mountain) is the one seen in all of the photos. Wayna Picchu was the lookout point, and controlled the Inca Bridge, which was raised to keep out unwanted individuals. Machu Picchu was built by 27,000 people over an 85 year time span. The Spanish never discovered it, which is why it remains intact today. In 1911 a Yale archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, was led to the site by a twelve-year-old local farm boy. Bingham was searching for El Dorado—a city of gold that the Spanish believed existed. We entered from the caretaker’s cottage, or the agricultural section. The first sighting of Machu Picchu invokes such a sense of awe that everyone stood quietly, drinking in the massive ruins. The green mountains highlight the stone walls and building against a brilliant blue sky, the place where heaven and earth are joined as one. Machu Picchu was known as the “Sacred Center” of the Incan Empire, and reflects the joining of spirit to nature through a man-made creation.
At the Inti Temple of the Sun, we learned how the window in its round tower highlights the summer solstice along a rock edge inside, and the Sun Gate on the Inca Trail directs the winter solstice rays to the temple. Below the temple lies a cavern whose walls are carved steps in front of representations of the three levels of the world. Water flows from a spring within the walls, representing the seminal fluid of Pachymama, or mother earth. To drink from it is sacred, bestowing eternal youth upon you (Ed practically bathed in it!) From there, we visited the astronomical observatory just outside the main temple. It holds a stone representing the Southern Cross. Next on the path is the Intiwatana, or hitching post of the sun when the Incas “tied the sun” in solstice ceremonies to prevent it wandering any further away from the horizon. From here, Wayna Picchu lies due north and at the equinox the sun passes directly overhead. Throughout the ruins lies proof that the Incan people understood a great deal about astronomy. At the Temple of the Condor, where llamas were sacrificed, our guide Fernando pointed to the carved stone’s resemblance of wings and the rock cut at the base in the shape of a condor. From here, we walked through a narrow fissure that led to the caves where any Incan found guilty of laziness, stealing or lying was forced to remain for three days without food or water. If he survived, he was freed, but a second accusation resulted in immediate death.
Our final stop for the day, as the park closed at six, was the Sacred Rock at the base of Wayna Picchu. It is a gigantic rock, cut to reflect the shape of the mountain range behind it, where the sun sets. The following morning, Fernando, Ed, Lyric and Bill went back to climb the steep ruins of Wayna Picchu. To hike this trail, you must sign in at the base and begin the climb before 1pm. They made it to the top and back down in three hours, and their photographs show the “top of the world” that hovers 1500’ straight up. Having just suffered a major bout of vertigo in the month before our trip, I browsed the town and bought souvenirs instead. After their return and a hurried (but delicious) lunch, we boarded the train to head back to Cusco and our last dinner. The flight the next morning to Quito was our jumping off place for our Ecuadorian adventure where we would meet the seven additional members of our tour group.