Machu Picchu, Peru 2010

(September 2010)

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For those of you who would rather jump right to the photos, click here for the gallery view, or here for a slideshow view.

Trip report

I have wanted to see the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu for decades (map).  When my friend Christian, who had grown up in Lima Peru and I work with at REI told me he was going, I jumped at the opportunity to join him.

We flew into Lima, arriving late.  Christian’s generous friend Danny picked us up, took us out on the town, let us crash at his house, and ferried us out to the airport the next morning for our flight to Cuzco.  The effects of altitude in Cuzco (roughly the same as Mt. Hood's summit) were readily apparent, with breathlessness, slight headache, and tingling hands.  We took a couple of days enjoying Cuzco’s array of meandering alleyways, beautiful plazas, charming museums, Spanish colonial churches, parades, and eclectic eateries to acclimate both literally and culturally.

Unfortunately Christian came down with the flu, which laid him low on the day we had planned a city tour of Cuzco, so I went solo.  The tour guide gave me a much better understanding of the Qorikancha, Sacsayhuamán, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay ruins.

The following morning we packed our gear in preparation for a couple days of sightseeing in the heart of the Sacred Valley.  Christian mustered enough energy to leave the hotel, knowing this was our sole opportunity to see Machu Picchu.  After leaving Cuzco, the Sacred Valley descends.  I found this strange because the photos I’d seen of Machu Picchu were mountainous; I’d assumed that the Urubamba River Gorge of the Sacred Valley wound its way upwards towards headwaters in the Andes, instead of down to the Amazon River.  We made our way down the picturesque valley to the ruins of Pisac, with its agricultural terraces, fortress-like structures, and stunning views over the Urubamba River.  The town also had a market, but by now the allure of trinkets had lost their appeal.  The vendors were mostly women and small children who lived in abject poverty, and seeing people with so few opportunities in life made me think of the history of Peru.

Peru’s Inca were conquered by the Spanish under the leadership of General Francisco Pizarro in the early 1500s.  While I don’t hold any illusions about the Inca’s totalitarian rule, use of slave labor, and human sacrifice, the brutality of General Pizarro in his conquest of the Inca Empire seems excessive.  Pizarro assassinated Inca leaders and religious figures, tore down their temples and built churches in their place, burned people at the stake for not converting to Christianity, and melted down gold and silver religious symbols, sending the ingots back to Spain.  One example of his brutality (and greed) happened in July 1532 when he took the Inca ruler Atahualpa hostage.  As ransom for his release, Atahualpa offered the Spaniards enough gold to fill the room in which he was imprisoned, and twice that amount of silver.  The Inca fulfilled this ransom, but Pizarro double-crossed them, refusing to release Atahualpa and eventually executing him (more at this link).  Another example of Pizarro’s brutality (and greed) was ordering natives to be literally worked to death mining for gold in Potosí, with laborers generally lasting one-two years before dying from malnutrition and fatigue.

Pizarro made all of this happen with just one cannon, 169 men, 27 horses, and an ability to manipulate different factions of native people against each other.  The Spanish horsemen, fully armored, were technologically superior to the Inca forces; but new germs brought over from the Old World, especially smallpox, probably had more of a devastating effect on the Incas, who had no immunity (see Gun, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond).  Pizarro destroyed the Inca civilization solely to extract its riches, with no regard to the anthropological consequences.  What little is known of the Inca -- culture, customs, and rituals at the time of conquest -- was documented by Spanish Catholic missionaries, who by all accounts had a skewed lens in which to tell the Inca's story (being sent to the New World to convert the 'heathen' natives from their 'satanic' beliefs, and/or burn them alive on a stake if they chose not to convert).

The government system the Spanish set up in Peru was solely for the benefit of themselves and the wealthy elite at home; the native Inca people were subjugated and given no opportunities.  This policy basically continued with Peruvian independence and is the fundamental reason behind the lack of opportunities (educational, economic and otherwise) for the native Inca to this day.

As all of these thoughts were swirling in my head, we hopped on a bus leaving Pisac and headed further down the Sacred Valley, coming across the ruins of Ollantaytambo, where once again the Inca built agricultural terraces and fortress-like structures on the side of a hill overlooking a strategic valley intersection.  Christian was running on fumes, and couldn’t muster the energy to explore the site, so he found a nice grassy courtyard to take a nap at the base while I climbed up to explore.  Our time ran tight as we made our way from the Ollantaytambo ruins to the train station, where we got a ride to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of Machu Picchu).

The train ride was a window into luxury travel, with air conditioning, picture windows, airplane-like attendants, and well-heeled travelers. The tracks followed the raging Urubamba River down the ever-narrowing gorge. As we got closer to Machu Picchu the landscape changed from arid grassland to cloud forest; first in small patches along the river bank, then ever higher on the valley walls until the landscape had changed completely in the course of ten miles. It was quite beautiful and reminded me of Central American forests I’ve visited, only at a much higher altitude.

By the time we arrived in Aguas Calientes it was completely dark.  The train station had a border crossing feel, with touts tussling with each other and tugging at tourists trying to drum up restaurant, hotel, and guide business.  I came to the realization, as we made our way thorough the touts, that I had caught Christian’s flu.  By the time we walked to our hotel and checked in, chills had enveloped me.  Although it was only 7 p.m., I curled up in a ball, skipped dinner, and tried to get some sleep.  As the symptoms set in, this proved to be next to impossible, with fever, chills, throbbing headache, phlegm spewing coughs and all-over body ache . . . no fun.

We were up early the next morning because we had been told that the first 400 people who entered Machu Picchu were given tickets enabling them to hike Wayna Picchu (the cliffed-out peak behind the ruins in the “classic” Machu Picchu photos); and that these tickets were a hot commodity forcing ever earlier arrival times at the entrance gate.  The ruins opened at 6am, and the only way to get to the entrance gate is a 2 hour 2,000 vertical foot hike, or a bus ride.  With both Christian and I feeling like death itself, the hike was out of the question (getting up Wayna Picchu would be challenging enough).  Waking up early to stand in line for the bus was our only option.  So we checked out of the hotel at 3 a.m., walked down to the bus station, and curled up in fetal positions on the sidewalk behind the already-forming line.  Time drifted by (in an “I feel shitty” kind of way) and before we knew it, we were shuttled up to the entrance, received our coveted Wayna Picchu stamps, and were gazing upon the surreal ruins of Machu Picchu.

The site sits on a ridge saddle of sorts with Wayna Picchu jutting out into the Urubamba River gorge, the river bending 270 degrees around it.  The surprisingly small ruin is built in the saddle with a larger ridge rising in the background.  Cliffs descend two thousand feet on both sides of the saddle down into the Urubamba River, and the surrounding snow clad mountains jutting vertically out of the cloud forest makes for the best example I’ve ever seen of architecture integrating with the landscape.  It was awe inspiring!

Beyond the spectacular setting, Machu Picchu is a rare example of an Inca ruin unmolested by the Spanish.  The site wasn’t 'discovered' by the western world until a professor named Hiram Bingham (the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character) stumbled across it in 1911.  Most other Inca sites were damaged during the conquest, as the Spanish projected their power as both rulers and religious zealots.  Artifacts like the Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu would have been one of the first objects destroyed at more accessible sites.  Because the entire ruin was left to the jungle and not torn apart, one gets a better sense of what it would have been like in its prime.  One can imagine farming on the terraces, climbing the stairs, living in the residential areas, and walking down the alleys. Pretty amazing!

Although I had read extensively about Machu Picchu before the trip, I got a much better understanding of the ruin on our early morning guided tour.  Afterwards Christian and I hiked up Wayna Picchu. (A better description might be slogged or gasped our way up, as our flu and lack of sleep didn’t help our endurance.  It was one of those moments in which you have to remind yourself that this is a rare opportunity, and that succumbing to illness isn’t an option).  We had to watch our step as we switchbacked up the side of Wayna Picchu’s cliffs (a miscue would have lead to a 2,000 ft fall).  The precision craftsmanship was pretty remarkable, with the trail taking us through a rock-face tunnel at one point.  Not surprisingly the views from the top were breathtaking, with the vertical valley walls and glaciated mountain views even more spectacular than from down below.

We staggered off Wayna Picchu and headed back to Aguas Calientes where we had a good meal and caught our train back to Cuzco.  The next couple of days were a blur as we made our way back home while trying to recover from what I unaffectionately call the bubonic plague.  Christian (flying standby on Continental) was bumped from the Lima-Houston flight for four consecutive days.  Although my journey home wasn’t nearly as epic, upon my arrival I curled up into bed and didn’t get out for 24 hours!  It took me a couple of days to recover, and luckily no one else in the family caught my cold.

That’s the trip in a nutshell.  My trip to Machu Picchu was fun, educational, and awe inspiring!  I can’t wait to take Elaine, Sierra and Cooper to Peru in a couple of years (so that Sierra and Cooper can get more out of it than they might now), maybe adding some trekking in the Cordillera Blanca or Cordillera Huayhuash to the trip.  I’m already looking forward to it!

Photos from the trip:  Click here for the gallery view, or here for a slideshow view.

Click here for a map of the area

Travel links

Trips from the last two years    Interactive travel map



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