Peru, Machu Picchu: "Dream Trip"

Aguas Calientes

Jueves, el 20 de Noviembre 

Thursday 20 November 2003

 

Saludos a mi familia y mis amigos,

I am sitting in the central square of Aguas Calientes, a town tucked away in a valley in the Andes. Surrounding the town are steep, straight-to-the-sky green mountains topped with clouds.

I am watching and listening

Aguas Calientes is under construction. Dozens of workmen are installing new sidewalks and roadways. Some of the men are measuring and chipping away at large granites stones. Others are placing small hand-cut tiles in the sidewalk. Others are mixing and carrying cement and large stones in wheelbarrows. Others are welding the central monument. They work from 7:00 am until 10:00 pm.

Aside from the welding, there are no machines - only hammers, chisels, handsaws, tape measure, balance, string. And the incessant clanging and clicking of hammers and chisels against stone. The workmanship is precise and attractive.

I am watching and listening.

Along with a group of other men, I am glued to a soccer match on the outdoor TV screen.  We are listening to that crazy announcer, or his clone, who you may remember from the World Cup. His over-zealous voice is blasting through two huge speakers set up on the sides of the square. Any minute now I expect to hear, “GOOAAAAAAAL! GOOAAAAAAAAAAL!” But alas, the match ends Peru-0, Equador-0.

Aguas Calientes sits at the very foot of the gateway to Machu Picchu, the fabled Inca temple ruins perched high up in the rugged Andes.

Three years ago, when I was visiting Central Europe, I was introduced to a young Hungarian woman named Eva. I doubt that Eva had ever traveled beyond the borders of her country. I asked her, “Eva, what is your dream trip?” Without hesitating Eva answered, “Machu Picchu.”

When I mention to my neighbors or friends that I visited Peru, their first association is Machu Picchu. Some cannot pronounce it or even remember the name. Nevertheless, it is on everyone’s mind.

I think Machu Picchu is one of those exotic, elusive, far off destinations that lives in our fantasy life.

Actually, it need not be so elusive or far off. Fly from Miami to Lima in about five hours. Fly from Lima to Cusco in one hour. Train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes – three hours.

The train ride is unique. Breakfast is served in a vista-dome car, and all around there are mountains, mountains, mountains and more mountains. Finally, a thirty minute bus ride from Aguas Calientes to the entrance of Machu Picchu.  The driver must have taken lessons from a mountain goat or mule or llama. And, there you are!

And there I was. And what can I say? Words fail. Photos are inadequate. Maybe, my friends, it will be better to just keep it in your imagination.

You climb up a hillside, surrounded by other higher hills, to gaze down on the ruins far below. Just look and look and sit and sit and look some more. A half hour? An hour? Two? More? Read a book? Sit and look some more. Why leave? Can’t leave.

Later on, I climb over the ruins themselves. (How did they ever get those huge boulders up so high?).  I stop for a short prayer at the pillar dedicated to the sun god. I examine the window openings where the rays of the sun shoot through at the precise moment of the winter and summer solstice. All of this, for me, was even anticlimactic. Just “being there” is what it’s all about.

Apparently, The Inca thought so too.

Machu Picchu was assumed to be a religious shrine or a fortress. The latest research claims that the area was a special retreat for upper-class Incas who mysteriously abandoned it well before the Spanish arrived. The Spanish never even knew it was there.

Machu Picchu is at the apex of an area called “The Sacred Valley.” It is “sacred.” A river has carved through this valley and the roadway follows the course of the river. On either side of the river, and terraced up the sides of the mountains are hundreds of small farms. The valley is narrow and the mountains are high, green and snow-capped. I felt like I was driving through the inside of a cathedral.

Along the way there are several other Inca sites and small towns with wonderful, tongue twisting names like Sacsayhuaman, Ollantaytambo, Tambomachay and Pisaq. I stopped for lunch and had delicious soup and fresh mountain trout.

My favorite site was Ollantaytambo. It's a strenuous climb to the top. It is fifty meters wide and several hundred meters high, a beautifully constructed multi-storied, terraced stairway to heaven. The view from the top is into the valley spread out below.

My friends, please substitute reality for fantasy.

Put Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley on your “To See” list. Fulfill your dream.

My next stop is Arequipa. A thirty-minute flight from the high, green Andes Mountains of Cusco to the higher still volcanic mountains,  and high plains desert of the south.

High means high. Cusco is 3350 meters above sea level (10,990 ft)  Arequipa is 2300 meters (7546 ft). Colca Canyon, my side trip from Arequipa is 4800 meters (15,748). For all you gringos, that’s two to three miles high! 

The air is thin. and the sun is strong. You don’t want to hear about my headaches, and the pharmacological remedies.

Hasta luego,

Jan

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