Mucho Gusto Machu Picchu

4 days biking, dancing, ziplining, and trekking across the Sacred Valley of the Incas, with a Machu Picchu sized cherry on top.  Getting into Cusco I wasted no time in booking this excursion to Peru’s most famous landmark with the Puma Travel company.  The next day I packed into a bus with 12 fellow group members and our comical tour guide Jaydar (pronounced like ‘hi there’).  After a few hours ride through the Sacred Valley of the Incas the bus stopped at our highest point on the trip, around 3,200 meters to start some downhill biking.

The bike ride was nowhere near as extreme as biking the Death Road as the roads were all well paved and had guardrails along curves to ensure a sense of safety.  But goddamn I think I may have enjoyed it even more.  Not a cloud in the sky, picturesque mountains and valleys as far as the eye can see, and amazing switchbacks weaving their way steadily down to the valley floor.  I found myself completely relaxed, coasting along and singing happy songs out loud to myself.  The Jamaican drawl of Miserable Man’s lyrics (a friend from India) created the soundtrack for my ride.

S.K.A.  This is the music that ja happy people play.  Dancing all night and we sleep all day.  This is ja music that we play.  S.K.A.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOp4R4qRBqs

Normally I would try to bomb down the hills as fast as I could, trying to wring every last drop of excitement from the experience.  But to do so would have been to miss out on soaking in the nature around.  I found myself frequently grabbing my action camera and riding one handed to record the landscape around.  Two and a half hours and close to 1,500 meters lower and we powerslide into a small town.

Some seriously enjoyable riding.

Some seriously enjoyable riding.

The second day marked the main trekking portion of the adventure.  As we ascended through the high jungle Jaydar provided insights into the local culture, both past and present.  Coffee beans grew on bushes, a red exterior proving them to be ripe for the picking, a green exterior letting us know they hadn’t matured yet.  Coca plants grew thick with leaves that are picked and dried for 4 days before being consumed directly or in drinks or candies.  The coca leaves are used in a manner similar to mate in Argentina, a natural boost of energy to get through the day.

The coca plant is loved by the locals.  It helps the workers work.

The coca plant is loved by the locals. It helps the workers work.

We arrived to the Monkey House for an hour reprieve from the direct sunlight.  A monkey on a leash awaited us, making sweet monkey love to his treasured teddy bear.  He managed to steal Vicky’s bracelet and chew it into oblivion in true monkey fashion.  A much smaller monkey with a snow white handle bar mustache that would make even the most distinguished ancient Frenchman green with envy was much better behaved.  He was content to perch on my should for a while and nibble on bananas.  Meanwhile a close relative of the guinea pig gorged himself on bananas.  He used his front buck teeth to skillfully peel banana after banana, content to let us pet his wiry pelt as he got his potassium overload.

The most sophisticated of monkeys.

The most sophisticated of monkeys.

Jaydar took the opportunity to show us some of the local fruits and agricultural products that they cultivate in the surrounding areas.  Splitting open cacao revelead the tiny beans used to make chocolate.  Huge mandrakes looked like clubs and weighed like them too.  There are over 3,000 varities of potatoes in Peru.  We sampled very unorthodox liqour with a dead snake in the bottle, and drank the more orthodox beverages of chica morada (made from choclo which is similar to corn) and passionfruit juice.  They were all delicious, but I found the chica the most rica and ordered a second large glass for only 1 sole.

In preparation of the next few hours, Jaydar painted our faces with a red dye from the inside of a small spiky plant that serves as a natural mosquito deterrant.  As we climbed higher along the ancient trails the views became more stunning.  A few small alcoves were carved out of the cliffside, creating a resting place for the ancient Incan runners who carried messages from one city to another.  The runners would complete a stretch of 21 kilometers before reaching the next man in the relay.  Amazingly, it only took around a day and a half for a message to reach Cusco from Machu Picchu or vice versa despite the long distance and unforgiving terrain.

Ready for war with the mozzies on the ancient Incan trail.

Ready for war with the mozzies on the ancient Incan trail.

Sometime around 4 o’clock we had worked our way back down to the riverbed.  For five soles we took a small manually operated cable car above the swift moving river.

Brian and Ed traveling in style.

Brian and Ed traveling in style.

On the other side the hot springs of Colcamayo awaited.  Three seperate pools of varying degrees of heat with an epic mountainous backdrop, not a bad place to end a day of trekking.

Nice way to relax after a day of hiking.

Nice way to relax after a day of hiking.

That night our restaurant had a 4×1 happy hour special and we took advantage.  The dancing and swinging around the stripper pole in the middle of the bar lasted well into the night.  Brian was an absolute maniac on the pole, high kicking around the bar with his crazy Irish dancing.

The next morning involved a series of 6 ziplines across the mountains.  The harnesses are constructed to give you maximum mobility.  Duane and I took advantage and immediately flipped upside down after take off.  As I neared the next platform I was upside down and backwards, missing the signal to use my gloves to brake my speed, which earned me a quick reprimand from staff who called me ‘el loco’ from then on.  The next five zip lines were just as much fun, flying spread eagled through the air, watching the ground and sky zoom past in succession.

A short afternoon of hiking along the railroad tracks brought us to the town of Agua Calientes, the base camp for Machu Picchu.  The town is reminiscent of a ski town with lots of little hotels and cafes.  After a double dinner, one consisting of pizza and one of grilled trout, we hit the hay to be prepared for waking up at 4 the next morning.

Underneath the dim light of the moon and stars, and the bright light of our head torches, we began the hike up 1,789 stairs to the entrance of Machu Picchu.  The stairs were definitely not for the faint of heart, and we soldiered past many people doubled over gasping for breath.

The terraces on the outskirts of the city.  Way nicer than the steps up to Machu Picchu.

The terraces on the outskirts of the city. Way nicer than the steps up to Machu Picchu.

Waking up at 4 in the morning paid dividends as our group was one of the first to enter the sacred city of Machu Picchu.  Our first glimpses of the small terraced city were unblemished by tourists posing for pictures.  Llamas grazed lazily on the grass between the short, grey stone buildings.  The houses and temples no longer have roofs, making the entire city appear as if it has some unfinished business going on. During the conquest of the Spanish, the royal family fled to Machu Picchu for a period of time before moving to another city to make their last stand.  The Spanish never knew of its existence and the ruins have miraculously remained largely intact.

Great crew, great view.

Great crew, great view.

Historians don’t know anything for certain about Machu Picchu.  After all there are no Incas around to give a firsthand account of their experience.  Jaydar provided theories that he and many other Qechuan people believe.  He believes that Machu Picchu was built upon the mountain because it is the perfect spiritual location for the Incan people.  They did not worship gods but rather their gods were aspects of nature.  The river, the mountain, and especially the sun were very important gods.  By building their holy city on top of a mountain (which they did not alter, they built the city using rocks that had fallen in avalanches thousands of years before.  This is why there are some seemingly random rock formations in the middle of the city because they are the undisturbed protrusions of the mountain itself.) placed them as close as possible to the sun in order to worship.

Enjoying an early morning before the hordes of tourists arrive by bus.

Enjoying an early morning before the hordes of tourists arrive by bus.

The Incas also had three animal deities that they worshiped: the snake, the puma, and the condor.  The snake represents the underworld, the puma the material world, and the condor the upper world of the gods.  Thus the condor is the most sacred animal to the Incas, so naturally they built their sacred city in the domain of the condor.  There is even a temple devoted to the condor within the city.  In the picture below you can see the extended wings of the condor in the rock formation and the face, beak, and plume of the condor carved into the ground.

The temple of the Condor.

The temple of the Condor.

The city itself was much smaller than I had anticipated and it is believed that somewhere between 300-400 people lived in the city at one time.  The city looks even more smaller from the top of Mt. Machu Picchu.  For an extra $7 we had the right to climb the steep stairs leading up to Mount Machu Picchu, the mountain after which the city was named by the American explorer who reported its existence in the early 1900’s.  After a long and arduous climb, even longer than the climb this morning, we reached the pinnacle and the amazing view it boasts.  From here you can get a better perspective of just how high up from the tiny river bed below the city lies.  Huge clouds of fog passed by intermittently, displaying how lucky we were to have a clear day for many hours.

The view from the top of Mt. Machu Picchu puts the altitude of the city into perspective.

The view from the top of Mt. Machu Picchu puts the altitude of the city into perspective.

Many people believe that there is a special energy to Machu Picchu.  In fact, it is claimed to represent one of the earth chakras (7 natural locations throughout the world believed to have naturally high concentrations of energy).  Whether this is true is only speculation.  But there can be no speculation that Machu Picchu was truly special to the ancient Incas and remains special to all those who visit these 600 years later.

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