08 May 2009

TETHER THE SUN - a trip to Machu Picchu

        Although this isn't strictly a story about my Peace Corps experiences, it belongs on this blog because I traveled to Peru on my way home from Brazil along with Don and Sharyn, Volunteers from my Peace Corps training group. At the Lima airport, waiting for our plane to Cuzco, we ran into friends of Don's from college who were serving in the Peace Corps in Colombia. In Pisac, we also encountered Van, another Volunteer from our own group, along with his cousin who had flown to South America to travel with him. During much of our trip, Peace Corps was definitely on our minds as we had just completed two years in Brazil.

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Sharyn trying a flute at the market in Pisac.
        If I had to recommend one place to visit in South America, it would be Machu Picchu in Peru.
        In July 1969, after exploring the museums in Lima, Don, Sharyn, and I took the one-hour flight to Cuzco (also spelled Cusco) where we spent several days acclimating ourselves to altitudes exceeding two miles. We hired a guide with an automobile to take us to spectacular Inca sights near Cuzco and spent one day shopping in nearby Pisac before moving on to the acclaimed ruins at Machu Picchu.
        Experts have never determined exactly when Machu Picchu was built or why it had been abandoned or why the city was founded in such an inaccessible location with little arable land.
        There are no paved access roads to Machu Picchu and the river at the base of the mountain is too shallow for navigation.  Experienced backpackers may chose strenuous hikes along ancient Inca footpaths, but most tourists opt for traveling by train. Trips of three to four hours leave daily from Cuzco. Local trains are reportedly dangerous for foreigners who may be robbed. Yet tourist trains deprive one of experiencing the local culture. Don, Sharyn, and I took the tourist train because we were unaware of the other.

Left: This train carries locals along the Urubamba River valley (not the tourist train.)

Right: Don (left) and Sharyn (middle) and I traveled together in Peru after completing our two-years as Peace Corps Volunteers in Brazil. At the market in Pisac, we ran into Van (middle back) who was also in our Peace Corps group, along with his cousin (right) who joined him to travel through South America.

        A few miles from Cuzco found us on zigzagging tracks designed to navigate steep hillsides. We traveled on one grade forward, then moved backward up the next, traversing five switchbacks out of the Cuzco Valley before descending toward Machu Picchu, lower in elevation than Cuzco by 3,000 feet. We were soon traveling beside the sacred Urubamba River in awe of the steep slopes on both sides which had been cultivated on stepped terraces built hundreds of years ago.
        Machu Picchu is referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas.” Arriving at the foot of the mountain we understood why it had long eluded explorers. Two thousand feet above us, the ruins were invisible. When Hiram Bingham of Yale University discovered them in 1911, the magnitude of his find escaped him at first. The ruins nestled on a saddle between Machu Picchu (Quechua for “old peak”) and the higher Huayna Picchu (“young peak”), had been so overgrown with jungle vegetation, that even from the summit only a few huts were visible. The following year Bingham returned. Without a road, workers transporting provisions found access to the site nearly impossible. (FYI: Indiana Jones was loosely based on Hiram Bingham.  Find more info HERE.)
        Although tourists used to be carried up the mountainside on mules, we boarded vans to make the steep ascent. Our driver whipped around hairpin curves making each forbidding turn a frightening memory until we encountered the Turista Hotel below the ancient ruins. The cool ancient air from the summit was so clear we could see far-distant, well-defined Andean peaks. The July day (winter south of the equator) was sunny, but crisp. I wore a turtle-neck under a sweater, feeling chilled in the shade and slightly too warm in the sun.
        We passed up an opportunity to join an expedition set to hike extremely steep steps to the Huayna peak. The climb takes about an hour and is supposed to provide a spectacular view.
        We ventured into the archaic ruins. The stone structures were generally intact much as they had been hundreds of years ago, except for their straw roofs which had rotted with time. 
        For hours, we wandered among the ruins, in and out of huts and between them on narrow paths, up and down hundreds of stone stairways. We examined what Bingham had called “the most beautiful wall in America” in the Temple of the Sun. We were astounded by aqueducts carved into the rocks which created a crude form of plumbing as well as an irrigation system.

        Everywhere we found perfect photo opportunities. A trapezoidal opening framed a mountain crest in the distance. A cylindrical observatory was silhouetted against the cerulean-blue sky. A llama posed proudly in the brilliant sun. Precise gray stonework contrasted with the acid-green grass between huts. A Peruvian child in a scarlet cap peaked through a trapezoid-shaped hole. Lush blue-green foliage on nearby mountains created a perfect backdrop. My snapshots of the ruins are some of the best photographs I have ever taken.
        There were more than one hundred tourists roaming in and out of the roofless stone temples and shrines, across plazas and open courtyards, climbing terraces, admiring steps carved into the natural rocks. Yet a silence prevailed, with visitors talking in hushed tones, or not speaking at all, as if in a cathedral. The effect was breathtaking, peaceful, arcane ---almost magical.
        Most visitors returned to Cuzco the same day, but we decided to spend the night. Before sunset, we climbed vertical steps to examine Inti Huantana, a carved stone standing sentinel on a high altar-like plateau, resembling a sundial casting a long, abstract shadow on the late afternoon. Scholars believe it was used by Inca priests as a mystical hitching post to tether the sun. An old man in traditional garb played his handmade flute below us. With those eerie tones as a backdrop, I could almost imagine a priest, arms raised upward, chanting an Inca invocation.
        Before retiring to our rooms at the Turista Hotel, we requested a predawn wake-up call so that we could experience the sun rising over the Andes Mountains.
        The morning air was cold and tentative, with clouds hovering in the early stillness. After climbing the trail behind the hotel, we sat on the summit to obtain a bird’s-eye-view of the ruins. The sun inched its way over the tops of distant peaks, slowly turning the stony grayness to yellow-gold while dissolving the mist. Watching the morning awake, I sat transfixed, gradually warmed by the sun, sensing a peaceful connection with the ancient past and engraving the haunting images of Machu Picchu on my mind.

Machu Picchu at dawn.
        After additional explorations of two square miles of ruins, we braved the hairpin curves downward. Despite our reckless driver, we arrived safely at the train for our return trip to Cuzco.
        Perhaps the Inca gods were with us.

(text and photos: © 2009 C.J. Peiffer)

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