Friday, July 24, 2009

Machu Picchu

We awoke at 4:45 am to get in line for the bus to Machu Picchu- a long line of people hoping to get the first glimpse of the famous Inca citadel. As we climbed towards Machu Picchu, the surrounding mountains were covered in thick cloud creating an eerie and mysterious aura. As we entered the ruins, we could only see the Inca formations through a cloudy haze. After an hour, the fog begin to lift and the majesty of Machu Picchu finally revealed itself.

In the background, Huayna Picchu mountain towers over the massive fortress of Machu Picchu which in its hey day hosted the Inca king and his family. Felix gave us a tour of the ruins, including the Temple of the Three Windows, the Temple of the Condor and the Temple of the Sun. He explained how slaves built the terraces and how they transported and smoothed the rocks for construction. It is believed that during the time the Incas abandoned the fortress to keep it hidden from the Spanish, it was still under construction.

We walked around the metropolis for hours, absorbing the energy and magnificent views of the city. We marveled at its scale and the strength of its people who, through personal sacrifice, protected it from destruction.

Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu

I was lucky to have my two friends Lorie and Lindsay Coker join me for the 5 day Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu. This trek is sometimes called "the other Inca trail" and it took us through the highlands of the Andes to a challenging climb between the magnificent Huamantay and Salkantay mountains. After descending through cloudforest and rainforest we would arrive at Aguas Calientes, the gateway to the incredible ruins of Machu Picchu.

A Canadian named Vaughan joined us along with our guide Felix, nicknamed "Gato", a cook, Herbert, and two porters, Fabian and Tomas, who were very appreciated for the endless support and great food they provided. Every day we had three vegetarian meals with fresh local vegetables and fruit. Before dinner we played cards and we went to bed after taking in the beautiful stars and llama constellations that we'd never seen before. Besides a day pack, the majority of our things were carried by strong mules which Herbert, Tomas and Fabian lead past us everyday in order to set up lunch or camp for the night.

When we asked Felix, what the name of our outfitter 'Apus Peru' meant, he said that 'apu' is the spirit or god of a mountain and each mountain in the Andes has its own apu. We found this word and belief pervasive in the Peruvian culture and eventually in our own minds after facing the majestic mountains ourselves. Salkantay mountain is the second highest mountain in the Peruvian Andes at 20,569 feet. After acclimating at our first campsite, we spent 3 hours scaling a mountainside of intense switchbacks to arrive at the Salkantay Pass- a 15,000 foot plateau between Huamantay and Salkantay. It was extraordinary. The glacial peaks were engulfed in violent white cloud and there was a stillness in the space between the mountains. Perhaps it was due to the 50% less oxygen available but the view was absolutely breathtaking.

As we descended, the scenery was no less beautiful. We passed huge boulders covering steep hills, tranquil streams flowing past small straw homes, and eventually the start of the jungle. We welcomed the colorful flowers and vegetation as much as the abundant oxygen in the air. After camping in the rainforest, we continued our descent drawing closer and closer to a raging river. At our third campsite we went to an expansive hot springs where we had our first bath in three days. The next day we walked into the town of Aguas Calientes along train tracks where we had beautiful views of Machu Picchu and Huaynu Picchu. We had a celebratory last dinner together in the town before heading to bed in anticipation of the climactic Inca ruins the next day.

Sacred Valley of the Incas

With Cusco as our base camp, we set out to explore the Sacred Valley of the Incas, a vast landscape with incredible Inca ruins that scale mountains along the Urubamba river valley. Our first stop was Pisac, a fortress built high on the mountainside above a small town. We climbed up for hours among large terraces the Incas built for agriculture and to prevent erosion. After some grueling switchbacks, we arrived at castle-like buildings called Pisaqa where curving walls with finely shaped windows peer over the valley. We followed a path to Intihuatan, a large group of temples with beautiful rock masonry. There were water channels, solstice markers, and rock walls that were awe-inspiring. We walked through a tunnel to the Q'Allaqasa military fort which we explored before starting our descent, passing a group of dilapidated buildings that once housed Inca families.

The next morning we explored the Moray ruins. After a surprisingly short bus ride, we got off in what we thought was Cincero, a gateway town to the ruins, but which was actually a small town 30 minutes short of Cincero. Luckily, we hitched a ride with a nice Peruvian man who stopped to show us a beautiful lookout before taking us all the way to the ruins. The Moray ruins are a series of circular terraces that form several amphitheaters. Each level is said to have its own micro-climate. Clay stood in the bottom circle while I stood on the top level and, through song, we experienced the auditory depths of these mystifying ruins.

After climbing out of Moray, we jumped into a cheap 'colectivo' on its way to Ollantaytambo, which, although terrifying, got us to the town in record time. From the town we approached the ruins which spanned both sides of the valley walls. Ollantaytambo is a temple fortress believed to have been the home of Emperor Pachacuti who was the reigning Inca king during the building of Machu Picchu. The enormous rocks were carried up the steep mountainside and then shaped into smooth sturdy walls. Several rocks were left unfinished, reputedly because slaves quit in the middle of what must have been a near impossible construction project.

On day three of our self-guided Sacred Valley tour, we rose at 6:00am to ensure an early arrival at Sacsayhuamán. This beautiful fortress -or temple, experts disagree- of humongous limestone boulders carved in unique forms to create earthquake-proof walls. The largest of the stones weighs up to 200 tons. We walked along the undulating terraced walls and imagined what an intimidating and massive fort it must have been 1000 years ago.

After wandering for days among steep terraces, huge rock walls, and massive fortresses, the mystery and the majesty of the Sacred Valley of the Incas stays with you.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Birthday in Cusco

We had heard about possible Peruvian roadblocks ever since Villa Tunari. People were saying that the road between Puno and Cusco was closed and nobody knew when it would reopen. We got different information from everyone we asked so we decided to try our luck and head to Puno. On our bus ride from Copacabana, the bus driver assured us that the road was open until the 7th when there would be another strike. We had enough time to visit the islands but we wanted to to get to Cusco before the situation changed. We decided to take a night bus on the 3rd which left Puno at 10:00 pm. We knew it was only 6 hours to Cusco but we hoped the driver might take it slow so we wouldn't get in at 4:00 am. He didn't- the driver sped the whole way and we got in at 3:30am. Temple had made a reservation at a hostel and emailed the owner Eddie that we'd be getting in late/early. He said it was fine and that he would wait for us around 4:00. We got a taxi from the bus station. Many of the streets in Cusco deadend at stairs so our driver dropped us off at the stairs closest to the hostel. We climbed up and found the blue door to Hospedaje Samaq T´ikaq.

We rang the doorbell. No response. Rang again. Nothing. It's 4:00 am and we have nowhere else to go. Then we heard a voice, "Are you staying with Eddie? I'm amigo of Eddie." Channing was just leaving a local bar when he saw our predicament. He walked over to the blue door, rang the bell and banged a few times. Then he said, "Eddie is dreaming in other world." Temple had written down Eddie's number, so we walked down to the plaza to find a pay phone. Thankfully, Channing had change to use for the machine since we only had bills. Turns out that the pay phones are difficult to work or Channing was just really drunk. After a few times of getting the coins returned, we got the phone to ring. Unfortunately, we called a random lady asking for Eddie. After more failed attempts at dialing, Channing said he knew a place we could stay. Bravely, we followed him across Plaza San Blas and down the hill. We became quiet after we took a left down a dark street. We continued to walk as Channing told us that his mother always said he was an angel without wings. We hoped so. We finally arrived at an even darker alley, which he said was the place. Once again we followed.

At 4:30 he rapped on someone's bedroom window. "I have two travelers who need a room." A light came on and soon the front door opened to a sleepy-eyed Don Pedro. We thanked him repeatedly as he showed us to our room, a cosey place with two twin beds. We continued to thank him and Channing profusely before quickly falling asleep. We awoke the next morning to talking and cheering outside the door- turns our it was Mrs. Pedro's birthday. Still confused about last night -and a bit embarrased about the hour- we said good morning and left for the day to explore Cusco.

After a day of plazas, churches and museos we returned to our hospedaje. Pedro's daughter said "perfect timing we were just about to sing." We assumed that after a day of partying they were going to sing Happy Birthday. As the family began to gather in the hallway, we suddenly heard music coming from the once dark alley. An entire mariachi band, complete with sombreros, was playing outside and the birthday girl was loving it. She even took the sombrero off of the lead singer´s head to wear it. After a few songs we applauded, thinking it was the end of the show but they continued playing while they entered the house. Mama and Pedro started dancing, then she danced with her grown children, then her grandchildren. Then she grabbed Temple on to the dance floor. Finally, it was my turn.

When she had danced with everyone in the house. Pedro sang her a love song backed up by the band. Everyone then went to the backyard for celebratory Pisco Sours. We gave "saluds" to the birthday girl and the family toasted us and the 4th of July. They had a never ending supply of Pisco Sour and kept refilling our glasses for more saluds. The band had changed out of their costumes and were cracking jokes and drinking. The guitar player turned out to be one of Mama's sons. Soon dinner was served and the celebration continued. Everyone insisted that we eat and drink more. They told us about their family, we told them about our travels.

We couldn't believe that less than 24 hours before we were homeless in Cusco and now we had found a family.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Family Time on Amantani Island

After a three hour boat ride on Lago Titicaca, we arrived on Amantani island where 800 Quechua families live in adobe houses on small farms. Most of the people grow quinoa, wheat, potatoes or beans. There is no electricity or cars on this 4-mile-long island. The locals run a collective whereby they bring tourists to the island and house them on a rotating basis to supplement their traditional lifestyles.

Clay and I were set up with the Quiespe family to spend the night and experience their way of life. We first met 23 year-old Maria Luz whose adorable son was always close behind. Her mother, Benita, was the main cook and handicraft designer of the family. The women were both beautiful with long dark braids, large cheek bones and big smiles. Luckily, they all spoke Spanish so we could converse and really get to know them. We were shown to our charming, spacious room through a four foot blue Malcovich door and shortly after were greeted by Alonso, the man of the house. He was very gregarious and immediately welcomed us into his family. "Our family is 5, but now it is 7," he said. Their son Americo was away at school in Puno and Ruth Maria, their 13 year old daughter, would return later that night from a sports match at the nearby island of Taquile. Alfonso was eager to take us around the house. He showed us the different potatoes they grow- in Peru there are hundreds of types of potatoes- in addition to beans and corn. We saw his flock of sheep and the section of the house he is currently building with adobe bricks. The house had one small solar panel which gave them the little electricity they needed. The whole place was very charming and peaceful.

We went to the small kitchen for a lunch of quinoa soup followed by cooked potatoes and a cheese and vegetable salad. We ate alone at the small table but made conversation with the family. Benita brought us fresh mint for tea and then showed us her small collection of stitched hats and bracelets of which we bought several. It was then time to explore the island. Alfonso offered us a ride up to the temples on his and his neighbor´s horses. Clay and I greeted our not-so-friendly stallions, mine named Torpedo and Clay's yellow horse oddly named Chocolate. We were soon being guided by their owners up the steep cobblestone paths while the horses received frequent smacks from sticks- no wonder they were not the friendliest of beasts. The ride was not so relaxing but we were grateful to avoid an hour and a half uphill hike and to be the first at the temple of Pacha Tata.

Pacha Tata and Pacha Mama, Earth Father and Mother Earth, are the pre-Inca temples sitting on the two high peaks of Amantani which are dedicated to fertility. The large hills are covered by small square farms enclosed by four foot stone walls. On the steep stone stairway up to the temple, we were immediately greeted by adorable local children selling bracelets. We bought what we could with what we had left after Benita's wares. At Pacha Tata we enjoyed the beautiful views of the island and the lake. According to legend, if you walk around the temple three times and make a wish to Pacha Tata, it will come true. After making our wishes, we sat to watch the sunset across the lake. We walked up the next hill to the Pacha Mama temple and watched the moon and stars glow as everything else grew dark. Under the moonlight we walked back to Alfonso's house to greet the family for dinner.

Dinner was another delicious quinoa soup and vegetable platter followed by coca mate. Ruth Maria was excited to take us to the main plaza to dance to traditional folkloric music. When we went upstairs to throw on more layers, she followed. She threw a thick wool poncho on Clay and when I bent down to receive my poncho, I realized it was a beautifully embroidered blouse and that I was going to be wearing a traditional Quechua woman's outfit! After the shirt came a thick, red skirt falling in folds to mid-calf, an embroidered striped belt tied high around my waist and a black head scarf embroidered with flowers. All of the clothes were made by Alfonso and Benita and I felt very honored, though bulky, wearing them. We were off to the plaza where a 5 man band played songs with drums and pan flutes while other gringos in traditional garb danced in circles with their new family members. Ruth Maria was a great dancer and we had fun improvising moves and twirling in our skirts.

The next morning, after delicious wheat pancakes, we said our goodbyes to our extremely generous and warm hosts. We took some pictures and shared hugs. We could not say gracias enough for the wonderful experience we had and as we pulled off the dock we waved goodbye to Amanatani and the Quiespe family.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Floating Islands of Los Uros

We set sail from Puno, Peru on a collectivo motor boat headed to a nearby cluster of floating islands known as Los Uros. Each island is made of hollow totora reeds which the Uros people replenish weekly with new reeds from the lake. The Uros people are one of the oldest surviving indigenous groups in Peru and are thought to be descendants of the Tiwanaku empire. In their incredible world of over 40 islands supporting around 5 families each, everyone speaks Aymara, an official language of Peru and Bolivia. We listened to an explanation in Spanish of how the islands are built with the reeds stacked on top of connected dirt blocks. We visited their small reed houses and took a short ride on a traditional totora reed boat. The experience was otherworldly.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Isla del Sol

At 12,500 feet above sea level, Lake Titicaca, which means "Gray Puma" in Quechua, is the highest navigable lake in the world. Our boat left early from Copacabana, Bolivia to get to Isla del Sol, the largest and most sacred island on Lake Titicaca. After an hour we arrived and climbed its rocky southern side to see the ruins of Pilco Kaima, a former palace and retreat for the Inca. The origin story of the Incas tells us that the almighty Sun God Inti and the Moon God were born out of Lago Titicaca and Manco Capac, the first Inca and son of Inti, was born on this island. Alejandro gave us a great tour of the ruins and an understanding for the spiritual importance of this place, to which many Aymara and Quechua people make pilgrimages each year. After our return trip we enjoyed a beautiful sunset in Copacabana.