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Published: March 28th 2008
We had been worried that after so many months of build-up, of seeing other people´s photos and hearing over and over again how incredible Machu Picchu
is, that the reality could be a little bit of a letdown, that we would feel like we should be more excited than we actually would feel upon seeing the world´s most famous pile of stones for ourselves.
We had nothing to worry about. The reality of Machu Picchu was so much more incredible than we could ever have imagined. The geographical setting is absolutely mindblowing, with the "Lost City of the Incas" nestled in between two huge green mountains, with a awe-inspiring view down two valleys...what a location they picked for themselves. And the city itself is unbelievably impressive and still very much intact for a structure built over 500 years ago. We found ourselves utterly speechless upon our first sight of it, and continued to utter "wow" over and over again for the rest of the day that we spent there.
We were unbelievably lucky with weather (we figured the weather gods felt bad about ruining our views of Christ the Redeemer, and they decided to more than make it up
You can really get an idea of how high up the settlement is in this shot
to us. Both Machu Picchu and the Christ statue made the new list of Wonders of the World, but I don´t really understand how you can compare the two...Machu blows Christo out of the water). It is the rainy season here and for many people who come to Maccu Picchu, the clouds get so thick that they can´t even see a few feet in front of them, let alone views of the incredible city. But when we arrived at 8 AM we were blessed with the absolutely perfect "postcard" view, and continued to enjoy Machu Picchu rain-and-cloud-free, walking around and occasionally finding a good spot to just post up and marvel at the site before us until noon, when we decided to get some overpriced lunch. Perfect timing, because as soon as we got under the shelter of the snack shack, a massive downpour began. Bad timing for all of the tour groups who had taken the train in from Cuzco, because not only was the rain pelting down, but the clouds had rushed in so that Machu Picchu was completely invisible. We felt really sorry for all these tourists who had spent so much time and money to get
From the entrance
Unbelievable how big it is
here, only to barely be able to see what they came for. On the otherhand, we couldn´t help feeling satisfied with ourselves and the fact that we´d done it right, making sure that we had arrived early enough to beat the afternoon rains.
Maybe we should backtrack a little, and do this in chronological order, but we wanted to start with the crème de la Peruvian crème, the crown Incan jewel, , the cream of our Cuzco crop, the funk, the sweet, the gushy stuff that is Machu Picchu, because frankly we´re not really sure how far you guys will read of this blog that is sure to be oh-so-long and we wanted to make sure we got that part in there. So last time we left off, we were in Sao Paulo. We flew from there to Lima, where we got our first taste of Peruvian kindness, as we had arrived late at night and our taxi driver could not locate the confusing address of our hostel but he drove around with us for 45 minutes possibly even more determined than us to find it, shouting out at people on the street to ask for directions and finally
we arrived to Pay Purix, ran by possibly the world´s nicest man, who gave us such a warm welcome before settling us into the most comfortable bunk beds we´d slept in, and then waking us up at 4 AM so we would be on time for our flight to Cuzco. He also armed us with several packets of coca-leaf tea and a baggy of raw coca leaves for chewing, in order to ward off Soroche, the altitude sickness that strikes many a traveler who arrives to Cuzco´s staggering altitude of 10800 ft above sea level. Cuzco
is a magical city, sprawled across a huge valley, filled with white colonial buildings with red roofs and narrow cobblestone streets filled with Indigenous women carrying heavy bundles on their back (often with filled with food, but sometimes you see the bundle wiggling around and realize there is a baby in there). Here is the South America that we had imagined in our heads. We spent several days here soaking up the atmosphere, enjoying the menu del dias (an amazing deal, and who doesn´t love a good deal, soup and/or salad, entreè and desert for about $2...most of the food was pretty good
Cuzco and the Plaza de Armas
As seen from our hostel´s balcony
too, although we tried alpaca--a relative of the llama and a popular pet/dish here--and found it too chewy and gamey, we weren´t fans) and checking out the nearby Incan sites such as Qurikancha, an old temple in town, and Sacsayhuaman ("sexy woman" as we like to call her, a really incredible display of stonework, if there was no such thing as Machu Picchu this place would be more famous).
One downside to Cuzco was the effects of the altitude. Though we loved the views from Samaq Wasi, our hostel perched high in the hills near the San Blas area of town, it was exhausting walking up there because we got hit pretty hard by the altitude. Even walking flat ground we got tired easily. We were constantly chewing coca leaves, bringing a supply with us everywhere we went, but if our supply happened to run out while we were out, we would instantly get struck with a piercing headache. No bueno. We can´t imagine how people were doing the Inca trail after only acclimatizing for two days. It took us close to four before we started feeling comfortable.
After much debate, we decided against taking the famous Inca
trail to Machu Picchu. A number of factors were involved, primarily the cost (the average price is $400 these days) and the fact that it is rainy season and a trek that would already be extremely difficult for two non-trekking people would be muddy and slippery, and the views we would be paying so much for were almost guaranteed to be obscured by clouds. Instead, we decided to make our own way there through the Sacred Valley.
We took a bus to Pisaq
early Sunday morning to catch an amazing indigenous market, lots of fruits, vegetables and crafts. Some of the women looked like they could be 200 years years old. Even though I guess they can´t really be that old, you can imagine that things have changed a lot from they were kids living in the village, before tourists swarmed in by the busloads to their Sunday market. We asked our taxi driver, who drove us from the market area up to the Pisaq ruins, if he found things now to be better or worse than when he was a kid growing up in Pisaq, and he said things were much better now, that tourism was so good
for the community. We were interested, because we were feeling a little conflicted about our role as tourists in this area where people are just so incredibly poor. More on that later.
The Pisaq ruins were amazing, perched high on a mountain, with a magnificent Inca citadel, terraces, water ducts and steps all cut out of solid rock. Again, if there was no Machu Picchu to compare these ruins to, they would be much more appreciated. From Pisaq, we took a bus to Urubamba, where we caught a tiny little 10-seater van that someone managed to fit 21 Peruvians and the two of us. Crazy, but we suppose it´s one of those quintessential South American experiences everyone´s supposed to have here. This clown car took us to Ollantaytambo
, another small town in the Sacred Valley with more Inca ruins, these ones consisting of a huge fortress carved into the mountain side.
Ollantaytambo is a really charming town with all the buildings built of pretty stone, and a nice main plaza where we found a health-food cafe owned by a British expat. All of the profits from her restaurant go to various community projects she has started, mostly for
Dyes for Peru´s famously colorful clothing
For a while, we thought the Alpacas came in Pink and Turquoise
women and children. Some women from the community also work in the cafe. To us, this cafe seemed like an example of one of the positive aspects of globalization, a subject on which we have found ourselves thinking about a lot since we arrived to the Cuzco and Sacred Valley area, but again, more later. It was rather strange though, to be in this tiny town of 2000 people where most people don´t even speak Spanish let alone English (they still speak the Indigenous language of Quechua), eating one of the best chickenburgers of our lives while reading Cosmo and The Economist while Jack Johnson´s music played in the background. It seems sometimes that no matter where you go, you´re never really that far from home, despite the mileage.
That night we took the Backpacker´s Train from Ollaytaytambo to Aguas Calientes
, also known as "Machu Picchu Town" due to its location 6 km away from the world famous ruins. We thought that Lonely Planet was unessessarily harsh on Aguas Calientes, calling it the world´s ugliest town or something like that. While it does look remarkably favela-like, we´ve seen plenty towns with structures equally as ugly and none of them
Advanced terracing, at this very impressive ruin site.
can compete with a location as stunningly beautiful as Aguas Calientes, surrounded by gorgeous green mountains and a mesmerizing river with the most furious rapids we have ever seen. The only reason to stay here though is so you can get up early and take a 20 minute bus ride up to Machu Picchu before the hordes of tourists start pouring in and hopefully before the rains start pouring down, both of which don´t make for good pictures.
Our mission was accomplished and we got to enjoy Machu Picchu in all of its glory with sweet tranquility and just enough mist for everything to be visible yet mysterious. Though the rain and clouds rolled in at noon, it eventually calmed down and we found a perfect bench under a thatched roof inside the park to just sit and ponder the Picchu for several hours. We definitely see why this place was voted a "wonder of the world." We got back on our train to Ollaytaytambo that night knowing that on that day we had witnessed something truly amazing and, dare I say, spiritual.
The last day we spent in Cuzco we discovered that we were finally fully adjusted
This courtyard in this Incan temple turned church used to be completely covered with gold...until the Spanish stole it all. How typical of them.
to the altitude and were able to give up our dependence on the coca leaves. The thing we never got used to about Cuzco was the strange atmosphere created by tourism. We are not the kind of travelers (of which there are many) that are inately bothered by so-called "touristy" places, since we recognize that we are tourists too, and also that there are benefits like a plethora of nice places to eat and sleep. There are also some obvious reasons why some places are where the tourists go, like their natural beauty or proximity to sites such Machu Picchu. That being said, while Cuzco certainly has beautiful architecture and a charming atmosphere there is also a sense of...phony authenticity. It´s not fake exactly, because these are real preserved buildings from colonial times and many indigenous people really do still dress in traditonal clothing but...you sometimes get the feeling that you are in this bubble created for your entertainment...a Disneyland of sorts...and I LOVE Disneyland...but it´s just kind of...strange. The Cuzco where the travelers stay, where every other shop inside a pretty colonial building is tour agency or restaurant or internet cafe or hostel, is not the same Cuzco where
the people from the city actually live. You don´t really ever need to leave the part of the city set up for tourism, the old town, where all the old churches are, but if you do ever happen to go through the rest of the city you can see that it´s not kept up as nicely and things just don´t seem as magical as they do over in your part of town.
And it´s also somewhat uncomfortable when (literally) every step you take, someone is trying to sell you something. You can give a sole (Peruvian currency) each to the little girls with the alpaca or baby lamb who beg you to take pictures with them, but there is no way to appease every person who solicits you--the young man with artwork depicting scenes of Machu Picchu or grabbing your arm to pull you into his restaurant for the menu del dia, the old women weaving sweaters and belts, the young women offering massages, the older men pedalling cigarettes...you smile politely and say "no gracias" so much that it almost becomes exhausting. It´s hard not to question your position as tourist--whether just being
here has put these people in
Sarah with a lamb
An example of the children who hound you for pictures all day...we couldn´t resist
this position where they so desparetely want your money and are forced to create a sort of caricature of their culture, playing the role of the local natives in colorful apparel.
As I hinted earlier, we have been pondering the concept of globalization a lot lately (and have put this part at the end of the blog because we figured our rambling may bore you) and we have decided that it is not at all a black and white issue. We both consider ourselves extremely liberal, and many liberals seem to strongly denounce globalization and clearly there are many negative aspects to it, and you worry that you´re taking advantage of them and that they´re all going to lose their real culture and start dressing like Britney Spears and eating McDonald´s all the time. But...it does seem more than a little condescending for Westerners to lament the loss of the ¨good old days¨ in the Sacred Valley when life was so much more simple. The taxi driver we talked to, for example, really believes that the quality of life is much higher now that there is tourism in his town. And who are we to say that the poor
Peruvians don´t know what is best for them? It seems like many of the people in this area have no desire to be preserved as specimens in an antrohropological museum. Tourism brings modernity, which certainly has negative aspects, but modernity has postives too, like better health care, women´s rights, water purification, education, etc. Of course, there are probably many situations where foreigners take advantage of the locals and use up their energy and resources without trying to better their situation, but if you make sure your money goes to the right places, to the locals, then maybe tourism is not such a bad thing. The people in the area can and do maintain many aspects of their indigenous culture (langague, clothing, food, dance, art, song) while integrating themselves into the new millenium and maybe even sharing some of that culture with the tourists in a more authentic way.
Annnnyway...Cuzco, the Sacred Valley and Machu Picchu were incredible places to be, we saw so many amazing and beautiful sights and people. This period of our trip has in many ways been the most eye-opening so far, definitely a week that we will remember well for the rest of our lives.
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