Monday, January 24, 2011

Our Trip to Peru Part III (Cuzco and Machu Picchu)

The city of Cuzco nestled in the Andes.
(continued from part II)
Our local travel agent met us at the airport and after a few minute ride back into town we arrived at our hotel. We stayed at the Hotel Los Andes de America, a Best Western of all things. The hotel was in a great location, just a short walk to the main plaza and the hotel had a great center courtyard to sit and enjoy a meal or a cup of coffee before or after a day of adventuring around the city.

Upon arrival to our hotel, we were handed a cup of coca tea, made from coca leaves, to enjoy during the check-in process. Cuzco is at an elevation of between 11,000 and 12,000 feet, depending on where you are and whose stats your reading. The locals swear that coca tea is excellent at preventing altitude sickness. I'm not sure if there is any validity to that assertion, but I can say that neither Nancy or I had any trouble with altitude sickness and we did drink the tea.

Nancy and I chose to walk around Cuzco and found it to be a safe and pleasurable experience. We were in our early thirties when we took the trip and in reasonable health but even at that, walking around at that altitude can still get you winded pretty quickly. If you think it could be a problem, take a cab, they are fairly plentiful and fairly reasonably priced.

The city is filled with old world charm and street vendors are numerous. Bargains can be had on alpaca sweaters, hats, gloves, art and jewelry. American dollars are accepted everywhere as well as the native Sol.

Cuzco is the traditional starting point of the Inca Sun Trail, a 4 day hike through the Andes down to the ancient Inca city of Machu Picchu. Nancy and I were not adventurous enough to attempt the hike so we opted for the train ride. At the time we were there, the train ride took about 2.5 hours and was excellent! It seems they have since added a shorter route that takes only 90 minutes to reach Aguas Calientes, but if I were to do it again, I would still take the longer windy route. The train winds it's way through the Sacred Valley, passing through tiny villages along the way. On the train are troubadours and vendors dressed in traditional Peruvian garb. Time passes quickly, and before you know it you are in Aguas Calientes, a small village at the foot of Machu Picchu.

This was the one part of the trip I did not care for. As soon as you exit the train you are bombarded with people selling tourist junk. The path from the train to the buses that bring you up the switchbacks to Machu Picchu is lined with tourist-trap junk vendors. Hold onto your wallet.

Once on board the bus, the trip up to the top of Machu Picchu is fairly quick. As the bus travels along the narrow switchbacks carved into the shear sides of the mountain, think about the fact that, when this city was in it's prime, nearly everything needed to live had to be carried by hand up this mountain. There was no water source at the top of the mountain. Water was either captured from the rain or carried by hand. Some food was grown on the terraces carved into the mountain sides but much of it was, again, carried by hand from the valley below.

It was once believed that these terraces were carved for the purpose of growing crops, many now believe that it is more likely they were carved to prevent erosion and land slides.
There is one hotel adjacent to Machu Picchu, The Sanctuary Lodge if you wish to stay there you must make your reservations well in advance of your trip. If you do stay there you will be afforded the rare opportunity to remain in Machu Picchu after all the other tourists are taken away by the last shuttle bus. You will also have an opportunity to watch the sun rise over the ancient Inca city before any other tourists arrive. It is amazing to wander the city with so few others around. Truly breathtaking.

One of the few remaining Sacrificial Alters. When the Spanish invaded, they smashed all that they found. Since Machu Picchu was so well hidden high atop the mountains, the Spanish never found this one.

The engineering is exquisite. Each stone was carefully carved to fit perfectly with the next. Construction this intricate is simply not found anywhere today.
For those who feel extremely adventurous, there is a a trail that leads to Huyan Picchu, a much smaller portion of the city built even higher on an adjacent peak. The trail is very steep and treacherous and should not be attempted by anything but expert hikers.

View of Machu Picchu from Huyan Picchu.
Stay tuned for Our Trip to Peru Part IV (Iquitos and the Amazon)

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