[061001; 1637 UTC,
[Bahía de Caráquez, Manabí, Ecuador
S 00 degrees 36.61 / W 080 degrees 25.26’]
Even though we call this a Passage Note it should more accurately be called an "Inland Passage Note". On August 20, with Jake and our boat under the care of friends on the vessels Ceilidh and Moonsong, we boarded a "Reina" bus bound for Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, a six hour ride. As in many poor South American countries, buses are the predominant means of travel and, because of this, "Terminal Terrestes" (for terminals serving land travel) are large and busy. Guayaquil's huge terminal is under construction and when completed, will be a behemoth pyramidal-shaped concrete structure about 1000 feet long and reach perhaps six or seven levels (it's hard to tell). The temporary terminal is almost as enormous, housing dozens of bus companies and cooperatives in metal temporary buildings all clustered under a stadium-sized high metal roof. Electronic signs listed some departures and big screen TVs flashed MTV and other features as hundreds of passengers marched to and fro.
Guayaquil, named for Guayas and Quill, respectively, who were a great Puna chief and his wife, sits at the north end of the Golfo de Guayaquil. It is a busy shipping port that has struggled to overcome a reputation as seedy, ugly and dangerous by embarking on an impressive, expensive waterfront improvement project called Malecón 2000. The project stretches along a 2-3 km of the Rio Guayas riverfront from the partially renovated Las Peñas neighborhood on steep Cerro Santa Ana, past a massive museum, an IMAX theatre, upscale restaurants, amazing gardens with mesmerizing flowing water, monuments and parks and stretches towards the south end at a small shopping center. We arrived on a Sunday and were amazed at the thousands of people of all ages who were simply strolling along the waterfront walkways enjoying the afternoon and the sites. One interesting Malecón 2000 amusement seems little known; a semicircular marble wall that frames a statue of Bolivar and San Martin who met here in 1822 to discuss how each might proceed to liberate South America. The wall acts like an acoustic reflector, propagating a whisper along its length that can be heard on the other end some 50 feet away. We tried it and it works! Little else in Guayaquil attracted us (particularly our hotel which, though recommended by friends, was home to roaches) and we were happy to be on our way to Peru the following morning at 0720.
Between Guayaquil and the frontera (border) with Peru, the land is flat and agriculture fuels the economy. Rice patties are particularly abundant and piles of golden rice sat drying in piles on tarmac slabs while gulls and chickens and dogs walked around and over. (Advice - rinse your rice a number of times and boil it thoroughly!) Slowly the land became more dry, dusty and barren, particularly after crossing into Peru on the Panamerican Highway at Peru's Aguas Verdes. Arriving in the "frontier" town of Tumbes, we were immediately accosted by drivers of three wheeled motorcycle "taxis", sporting open seating. With visions of the carnage that might ensue if we were sideswiped by a typical crazy Peruvian driver, we chose a car taxi instead. We asked the taxi driver, Ricardo, to go to the airport, but instead he insisted that we needed to confirm our flight at the AeroCondor office. The office personnel told us our flight was delayed (a frequent occurrence apparently) and that there would be no one even at the airport at this hour. They urged us to go to Puerto Pizarro for lunch just north of the airport (out of town) and, with Ricardo smiling broadly, we were then launched on an expensive lesson. This excursion required we obtain Soles (the Peruvian currency) since USD wouldn't be accepted in such a small town. We stopped at a bank ATM (called a "cajero" here) were we obtained 200 Soles. One of the bills turned out to be a counterfeit 50 Sole note (worth about $16). The bill was an excellent counterfeit and we didn't discover it was a "falta" until long after we'd left the bank premises.
Puerto Pizarro isn't pretty, it's poor and dusty, but it sits amongst mangroves that are now protected in the interest of wildlife. A waterfront restoration project was underway and wildlife tours were available but the streets were filthy and full of ruts and garbage. Ricardo insisted on staying with us because he said it would be difficult or impossible to find another taxi back to the airport, so we lunched beside the tranquil estuary in view of local fishing boats. Perhaps we should've sent him on his way (after talking later with others who experienced the same thing) but we were vulnerable to his warnings of the prevalence of ladrones (pickpockets and sneaky bag slashers in particular) who prey upon tourists. (Reportedly, a stolen US or EU passport yields $600 on the black market.) After lunch, as we finally proceeded to the airport, our taxi pulled off into the dust along side the Panamerican to buy gasoline which was sold in gallon milk bottles by a suspicious looking hombre. Ricardo asked us for $10 to pay for the gas; we refused and grudgingly gave him $3 in addition to the fare already agreed upon. Because we were out of town and without alternative transport, we had no choice and choked on our lesson - agree upon a destination and price and don't let a trip "evolve".
The Tumbes airport terminal, located (what seemed like) miles from the nearest other building down a long, barely-paved road, was indeed empty when we arrived. We paid our extortion to Ricardo and he suggested we give him a tip. We wanted to suggest he pound sand down a rat hole but instead just said "no!" and walked away. A bored looking security guard seemed relieved to see us, perhaps because we would offer the flies other targets to bother. Slowly, oh so slowly, over the hours, others arrived and soon the tiny airport was filled with dozens of people who had waited for hours for the delayed flight. Eventually, AeroCondor's professional staff and security arrived and assembled themselves and by about 2200 hrs, we were on our way to Lima on a beautiful, well-maintained Boeing 737. We arrived in Lima around midnight and decided it made no sense to go to our hostel since our flight to Cusco left at 0600. Finding a couple of "comfy" plastic airport chairs, we instead dosed until 0330 when we began to see life around the TACA airline check in.
We landed at the Cusco airport (11,107 feet above sea level) before the city was fully awake. Cusco (called Qosqo by the Incas), is the former capital of the Inca empire, and had bright clear skies and crystal clean air. Our trekking company, Llamapath sent a van and a representative to meet us and she brought us to Loki Backpackers Hostel, where we'd previously reserved a room. Loki occupies a 400 year old adobe building that has been both a monastery and, more recently, a squatters' haven. The hostel sits at the top of a hill on a steep cobbled street with a view of the main plaza of Cusco, the Plaza de Armas. It was breakfast time and our room was not yet ready for us, so we were given a tour of the adobe building of two courtyards, internet room, kitchen, restaurant, and then invited to have complimentary tea and fresh, wood-fired, oven-baked rolls at the large communal trestle tables in the restaurant. Brisk mountain air filled the ancient room which was adorned with original frescoes painted directly on adobe. Sustained but exhausted from our journey, we took advantage of the cool morning to walk downhill to the city center. We stopped our exploration frequently to take photos as we were awed by the city's vibrancy and colonial Spanish/Inca architecture. Much to our delight we stumbled upon a parade assembling outside the cathedral on the eastern side of the Plaza de Armas. A statue of a golden-robed deity (probably the Virgin Mary) sat on an intricately carved cedar wood dais which was supported by a dozen men dressed neatly in white shirts, finely knit navy vests and navy slacks. Flowers of many different varieties and scores of potatoes (!) covered the lower part of the dais. We saw this as an example of a kind of Pagan Catholicism, common in Peru, where Catholic rituals are modified to incorporate indigenous beliefs and local spirits.
It is difficult to describe the beauty and pageantry of this very cultural parade (check out our website photos), but hundreds of people of all ages paraded around the square with a few or dozens to each group dressed in different, elaborate costumes and who rhythmically danced to instruments they carried. One group's outfits reminded us of a type of costume we'd seen in Andean Ecuador—long-haired, pink-faced, blue-eyed masked men and women, presumably depicting soldiers, carried long black batons and wore elaborate red costumes covered with sequins and crowned with long feathers. The performers danced, and dipped, and spun as they proceeded along. Another group of middle-aged indigenous women in small, wool pork-pie hats, wide multilayered skirts and brilliant pink shawls with long fringe, swished as they swung their wide hips and arms and produced a rhythmic clicking with the wooden boxes they carried. Men dressed in wide lapel, double-breasted suits with 1940's vintage fedoras on their heads performed a similar dance step to the women. Costumed men, playing various musical instruments, including flutists wearing bright, knit wool caps, brought up the rear of the parade. An odd addition to the otherwise regal proceedings were men dressed in alpaca skins and carrying whips wearing tight white sock heads with sharply pointed noses. These characters reminded us of the clowns who herded the partygoers during a fiesta in Peguche, Ecuador.
Thrilled but still suffering the effects of traveling and altitude, we started to set off (uphill) back to our hostel to check in and get settled. Altitude and sleep deprivation quickly took their toll as we realized that attempting to walk up even the most minute incline made us feel like our heads or our lungs (or both) would burst. Perhaps it was dizziness, but instead of heading right back we stayed longer downtown and enjoyed almuerzo (lunch) on a small balcony one level up and overlooking the street. The Andean fare was tasty and abundant but later on, with our full bellies, we huffed and puffed even more on our way back to our hilltop hostel. How, we mused, would we be able to hike the 43 kilometer Inca Trail when we were having so much difficulty just getting home after lunch?
Our trek to the "lost Inca city" of Machu Picchu was the principle reason we were in Peru, so we were cognizant of our need to acclimatize to this altitude. Cusco's elevation is higher than that of Machu Picchu itself, but the "classic trek", the one we'd booked, traveled 43 km and traversed a pass of over 13,340+ feet in elevation. Yes, we were walking to Machu Picchu over four days in thin air and this first morning at altitude, we could barely walk across the street—this was a serious problem! Rest, drink fluids and take it easy for a few days we were coached, so easy we decided was for us. Canceling a planned whirlwind City Tour for the next day, we decided to tour at our own pace, though climbing (uphill) to the Inca fortress at Sacsaywaman which sits prominently above Cusco, was not exactly a "take it easy" tour.
Sacsaywaman or Sacsayhuaman (Quechua is not a written language so variations occur for almost all site names), was probably a temple rather than a fortress but its location high above Cusco and its massive zigzag stone walls were considered difficult to penetrate by the greedy Spanish invaders who were seeking to plunder gold. Rocks weighing up to a score of tons make up Sacsaywaman's walls where mortar-free joints are perfectly formed—there are no gaps large enough for even the point of a knife blade to penetrate (Philip tried). Most of these rocks were likely quarried onsite as there are outcroppings with large rectangular gaps where cut stones were removed from ledges. The Incas, however, had no wheels and no metal harder than bronze, so how they produced the nearly perfect stonework for their structures is still a subject of study and debate.
While at Sacsaywaman, and at most ruins in the area, we encountered small groups of people selling crafts. Beautiful woman and children dressed in their everyday traditional dress wait near the parking areas of historic sites primarily for the arrival of tour buses. As we were leaving Sacsaywaman on the day we visited, the sun was hidden by clouds and a brisk cold wind had begun to blow, causing the vendors to huddle. Nearby two tiny girls in miniature, full, frilly, woolen dresses were walking hand in hand across the lawn and one had a live kestrel (a small raptor) perched on the top of her traditional flat hat! Stopping to take note of the scene and say something to the girls, the older girl looked up at us and with a dramatic pout and a steady stare she said clearly in English "No photos!" Smiling we said, "No queremos un photo, gracias" (we do not want a photo, thank you) as she continued past us dragging her little sister, turning to pierce us with one last defiant stare.
Asking for money for taking photographs is actually very common in Peru (and also in Ecuador). There are debates about the ethics of this, but after talking with locals, we decided we'd probably want to give the poorest of these people a small donation anyway, so under selected circumstances we would pay for photos. Not an hour later on our hike back (down, thankfully!) to Cusco, we were met on the road by a beautiful woman with a spotted alpaca. She immediately stopped, smiled and posed and asked if we would take her picture as her alpaca was lovely and unusual. They were BOTH beautiful and together they were perfect, so we looked at each other and then asked her "¿cuanto cuesta? (how much does it cost?), to which she smiled sweetly and replied, "una donación si usted desea (a donation if you wish)". Who could argue with that?
Cusco was the center of the power of the Inca Empire—the Quechua word Qosqo means "navel of the earth"—but the nearby valley of the Rio Urubamba, known as Vilcanota by the Incas, was sacred. The Incas believed the Urubamba was the twin of the celestial river, the Milky Way, and built temples and fortresses on the hillsides above the productive floodplain. Two days after arriving in Cusco, we joined a tour of the Sacred Valley which was lead by Pilar Salas Farfán, a professional tour guide who speaks English, Spanish and German. The tour was 11 hours and included the magnificent sites of Pisac and Ollantaytambo, with craft market stops in Pisac and C'orao and a final stop in Chincero. Pilar was dressed to hike and hike is what we did as the Incas did not do "flat". Up and down on narrow stony Inca roads that sometimes fell hundreds of feet to the terrace or valley below, we had to hustle to keep up with our guide whose knowledge of the sites and the significance of the symbolism was amazing.
Ollantaytambo particularly awed us. The town is tiny but the scenery overwhelming. The ruins here are extensive and well preserved; some Inca residential compounds, called "canchas", are actually still inhabited by indigenous people. Sitting perched above the valley flood plain at the top of a dizzying climb up steep terraces, the unfinished (plundered?) sun temple has a still-magnificent pink granite ceremonial platform. This platform is composed of six truck-sized blocks joined by smaller delicate vertical pieces, and is strategically placed to collect the first rays of sun on the winter solstice (June 21). One of the blocks of the sun temple is sculpted to include three half images of the stepped Inca star, the chicana, one above the other. The significance of this is best described by quoting Fernando Elorrieta Salazar from his excellent book Cusco and the Sacred Valley of the Incas. "The first step is related to the world in which we live and which is possible to transcend (Kay Pacha), the vertical line points out the time that is necessary to know the second step: the interior world (Ukhu Pacha) which is the space-time in which, through dreams or death, the way is found inwards to the inside world and is the means by which communication is established between Man and the divinities who inhabit Hanan Pacha, a space associated with the concept of the cosmos, eternity, the infinite or the idea of God which is symbolized by the third step." The animal representations of these worlds for the Incas were: Ukhu Pacha, the serpent; Kay Pacha, the puma; and Hanan Pacha the condor.
Looming over Ollantaytambo is Pinkuylluna, a mountain into which is sculpted a 140 meter high image of Tunupa, a mythical figure believed to have brought the message of Wiracocha (the divinity of the Incas similar to the Christian God) to repopulate the earth after a great flood called "unu pachacuti". Tunupa is also believed to have instilled rules of living including a peaceful and harmonious existence of all peoples. Pinkuylluna also serves as an axis for astronomical measurements particularly the movement of the sun and the constellation Pleiades, which symbolized the deity that protects corn, an important staple.
The Sacred Valley tour was inspiring and gave us the foundation we would need to understand the sites we would later see on our Inca Trail trek. It also served another important function, as we realized during the tour that Leslie's hiking boots were falling apart. We figured it would be bad form to fall off a mountain by tripping over her own boots on the trail to Machu Picchu, so we decided to buy her a new pair of hiking boots just 24 hours before beginning our trek. Normally, it would be risky to start a trek with boots not yet broken in but we had no choice. Cusco is the center for outdoor tourism in Peru, and as such has a good selection of quality items available at a reasonable cost. We were careful and lucky at the same time; Leslie's boots were comfortable and supportive from first moment.
Also just before our trip, we met with our guide, Americo, and fellow trekkers at the trekking company's office, Llamapath, to review the trip and answer any last minute questions. To hike with us were Paul, Faraz, Denis and Bonnie, all in their young twenties, fit and confident. The following morning we were picked up at our hostel and joined by ten (mostly slumbering) porters and cooks (Ronal, Mariano, Flavio, Roger, Nazario, Alejandro, Victor, Hilario, Francisco and Julio), our guide and our fellow trekkers. Our means of transport was a rough troop-carrier type conversion with everyone's gear and supplies strapped down on top. Traveling from Cusco into the mountains we diverged near Zurite with the main road and began to follow Peru Rail on a rough dirt track through towering bare rocky mountain peaks until we reached Ollantaytambo, our breakfast stop.
The Inca Trail, only a tiny portion of the estimated 20,000 miles of Inca trails when the empire was fully developed, is now strictly controlled as to the number of hikers on it at any one time. In the past it has been overrun with hikers causing trail damage and leaving behind garbage and other unpleasant reminders of human impact. Now, the trail is limited to a total of 500 people on the trail each day, including all porters and guides. 500 seems like a large number but other than at campsites (which are also controlled) we didn't feel crowded at all and often were hiking alone along the 43 kilometer trail. In order to gain access to this classic trek to one of the world's historic wonders, Machu Picchu, you must apply in advance with a licensed guide service, pay a deposit to cover permit expenses and provide passport information. At the beginning of the trail at Kilometer 82 (where the road ends and the tiny town of Piscacucho sits), officials check permits and original passports to ensure that there have been no hiker substitutions, an abuse of the process common in the past.
At Km 82 (of the railroad), we started on the Inca Trail by crossing a suspension bridge and following the Urubamba's southern bank. The trail and vegetation are dry and bromeliads cover the bare rocky peaks outcroppings above. In the sun and while hiking we were warm but in the shade or while stopped to rest, the cool wind quickly cut through us, requiring us to apply layers of clothing only to peel them off when we resumed hiking. Looking back at brilliant, snow-capped Huaccay Huillca ("the mountain that cries" or "tear of the sun", depending on interpretation), but called Mt. Veronica by the Spanish, we were also reminded that we were in the wilderness and the weather could change at any moment. After a couple of hours of hiking and a brief stop in the pueblo of Miskay, we spotted a tiny Inca ruin, called Qente, or hummingbird, on the opposite bank of the Urubamba, that is little known or visited. Soon we also reached the hilltop fortress at the site of Huillca Raccay (inhabited since 500 BC) that oversaw and protected the impressive agricultural ruins, Llactapata, sitting below at the confluence of the Cusichaca and Urubamba rivers. Historians believe that maize was grown at this site. Here our trek turned south to follow the Cusichaca River towards Wuayllabamba (Huayllabamba), our first camp. Along this trail an hour later, we reached a bridge and Americo indicated we would be stopping here for lunch. Coming around a curve in the trail to the lunch site we were surprised to find a large cooking/mess tent set up near the cool, clear Cusichaca river. Shallow plastic basins of clean water, bars of soap and towels neatly hung from the tent guy awaited us. Soon a three course meal of salad, soup, garlic bread, pasta (either red or white sauce) and tea was presented and though we'd hiked only a few miles, we ate heartily. After few more miles of pleasant up and down hiking, we passed the village of Hatunchacao, where chicha (corn liquor) was widely available from a number of huts (chicherias). Chicherias advertise by hanging long arching sticks, tipped with bright red plastic garbage bags, over the trail.
The camp at Wuayllabamba sits at 3000 m above sea level and represented the start of our ascent to Abra de Huarmihuenusca (Warmiwañuska, or Dead Woman Pass). Philip commented with a wry smile that he hoped they wouldn't have to rename it "Dead Gringo Pass" in our honor. 14,000+ foot peaks looming SE of our pleasant camp became bathed in bright afternoon light that eventually faded to into a brilliantly star-lit cold, cold, cold night. Our group enjoyed happy hour tea (including traditional coca tea), cookies and popcorn, followed later by a magnificent supper of salad, soup, garlic bread, trout sautéed in garlic sauce, rice and chocolate pudding which was served inside the flaps of our mess tent where we huddled for warmth by the light of a propane lamp.
An early start the next morning, fueled by pancakes, oatmeal, toast with marmalade, fruit salad and yet more tea, we pushed steadily upward following now the Rio Llulluchayoc. We moved slowly and methodically for the first hours, knowing that the day would be strenuous, climbing through the bright morning air past another checkpoint and then on to a rest stop at the tiny settlement of Ayapata. Here, women were selling water, Gatorade and caldo de pollo (chicken soup)! Porters also steadily (but not slowly!) climbed, many in uncomfortable looking sandals made from old auto tires (called yanquis). Porters easily passed us with mountainous packs of our supplies; one carried vegetables, one carried potatoes, pasta and rice, one carried the propane bottle and plastic chairs, one carried condiments, etc. These mostly-Quechua-speaking men, of all ages from 18 upward to grandfathers, are amazing in their ability to climb and carry weight. As an aside, porters are now protected by law so that they receive a minimum wage, insurance protection and their loads are strictly monitored to prevent abuse. We were encouraged to tip porters to a sum that amounted to about 25% increase in their pay for the trek. We also employed a young man who was our "personal porter" who carried up to 14 kilos (about 30 pounds) of our gear (essentially everything except our daypacks with camera, snacks and layered clothing). His name was Alejandro and though he was 18, he could've passed for a sweet-faced junior high boy.
1215 meters doesn't sound like much but it translates to an ascent of 4000 feet within a distance of about 6 km or about four miles. After our last stop, the trail became steeper and often difficult, climbing up steep stairs through an isolated cloud forest—essentially a rain forest by virtue of its dampness and vegetation, but caused in this case by elevation and weather patterns that create clouds. Eventually the trail broke out again into the hot sun near Llulluchapampa, a high plain and former camp at the headwaters of the Llulluchayoc river. The final ascent topped a false summit (darn!) and then the trail followed the contour of the now grassy high alpine mountainside to Abra de Huarmihuenusca, a pass where at 4215 m (13,934 feet) high alpine brisk air and clouds moved rapidly across the bare summit and chilled us quickly. Thrilled cannot describe how we felt to have topped this pass, an obstacle we hoped would not stop our dream trek. Americo, our guide, was there with us (our young companions had moved on) and he enjoyed with us the thrill of attaining this goal and celebrating with snacks and photos (wow, that tangerine tasted more wonderful than you can imagine!).
Our exhilarating but chilly stop at the pass was brief and soon we were heading down (615 m or 2033 feet) on steep rocky steps of authentic Inca stones on our way to Pacamayo camp (3600 m). This camp sat under the cascades formed by the Rio Pacamayo as it runs out of the mountaintop lake at its headwaters. Though more populated than the first camp where we'd enjoyed solitude, it was still cozy and our hosts made our stay warm, filled with good memories and plentiful food. Overnight it rained a bit, and our morning brought low clouds that made our first top at the ruins of Runcu Raccay seem mystical. This semicircular site on two levels sitting at 3800 m, was probably a tambo where Inca chasquis (relay runners) rested and received food and lodging. Here Philip spotted a rare Andean deer that we were not expected to see. In the clouds, this small shy deer was almost perfectly camouflaged against the vegetation.
Pushing on we passed small lakes in a mountain cirque and then topped a second pass at 3950 m (over 13,000 feet); unfortunately we were engulfed in clouds so we enjoyed no view. After a short rocky downhill hike we approached the ruins of Sayac Marka (3600 m), accessed by a steep almost scary set of wet steps. Sitting out on a spur of rock at a fork in the old Inca Road, this enigmatic settlement that emphasized natural features was built late in the fifteen century and incorporates steep terraces, many baths, unique low cubbies built into walls and our first encounter with nearly perfect holes in corners of rocks. Sayac Marka's altar was the first we observed with a natural or applied blackened image of a person's profile. Again, the significance is not known. Below Sayac Marka, sits Concha Marka, only discovered in the 1980s, which was probably used as grain storage. All along the trail and even at Machu Picchu itself are Inca sites still awaiting discovery and study.
After Sayac Marka, we trudged onto lunch at Chaquicocha but not before beginning to experience the diverse lush cloud forest flora and fauna; extensive stands of bamboo, passion fruit, amazing hummingbirds, blueberries and blackberries. Beyond here we passed through an area renowned for views though we had none. We had instead eerie clouds, amazing tunnels along the trail which cut through cliffsides and many varieties of brilliant orchids! As if these clouds weren't enough to make you feel like you were walking on the very edge of the earth, we soon reached Phuyu Pata Marka (Quechua for "Cloud Level Town") where the clouds lifted and we caught our first glimpse of Cerro Machu Picchu that overlooks the famous site. This amazing ruin site includes a set of six baths in sequence down the slope, which is believed to have represented the Incas' ritual worship of water or perhaps a last place to perform a cleansing before entering the sacred site of Machu Picchu. This site of two plazas and four housing groups perched high on the mountain, was built with walls that follow natural rock outcroppings, making the site almost invisible from the valley 1600 m below. Nearby there are burial caves used by earlier peoples and later enlarged by the Incas.
Continuing still down, we lost much altitude this day and though we were cautious on slippery wet stones and used our walking sticks, porters zoomed past us racing each other down dizzyingly steep steps at a run. Stopping at an intersection we were given the choice of heading directly for camp or diverging for Intipata (Quechua for "Sunny Slope") with its dramatically high terraces. It was unanimous, we'd visit Intipata to see this Inca version of an agricultural experiment station, even it meant arriving at camp later. The steep terraced slope of this site, devoid of plazas or fortresses, is believed to have allowed Incas to develop strains of important crops (such as maize and potatoes) that could grow at the different elevations of their population centers. While in this area we were also on the lookout for a rare breed of orchid that is reputed to exist only here (we didn't find it).
Pushing onto the campsite of Huinay Huayna (Wiñay Wayna), we unfortunately were stopped short of the Inca ruins of the same name by encroaching darkness. Here, though at a distance from our campsite, sits a bleak and ugly edifice formerly called the Trekker's Hotel. No longer a hotel, they now sell only beer and showers. This night was our last on the trail and our hosts sprung for a box of Chilean wine and we partook of a small ceremony where porters and trekkers convened to express gratitude for a shared positive experience. Of our group was Denis, a Peace Corps volunteer who could speak Spanish the best (all porters also knew Spanish); so he was elected interpreter. Many, like Leslie, stumbled through their tributes in Spanish, but when Philip's turn came, Denis "interpreted" his comments by saying that Philip thought they were all "hijos de putas" (sons of prostitutes)! Everyone—porters, trekkers, our guide and particularly Philip, gasped. Denis then smiled slyly and with a nonchalant twist of his chin said, "no, he didn't really say you that, he in fact said...", and then went on to interpret Philip's words correctly. Thankfully, everyone laughed and we presented to the group a propina (tip) that represented to each porter almost a day's pay.
Our night was short as we were awakened at 0400 with the soft but anxious "buenas" of a porter bending lowly and speaking into our tent. Our breakfast, including a baked frosted and decorated cake that said "good journey Philip and Leslie!) needed to be completed and the camp packed up well before 0500 when the porters would leave for a rapid descent of the dark trail to catch the 0615 train, a thousand feet or more down in the valley below. Our group huddled around in the dark with lighted headlamps until we were finally told to set off into the misty darkness to meet the opening of the park gates which was scheduled at 0530. Stumbling along with flashlights and headlamps, we checked through the park gate in the darkness, setting off at a brisk pace toward Machu Picchu. Slowly the trail became visible and we continued on, arriving at last at a set of exceptionally steep, slippery steps near a watch tower and close to the Sun Gate of Machu Picchu. We're sure the sun was there somewhere but the Sun Gate was enveloped in clouds. This did not dampen our enthusiasm, especially as Americo stopped at and interpreted the significance of a site seldom covered in guidebooks, a rock outcropping and altar at the graves of only one woman and a dog. Because there were no other graves, the woman was likely a very important person, while the significance of her companion was explained by Americo using a story told to him by his grandparents. The fable tells that after death the journey to the afterlife follows a trail that was not always easy or clean. Therefore, even today many Andean people still keep dark colored dogs as companions and guardians because the color of the fur of these dogs would not show the effects of the muddy paths as they were guided by the dog to heaven.
A short hike through thick low clouds later, we suddenly realized we were standing IN Machu Picchu and that we had completely missed the experience of seeing the famous view from above! Perhaps it was better this way, because due to the cold, rain-spitting weather, our group had a long and leisurely tour of the amazing site well into the day without the normal crushing influx of tourists. Perched on top of a ridge between Machu Picchu (old mountain) and Wayna Picchu (young mountain) the magnificent ruins sit atop vertical granite mountains that fall away so sharply, it makes you want to cling to the wall of the uphill side of the terraces! We don't want to write a visitors' guide, as there are many already written, let's just say Machu Picchu is an awesome, mystical site with diverse structures and breath-stopping views around every turn.
What purpose Machu Picchu served is still not known but theories include a retreat for royalty, an Inca university, a astronomical observatory, an agricultural outpost, a convent of sacred women (called acllas), a regional capital, an impenetrable fort or simply a sacred site (huaca) that in Inca times were connected to other huacas by sacred lines (ceques). What is believed is that it built by the Inca Pachacutec in the 15th century just after he conquered and assimilated this region. It may have been abandoned during the conquest and was quickly lost in the jungle until farmers discovered the terraces and began farming here. Yale researcher Hiram Bingham is credited with the "scientific" discovery of this site (in 1911), but local Peruvians were already here when Bingham arrived and showed him the site. What is tragic is that most of the treasures found at Machu Picchu remain in the USA and are claimed as the property of Yale University.
We were fortunate to have planned to stay in the town of Aguas Calientes and to return to Machu Picchu the next day. This gave us the opportunity to see the city ruins in bright sunlight and also from above, from the summit of Wayna Picchu (the sugarloaf mountain in most tourist shots). This latter hike wasn't as strenuous as it seemed when we were looking up at it from below, but it was certainly a challenge since, when you reached the ruins at the peak, any artificial climbing aids disappeared and narrow, vertical Inca steps offered little to prevent a fall. From here we were treated to a completely unobstructed 360 degree view of Machu Picchu and all that surrounds it and knew absolutely why the Incas chose this site. We even were beginning to believe in apus, or mountain spirits, that seem to haunt this place and sneak into your psyche, leaving you peaceful and thrilled simultaneously.
Reluctantly we left Peru and after a marathon two day trip including a particularly stressful six hour wait (until 0330) in a filthy bus terminal in Tumbes, we were home again to Carina and with Jake and our friends. Walking through the mountains of Peru on paths graded and trod by thousands of Inca, seeing the intricately constructed edifices and learning of the subtleties of the culture, we crave now to see more of this amazing land. Perhaps we'll return one day.
Sus amigos del velero, Carina
Philip and Leslie with el gato gordito, Jake
Bahía de Caráquez, Manabí, Ecuador