Cusco and Machu Picchu

Trip Start Aug 06, 2012
Trip End Dec 18, 2012

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Where I stayed
Gran Hotel Machupicchu

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

So this is probably the most significant blog entry from my time in Peru in terms of how much weight Cusco carries in one's experience of the country.

On Wednesday, March 26, Rafael and I left around 1:00 pm for the Movil Tours bus station. We went with high expectations because there was a very real possibility that each of our our S./200 bus tickets was going to be free due to a computer glitch. About a week prior to the departure date, we had finally opted for the 22 hour bus ride from Lima to Cusco instead of the 1.5 hour flight. We settled on Movil Tours and entered all our traveler's information before realizing that the website does not accept MasterCard as a form of payment. We decided to proceed and planned to pay in cash at the station, but upon clicking "Confirmar" we received electronic confirmation that the tickets had been purchased. We were very confused, so we called up the bus line and sure enough, our names were registered as passengers for the trip. As we already had the voucher ready to print in order to claim the tickets, we waited anxiously for the day of the journey to see if it would be as simple as handing it over in exchange.

I'm still astounded to say it was just that simple. By some sort of glitch, the bus line's website gave us confirmation of payment without us ever having given any info. We had a date and time of purchase listed on our tickets without a method of purchase. But it worked, so we departed Lima in high spirits thinking that if anything went wrong, at least we would have travelled for free.

Now, I've endured long, international commutes before, but 22 hours in bus takes the cake for my longest journey in one seat. Somewhere around the beginning of the third movie I realized that I would be sitting there from 2:00 that afternoon to noon the next day. However, I fare quite well in such situations simply biding my time in excitement. Rafael and I watched movies (voiced-over 17 Again, some horribly planned tourism horror movie about a typhoon, and something with Eddie Murphy), listened to music, read books, played games, and watched as the landscape changed from the flat desert of Lima to the mountainous inland onward to Cusco.

There were a few rest stops along the way (the driver would pull over to let everyone stretch, use the facilities, buy homemade soups and local foods from campesinos with their foot carts), but the bus was quiet by 7:00 pm as the sun had gone down. I slept very well reclined through the night and woke up the next morning to my ears popping from the change in altitude. Lima is at sea level, while Cusco sits at over 11,000 feet. Around 9:00 am, the bus was already in plain ascent up the mountains (imagine the sheer drop-off of the treacherous roads of the Andes as featured on the History Channel), and we came around a corner to a traffic jam. There's not much congestion on those winding mountain roads on a normal Thursday morning, and it quickly became evident that there was a road block.

As it is currently rain season, there had been a huayco, or a landslide, higher up the mountain, which rendered the narrow road completely impassible. We were still a few hours away from Cusco, so the decision was ours whether to wait four hours for a road crew to arrive (which would have been about double that in Latino time), or hitch a ride in one of the local hog farmers trucks, as the locals had realized the opportunity existed to fill up their trucks with 25 people, charge 10 soles per head, and make more money in two hours than they normally would in a couple weeks. We went for the hog truck. There were mostly Peruvians, but some gringos and other world travelers as well. We didn't really know how long it would take to get to Cusco. In the mountains, every time you think your destination is just over the next horizon, you pass a ridge and see another endless sea of rock and jungle. We ended up standing there like a bunch of chanchos (hogs) for about two hours. Looking back, we were lucky it was a sunny morning because being exposed to rain would have been a nightmare. When we finally got to Cusco, the driver had us all duck down because there was a police checkpoint (it's common to see but not common to be stopped as it is in Colombia), and he was not licensed to carry passengers. The wooden boards which made up the walls of the bed of the truck kept us hidden and we were successfully smuggled into Cusco.

We were dropped off at the first little plaza we crossed, paid the driver, and since we had gone as backpackers (my first true trip as a backpacker), we were on the streets of Cusco ready to go. With the human trafficking episode out the way, we turned our immediate focus to a hot meal and a place to stay. It started to drizzle, so we picked a little hole in the wall (ubiquitously cheap and delicious) and ate for 4 soles apiece, or about a buck fitty. This type of meal is called menú, and it refers not to the menu as we know it (la carta), but a specified meal of the day which is prepared in abundance and served cheaper than the items cooked to order on the actual menu. It started to drizzle while we ate, and in a matter of seconds the downpour was deafening. Then the sky cleared up as quickly as it had darkened.

We putzed around the Plaza de Armas (the center of town) and found el Gran Hotel Machupicchu, a hostel to rent for 20 soles per person per night, or about 7 bucks (see Everything was great--staff, service, facilities--but the only complaint was that you couldn't leave/enter between 1 and 4:00 in the morning. Cusco's night life is infamous as a world melting pot, so having to head home early or make the commitment to three more hours of going out was a minor inconvenience. I say minor because they ultimately let you in if you ring the buzzer politely enough.

Lima's population is about 8 million, and that of Cusco is about 350,000. You can imagine the proportionately tiny yet equally cramped size of the town. While in Lima a taxi to the mall may cost you 7 soles and to the airport 50, in Cusco you can get virtually anywhere for 3. That being said, the streets are very friendly to pedestrians. Everything is in walking distance and easily navigable, apart from the tiring Spanish colonial-era streets with insane inclines. It's fair to say you can get to know the whole city in a day, but you could easily let the time pass you by and stay there isolated from the rest of the world forever.

Anyway, the first day in Cusco. We left our bulkiest items in our room and took advantage of the sun to ascend to one of the surrounding peaks, an archeological site called Sacsayhuaman, famous for its intricate stone walls fit to perfection without mortar. We played with some llamas and sheep in the pasture and made the leisurely descent back to the city streets below.

We probably transversed the entire city five times that day, stopping in at museums and taking frequent breaks in the city parks and plazas. We checked out the most popular international discoteca on the plaza, Mama Africa, and met people from all over the world. Argentina, Chile, Western Europe, Asia, all corners of the map. We had the good fortune of running into a girl from Rafael's university, so we joined with her group of three lovely Peruvians for the trip to Machu Picchu. (I should remind the reader how strangely common it is to run into people in the streets of Lima--see previous blog entries--and this is true even for Cusco. I ran into my friend Gabriel from my first semester at la Católica and his wife, who happened to be on their honeymoon. Hadn't seen him in about three months.)

The next day we continued exploring Cusco with the sole task of organizing all the bus tickets and passes to Machu Picchu, which is still five hours away from Cusco. Now part of a bigger group, we went confidently to arrange the two hour shuttle ride to Ollantaytambo, as far as the road takes you into the mountains until you reach the train station there. We woke up at 2:00 in the morning to take the taxi in order to arrive for our 4:50 am train departure. From there in Ollantaytambo, it's about 90 minutes on Peru Rail to the gateway city to Machu Picchu, Aguas Calientes (literally, hot waters). The train follows a river that carves out the Andean hills, and the sun came up just as we were nearing Aguas Calientes. I was seated in the half-full international car of the train, which was much more comfortable, accommodating, and expensive than the car for patriots. If you, the reader, know me at all, you will know I would have preferred to be without snacks and sweating with the locals. After much rattling around we finally arrived to the Aguas Calientes, the nearest actual city to Machu Picchu. But wait! We weren't quite there yet. After the train there is still an hour long bus ride up the mountain to the actual site of Machu Picchu. The bus took us back and forth around tight curves, winding around yet heading straight up one face of the mountain. There's a reason it was called the Hidden City. The ruins were made of the mountain itself, so imagine the top of a mountain being chopped up and reformed in terraces so that it would be invisible to anyone viewing from underneath. And it's pretty much remained that hidden to this day; even five minutes from the entrance to Machu Picchu, the entire, ginormous city which was once the bustling Incan icon remains completely concealed by its nature. But once you get off that bus at 7:00 in the morning as the sun is just rising, and you walk through the gates and catch your first glimpse of one of the Seven Wonders of the World, you can't mentally grasp the how or why of it's magnificence.

The five of us (the three girls, Rafael and I) did not hire a tour guide but roamed freely through the ruins. At many times it seems as if you had the whole place to yourself. There were obviously congested areas, as there would be in any civilization, but then you'd come across (for example) a little opening which leads you to a drop-off overlooking the surrounding mountains, maybe with a little perfectly crafted stone to sit on and contemplate. I felt like an Incan sitting there on the same rocks overlooking the same Andes and the Hidden City as had been the daily life there in the 1400s. 

You see, with Machu Picchu, what you've got is essentially a ton of rocks. That's all that's left. I tried to imagine what the fields and tight corridors would be like with little Incan kids running around, women carrying woven baskets with colorful potatoes, and the men who magically placed all those rocks. As I had seen in Sacsayhuaman earlier in the week, the precision of the stonework was mind-boggling. At times it appeared they had made the structures so elaborate just to show off or screw with whomever would one day find them. The city was only occupied for about 100 years. I can't imagine what the still undiscovered site would have looked like all overgrown with vegetation instead of the manicured lawns of today. This is where I really rely on my pictures to tell the story. 

We knew that in order to make it back for the train and make the whole trip in one day, we had to leave for Aguas Calientes by 1:00 pm. Having taken my classic Machu Picchu photo with everything in the background, I was happy to have completed the minimum for my year in Peru. There was a moment of strange nostalgia and the ever-present, bittersweet question of "now what am I supposed to do?" in the back of my mind. Once we had descended those narrow roads overlooking the abyss of the mountain face, we had an hour or two to spend in the small town center before the train was to depart. We walked around the plaza, still enjoying being in the Andean Mountains, and had lunch with the girls while we watched a traditional Andean band perform. It made a lasting impression on me, and I declared that I was going to learn to play all three of the instruments that made música criolla: la quena (a straight wooden flute), la zampoña (a pan flute), and el charango (an 8-stringed high pitched mini guitar). I went on to buy the band's CD and the three foreign instruments when I returned to Cusco, including a charango made of an armadillo's shell

I found Cusco to be what I had originally expected from Lima, that is, steeped red clay roofs and colonial stone buildings. In talking to local Cusqueños, I found that most have a disdain for the concrete jungle which is Lima. Having traveled so far with so many intermediate passes from Lima (not to mention, from Indianapolis), it really made me appreciate my haven and home in Miraflores, Lima. When it occurred to me how many steps were involved in traveling from Indianapolis to Machu Picchu, I really felt peace within myself as a human entity. At that moment in Machu Picchu, there was an hour-long mountain descent in bus, a two hour train ride through the Andes, two more hours in shuttle through the countryside, a long walk through Cusco to the bus station, a two hour ride out of the city in a hog truck, 20 hours northward up the coast in bus, an hour through busy Lima in taxi, and 15 hours of connecting flights that separated me from my home in Indiana. It's a very fulfilling experience to rely on yourself, and I spent a lot of time philosophizing with Rafael about all the true world travelers, the backpackers that give up everything to make a few bucks in the street every day and make their way around the globe in constant journey. I wonder, do they find what they're looking for, or are they in an incessant transient dream? Most of them being dreadlocked, dirty, and tattered, they seem to make Rafael and I look like the chums. Do they have a truer experience of the world because they completely cut ties with who they are and become the world denizen? Is it better to experience all that at 25 years old and end up who-knows-where instead of working til you're retired to then be able to travel? I'm talking about two clearly different types of travel, but I feel like I'm somewhere in the middle, right where I want to be.

With precious pictures saved in my camera, enough gear for a small Peruvian pan flute band, three hand-knitted sweaters and a cap from an elderly artisan cusqueña, and a handful of coins from the 1940-80s for my numismatic collection, I knew I had gotten what I came to experience, and a little more. We arrived on time for the 2:00 bus back to Lima, but we were informed that no such trip existed. Not surprising considering the glitch which allowed us to travel for free, but fortunately there was a trip that existed at 6:00, so we went and sat on the second story balcony of a pub on the Plaza.

Now, for some things I omitted and jotted down from my last blog entry: in October Sugar Ray came to Lima, and I went to the concert. Sugar Ray is the first band I remember calling my favorite (that was what was hot when I was in kindergarten), and the only other band to have been my favorite before Aerosmith. Although they went soft from their original hard rock, it was truly a treat to see them live. I never thought I would get the chance. Another band Jamiroquai I never thought I'd see came last week, but I wasn't able to go because I was working as a camp counselor for Backus (see previous entry). I also failed to mention that for my Contemporary Latin-American Theatre class last semester, we were required to go to four plays which we also read in class. It was just a good experience as a foreign student and a theatre student, and it really helped develop my understanding of theatre. A deeper general understanding of all the arts (beyond music to literature, theatre, and wall art) has been a focus for me since I went to Spain in 2009. Another bullet point I wanted to mention from last semester is having accompanied some of my artsy friends (they all are, truthfully) to act as an extra in a Peruvian TV series. We basically showed up, they gave us more appropriate outfits, and we had to act as extras at a concert scene. I was chosen in particular from the group to be part of the first cue, along with a friend Andrea, to enter the scene. So I've got that going for me. And finally, I forgot to mention one thing on my list of reverse culture-shock that I encountered when I returned to USA in December: my first glass of milk in five months. As I have seen in Europe, the milk here is bought in smaller, paper-material cartons that can sit at room temperature on the shelf for way too many months before it's opened. Somehow they superheat and supercool the milk to be able to preserve it this way. I'm not opposed to the idea, and it's not that I never consumed milk, but I simply never had a gallon of fresh, cold milk to pour myself a glass while in Lima.  

Well that's all for now. In the coming weeks I'll be starting classes at PUCP again. In the meantime, I've just gotta get a new memory card for my camera. As a closing thought, I wonder what will happen to the indigenous culture of Cusco. It's only been about 100 years since Machu Picchu's long-abandoned location was discovered by Hiram Bingham, the explorer from Yale who supposedly inspired Indiana Jones. In Cusco, the remnants of that ancient indigenous culture you can still see (pretty much vibrantly-dressed women with long braided hair and alpaca garments) are fading away quickly. The younger generations don't dress that way anymore; they're already part of the Adidas and Aeropostale trend. I don't fear that all will be lost and forgotten--there are still tribes living undisturbed in the jungles--but it is a culture very much on the brink of actual extinction. There's a lot of dispute over the discovery and artifacts, and even in this moment I'm struggling to understand how Peru didn't have Machu Piccu on their own map before an American from Yale "discovered" it. I 100% intend to return to Machu Picchu in the future during the dry season with more sun, bluer skies, and a greater knowledge of its treasures. I wouldn't mind testing myself with the 15 day Inca Trail hike, either, but it gets pretty heavy at that altitude!

The Wikipedia pages on Machu Picchu and Hiram Bingham make for quick, fascinating information as to the history: (Side note: Hiram Bingham was my Acacia fraternity brother at Yale)

I'm devoting an entire paragraph to mention that I tried cuy, or guinea pig. Actually I just forgot to work it into the story. There wasn't much meat on the little bugger, though it had a fattier (in the best sense) taste to it. About on par with squirrel. Chicken's definitely the way to go.

Enjoy the photos! Chaufa 

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