Following the steps of the mighty Hiram Bingham and his brave band of archeological brothers, we made our way to Machu Picchu at the crack of dawn. Well, Hiram probably did not get out of Cusco on a train to a Machu Picchu, as he was the one who discovered the place back in 1911. This place used to be a Quechua citadel, buried deep in the jungle-like flora, on a mountain top overlooking the sacred Urubamba River. Before then, the site had not been undiscovered by non-Peruvians. A very well kept secret. Some have catalogued this magnificent find as one of the New SevenWonders of the World. There are three ways to get there from Cuzco: the first one was to venture through the famous Inca trail – this ancient civilization was known for its excellent road system – a walking trail of about 80 kms (more or less 50 miles) through challenging heights; the second was to hire a helicopter tour for those who are drowning in dollars; and the third, the train. Hiram probably walked… to the tune of El Condor Pasa.
|Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu towering behind|
Although the train was more of a midrange alternative, there were also many famous people that have travelled using these means, such as Ernesto Guevara, better known to the world as El Che. The engine and the overall system were designed in Switzerland, ingenious people that are very familiar with treacherous mountain terrain. The route climbs to around 3,800 m (11,800 ft) above sea-level. While the tourists watched the scenery, I kept feeling as if my skin was turning blue, purple and green as the train seemed to climb the side of the hill following a pinball pattern in slow motion. On certain sectors of the track, the train would move forward then come to a stop, and continue climbing up in reverse, and repeating the pattern until reaching a straight track down the sacred valley, to Ollantaytambo and beyond toward the final frontier. The train actually descends until coming to a full stop at the village of Aguas Calientes, now only at 2,040 m (6,693 ft). This colourful little town is on the Urubamba River bank and a short distance from the climb to Machu Picchu (6 kms or 3.7 miles). This village welcomes primarily tourists to the site and boasts some hot spring baths, restaurants, shops and a few quaint hotels.
Tourists generally tend to go on a day trip, but we decided to stay overnight. Upon arrival at Aguas Calientes, we boarded a small Japanese combi that would take us all the way up the hill. We sat in the back seat unfortunately, and when the bus navigated the hairpin turns near the top, the back swung out over the void, with a straight drop down to the valley floor where the train looked like a toy. The more adventurous gung-ho visitors can hike as there is a walking path intersecting parts of the windy road to the summit, although you would require an outstanding physique. Upon arrival to the site, it is easy to take in the overwhelming view of the Incan ruins and the surrounding hills and peaks. The iconic mountain on every postcard and famous picture of the area is called Hayna Picchu (meaning Young Peak), towering above and challenging the hardy foreigners that want to climb it in order to get that hallmark picture. What is so special about this site is that, as it had never been discovered by the Spanish, it was not subject to the kind of destruction and looting of other archeological sites. You can get a reasonable idea as to what the original construction must have looked at and admire the classical Incan architecture. It is speculated that it had been built as a royal estate in 1400 and the natives abandoned the fortification to fight the conquistadores. Of course, there are many variations of this story narrated by the various guides as nothing was written in stone to immortalize the accounts of a conquered civilization. What a shame.
Our trip here was also highlighted by sharing the moment with a Canadian celebrity. Our itinerary coincided with another embassy officer who brought along her visiting friend, Luba Goy from the Royal Canadian Air Farce, a beloved comedy show. The show itself contains satirical content regarding political issues affecting our beloved Canada, including imitations of public figures of all sorts. It is generally not well-known outside our borders as I suppose, the subject matter may be universal but the issues are domestic. I admired her behaviour as she was not constantly functioning with the on-switch, showing a very diverse persona. The short time she had spent in Peru allowed her to gain some perspective on the different reality people in the country faced. Even though she was unable to communicate in the local language, she was friendly with everyone, especially with the local kids – generally kids working for token wages and tips to help feed their families. She enjoyed entertaining the children, giving Donald Duck-like impersonations and often presenting them with small mementos she seemed to carry around in a bottom-less purse. Kids seemed to react very positively to these exchanges and it almost seemed as if they ran off generally happier than when they came.
|Maman, Brian and I enjoying some shade|
I must say, everyone who has a chance to make it there should make the effort. I really treasured this unique experience, knowing many people may only have a chance to see Machu Picchu in a history book or a documentary. It is even more magical than one can imagine. As you walk through the ruins, admire empty chambers, remainders of plazas, the agricultural terraces with a major drop several hundred meters to the valley floor, your dreaming kicks into high gear. There are no foreign obnoxious noises, such as trucks zooming by, car alarms serenading the landscape, or people arguing over everyday nonsensical topics. Quiet prevails, which is unique when compared to most places in the world. Through this peace, you can imagine what people’s lives were in a simpler time. Of course, back then the Incas seemed to have constructed a multi-layered pyramidal hierarchical structure to their civilization, much like we seem to have replicated throughout most of our human history. It would not have been fun being the farmer or the courier. As Simon and Garfunkel sang in their version of El Condor Pasa: “I would rather be a hammer than a nail.” However, much is left to the imagination as to the wealth we could have harnessed from their knowledge in medicine, construction, astronomy and other undiscovered advancements, perhaps forgotten due to a time where violence asserted supremacy.