Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Cusco & The Sacred Valley

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire (1200s-1532). The Quechua (Indian) name, Qosqo, means 'belly button' because the ancient Incas considered the city to be the center of the world. Upon the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the Quechua name ("Qosqo") was transliterated into Spanish as "Cusco."

Looking out over the city of Cusco--the mountain in the distance says, 'VIVA EL PERU'. (Amy's sunglasses broke awhile ago so she got this new pair at a market in Lima.)

Today the city is full of tourists from around the world. It has narrow streets and sidewalks made of stones. Many believe the city was planned to be shaped like a puma.

Cusco is full of Spanish colonial architecture that in many places is built on top of ancient Inca structures, giving us a glimpse of into its history. The Spanish undertook the construction of a new city on the foundations of the old Inca city, replacing temples with churches and palaces with mansions for the conquerors.

Spanish church built on top of Inca foundation:

The cathedral and fountain in the Plaza de Armas (center of town):

A view from behind the cathedral in the Plaza de Armas after sunset:

We happened on this festival in the Plaza de Armas one night:

The indigenous ladies sell their crafts to tourists on the streets of Cusco. Truth be told, they also sit here with a llama because they charge gringos for pictures... can't blame them. Tourists would take their picture all day anyway.

This is a market far from the Plaza de Armas where only the locals shop (notice the hanging chickens). No tourists here; we just passed by in a taxi or we would never have known about it.

travel tip: If you ever visit Cusco and are interested in the culture, stop by the children's museum. It's not on any of the tourist info and nobody talks about it, but it's by far the best museum in town. It's called Irq' I Yachay (which means 'wisdom of the children'). It's not a museum for children; it's a nonprofit organization that features art by Andean children from the 'forgotten' rural villages in the mountains of Peru. It's fascinating and totally free: 344 Teatro Street in Cusco (short walk from the main plaza), Phone 24-1416. Open Mon-Fri 10am-5pm.

We visited the the Urubamba Valley (Sacred Valley) in the Andes mountain range and stopped in a few ancient Inca villages that are still inhabited today. The irrigation systems still work, and the Incas still grow their own crops, including hundreds of varieties of potatoes and corn that each have a name.

This table is full of only different types of potatoes.... and a little raw meat:

These are some of the favorite people, places and llamas we visited in the Sacred Valley:

The profile of an old man's face in the mountain below was believed to be their creator, looking down on them and their city. On his 'back' are their storehouses where they kept dried vegetables and meats. This city was built in the shape of corn in a husk.

The same mountain below:

The Incas lived high in the mountains on these terraces until 1532 when the Spanish invaded and forced them down:

The stone used to make the wall below was dragged 7 km (more than 4 miles) from the mountain you see in the distance. They tied it with ropes, and hundreds of people would pull together to get it up the ramps to this designated location.

Some other ruins along the way:

In this market, we snacked on hot choclo (not hot chocolate--Peruvian corn with kernels almost the size of dimes) and a chunk of queso fresco tucked in the husk.... all for one 'sol'--about 35 cents.

We found out how the cactus pears grow that we ate in Chile (see pic under Valparaiso). In Spanish, the fruit is called 'tuna':

Back in Cusco, Amy matched the decor at the famous Inka Grill restaurant:

The food was amazing. I really, truly can't stop thinking about these homemade yellow-potato gnocchis:

We also tried some grilled alpaca:

More pics:

Monday, May 5, 2008

Machu Picchu

The Lost City of the Incas......

(turn on your sound)

We left for Machu Picchu at 5:30 in the morning to see the sunrise and stayed until they kicked us out at 5:30 p.m.

At sunrise, Machu Picchu was still covered by this blanket of dense fog:

By mid-morning, the fog started to lift, slowly unveiling the beautiful city....

We spent the next 12 hours exploring. We were the first ones there and the last to leave.

A bit of history: Machu Picchu (Quechua: "Old Mountain") was built around the year 1450 but abandoned a hundred years later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire.

It is believed to be the only Inca village that the Spanish conquistadors never found and consequently did not destroy, as was the case with many other Inca sites.

Over the centuries, the surrounding jungle grew over the site, and few knew of its existence.

We had to watch our step. It's a long way down.....

Machu Picchu is so high up that birds fly right by you....

a falcon that landed not far from us:

A variety of wild orchids grow all over:

The dome-shaped mountain behind Machu Picchu is called Huayna Picchu (Quechua: "Young Peak"). It rises over Machu Picchu and divides it into sections. The peak of Huayna Picchu is about 8922 feet above sea level and about 1 180 feet higher than Machu Picchu.

The Incas built a trail up the side of the Huayna Picchu, and only 400 visitors (out of 2000) are allowed on the trail each day. The climb is steep and at times exposed and takes about 1 hour each way.

We made sure to be 2 of the 400, and we spent 4 1/2 hours on Huayna Picchu, taking it all in. We were the last ones down.

The Incas built temples and terraces at the top of Huayna Picchu:

Some views from the tippy top....

These buildings could have formed part of an astronomical observatory as well as served as a lookout point over the city and the paths leading to Machu Picchu:

Looking out on the side with a view opposite Machu Picchu.... those are orange butterflies flying around me!

Looking down on Machu Picchu from the top:

It is believed to have been built in the shape of a condor (some is still covered by vegetation).

Machu Picchu is home to 15 llamas that roam freely, including a baby and its mother:

Say cheese....

Forgotten for centuries, the site was brought to worldwide attention in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian. He was led there by locals who lived nearby to avoid paying taxes in town.

The irrigation systems worked then and still do today:

The Intihuatana stone is believed to be an astronomic clock built by the Incas. It's arranged so it points directly at the sun during the winter solstice: at midday on March 21st and September 21st, the sun stands almost directly above the pillar creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun "sits with all his might upon the pillar" and is for a moment "tied" to the rock. (Its name means, 'Hitching Post of the Sun' or the place to which the sun is tied.)

Perhaps most fascinating about this stone is that it indicates that ancient Incas knew the difference between true north and magnetic north. It is also angled at exactly 13° latitude, equal to the latitude of the site, exactly where the sun would hit at noon at the equinoxes to cast no shadow. How the ancient Incas could have known these things is still a mystery.
Since the Spanish did not find Machu Picchu until the 20th century, the Intihuatana Stone was not destroyed like many other ritual stones.

Machu Picchu receives more than 300,000 visitors from around the world each year. Ironically, most of the Inca descendants living near Machu Picchu can never afford to see it (the cost is at least $200 per person from Cusco). This Inca woman on our tour was a very rare sight:

In the last few decades, some estimate that Machu Picchu has suffered more threats to its architectural integrity and pristine Andean environment than it has in its nearly 500 years of existence. UNESCO has threatened to add Machu Picchu to its list of endangered World Heritage Sites.

In July 2007, Machu Picchu was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. In addition to the growing concerns about the destabilization of the structures due to the impact of tourism, some geologists warn that a massive landslide could send the stone ruins crashing into the Urubamba River below.

No decision to limit access has been made, and the issue is extremely sensitive in a nation where tourism is a booming business. Peruvian President Alan GarcĂ­a recently referred to fears about Machu Picchu's imminent demise as "alarmist."

Getting there:

A train ride 4 hours from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the city at the base of Machu Picchu. Or in our case, a speeding, old car on winding roads (2 hours from Cusco), then the train from a little town in the Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo (say that 3 times fast, or even once: oh-yawn-tie-Tom-bow).

Vista Dome train with windows in the roof to see the mountain tops in the cloud forest:

Train going through the cloud forest on the way to Aguas Calientes:

We stayed the night in Aguas Calientes so we could get an early start the next morning. The bus from there takes 20 minutes to get up the mountain to Machu Picchu, and we weren't about to miss that sunrise.

The road up to Machu Picchu:

Aguas Calientes is such a small town and is so deep in the valley that there are no cars there, only trains. Everything is in walking distance. Our hotel was up this road, along the tracks.

Bringing luggage from the trains to some tourists up the road:

Snacks in Aguas Calientes...

Tea made from coca leaves to help with altitude sickness (the coca leaf has many uses):

Radioactive nachos were hard to resist:

After a long day, our chariot awaited us at the bus station. Check out our names--we almost missed it!

Machu Picchu is one of the most beautiful, inspiring, fascinating, places we've ever been. If you're like us and can't get enough....