Machu Picchu (or Patallacta, depending who you ask)

I mentioned some time ago that we were volunteering at the SAE Clubhouse in Cusco, and that there was a semi-controversial Machu Picchu expert in residence here.  We went to his lecture before heading to the site, and managed to take away a few interesting facts (believe me, it was hard; he is one of those intellectuals who assumes you have a pretty good working knowledge of the subject and players involved, so wastes no time on background).

The main entrance to Machu Picchu. Note the huge stone lintel over the doorway (typical construction), and the stone ring above that, which was used as part of the door mechanism.

Paolo’s main point was that Hiram Bingham was almost certainly not the first westerner to set foot at Machu Picchu.  Many maps seem to confirm that people knew about the site as far back as 1867 (Bingham is credited with “discovery” in 1912).  However, because of some dubious deals with the Peruvian government concerning looting, most people around here are sticking with the Bingham story.  In addition to this new history, Paolo provided photos demonstrating the extent that Machu Picchu has been rebuilt by the Peruvian government.  We learned that the Intiwatana (a famous stone carving) was not, in fact, used as a sundial and that the name “Intiwatana” was only as old as the 19th century.  We also learned several theories that Paolo had about certain aspects of the Temple of the Sun.  More explanation accompanies the photos below.

The Temple of the Sun.

The Temple of the Sun was most likely named as such as the curved wall is reminiscent of construction at Qoricancha in Cusco, the Incan Temple of the Sun.  Popular belief is that the temple was a solar observatory and some believe that the light on winter solstice matches up with lines carved in the huge stone located inside.  Paolo believes the large stone was a base for a gold-plated statue, and that the carved markings were made in order to fit the statue.

The Enigmatic Window (below) was named as such because no one knows it’s exact purpose.  Paolo hypothesizes that a decorative cover was placed over the windows, the holes located below being points of attachment for the covering.

Looking into the Temple of the Sun, through the famous Enigmatic Window.

Steep terraces and enormous stonework (right side) near the Principle Temple.

The Intiwatana (incorrectly named, meaning “the place where the sun is tied”) is located at the top of the Principle Temple.  It was named as such for it’s slight resemblance to a mountain top near Pisac, which bears the same name and was hypothesized as a solar observation site.  Instead, the Intiwatana is most likely an abstract representation of Huayna Picchu mountain, oriented in such a way that the corners of the carving match up with the cardinal directions.

The Incan’s certainly liked abstract representation; here are two “image stones” representing Mount Yanantin and Putucusi behind.

Obligatory Machu Picchu llama photo.

This post is definitely just the tip of the iceberg.  If you’ve been to Machu Picchu and this is intriguing, I have some articles that I could pass your way.

how we got to Machu Picchu (in 7 photos)

Reaching Machu Picchu wasn’t easy.  Our Salkantay trek was more of a mixed-bag than we had hoped for, but there were still some great things seen along the way.  Sheena provided the gory details, so here are some pretty pictures for your enjoyment.

A stunning, full moon night in Soray Pampa.  It was cold, cold, cold.  We shared a twin-size bed to take advantage of body heat.

Exhausted, but not even half way to the Salktantay Pass on Day 2. The weather doesn’t get any better than this, and we enjoy the beautiful view back down the valley.

Over the pass on Day 2, and a break in the fog/rain allows us to enjoy our packed lunch.

Leaving Challuay on Day 3. The weather pretty much stayed just like this for the entire walk down to La Playa.

Looking up at Machu Picchu Mountain, from the railroad track, shortly outside of the Hidroelectrico site on the morning of Day 4.

Taken from the Machu Picchu site on the morning of Day 5. We were on our way to the Machu Picchu Mountain entrance gate.

After two hours of climbing old Incan stairs, we arrive at the summit of MP Mountain, about 1000 meters above the river. From this height you can really appreciate how hard it was for them to build this city, and what a stunning location it is.

Nobody ever said it would be easy

This is the completely true story of how, after three and a half days of trekking, it came to be that I, a self-possessed, emotionally stable 30-year-old, could be found standing in the middle of a crowded trail, bawling my eyes out on Craig’s shoulder and sobbing uncontrollably, “I just want to go home!”

As we hiked up to Laguna Tucarhuay from Soraypampa, a glimpse of some nice weather. I suppose it wasn’t ALL rain and fog.

As Craig explained in an earlier post, our revised plan for Machu Picchu, one of the “new seven wonders of the world”, was to do a four-day trek to Aguas Calientes, the entry point for the national park.

There are only two ways to arrive in Aguas Calientes from Ollantaytambo, a town outside of Cusco. The first option is a 1.5 hour train ride (lowest price is $54 USD one-way). The second option is to first take a 6-hour bus ride along narrow cliff roads to Santa Teresa, followed by a 30-minute taxi ride to Hydro Electrico, and then hike 7.5 miles to Aguas Calientes along the Rio Urubamba (as low as $8-12 USD). The Salkantay trek would end in Santa Teresa, where we could then combine it with this second option to enter Aguas Calientes. Our plan was to also hike and bus our way back to Ollanta after Machu Picchu, in order to avoid paying for even a one-way ticket on the ridiculously high-priced train.

Laguna Tucarhuay and Craig.

I was very excited to do the trek since in its preceding days, as we were volunteering for the SAE, we got to see a lot of people come back from it, and they all had extremely positive things to say. It seemed within the range of difficulty that was acceptable to me, and we would be “glamping” again; staying in cabins along the way and having our meals provided to us, instead of having to carry tent, gear, and food. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Our first misstep was to agree to a third person joining us on the trek. We will call her Bob, since an apt analogy would be to compare her to the titular character of the classic Bill Murray film, “What About Bob?” I don’t remember much about that movie except for the unrelenting frustration and annoyance that Richard Dreyfuss felt, so that’s really the heart of the comparison… it obviously wasn’t physical!

More panoramas! Before the weather turned on the second day, from Soraypampa to Chaullay. 21km and going over the pass, which was at 4,600 meters. Oof!

Bob was female, an American, and a recent college grad traveling on her own who was going to do the trek through the same company as us. Since she didn’t want to do the hike by herself, she asked if she could join us and we, being nice, sympathetic people, agreed (to our ultimate regret… why do we Americans have to be so polite??). Unfortunately, Bob turned out to be one of that miserable variety of people who don’t appreciate the beauty of silence. No matter what was happening, she had to fill in the moment with conversation and pesky questions. “What do you think about this?” “Why are you doing that?” And my very least favorite of all: “What are you reading?”

Now, normally, a very talkative person is not a huge bother. They can usually be dismissed in some casual way or other. But on a hike of this nature, we were forced to spend nearly every minute of the day together–walking together, eating meals together, and sometimes, sharing a room together. You can’t very well relegate one person out of a group of only three to her own solitude, no matter how annoying she is. Because, after all, there is such a thing as manners (ugh!).

Foggy hiking is best accompanied by muffled silence, not non-stop talking.

And so, because climbing thousands of feet in elevation while gasping for breath due to the thin air was not bad enough, we had to also endure Bob’s inane musings throughout the long miles. Another black mark against Bob was that she thought she knew all there was to know about everything. If there’s anything that makes a Chatty Cathy worse, it’s if she’s also condescending, patronizing and eight years younger than you.

Woe is us!

Looking back at the pass, nearly arrived in Chaullay.

We managed to make it through the hardest bits of the hike, but arrived in Santa Teresa with a distinct feeling of disappointment. It had rained or was foggy for pretty much the entire time, and although the pass went through two glaciers, we unfortunately saw neither as our views were blocked by clouds. Aside from the wet and muddy conditions, the weather was also quite cold due to the elevation, despite moving closer to the equator… our first night I’m sure was in the 30s F. Brrr!

The only good things about doing the trek the way we did were 1) it was cheap, 2) mules and horses didn’t have to carry our gear (there were so many overburdened beasts on the trail… very sad), 3) the food was delicious and plentiful, and 4) we never had to pack up a wet tent.

This is what happens when you’re allergic to insect bites. Now you see why I complain so much.

I was really looking forward to the hot springs outside of Santa Teresa, but they were sadly tepid, and full of biting insects–yet another disappointment! I woke up on our fourth morning, muscles sore from the previous three days of difficult hiking, with several welts from whatever found my blood particularly delicious the day before, a tweaked ankle, and a swollen foot. Not having yet resigned myself to my fate as the holy grail of flesh for all insects, I resentfully reached for my pile of clothes only to shriek and drop them on the floor. Peering over the side of the bed, I ascertained that what I thought I saw was, in fact, real: they were covered in a swarm of tiny ants. There have been moments in my life, thankfully few, where I have felt that life is flat, stale, and unprofitable. That morning can be added to the short list.

Therefore, I was not in a good frame of mind for the 7.5 mile walk from Hydro Electrico to Aguas Calientes. In light of my fragile mental state, Craig braved the gods of etiquette and asked Bob if we could separate for the day. She, not being so thick-headed as to be ignorant of my black mood, graciously agreed. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was grateful for the escape! I’ll admit I was not a pleasant person to be around that day.

Third day, on the road from Chaullay to La Playa. More rain, as you can see. The mood had yet to go sour at this point.

Of course, it takes all kinds and I don’t usually feel the need to judge people too harshly, but after four days of incessant chattering, I was more than happy to send her on her way. So it was with extreme dismay that an hour into our hike, she somehow met up with us again, and in our subsequent five minute exchange, managed to make me feel even worse.

It’s hard to describe how and why emotions manage to overwhelm us. It was as if 72 hours of pent-up anger suddenly exploded out of me, which then unleashed a watershed of homesickness. I was tired, sore, and in pain. My already tenuous control over my feelings broke, and I found myself wishing for all sorts of impossible things: the hike to be over, to be by myself, to be comfortable…. in short, to be at home. But I don’t have a home anymore, and the estrangement I felt over that realization has still not quite dissipated.

The trail from Hydro Electrico to Aguas Calientes. There is one thing I will say for that day… it wasn’t raining! Just an outpour of hundreds of tourists. I think I prefer the rain!

I know that I can go back to the States at any time, but I don’t think I want to. I don’t want to give up on this adventure that was in the making for so long. So I’m crossing my fingers that it’s just a phase that will soon pass and allow me to rediscover the joys of traveling. After all, there will be Bobs and there will be rain and there will be mosquitos. I just hope they don’t all come at once again!

But we are now back in Cusco, settling in comfortably in our old digs at the SAE, laughing with our volunteer friends, and having a tiny bit of that feeling of coming back to something familiar and welcoming. It’s as close to home as I’ll get in a very long time, so for now at least, I’m appreciating life and the small pleasures it can give.

View from Machu Picchu Mountain. It was worth the 2-hour climb up Incan stairs. And we luckily had good weather for it!