During the usual spiel about oxygen masks descending under conditions of reduced air pressure on a Colombian owned airline originating in Guayaquil, Ecuador, with its non-stop destination to Lima, Peru, we are informed that there is no oxygen mask in the lavatory. We are further informed that under those aforementioned circumstances of low pressure and in the event that we happen to be in the lavatory sans any mask containing oxygen, we must make a dash back to either our own assigned seats or any other seats that happen to be empty.
Whilst you ponder the implications of the above in a situation that may catch you with your pants down and out of breath, we are here to talk about our journey to the land of the Incas, who ruled during the period from the 13th to the 16th century and who assuredly did not have the toilet sensitivities that we do today. The Inca empire not only encompassed what is modern day Peru, but stretched into large parts of modern day Ecuador and Bolivia as well as significant portions of what is today Chile, Argentina and Colombia.
On our way to Machu Picchu, Lima, the modern capital of Peru, simply happens to be an overnight destination where the airport hotel holds a monopoly with over-the-top nightly rates. From Lima we headed to the imperial city of Cusco in Peru, the original capital of the Incas.
Despite the fact that Cusco is situated at an altitude of 11,200 feet above sea level, the altitude does not get you as soon as you disembark from your plane. You will continue to have your wits about you if you wish to haggle your taxi ride into town from the asking rate of 30 soles ($10.7) to 20 ($7.13) or 25 ($8.91), which I personally found a moot point, as it is just a couple of dollars or so different, particularly since having forked over a grand and a half of those dollars per person for the multi-city airplane fare to the Colombian airline alluded to earlier in this treatise.
The Hotel La Casa De Selenque, conveniently located behind a Starbucks on the second floor in a calle (street) just off the main Plaza de Armas square, did have a supply of “hot cocoa tea” and “raw cocoa leaves,” which everyone assured us was not narcotic in nature, and merely prevents the onset of altitude sickness and cures the ones already suffering from it. This ensured that we did not really need the supply of sugar laced ginger candies or the gingko root, which possess similar curative powers, both of which we had diligently packed in our suitcase.
During our four hours walking through the town of Cusco, we visited the impressive Monasterio de Santa Catalina (Monastery of Saint Catherine). During Inca times this monastery was the site for a building called Aqllawasi, or the House of the Chosen Maidens. It was inhabited by women from all over the empire who were renowned for their beauty and noble lineage. Once they entered the compound, they lived as nuns till the day they died. In 1650 the monastery was destroyed by an earthquake, and rebuilt to what it is today, a simple structure with a single nave along the northeastern side of the building.
Early the next morning it was time to catch the Perurail Vistadome train that chugs along the breathtakingly scenic Urubamba River. As the man of the house, regardless of the strides made towards equality by the feminine sex, I am usually the one who has to rub my eyes open when the iPhone alarm buzzes. I stumble my way to the bathroom where I am met with the sight of the letters C and F in the shower instead of the familiar C and H. I surmise that the word for Hot in Espanol possibly has its roots in Fahrenheit, and promptly turn up the F, barely managing to suppress a scream as the freezing water strikes my skin. I take a step back, curse the mechanic who screwed on the shower taps incorrectly and turn up the one marked C settling into a blissful hot shower. I only realized my gaffe when the Vistadome rolled into its final destination of Aguas “Calientes,” the name the town derives from its “Hot” Springs.
Aguas Calientes is the only gateway to Machu Picchu for average people and their grandma, who cannot undertake the 4 day 3 night arduous trek along the Inca trail, and it is a tourist trap if you have ever seen one. Hotels with bare minimum facilities charge upwards of a 100 U.S. dollars a night, while bananas may cost a dollar a piece. Nevertheless, we found a great vegetarian option in Govinda’s which besides serving the staple Italian cuisine extracts fresh fruit juices that are to die for. The highlight is the huge seven-dollar Indian style vegetarian samosas (one can fill you up) made from scratch and are worth the half-hour wait.
Pachacutec, the main alley through the town of Aguas Calientes, slopes at an angle of close to 45 degrees providing good exercise in preparation for the trek ahead.
Walking down Pachacutec towards the Central Plaza, we spot a sign indicating that tickets to Machu Picchu must be purchased in this town, there being none sold at its gate. So far so good, but the real adventure of the evening begins when the lady at the counter of the only ticket office in town informs us that they only accept cash for the 128 soles (about 50 dollars) per person, and it must be in soles. You remain undaunted that they do not accept credit cards as all you have to do is walk up the 45 degree sloping Pachacutec to your hotel room and retrieve the 100 dollar bills that you have stashed away in the seams of your luggage for emergencies.
Next morning, it’s not even 5 a.m. and we already have a couple of hundred people in line waiting for the first buses that leave at 5.30 a.m. to the gates of the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu city. Each bus holds about 35 people and it is highly recommended that you purchase the bus tickets the previous evening, as by 5.30 a.m. there are over a 1000 people in line. Over 5000 people visit Machu Picchu every day which includes the permitted 500 brave souls enduring the Inca trail who enter the site through the Sun Gate (the first vantage point from which the Grand City of Machu Picchu is visible).
The Inca architecture is fascinating. We are talking about stones weighing from under a ton to over 50 tons that have been polished to rectangular angles (some with as many as 32 angles to them) that interlock with each other without the use of anything similar to mortar or cement; these behemoths just sit on top of each other and are able to withstand earthquakes because of the stability afforded to the structures by being tilted to an 85 degree angle to form trapezoids. The contrast between the original surviving structures from over five to eight centuries ago and the ones that have been restored by archeologists in the last few decades is striking; the latter has already started to show wear and cracks, while the former remains pristine such that you cannot even slide a wafer thin knife between two adjacent stones. Upon inquiry regarding how the Incas managed to get such huge boulders up to the Old Peak (this is what the name Machu Picchu means), our tour guide with all seriousness told us that they used the Mick Jagger principle—Rolling Stones!
Jovial as these tour guides are, always attempting comedy for your benefit, one thing common amongst all of them is that they hate the Spaniards for destroying their cultural heritage and imposing their language. Hey, my birth country, India, was under British colonial rule just over 65 years ago but I have not run into many compatriots possessing similar hatred towards the Brits. Peru has been independent from Spanish rule for almost 200 years when most current Peruvian’s great great grandparents were not even born.
One tour guide told us the story of how the destruction of the Inca Empire began very animatedly in the Qorikancha (Sun Temple in Cusco). A Dominican friar accompanying the Spanish conqueror Pizarro offered a Bible to the Inca king Atahualpa, the latter promptly put it to his ear and declared that he could not hear the word of God and apparently threw the holy book to the ground, following which blasphemous act, a bloody battle ensued in which the primitive weapons of the Inca natives were no match for the cannons of the Spaniards.
Interestingly there is also a little bit of height envy as it was repeatedly pointed out that the Inca royals were only 160 cms tall on average (5.2 feet).
The guide books crown Hiram Bingham as the discoverer of Machu Picchu, which is not the opinion of our tour guide. Machu Picchu, the seat of high priests, royal astronomers and star engineers, was abandoned in the 1500s when the Spanish invaded Peru and was apparently forgotten resulting in forest cover growing over it for more than three centuries.
The real story apparently is that the locals discovered the site a couple of decades before Hiram Bingham staked his claim, and he simply piggy bagged off this local knowledge backed by the muscle of National Geographic and the prestige of Yale University. The more relevant act of deceit though may be regarding the whereabouts of the Inca Gold at Machu Picchu. The 147 crates of artifacts carted away did not contain a single piece made of gold.
The probability that there was no gold on the Old Peak is close to zero, given its stature and importance at that time. One story says that Bingham shipped the gilded precious material off to Europe but on its way the ship was intercepted by pirates following which the golden treasure is now at the bottom of the Atlantic; this would make a good movie plot, or the basis for a Steve Berry novel.
Our tour guide mentioned that 147 (a recurrent number!) sarcophagi mummies were found at Machu Picchu. These were not blood sacrifices like those of the Mayas or the Aztecs.
These sacrifices were voluntary ones achieved by the intake of hallucinogenic flowers, the fact apparently deduced from the way the mummies were positioned. Although initially thought that all 147 were male, it was latter concluded that roughly half of them were female, making one wonder if this was not some ancient equivalent of a rave party where they had overdosed on hallucinogens.
The reason to arrive early in the morning is to be able to see the sun rise behind the mountains around 8 a.m. As its rays make their way to the sun temple, the sight is spectacular even though we had missed the winter solstice by a couple of weeks. The winter solstice in the southern hemisphere occurs during the summer solstice in the North. When you visit the southern hemisphere, be sure to look up at the night sky to spot the Southern Cross Constellation, the smallest of the 88 modern ones, which cannot be seen from the northern hemisphere.
Learning such tidbits is inevitable when roaming Machu Picchu whose major raison d’être is Astronomy. To the Incas, the East was the most important cardinal direction; they worshipped the Sun not unlike most ancient religions which were termed pagan after the rise of Christianity and Islam. The North is the most important cardinal direction to modern cultures for the more mundane needs of navigation.
The Incas also had a special relationship with the Milky Way which they considered the celestial river, where they saw images of the Condor, the Puma and the Snake, the Inca symbols of power in the heavens, the earth and the nether respectively; not surprisingly they were also able to visualize the llama.
Inside the Inca Sacristy on Machu Picchu, the tour guide makes one of our tour members put their ear inside a niche in the ancient wall and another one of us inside a different niche of the same wall. He asks the first member to make sounds like “O,” “Aaa,” and “Eee,” which then travels through the stone wall to the other fella who has his ear peeled. This exercise proves that the acoustics here were great and hence music must have been played here in the Inca times.
The last note on our travels has to be about drinking Chicha, which we are assured is not alcoholic, but you can be floored regardless after consuming five or six glasses. This is all the better because if one more tour guide tells me about how perfect the Inca construction is without the use of mortar, I am going to snap; tell me something that I don’t already know!
Riz Mithani is a graduate of IIT Bombay and ekes out a living in the Bay Area by peddling simple business and technology solutions to highly complex problems that provide a real return on investment. When he is not dancing or traveling, he blogs occasionally at rizmit.wordpress.com