Sunday, May 31, 2015

Machu Picchu to Cusco - Day 7

Friday, May 29, 2015
Today was a hiking day for me at Machu Picchu. We were up early and on the bus around 7 am to be among the first to arrive.
We were somewhat disheartened when we saw dense fog covering the mountains, but we were happy we had seen so much yesterday.
Since this is a hiking day, my explanations will be brief, but there are lots of photos. I must warn you, we had a wonderful assistant guide who insisted I be in all the shots with great views, so if you get tired of looking at me, just skim over. This is my "once in a lifetime" experience and I want to prove I was there.
We first started out on the Inka Trail leading to Inti Punku or the Sun Gate.
This was once the main entrance to Machu Picchu and is now the same trail that backpackers who hike the full trail arrive on.
The trail is very rocky with lots of stone steps. I thought it was odd that people as short as me would build steps so high.
It only took us about an hour to get to the top which is at 9,000 ft. and where it was very foggy. But I did manage to get a fuzzy photo of me at the Sun Gate to prove I made it.
On our way down, we caught a glimpse of Wayna Picchu in the clouds with the ruins below.
Since we made such good time, we decided to go to the Inka Bridge, where a trail built with impressive Inka engineering crosses a cliff face. 
Along the way, the clouds cleared (hooray! how could we be so lucky!). We arrived at the guard house which sits on a promontory that overlooks the agricultural, housing and temple areas.
Then we had a great view of the whole park with a different perspective of the ruins.
The trail was also rocky and not very long, but towards the end it became a bit dicey.
And then we arrived. It is a spectacular structure to see - and still there 500 years later.
It was originally built as a secret entrance for the Inka army.  Now you can see that the Inkas left a deep gap, which they bridged with logs that could be removed to render the trail impassable to enemies.
And now some final views of Machu Picchu before I bid it farewell.
We left the park around noon and had a gourmet lunch at Inka Wasi Restaurant in Agua Calientes. We spent a little time shopping at the numerous craft stalls and then boarded the train for Ollantaytambo. We were met there by our trusty bus driver and we settled in for a two hour bus ride to Cusco. We arrived at our lovely hotel, the Echo Inn and had yet another gourmet meal (I had delicious trout at both and one had an anisette sauce). We were serenaded at dinner by an Andean combo. Another fabulous day!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu - Day 6

Thursday, May 28
I finally made it to Machu Picchu after all these years and it is breathtaking.
Most people snag this iconic image when they first come in the park. You want proof you were really here and it's not a dream.
But I am ahead of myself. I'm going to flashback like they do in the movies to this morning. On our way to the train station, which is in the village of Ollantaytambo (where we visited ruins the other day), we did a short walking tour of the village. It still has the feel of an authentic community with a central square, but has now become inundated with tourists. As a result people come down from the mountains dressed in traditional clothing and pose for photos for 1 sol (which is about 30 cents.) This woman is Elsa with her daughter Jolina. 
I fit right in here - the people are my size.
She walks 2 hours everday to the village to pose for photos. She is typical Andean because of her flat hat.  She gave us a demonstration of how you carry a baby on your back. Fascinating.
Later I found some other girls who were posing for money as well. Everyone in Peru has to work.
Then we went to the train station and boarded a business class coach to Aqua Calientes, which is next to Machu Picchu.
The trip takes about 1-1/2 hours and follows the Urubamba River, which is more treacherous than the part we floated on. It continues through the Sacred Valley and we were surrounded by magnificent mountains all the along the way. We saw a large glacier and the start of the Inka Trail.
Then we arrived in Aquas Calientes (a noisy and busy village)
and we have to take a 25 minute bus ride up a narrow switchback to the park. There is only one bus service and they are very skilled at driving on the high narrow road.
See the road!
We arrived about 1 pm which was a good time because people were starting to leave. We immediately got the iconic photo posted at the top.
Then Pepe took us on a tour of the main part. He noted that Machu Picchu means "old mountain" and the site was chosen by the Inkas because it was considered sacred land. The mountain that we see here is Wayna Picchu which is 9,000 ft. high. You can hike it, but not today.
Hiram Bingham, an academic, explorer and politician from the United States, made public the existence of the enclave in 1911 with the guidance of local indigenous farmers. He was a professor at Yale at the time and a fellow of the National Geographic Society. He returned on several expeditions and thus, the artifacts he uncovered ended up in a museum at Yale. But as of 2007 they are in the process of being returned to Peru for a museum in Cusco.
Much work has been involved in restoring the site, and it is currently about 65% done. Another interesting fact is that only 40% of the ruins are on the surface and 60% are underground as infrastructure.
Approximately 800-1,000 people lived here from about 1450 to 1550. The area has an abundance of granite which was used for the building blocks, but the soil had to be carried in from the valley.
Another point is that it is strategically located for defense. The Urubamba River wraps around 3 sides and then, of course, there are the cliffs.
There is lots of speculation why the Inkas  abandoned the site and no one knows for sure. But it wasn't because of lack of water. The area gets 80 inches of rain a year and has 16 fountains in the original plan.
Pepe toured us through a number of the identifiable ruins, pointing out important details and interesting stories. The following is a photo collage of things we saw.
Agricultural Sector
Temple of the Sun (and the winter solstice - June 21 - shines perfectly through the main window
Another Temple of the Sun where a rock has been carved out to create a little ceremonial room.
Temple of the Three Windows
Sun dial (to show seasons) not hours, with emperor's throne next to it, since he received his power from the Sun God, his father.
Main temple built on a plaza but also over a fissure and has been sagging since before Bingham saw it.
Someone asked me about how they care for the grounds. Would you believe with a weed eater? And that is Machu Picchu Mountain in the background and a plaza in the foreground.
Here are a few other fun photos

and me at the end of the day.
We stayed until closing which was fun because the crowds had really cleared out.
Tonight we had dinner at the Inka Wasi Restaurant and then early to bed for an early tomorrow.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Urubamba - Day 5

Wednesday, May 27
Our focus today was on the Urubamba Valley, from its early times to present day life.
The sun was shining beautifully this morning and was perfect for a lazy raft ride on the Urubamba River.
I say lazy because, since this is the dry season, the river is not fast and it was more of a float trip. But more time to relax, enjoy the scenery and take pictures.
Afterwards we went to the nearby Ollantaytambo ruins where Pepe gave us a complete tour of the well-preserved site.
It was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region and built a town and ceremonial center in the 15th century.  It is characterized by these terraces which were used as a kind of retaining wall for the mountain rather than for farming.
We walked up more than 200 steps to reach the top where we saw the ruler's throne and the Temple of the Sun, from whom the emperor received his divine power. Everything we climbed faced Mount Pinkuylluna on the right where the sun rose.
This view from the back shows where the people farm today, with a glacier in the background.
Afterwards, we stopped in a "bar" for a cultural experience. I use the term bar loosely because bars are often set up in the kitchens of people's homes. The only alcohol that is sold is "chicha," a mild beer made from fermented corn. It is home brewed in large batches and must be consumed within a day or two. Customers know when a bar is open because the "proprietor" puts a long stick with a flag or some other kind of marker in front.
We tasted the chicha, which was kind of sour, but our hostess made one with strawberries and sugar and it was quite tasty.
This particular bar was quite enterprising. In a room next door to the kitchen she was raising guinea pigs, and she had a small gift shop on the premise.
Then we left for our lunch hosted by a local resident.
This was an interactive experience. I won't go into much detail or show pictures, although the whole experience was very interesting. First we watched how Emma, our hostess killed the guinea pig (quickly with a twist of the neck), removed the fur (leaving on the skin), and prepared it for frying. Then we learned how to make Peruvian tortillas, with corn flour, potatoes, eggs, and seasonings and then fried like a roll. Lunch was delicious with potato soup, a pasta dish, lupine beans, rice, and, of course, "cuy," the Peruvian name for the animal. We all tried a small piece and it tasted like chewy chicken. Then we all gave her hostess gifts we had brought from home.
One more stop for the day was to an artist's studio. His name is Seminario, but unfortunately, he was not there. But his work is exquisite and he employs 50 local people in his workshop. He originally was an architect but decided to become an artist. He started out selling sculptured clay houses on the street in Cusco and the rest is history.  
Loved this picture of his studio - it looks so typical of an artist.
Tonight, before we went to dinner, Pepe hosted us at the bar with a lesson on how to make Pisco Sours. They resemble whiskey sours because an American on tour invented it years ago and it stuck. Then we went to a local restaurant and enjoyed one of Peru's most popular dishes, "pollo a la brasa"(rotisserie-style chicken) which was very good. Tomorrow - Machu Picchu!

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Lima to Cuzco - Day 4

Tuesday, May 26
Today was an unbelievably packed day. We were up and headed for the airport by 6:30 am. Our flight to Cuzco was comfortable and we arrived at 10:30. We boarded our private bus and drove through Cuzco (we'll be back later) to Qenko. This is an archaeological site with naturally occurring rock formations. It is believed to be a place of worship and where sacrifices took place. This photo shows the amphitheater and, on the right, a monolithic rock which may have resembled a puma or other spiritual symbol. There is evidence the stone was worshipped.
We did get a lovely view of Cuzco from the ruins.
We continued our journey by bus to the Urubamba Valley, which is at 9,000 ft elevation, to reduce our chances of altitude sickness from Cuzco, which is at 11,000 ft. 
Along the way we discovered these villagers who were having an annual market to sell (or trade) livestock.
Loved the woman selling her chicken and guinea pigs.
And I love accessorizing a traditional outfit with a Mickey Mouse baseball cap.
We stopped to eat our box lunches overlooking the Urubamba River Valley. Below we could see the village of Taray, with its neatly drawn streets and squares. Pepe said this was one of the villages created by the Spanish to provide better control over the indigenous people.
We then continued to drive through the valley and Pepe pointed out the farming in these communities, particularly the quinoa. Although it is a staple of the Peruvian diet, it is becoming expensive because of the world demand.
A highlight of the day was visiting the Inka Pisac ruins.
Noteworthy are the agricultural terraces carved into the steep hilłside.
They enabled greater food production than would normally be possible.
We also saw the Inka tombs, holes dug into the side of the mountain where bundled mummified bodies were buried. 
We took a short hike to the doorway of the "hitching post to the sun." This was an important ceremonial center and Pepe showed us how the door could be blocked off to prevent entrance. Also note this door is a trapezoid -as are many doors and windows in Inka construction. This enabled the buildings to better withstand earthquakes.
Several traditional Andean weavers ply their craft while they sell their wares outside of the ruins.
Two more impromptu stops on our way to our final destination. One  to see a woman roasting guinea pig on a stick. A full meal with the pig is about $11.
Another stop was in a small village next to where we are staying. They were celebrating "the Crossing of the Crosses" which is held about this time each year in these villages.  It coincides with the appearance of the "Southern Cross" constellation in the night sky. (We can't see it in US.) It is visible in early winter (May), and signifies the end of the harvest. The celebration includes 7 crosses and a parade.
We had an early dinner at our hotel The Urubamba and turned in early.