After a short night’s sleep at the lovely Inkallpa Valle Sagrado Hotel in Urubamba, I arose at 4:45 a.m. and found my sense of humor. It was in my suitcase. Good thing I remembered to pack it.
Today was a new day. I felt so much better than I had the night before, and my normal self — the one that’s actually fun to be around — had returned. Following a quick breakfast, my amigos and I stumbled sleepy-eyed onto our tour bus, and we were soon off on a journey to our dream destination, the iconic Lost City of the Incas in Machu Picchu.
It was a short drive to the Ollanta Station in Ollantaytambo where we would board Expedition, the Inca Rail tourist train. Ollantaytambo is located along the Patakancha River near the confluence of the Willkanuta River, part of the Urubamba River. The Urubamba River (a headwater of the Amazon River) is known as Willkamayu River in the Incan language, Quechua. It translates as “sacred river” in English. Upstream, the Urubamba River is known by its Aymara name Willkanuta River, and that translates as “house of the sun.” The Aymaras were an indigenous tribe who lived in the region for many centuries before being conquered by the Incas.
Ollantaytambo is an Incan archaeological site and the starting point for a three-day, four-night hike on what is known as the Inca Trail. It’s also our guide Adriel’s hometown. As our bus passed through the narrow streets, Adriel pointed out various landmarks, such as the ancient gate that was the doorway to the long trek to Machu Picchu.
Incan Emperor Pachacuti conquered the region in the late 15th century and rebuilt Ollantaytambo, which became his royal estate and provided lavish accommodations for nobility. It contains some of the oldest continuously-occupied homes in South America. Emperor Pachacuti developed agricultural terracing and irrigation systems throughout the Urubamba Valley, which you can still see today. These terraces allowed for farming up the nearly vertical slopes on what otherwise would have been unusable land. When the Spanish invaded Peru, the town served as a stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance against the Spanish conquistadors.
One of the highlights for me was the spectacular narrow gauge train ride from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes, the closest town to Machu Picchu. I love traveling by train. The steady rock of the car on the rails was comforting. It also provided a unique challenge for anyone who needed to use the car’s restroom, which reminded me of being on one of the tall ships that I sail. The view from the train was stunning. The one-hour, twenty minute ride followed the raging serpentine Willkanuta River through the Amazon jungle. We were enveloped by misty mountains that rose straight up from the river basin. Several times, the train plunged into short tunnels through the mountains. We caught glimpses of waterfalls that tumbled down sheer cliffs, orchids and bromeliads in the treetops and a glacier high above the verdant canopy.
Although I was excited about seeing Machu Picchu, the end of our train ride came too soon. We pulled into the station at Aguas Calientes, made our way through an adjacent marketplace, strategically placed to capture tourist dollars, and moved along narrow, cobbled streets to a line of buses. After a bit of a wait, our group finally boarded a bus.
Within a few minutes, our bus crawled up a narrow gravel switchback road on a mountain. The landscape was beyond dramatic, a promise of things to come. We were only inches from sheer cliffs that dropped to the river below. Multiple monolithic mountains rose straight up from the river gorge, seemingly stacked one behind the other. On the other side of the road, water sprang from the rock face and trickled down its sheer facade. The road wound like a snake on its steady climb to the top, so the view changed frequently. Occasionally, we had to pull to the side to allow oncoming buses to pass. 3.7 miles and 30 minutes later, we arrived at Machu Picchu.
The name Machu Picchu means “old pyramid” in the Quechua language, and indeed, the dominant peek in the congregation of mountains that huddle around this Incan city looks like a pyramid. The ancient citadel positioned on a plateau was built by the Incas around 1450 and abandoned a mere 100 years later. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Machu Picchu was unknown to the civilized world until Hiram Bingham III ventured upon it in 1911.
Little is known about this mysterious settlement. Much of the mountainous land surrounding the site above and below is terraced, perhaps to control erosion and to provide land suitable for agriculture. The stone skeletons of what are believed to be structures for worship, food storage and habitation are all that remain on the plateau. It’s an ideal defensive position. From here, the Incas would have had a clear view of enemies approaching from land or the Willkanuta River that carves through the valley far below.
The topography of this place is utterly forbidding. If you go, be prepared to climb rugged, uneven stone steps. The altitude here is 8,000 feet above sea level, so take it slowly. You’ll notice your heart pounding a little faster, even if you’re in great shape. It’s worth taking your time anyway just to enjoy the many beautiful moments in this place. Llamas grazed on some of the terraces above the settlement, where our group climbed initially. I spotted an enchanting iridescent blue butterfly that flitted around us for a few fleeting moments. The climb to the top terrace is well worth the effort. You’ll get a spectacular view of the dominant peaks and the Inca ruins far below, a great place to take those treasured photos.
As I gazed down at this iconic landmark, it was hard for me to believe I was actually there. I had hoped to experience a spiritual connection to the site, to feel the presence of what had been, to be inspired, perhaps even changed in some way. One can hope for these things but never predict or control them. I felt awe, but nothing more. Perhaps I was overwhelmed with it. Perhaps I was still tired from my long journey. Or perhaps I needed some solitude, time for reflection. Although it was off-season, there were still a lot of tourists around, and there was no time to absorb the environment without interruption.
After our photo op from high above, we gradually made our way along the stone steps into the Incan village on the plateau below. Adriel lead us around the various stone structures and enlightened us on Incan culture and practices.
The Incas were polytheistic and believed there was a different god for every aspect of the Earth. They also believed that only one god, Viracocha, created the Earth and all its creatures. They worshipped objects in nature, such as rivers, mountains, caves, stones and natural springs. The astral level, a secondary tier of their religion, involved worshipping gods within the Earth, sun, moon and stars.
Gold and silver were not viewed as riches, but were used to make sacred objects called huacas that were placed in niches, or altars, inside the stone structures. These huacas were used in offering ceremonies to the gods. The Incas also performed sacrifices to the gods, usually with animals such as llamas or guinea pigs, but sometimes they sacrificed women and children. They believed these offerings would create a balance between nature and their society and provide benefits such as successful crop production, happiness and good health.
Ancestor worship played a central role in Incan theology. They believed in an afterlife and took good care of their dead, whom they embalmed and mummified before placing in a tomb with the decedent’s most prized possessions. Bodies of the dead were considered to be huacas, too. The Incas believed the dead could hear them, so they brought offerings to the tombs to care for those who had passed on to the next life.
Astronomy was a key element in the Incan culture, particularly in relation to agriculture. The most important celestial events involved the rise and set of the sun, moon and stars and the change of seasons. Incans believed that the planet Venus was a servant of the sun. One of the structures that Adriel showed us contained two small round pools filled with water. It’s believed these were reflecting pools in which one could view the night sky.
As our time in this heavenly place drew to a close, we were washed in a misty rain that spilled over the mountain tops. On our way out, we stamped our passports with a Machu Picchu stamp and then journeyed back down the mountain to attend to more Earthly matters, a quick lunch in the quaint little town of Aguas Calientes. After lunch, we were spirited away by rail back to Ollantaytambo and were soon on our tour bus en route to Cusco.
Along the way, we made two stops. Adriel watched carefully for something along the roadside then signaled for the driver to pull over. He jumped out, scraped something from a clump of prickly pear cactus and brought it aboard the bus to show us. It was a white scale-like substance, dactylopius coccus eggs, a parasitic insect that lives on cacti. The natural cochineal dye derived from this insect and its eggs is used in textiles and food. Adriel crushed an egg between his fingers. It exploded in deep crimson goo.
Our next stop was at a mountain bar. When Incan women and children were sacrificed to the gods, they were given chicha to drink. Chicha is a thick beer made from fermented corn. This beer is still the most popular alcoholic drink among the Incans today. Chicha is served in bars all over the mountains. It takes three days for the liquid to ferment. When the chicha is ready, a red plastic bottle is placed on the end of a stick and displayed outside the bar door. These bars are not the fancy places we’re used to. They’re rustic rooms, often in a home.
We walked into a small room with a table and a pot of what would become chicha cooking over a wood fire. There was another batch of chicha ready for us to taste. We drank regular chicha and a sweeter one flavored with strawberries. The regular chicha reminded me of Kombucha, a fermented Japanese tea, somewhat reminiscent of apple cider but not as sweet.
After drinking chicha, we peeked into a shed behind the bar in which guinea pigs were being raised for consumption. Then we entered a lovely garden in the back where there was a corn patch. Adriel brought a glass of chicha to make an offering to the gods. After some ceremonial words in his native Incan language, Quechua, he spread chicha in the corn patch to bless the harvest.
From the garden, we moved into a courtyard and played a traditional coin toss game called Sapo, often played while drinking chicha (the loser obliged to buy the next round). An ancient Incan legend tells of a mystical game “El Sapu” (The Frog) that evolved from the sacred Inca lake Titicaca. The Incan royal family would throw gold pieces into the lake hoping to catch a frog’s attention. Frogs were known for their magical powers. If the frog captured the gold piece in his mouth, the creature turned into gold, and the person who tossed the coin was granted a wish.
The modern version of the game involves tossing coins onto a game table to try and get a coin into the frog’s mouth or into one of the slots. Each slot represented so many points. The most points are awarded to one who gets a coin into the frog’s mouth. Though I didn’t toss a coin into the frog’s mouth, I did toss coins into enough holes to give me 5000 points and win the game. I think the chicha helped.
As we continued on to Cusco, we rode in silence, satisfied but exhausted from a day filled with joy and intoxicating discoveries. I was quickly falling in love with this culture, this land, this Peru.