Peru: Judy Bai­ley’s Machu Pic­chu adventure

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Once left aban­doned, Machu Pic­chu is now one of the most vis­ited his­toric sites in the world. Judy Bai­ley is spell­bound by its mys­tery.

MACHU PIC­CHU is one of the great won­ders of the world. It is also one of the great mys­ter­ies – a cen­tre of Inca civil­i­sa­tion that was left aban­doned, high on a moun­tain­side at the head of a re­mote val­ley in the Peru­vian wilder­ness.

You can’t help but get caught up in its al­lure.

The eas­i­est way to ac­cess the great Inca site is to fly south-east from the Peru­vian cap­i­tal, Lima, to Cusco, the an­cient town known as the gate­way to the Sa­cred Val­ley of the Inca. The flight takes just one hour and 20 min­utes.

Cusco was the most im­por­tant city in the Inca em­pire. It is a World Her­itage site and de­servedly so.

Don’t be de­terred by the rather dusty, down-at-heel air­port that greets you on ar­rival, as the his­toric city cen­tre is de­light­ful. Set around a se­ries of gra­cious cob­ble­stoned squares, there are some won­der­ful ex­am­ples of 15th-cen­tury Span­ish ar­chi­tec­ture, much of which is sited on top of

Inca ru­ins.

The cathe­dral and church of la Com­pa­nia dom­i­nate the main square, the Plaza de Ar­mas. The cathe­dral is all Catholic mag­nif­i­cence, its high al­tar cov­ered in sil­ver, but the pièce de ré­sis­tance is the paint­ing of the Last Sup­per, in which a guinea pig, con­sid­ered a gas­tro­nom­i­cal treat in Peru, fea­tures prone on a plat­ter in front of Christ. The dark side of

the Span­ish rule here is pre­served in the tiny chapel to the left of the cathe­dral’s main en­trance – ap­par­ently this was where re­li­gious pris­on­ers were rou­tinely tor­tured dur­ing the days of the In­qui­si­tion.

On the hill above Cusco are the mind-bog­gling re­mains of Sak­say­wa­man (sounds very like ‘sexy wo­man’ to the Kiwi ear… I was won­der­ing if I was on the right trip there for a mo­ment!). Sak­say­wa­man is thought to have served as a citadel in Inca times. Like Egypt’s pyra­mids, it’s a mar­vel of engi­neer­ing – huge gran­ite slabs cut and wedged to­gether with such pre­ci­sion you can’t even get a slip of pa­per be­tween them. Some of these boul­ders are thought to weigh about 200 tonnes. How did they do it? Where did the gran­ite come from? It is an ex­tra­or­di­nary site.

Cusco sits more than 3000 me­tres above sea level. The air is thin here. We find our­selves strug­gling for breath. Just a short walk up the hill to the ho­tel is enough to leave us gasp­ing. Just as well then that the ho­tel, an art-filled 15th-cen­tury Span­ish man­sion, has oxy­ge­nen­riched air pumped into its rooms. We had pre­vi­ously met oth­ers who’d suc­cumbed to the lack of air and been hos­pi­talised with­out even set­ting foot on Machu Pic­chu. Alti­tude sick­ness is not pleas­ant, caus­ing nau­sea, dizzi­ness and cramps.

Al­though Machu Pic­chu it­self is slightly lower than Cusco, at nearly 2500 me­tres, it is worth tak­ing time to get used to the alti­tude, given that you’ll be do­ing a lot of climb­ing when you get there. It’s also worth tak­ing alti­tude pills to help ac­cli­ma­tise, along with co­pi­ous quan­ti­ties of the lo­cal brew, coca tea, which the Peru­vians will tell you pre­vents alti­tude sick­ness. It’s a mild stim­u­lant though, so avoid it be­fore bed!

We base our­selves in Urubamba, just an hour’s drive from Cusco. En route we pass through the tiny town of Urquil­los, al­most com­pletely given over to celebrating the con­sump­tion of guinea pigs. There’s a large statue of a guinea pig, com­plete with bow tie and waist­coat, on the main street. Tiny ram­shackle stalls all of­fer their own very spe­cial take on the lo­cal del­i­cacy, spit-roasted guinea pig. A small boy waves a stick, on which a hap­less guinea pig is skew­ered. I can’t quite bring my­self to try it but my hus­band Chris takes one for the team (guinea pig drum­sticks… not a large meal) and re­ports they’re chick­en­ish.

We stay at Son­esta Posadas del Inca Yu­cay, a for­mer con­vent. Its gar­den is a pic­ture with its own tiny stone chapel, foun­tains and masses of pink hy­drangeas. It’s the per­fect place to re­lax and ac­cli­ma­tise be­fore we be­gin the jour­ney to Machu Pic­chu.

The famed Inca trail is not for us. We’ve opted to take the Vis­ta­dome train to Aguas Calientes, the vil­lage that nes­tles at the foot of the vast moun­tain of Machu Pic­chu. From there we’ll take a bus up the steep switch­back dirt road to the site it­self. This is the only way to reach Machu Pic­chu other than on foot. Pri­vate cars are banned.

The train de­parts from the town of Ol­lan­tay­tambo, famed as the last liv­ing Inca city. You can still see the open drainage canals that were built in Inca times, and lo­cals have built their homes over ex­ist­ing Inca ru­ins. The town is over­looked by the spec­tac­u­lar ru­ins of a fortress crowned by a tem­ple. Of course we have to climb to the top, driven by that in­nate hu­man urge to see what’s on the other side. It’s hot as we slowly make our way up the huge gran­ite steps. Were they par­tic­u­larly tall, these Inca? I don’t think so. It’s worth the hike though – the view of the val­ley is spec­tac­u­lar.

It’s easy to be­come blasé about the his­tory that sur­rounds us. Ru­ins are ev­ery­where. Lo­cal farm­ers now

Tiny stalls all of­fer their own spe­cial take on the lo­cal del­i­cacy, spit-roasted guinea pig.

grow corn and quinoa on the an­cient Inca ter­races that line the lush val­ley. Ap­par­ently the Inca copied the nat­u­ral ter­races of the An­des to pre­vent land­slides.

Puma roam these an­cient hills, and giant con­dors wheel over­head.

The Vis­ta­dome train is aptly named. The tow­er­ing vis­tas we see through its clear roof are truly awe-in­spir­ing. There’s en­ter­tain­ment on­board as well. The Peru­vian pen­chant for masks comes into its own with masked clowns fool­ing down the aisles. Then the very ca­pa­ble crew, who’ve al­ready served food and drinks, be­come mod­els to show off the lat­est al­paca fash­ions. Diver­si­fi­ca­tion is the name of the game. A group of Rus­sian women take a shine to the hand­some male model and he man­ages to off­load an arm­ful of clothes.

Thou­sands of tourists visit Machu Pic­chu ev­ery day but the Peru­vians have the whole in­flux man­aged to per­fec­tion. It some­how doesn’t feel crowded, but maybe that’s be­cause we are vis­it­ing in the morn­ing, be­fore the heat and crowds of the af­ter­noon.

I no­tice a man gen­tly scrub­bing the giant gran­ite blocks with a tooth­brush. He’s part of an army of lo­cal peo­ple charged with pre­serv­ing the site. It’s painstak­ing work, but such is the rev­er­ence in which this place is held.

To gaze upon one of the won­ders of the world is some­thing truly spe­cial. To tell the truth, Machu Pic­chu had not been on my bucket list, but to be able to ex­pe­ri­ence it is sub­lime.

I feel what must be a frac­tion of the ex­cite­ment of the Amer­i­can ar­chae­ol­o­gist, Hi­ram Bing­ham, as he broke through the jun­gle in 1911 to dis­cover an en­tire city.

And so much mys­tery en­velops the site to­day. What hap­pened to the peo­ple who lived there back in the 15th cen­tury? Machu Pic­chu is thought to have been a cen­tre for re­li­gion and ed­u­ca­tion in Inca times. It’s be­lieved its res­i­dents fled into the jun­gle to es­cape the Span­ish.

In the past few years, a new trail has been dis­cov­ered di­rectly across the val­ley from the sa­cred site. The trail leads off into the jun­gle… Could there be another equally mind-blow­ing site yet to be un­cov­ered?

Machu Pic­chu had not been on my bucket list, but to be able to ex­pe­ri­ence it is sub­lime.

Machu Pic­chu, Peru.

Left: Judy at Machu Pic­chu. Op­po­site page: Peru is a world of colour, from the lush green of its land­scape to the threads and dyes (bot­tom right) used in tra­di­tional fab­rics. Lo­cal mar­kets sell a vast ar­ray of brightly hued pro­duce and hand­crafted prod­ucts.

The Sa­cred Val­ley of the Inca is home to thou­sands of species of birds, in­clud­ing the hum­ming­bird (top right); as they hover, their tiny wings flap at 80 beats per sec­ond.

Clock­wise from be­low: The switch­back road to Machu Pic­chu. Tightly packed gran­ite slabs form the an­cient struc­tures. Colour­ful chairs pro­vide respite for an el­derly man at Pisac mar­ket, near Cusco. A Peru­vian wo­man dye­ing wool.

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