Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Take Me Wit-chu to Machu Picchu!!

Ever since the new list of the Seven Wonders of the World came out, I made it my goal to visit them all, and I've already been to Colosseum, so the fact that I was going to Peru and Machu Picchu had me super excited.

We've all seen pictures of Machu Picchu, with it's terraced slopes and massive mountains in the background, but how many of us have actually SEEN it? Well, as of 2003, over 400K people, according to Wikipedia. And now I had the chance to be one of them.

Our day started incredibly early, as I mentioned before, with us meeting in the lobby of the hotel. We packed ourselves some snacks for the trip and all headed down to the bus stop at the base of the hill by the railroad tracks. The buses run from about 5am til about 9pm, every 10 min at times. We piled on the bus and settled in for the half hour trek up the hill. The bus took off, crossed the river and started the ascent.

Back and forth we went up the mountain side, terrifying drops awaited anyone who was brave enough to look out the window when their side of the bus was overlooking the edge. Hairpin turns allowed the bus to zigzag up the mountain and the roads were just barely wide enough for another bus to pass. Eventually we made it to the top and gathered as a group to await Barbara's instructions.

We were told that sunrise was at about 6:30, but considering the skies were already blue we figured we'd missed the good time of day to see the famous site. Barbara told us not to worry, and handed out our tickets. She led the way to the gates where we gave our tickets to the attendants and then continued our way up the hill.

We were greeted by a fork in the road. One pathway went straight up, with the word "Long" on a sign with an arrow. The other pathway went straight, with an arrow pointing down the hill. All of a sudden we started on the vertical path up, with it's ominous looking arrow.

Up and up and up we hiked, huffing and puffing and complaining about how difficult it was to haul ourselves up the hill. Pretty sure I remember hearing a few of the group mention how there wasn't much chance of us doing the Inca Trail if we can't even do the stairs up to overlook Machu Picchu.

Eventually we reached the top and it was completely worth it. The view of the ancient site was unobstructed and the clouds were drifting past just enough to give some depth to the scene. There were llamas atop the hill as well, presumably to be posed in pictures (and here I thought they just photoshopped them in!) for the tourists. Barbara pointed the way to the Sun Gate, location further up the hill, about a 45 min hike away.

The group of us ran around taking pictures, taking in the view and just generally being in complete awe of the fact that we were indeed at Machu Picchu! The sun was shining and despite our worries, it came up over the mountains while we were there casting an amazing light over the whole city.

We had to head back down the mountain to the fork in the road and then back to the gate to meet our guide. The way down was almost as scary as the way up since the rocks are slippery and steep. Once at the bottom we all gathered for a photo overlooking the city before heading to meet our guide. Just want to mention - this was all by about 7:30am! Amazing what can be accomplished before 8am!

Our guide,Wagner,  was waiting for us at the gates at 8am. He took us back up the hill to the fork in the road and this time instead of going up the monstrous hill we went down the stairs towards the ruins themselves. We stopped in the shade and he started to explain the site to us. There are 2 main areas, the agricultural section and the urban section. The part that most people see from the photos is the urban area.

Some of the interesting points Wagner told us are as follows:

  • there are more than 5000 steps in the ancient city
  • built on top of a mountain to avoid landslides - on the east side of the mountain the terraces are for agriculture, on the west side they are just retaining walls 
  • the bricks used throughout the city were created by chiseling the naturally occuring granite, following the lines of the rocks and grinding them down with water to make them smooth.
  • Incas built all their buildings to withstand the frequent earthquakes by using trapezoid shapes. 
  • The Temple of the Sun is an accurate calendar showing the winter (June 21st) and summer (Dec 21st) solstice. Unlike our Gregorian calendar, which has to be adjusted every 4 years, the Temple of the Sun is accurate to 14,000 years.
  • Machu Picchu was one of 4 ancient cities (Ollantaytambo and Pisac are others) that have been discovered. They are still searching for the 4th. 
  • The Incas domesticated potatoes - they figured out how to breed the alkyds out of the potatoes so they were no longer poisonous. Scientists today still do not know how to do this. 
  • There are over 3000 types of potatoes in Peru 
  • Incas and Andean people live on a mostly carb diet - potatoes, corn, grains - due to their extremely active lifestyle. (Believe me, all that hiking you'd need lots of sustenance!)
  • Andean culture nowadays is very similar to those of the Incas - the only difference is that some of the knowledge (like how to breed potatoes) was not passed down after the Spanish took over. 
  • The Spanish brought disease to the Incas - prior to them arriving there was very little sickness. The Incas would send the men out of the communities at 17/18 years old and they would move to another community. By moving the people around, there was no incest and stronger bloodlines.
  • The Incas taught the Spanish how to find gold and silver - things that were mostly useless to them. Their treasures were the seeds to their plants. 
  • Machu Picchu was home to approx 800-1000 people though they could not possibly grow that much food on the land they had. They would instead harvest fruits etc from the nearby jungle, dry it and trade it with other nearby villages. 
After the tour, which was fantastic (I highly recommend having a guide at such a facinating place, since you will get so much more out of the experience), some of the group stayed behind to do the Sun Gate hike while the rest of us went back down the hill into the town to find something to eat. 

As we arrived back in Aguas Calientes, the skys opened up and it started to rain. A group of us decided to go for Mexican food at a cute spot long the railway tracks with outdoor seating and a nice awning While we were sitting there a band happened by to play us some live music. We sat back, listened and discussed the amazing things we'd seen that morning. 

Once completely stuffed, the group split up. Some of us went to check our emails while others went to shop in the markets surrounding the train station. All in all we just killed time until our train from Aguas to Cusco that departed at 5:30 

The train ride was about 3 hours long and we didn't get back to Cusco city until nearly 10pm.... it felt great to be back "home" in a familiar hotel. Showers and repacking commenced. Some people went out but the majority just hung back to get a good nights sleep before another early morning - next stop, LIMA!

** Just want to mention - while at MP myself and a few others got eaten by Peruvian black flies (or something similar) - so be sure to use serious bug spray or wear long pants. A week later and my legs are still insanely itchy (23 bites in total on my legs) and I have yet to find something that really makes them stop. 

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