Perusing Peru: Machu Picchu

We began our journey to Machu Picchu with a night train ride from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu Pueblo, known by locals as Aguas Calientes. The town is situated at the base of the famous mountains.

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With scores of hostel options available in this tourist-driven town, we didn’t bother to make reservations until the same day. We booked two single beds in an 8-bunk room at The Super Tramp Hostel. When we arrived, it was dark and we started to think we had overestimated our abilities to navigate a town jam packed with restaurants and hostels. Luckily, a man around our age stood in the central square holding a sign that read, “Kelly and Milo.”

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The hostel was cheap, clean and very convenient. It even came with a decent breakfast of eggs, coffee, juice, tea and toast. We have no complaints and recommend this hostel if you’re looking for a cheap one night stay in Aguas Calientes.

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The next morning we woke up bright and early and headed to the official ticketing building and paid the fee to enter the park. Unfortunately, they do not accept university-issued student ID cards as sufficient proof to get the student discount, so we both had to pay full price. We were told that as a student traveling abroad, you are eligible for student discounts only if  you have an International Student Identity card. We had decided long before coming to Peru that because we didn’t have the time to properly hike into Machu Picchu on the 4-7 day trail, we would at least forgo the 15 minute/$15 bus ride and hike up the last leg of the mountain trail, complete with rough-hewn stone staircases.

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The helpful staff at the hostel and the officials at the ticketing office said it would take us between 1 and 2 hours to hike up, depending on our fitness level and how long we have been in the area to acclimatize. Given that we were both recovering from having colds, getting used to the altitude, and stopping every few minutes to take pictures, it took us longer.

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Fortunately, coca leaves were available at almost every restaurant and hostel we stayed in, so we had a half dozen leaves each to chew on. Maybe some of you are wondering, what does chewing on coca leaves have to do with anything? Coca leaves have been used in traditional lifestyles of the Andean people for thousands of years for everything from medicine to status symbols to offerings to Pachamama (mother earth). Chewing them raises the amount of oxygen in your blood making it easier to breathe, especially while exerting energy at such high altitudes. Surprisingly, we found it helped ease our transition from sea level to over 2,000 meters.

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The views on the accent were stunning and Milo took many, many pictures. After close to 2 hours, we were very tired and very anxious to see the long awaited views. We sat down at one of the little huts situated along the trail, had a snack and split a liter of water before walking the last little while up to the second wonder of the world that we have visited together (the other one was the Great Wall of China, Mi has also been to the Colosseum). There are many versions of the list of 7 Wonders of the World, given that only one of the original seven survives, but the one we are using is from the New7Wonders Foundation that includes The Great Wall, Petra, Christ the Redeemer, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, the Colosseum, and the Taj Mahal. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the only original survivor from the classical list, has an honorary mention in the new one, which we think is a shame because it is significantly older than any of the other Wonders (c. 2,560 years BC), particularly Christ the Redeemer which was completed in 1931. Personally, we think that Giza should hold the title rather than Christ the Redeemer because the pyramid was built using ancient technology, has withstood millennia, and most of the world’s population isn’t Christian so a modern religious relic doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of a Wonder.

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Instantly upon seeing the monument, we were struck with a wave of emotion. We were at Machu Picchu! Together! We had been together nearly 3 years at that point and had accomplished so many things together and this was one more memory for our ever-growing photo album.

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Milo was especially enthralled as it was their first time catching a glimpse at Inca Ruins so expansive and captivating.

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On our visit, much like when Machu Picchu was inhabited, llama roamed freely, munching on the grass where tourists are forbidden to go. Every once in a while, they photobomb tourists so they can become world famous.

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We climbed up terrace after terrace, snapping endless photos of the entire ancient city from above before descending into it to explore every nook and cranny.

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Aware of her small stature, Kelly likes to fit into small spaces, using her body for scale, to show just how small they really are.

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P1120322At the top, center of the above photo you can see another visitor to Machu Picchu, a chinchilla. Often kept as pets, or used for fur and fine paintbrushes elsewhere, chinchillas are wild South American natives that sort of look like a cross between a fat squirrel and a bunny.

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One of most fascinating observations Milo made was that a lot of the structures that make up this lost city were created without mortar. Using the natural placement of large stones and strategically stacking rocks to create a room was a common construction practice for the Inca people.

P1120361Situated on the top of a mountain, only 80km from Cusco, Machu Picchu lay out of sight of the Spanish during their conquest, so it has remained relatively intact since its construction around 1450. It was only occupied for about a century before it is speculated that much of the population succumbed to smallpox, a belated gift from the Spanish. For centuries, the jungle grew over the site and Machu Picchu’s existence was unknown to the rest of the world until it was discovered in 1911 by Yale University historian Hiram Bingham. Although its remoteness made for a good strategic location, there are many theories about its use by the Incas. Rather than a military stronghold, it appears to have had a more ritualistic purpose. The mountain is almost encircled by the Urubamba River, seen as sacred by the Incas, and the monument is oriented so that on the equinoxes the sun lines up with religiously important mountains.

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Milo, with a slightly taller but more slender frame than Kelly, fit perfectly into most doorways. The Incas deliberately built very small entries to keep in the warmth in winter.

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At about 4pm, the first few drops of rain fell and we had explored everything we could. We had the opportunity to hike another hour up to a section of the city less visited, but we were worried the rain might pick up, making the climb treacherous. We were also feeling hungry for more than just fruit and trail mix so we snapped one last photo and headed back down to Machu Picchu Pueblo.

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The descent took less time than the climb up, but it was equally taxing and by the time we reached the bottom, our legs were shaking. Back in town, we split a couple well-earned large beers and a pizza, hobbled back to the hostel on achy feet, took a shower, and went right to sleep.

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Our train back to Ollantaytambo departed from the station at 7am, so we had a very early start. We ate breakfast and walked back towards the train.

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Like many of the Peruvian pueblos we visited, the whole town had very extensive rain water drainage systems that were decorative as well as functional.

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The train ride back through the lush landscape to Ollantaytambo was beautiful, but uneventful. Back in Ollantaytambo, we had lunch, tried on some sweaters at the tourist market and then caught a ride in a “combi” headed back to Cusco. Combis are large vans that travel between cities and though they are not very luxurious, they are the most economical and authentic way to get around. We have so many pictures like this of Kelly posing in various traditional, hand-knitted sweaters made from alpaca wool. With so many wild patterns to choose from, it was hard to decide which we liked best. It is very common for tourists to purchase these sweaters as souvenirs, so it is almost like a tourist uniform to walk around in a sweater adorned with llamas.

P1120473Cuzco is a big city with so much to see, including many museums and cathedrals. However, we were much more interested in the rich pre-Inca and Inca history than in visiting the exhibits that glorified the Spanish invasion, so we skipped many of the museums. Often, the Spanish colonizers tore down Inca temples in order to build structures and churches right on top of important Inca sites, usurping and defiling sacred Inca spaces.

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In order to better understand this unfortunate history, we visited one of the city’s main museums in the Church of Santo Domingo, which is situated on top of what was once the Inca sun temple, Qurikancha. This was the most important temple in the Inca empire and, like other prominent Inca temples, it was extensively decorated with gold. The walls were covered with sheets of gold and the garden, which Kelly is overlooking in the next photo, was once crowded with golden statues. Over time, the city has encroached upon the garden, shrinking it to its current size. In its current state, there is no way to picture how much gold was dedicated to Pachamama (mother earth) and Pachapapa (father sky).

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P1120496This is a replica of one of the sheets of gold that decorated Qurikancha before the Spanish invaded, stole the sacred golden relics to melt them down, and then demolished the temple, only to construct their own temple using the original foundation. Talk about adding insult to injury.

P1120507Although we were very disheartened to learn more about the havoc wrought by the Spanish conquistatores, we were impressed by these paintings, which portrayed important celestial bodies and the Inca calendar that is based on them.

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P1120530Cusco has something for everyone, including vegan and raw restaurants where we enjoyed these decorative salads and juices.

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We hope that you have enjoyed this part of our journey as much as we did. Next, we head to Puno where we transitioned from tourists to researchers to conduct interviews with quinoa farmers to learn more about how their lives have changed now that traditional super-food quinoa has become a global commodity.

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