Stunning journey

12
Sep
2008

Juliette and I agree that the rather expensive “Andean Explorer” train from Cusco to Puno was totally worth it. The views were spectacular, the cars beautiful and the food quite good. The only downer is that wine and some drinks cost extra, but we would totally take this train again.

Andean Explorer

12
Sep
2008

This is the rather quaint name given by Perurail to the train we will be taking this morning from Cusco to Puno, leaving at 8am and arriving at 5pm. We are hopeful that the service and comfort will be better than the Perurail train we took the other day back from Machu Picchu, because to be honest, the tickets weren’t cheap.

Machu Picchu

11
Sep
2008

Juliette and I decided to walk the last stretch of the Inca trail to arrive at Machu Picchu. This mainly consists of a steep stone path from the town of Aquas Calientes up to the ruins, a climb of over 400 vertical meters that takes around an hour an a half to accomplish. While quite strenuous, it was totally worth it, as the entry to the site is made all the more dramatic by the journey taken there. Once we got onto the site, we took the first path to climb up the farming terraces for the famous high overview of Machu Picchu, and I have to admit to getting a little emotional as we took in this view. It is incredible and very moving. As we climbed higher on the terraces before descending into the site itself, we saw that there was a large production crew and filming taking place on one of the plateaus. There was a large group of dancers in “native” Inca warrior costumes practicing a number. I thought is all seemed quite Bollywood, but that they were probably filming a yogurt commercial or something. We started taking pictures of it as well when a young woman approached us and asked us to stop. She then told us that this was indeed a Bollywood film (called Robot) staring Aishwarya Rai, who was filming a scene to our left! Juliette and I were stunned. As we had been traveling in India together, this coincidence seemed just too incredible, as if the ends of our trip had touched each other from so very far away. How crazy that this Indian film crew should be filming on the very day and in the very place where we were traveling, half-way around the world! We couldn’t help but try to snap at least one more photo of Aishwarya, feeling a little giddy and setting the tone for the rest of our trip around the site. Everything seemed imbued with a greater meaning because of this strange coincidence.

The site itself was very impressive, mostly from an organizational, location, and architectural standpoint. This site shows off in pretty magnificent detail and setting the wonder of the Incas. Throughout our recent explorations of Inca sites, I could not help but compare them to the Romans in a way. Their achievements are incredibly impressive, but mostly in the realms of science and engineering rather than art, although there is great artistry in their techniques. Every function of the city had its own separate zone, whether the farming, religious, housing or other. These people were master planners. And one has to admit that the Andes are quite mystical seeming. It is no wonder that they were worshiped by the people that lived here.

Machu Picchu Dos and Don’ts

11
Sep
2008

- DO get to Aquas Calientes (the town at the bottom) as early as possible. We took the first train from Ollantaytambo and arrived at about 7am to begin our ascent

- DO climb the last stretch of the Inca trail to get to the site. We had it all to ourselves, avoiding the tourists crammed into the many buses taking the road-trip up . The trail itself is very beautiful and gave us a sense of accomplishment and better understanding of how the Incas themselves would have reached Machu Picchu.

- DO bring mosquito repellent. You only need it for the site itself, not for the trail steps coming up, but I have never been bitten by so many mosquitoes at one time in my life.

- DON’T splurge on the Perurail “Vistadome” train either to or from Aquas Calientes. It is a total ripoff. It costs twice what the “backpacker” train does, ostensibly for the better views (there are windows at the top of the carriage as well as the side) and the “service” (which consisted of one soft drink service for a 5 hour journey and a sad snack). In addition, the top windows make the train stifling hot during the day, yet the cars have no AC. The final oddity is that the service staff at one point in the journey turn on loud disco music and perform (I kid you not) a runway fashion show in the aisle, modeling several types of outfit made with local alpaca wool. After the fashion show they come up the aisles trying to sell the garments. I have to admit that this last bit of theater was so strange it almost made the trip worth it for the sheer unbelievability of it.

- DO visit the museum at the bottom of the mountain. Its displays were great and really helped with understanding Machu Picchu. Ideally one would visit the museum before ascending to Machu Picchu, but then one wouldn’t arrive as early at the site, which in my opinion is more important. We came to the museum after our descent, and it did make clear many of the things we had seen. (Although the best option would be to arrive in Aguas Calientes the day before, see the museum, and ascend very early the next day)

No place is so small…

9
Sep
2008

…that it doesn´t have internet access, apparently.  I am currently at an internet cafe in Ollantaytambo at the end of a truly amazing day of travel in the sacred valley of the Incas.  We saw such an incredible variety of sites today, from the main square and palace ruins of Chinchero, to the agriculture terraces of Moray to the fort and old Inca city of Ollantaytambo. But the site that impressed me the most was actually Salinas. It has been a place for the manufacture of salt for many hundreds of years. There is a salty stream (insert gross joke here) flowing out of a mountain at the site that is channeled into hundreds of stone salt pans built by the Inca. Then the salty water evaporates and the salt is collected. The site has an eerie otherworldly beauty. I have uploaded (but not yet titled) today´s images, so bear with me, but I will still post the raw image slideshow below:

Sacred excursion

9
Sep
2008

Juliette and I are leaving this morning on a short trip through the sacred valley to Machu Picchu, with stops along the way at Chinchero, Moray and Ollantaytambo. We will take a combination of taxi, train and hike to get there, and should be back in Cusco Wednesday night. Since I will be leaving my laptop in Cusco, it is unlikely I will be blogging before then. Stay tuned for some (hopefully) amazing photos.

Koricancha / Santo Domingo

8
Sep
2008

Koricancha is one of the most fascinating sites in Cusco. It is the location of the most important temple in the Inca empire and was for many years buried under the Church of Santo Domingo (built by the Spanish ‘natch) until an earthquake in 1950 uncovered a bunch of it and leveled a lot of the church. “Buried” perhaps isn’t the best word to describe how the church was built over it, as several of the rooms were subsumed by the church complex, the original stone structures still in place and the forms of the rooms as well. This was the first site that really impressed on me the wonder of Inca architecture. The incredible fitting and complexity of the stonework is beyond anything I have seen of its kind anywhere. It was all done without mortar and in this seismically active region holds up incredibly well, especially when compared with colonial building.The fittings are so tight that many of the seams are almost invisible.

Another great reason to visit the Church / Convent of Santo Domingo is for the excellent collection of paintings (many from the Cusco school) that detail the history of the church in this part of the world. The explanations under the paintings are the best I have ever encountered and explain in great detail the meanings and influences of the paintings.

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Pigs fly

8
Sep
2008

I had a strange dream last night. Somebody famous (I can’t remember who, but some sort of aging, annoying, rocker type with scraggly blond hair) and a friend of mine and I were organizing a house move, packing up all our stuff and loading it into a small plane. The rocker guy was getting increasingly impatient with our progress. As we finally got everything loaded and seated ourselves (with a few other people) in the small plane, we noticed that there was a thunderstorm appearing in the direction we were about to take off into. The rocker guy (who was also the pilot) barked a few orders at everyone and taxied to the runway for takeoff. As we started down the runway, we noticed a huge semi truck in front of us, which accelerated very quickly and took off into the sky in front of us. Then we took off and were flying behind it, and the storm seemed to be dissipating a bit. Then the bells of a nearby church rang (in reality, here in Cusco) and I woke up. Any dream interpreters out there care to take a stab at the meaning of this?

Notes on Cusco

7
Sep
2008

- The layout and architecture of the city is quite beautiful, and it is interesting that many of the colonial buildings have Inca foundations.

- Cusco (unlike Lima) is a VERY touristy place. Hawkers of all kinds are everywhere, taking a little away from the otherwise beautiful setting.

- In case you are wondering if the presence of the rainbow flag in many of the photos indicates that Cusco is a super gay city, know that the rainbow flag is also an Inca symbol. Some local residents have been worried about the confusion however.

- There is some sort of “festival” going on today, and a brass band has been playing incessantly for the past 6 hours.