The Road to Machu Picchu

 by Michael Abedin, August 2015

In 1911, American adventurer and sort-of archeologist Hiram Bingham – said to be the model for Indiana Jones, right down to the hat and the disregard for finer points of archeological preservation – trekked into the Peruvian Andes and rediscovered Machu Picchu, mysterious Lost City of the Incas. You can still trek if you like, but nowadays it’s easier to take a train.

It’s still quite a journey. Fly to Lima, then Cusco, ancient capital of the Inca Empire. It’s a city with its own rainbow-colored flag, which can easily lead you to believe you’re in the GBLT – Gay Bacon Lettuce Tomato – capital of everywhere. Catch the train in Agua Caliente in the shadow of a statue of Pachacuti, most honored of the Incas and builder of Machu Picchu (pronounced Mock-chew Peek-chu by Quechua-speaking guides). In a valley six thousand feet above sea level, surrounded by towering peaks, it’s the most visited attraction in South America.

Phone home – and pass the coca. Like the Grand Canyon, Machu Picchu is one of those places that feels like it’s had some of its juju sucked out by being viewed so much – but like the Canyon, it’s still amazing. (One guide said returning to the site just before it reopened after several months of flooding was a completely different experience.) The juju returns, though, if you’re in a group guided by local shamans, who are allowed to do traditional ceremonies in tourist-restricted areas.

It’s easy to see why some say Machu Picchu and Incan culture are extraterrestrial in origin. Aligned with celestial patterns, gigantic blocks of stone were fitted without mortar so tightly you can’t slip a blade of grass between them, arranged in uneven patterns to distribute the stress of earthquakes – over five hundred years ago, by people using no wheels, draft animals, or slaves.

They did, however, have the sacred coca leaf – still do, at markets and drugstores. Only two of over two hundred varieties have alkaloids to make cocaine (a lot of cocaine). The others, chewed or in tea, are a handy way to deal with altitude sickness, fatigue, or one too many Pisco Sours the night before.

Cocaine has had its effect – travel through parts of Peru and you’ll see seedy towns filled with discos and dives catering to the drug trade. In the countryside, though, crops still flourish on hillsides terraced since the time of the Incas, watered by aqueducts they built that surpass the Roman aqueducts as an engineering feat, to bring melting snow from high in the Andes.

The food grown and grazed on those terraced hillsides tastes like what it is. Grilled chicken tastes like chicken, lean and flavorful and not pumped full of fillers and antibiotics. Butter tastes amazing, fruits and vegetables are fresh and nutritious, free of GMO’s.

The national delicacy – what you get on your birthday, roasted to a fine turn, is – Guinea pig.

Absolutely no idea what that tastes like, thank you very much.

Taquile and Titicaca. Machu Picchu is the best-known sacred site in Peru, but there are other hidden jewels. There’s the Temple of the Four Elements, or the Temple of the Moon near Cusco, a pair of caves surrounded by quinoa fields – the womb of the Earth, also surrounded by mysterious petroglyphs – where you might fly with a condor, or be tapped with a sacred packet by shamans and feel the aches and pains of your travels disappear.

Equally amazing as Machu Picchu is Lake Titicaca, a fun word to say. At 12,500 feet, it’s the highest navigable lake in the world, so big the Peru-Bolivia border bisects its crystal-clear waters. (“We got the Titi,” Peruvians tell Bolivians, “and…”) Since who knows when, the Pre-Incan Uru people have covered blocks of sod with totopa reeds from the lake to make the floating Uros Islands, where they still live in reed huts and fish from reed boats.

Taquile, a hilly, non-floating island, is known for its traditional way of life, its fine weaving, and its amazing view of the lake – a fine sight on a final day of a Tour de Peru. What spiritual insights stand out after such a journey? For starters, llama is pronounced yama, and the way to tell llamas from alpacas is to yell “Hey, llama!” and see who turns to look.

Oh, and you forgot to see if the bathtub really does drain backwards in the southern hemisphere.


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