Monday, June 28, 2010

Salkantay and Machu Picchu

So we're (kind of) fresh off of the Salkantay trek to Machu Picchu, one of the alternative hikes you can do to the site- Wes and I initially planned just to take a train to Aguas Calientes, the city at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, and walk up to the ruins the following day. However, walking around with Eliza to the tour agencies got me way too excited about her treks and very soon converted us. We signed up for a 5 day-4 night trip, which leads you upwards for 1500 meters past Salkantay Glacier and then descends back down to Aguas Calientes. It was awesome. I'm so glad we did it.

The trek was beautiful, the company was great, and plus, when we woke every morning at 4:45-5:00 am, we were greeted, in the tent, with steaming cups of coca tea. I think it's fair to start by saying that 5 kilos of our weight (so more than half) was being carried by mules the entire trip (far be it from me to dupe you all into thinking I'm some kind of Iron Man). We were also accompanied by two guides, three cooks, and a horseman for the mules- this for a group of 17 people. So it was a big big group, not to mention we were surrounded by two other similar sized groups throughout the trek. That sounds negative, sorry- the trek itself was still awesome! So yeah, maybe it was a cushy trek, but I don't care, coca tea first thing in the morning is the greatest thing ever.

The Salkantay Glacier and the glaciers surrounding it are all now receding (as are all glaciers, in the world, but three outside of the poles- remember we went to one of the three remaining, the Perito Moreno Glacier in Calafate, Argentina) and our awesome guide Victór gave us a talk about what the glaciars mean in Incan lore (Apu Salkantay, for example, is Lord Salkantay- the glaciars are seen as living and powerful beings and people leave them sacrifices in the form of little rock piles, or on occasions little frozen mummies, like the ones we saw in Salta, Argentina). And he somewhat mentioned how Western civilization is responsible for the receding glaciers and climate change and I felt bad. But the glaciers are still really pretty! Right now!...

The trek on a whole was really fun and we met a bunch of awesome kids from Cali who have finally 100% convinced me to move to San Francisco in January (hooray! Now I just need to convince John to come with me). We're also hoping to meet up with them again in Lima in a week or so (same goes for Eliza, who left us today to travel for a week and some change with our newest friend Taylor). And the trail itself was really beautiful and led us through three different distinct climates- the somewhat dry, mountainous Sacred Valley, the streams and rivers along the glaciers, and the cloud-forest (apparently, not called a 'jungle,' called cloud forest. I have failed to discern the difference between the two, except for the presence of more clouds, which seems like too insignificant a reason to me to have two separate names for ecosystems). There were orchids (lots of flowers), allegedly monkeys, lots of scary chicken things that came up to your knee, majestic looking roosters, and tons of beautiful waterfalls. It was really beautiful and was really great leading up to Machu Picchu (except for the fact that tourists on this trek, and in Cuzco period, are assholes- pardon the language. They're rude, demanding, cheap, don't speak a lick of Spanish, and they're just so... rude! They seriously treated the guides and cooks terribly and it really pissed us off. But I guess that's something to be expected in a place like Cuzco and Aguas Calientes, and I'm no saint either, so yeah. Oh well).

Speaking of Aguas Calientes, climbing in their hot springs at the end of a four day hike was the most glorious sulfur bath I've ever taken (and uh yeah, I've taken like, 472588 hot spring baths, in the spas of the Alps and stuff. Just kidding it was my first and it was awesooome!). Augas Calientes (named Hot Waters, one would assume because of the hot springs, or maybe because they're always gettin in to trouble) is a super touristy town (predictably) but it's still unbelievably gorgeous , set in the valley of Machu Picchu, the Happy Mountain, and some other mountains whose names I do not know, with the Urubamba River running through it (like Machu Picchu, the Happy Mountain, Cuzco, and everything else in Peru, the Urubamba River has two other names, and I don't remember what they are. Sorry. It's a lot of stuff to remember! But I can gleefully confer to you that I am finally beginning to forget the names of RCLA Publications and routes on the L:/ drive from the job I left last October). So Aguas was cool.

And, now, Machu Picchu! We left the hostel at 3:30 in the morning to begin to walk up 400 meters to Machu Picchu (I have never risen so early to do such strenuous exercise) and arrived at the gates of the park at 4:45. We were numbers 9-15 in line for the park, which is exciting both because the park has 2,500 visitors per day (limited to this number) and because only the first people in line can score the free tickets to Huana Picchu, that peak you always see in the back of Machu Picchu pictures, like in the blog banner above (Machu Picchu, by the way, means Old Peak/Mountain, and Huana Picchu means Young Peak/Mountain). Needless to say we got our tickets to HP and entered the park at 6 am, which is when it opens. We then basically descended into a feeding frenzy of how many pictures we could take of Machu Picchu at sunrise before all the tourists started rolling in (turns out, kind of a lot). The frenzy was followed by a fantastic guided tour of the ruins by Victór, which lasted about 2.5 hours and was great- Victór himself is of Quechua descent (most people in the highlands are), so in addition to his Andean cross necklace and earring and tejido belt, he's got a lot of inherent Incan pride.

So turns out Machu Picchu (if you already know this, skip this section) was not in fact the most opulant or impressive or grand or large of the Incan cities of the empire (that was probably Cuzco), it just happens to be the best preserved (that is, it still exists) for the sole reason that the Spanish never found it (it was discovered by American explorer Hiram Bingham in 1911, who was led there by a 9-yr-old Quechua boy, and who transferred thousands upon thousands of artifacts back to Yale University, which funded his expeditions, for study. The university retains these artifacts and has refused to return them to Peru despite the agreement between Bingham and the Peruvian government to return them decades ago. An agreement was signed in 2007? or around there? that allows Yale to retain them for another 100 years so they can continue to study and display Peru's national heritage. Stupid Yale) . So yes, the Spanish never found and thus plundered it, as was the case with most other major Incan sites--apparently as the last Inca (the king of the Incans was the Inca) and his army fled the Spanish into the jungle to regroup, they tore up the beginnings of the Incan trail out of Cuzco as they went so the Spanish couldn't follow them, passing through Machu Picchu as they went).

Machu Picchu itself remains a mystery as to its purpose. It is largely regarded to have been either a estate of one of the Inca emperor, Pachacuti (coolest beach house ever), or a thoroughfare for trade and center from which to control the Empire's economic districts (based on the 8 Incan roads leading to the city). It also could have been an agricultural testing center, as the terraces that surround Machu Picchu (the ones to the left, they're common in Incan construction as they also served to prevent erosion of the mountains) created hundreds of different micro climates but are not large enough to grow food on a large scale. It also may have been a university, or as guides love to tell you, scoffing, some people think it was created by aliens (also, Republican Senators apparently think that wind power will cause global warming, because wind keeps things cool and turbines eat wind. What can I say, people think crazy things).

So yes. The rock walls in the buildings were seamless (as in, there was hardly any space between them, not enough for even a piece of paper) and enormous- there was a lot of construction onto the natural rock faces of the mountain, which was really cool. Also cool were the llamas grazing the compound- Victór said there were thirty of them and they are the site's pets, which also help cut the grass. Yay llamas! The buildings themselves were so cool, you could just imagine the rafters and the doors still being there. There's one building where the hole in the bathroom for human waste (Incan toilet!) was still visible (some jerk, obviously, had recently peed in it, within two hours of the park being open). They also have these large ceramic pools which they used to study the stars at their leisure (because its a lot easier to point out a constellation to someone else in a small pool than in the sky). A lot of work around Machu Picchu is guesswork, as the Incans did not have a written language. And gloriously the park was actually a lot less touristy than we expected (granted, we left at 1:30, so maybe after that it fills up-- the tourist buses did start rolling in at unprecedented rates once we were leaving)- there were less people there then I remember at Chitchen Itza when I was little. So that was really nice (I got to take lots of pictures of buildings with no one in them, which will be framed on the mantel in my grown-up-life house).

The only downside to the ruins was that Wes, who has been waiting to go to Peru and Machu Picchu all his life to fulfill the rites of his Peruvian heritage, got really sick around 12:30 and had to leave the park. Also, I lost my ticket to Huayna Picchu (though I wouldn't have really wanted to climb it without Wes) so neither of us ended up climbing it, though we got to the park at 4:45 in the morning specifically that we could (this to me was more than okay. It seems like a whole lot of exertion to climb that giant peak just for a photo op. Which was kind of the line of thinking that kept us from going to the Salt Flats in Bolivia). So we ended up leaving earlier (though honestly, we had spent a lot of time in the park already, as we entered at six in the morning) than we anticipated, but we saw everything we wanted to in the park, aside from the views offered by the mountains surrounding the site. I loved Machu Picchu and Weasle and I have already vowed to return and conquer Huayna Picchu once and for all.


  1. Kate, you are always entertaining, informative, and comical. The trip just gets better with each post and it's great to be able to journey with you stateside! Love, Mom/Laura

  2. The photo of the sunrise on Machu Picchu is simply glorious! The first thing that came to mind as I looked at the photo you took was... "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handywork." (Psalm 14:1) The two of you have really seen so much of the magnificent creation during your travels. How exciting for you!!

    Love, Mom/Laura