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High times: Exploring Machu Picchu and Peru's highlands

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 30, 2009 - Machu Picchu closes at 5:30 p.m. But already at 5, the guards and park attendants start moving visitors out. After all, the entrance is some distance from the heart of this city in the clouds.

It didn't take the guards, though, for us to realize that it was time to go.

The mist was rising from the Urubamba river below; the fog was descending from the Andean mountaintops above -- and Machu Picchu was disappearing into the clouds. By the time we reached the entrance, it was virtually invisible, shrouded in haze, asleep for the night.


Built in the 15th century, Machu Picchu is often called the lost city of the Incas. Because of its spectacular position -- high in the forested mountains, inaccessible by horses -- the Spanish conquistadors never found it, which is a nice way of saying they didn't dismantle or destroy it as they did many other Inca cities and sites.

For centuries, Machu Picchu was little more than a legend or rumor, unknown and overgrown, until it was discovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911. With the support of Yale and the National Geographic Society, Bingham, the real-life inspiration for Indiana Jones, began excavations.

Today, of course, Machu Picchu is one of the new seven wonders of the world and one of South America's biggest attractions.

But perhaps because we were there in the rainy season, on an overcast day when the clouds seemed close enough to touch, few other tourists were around. Machu Picchu was almost empty, ours to explore.

The city is large but not vast. Divided into an agricultural area and an urban area, there is no singular, dazzling structure -- a temple or palace -- that dominates the site although the Inca were talented stone masons and engineers, and their structures are possessed of a certain majesty. They were quite skilled, for example, in constructing buildings to withstand earthquakes, using trapezoidal doors and windows as well as walls that tilt inward.

Still, it is the site itself, nestled on what seems to be a mountain ledge with the iconic Huayna Picchu towering in the background, that is literally breath-taking. The totality is what people come to see.

Over the course of nearly four hours, our guide Corina Duran led us through the various districts, pointing out small and large items of interest. Many of these details, the things that we might not immediately see or understand, best captured Machu Picchu's magic: the intihuatana stone, the so-called "hitching post of the sun" that marked solstices; the temple of the condor, a natural formation then sculpted into the shape of the sacred bird; large stones carved to mimic the shapes of surrounding mountains. All spoke to the Incas' intimate connection to the world around them.

On the next day, eager to return, we caught a 6:30 a.m. bus for the 20-30 minute ride to the site. Reluctantly, we had ditched our original plan -- to climb Huayna Picchu -- when we learned just how vertical, slippery and narrow the trail up would be. (Besides, any time someone says, you have to grab hold of a cable for part of the ascent, I freak out.) Plenty of people were more courageous, though. Before noon, the day's quota of 400 hikers had been reached, and no one else would be allowed up.

Instead, we hiked up the famous Inca trail to the Sun Gate and then, since we had time, took another trail, this one to the Inca bridge, which turned out to offer its own vertiginous moments.

The sun proved a welcome, warming companion on the mildly strenuous hike to the Sun Gate, giving us glistening views of the citadel below. On the way up, we passed young hikers coming down -- arriving in Machu Picchu from their three- or four-day hikes along the Inca trail.

The Sun Gate itself wasn't much, a ruined jumble of stones, but the view was sublime. As we peered down, we saw the lost city bathed in light.


TTraces of the Inca past are scattered all around Cuzco and Peru's Sacred Valley.

Guarding the city of Cuzco are the still substantial remains of the ancient fortress of Sacsayhuaman (our guide liked to call it "sexy woman"), made of smooth, mammoth stones that fit together like a puzzle. In Cuzco itself, the capital of the Inca empire, little is left from its pre-Hispanic history. All that's remains of the fabled, gold-encrusted Qoricancha, or Inca temple of the Sun, are essentially some walls; the site is now occupied by the Spanish church of Santo Domingo. Inca stonework, which is unmistakable, is still the base or foundation of some courtyard walls. And if you squint real hard, you can vaguely make out the city's puma-like shape -- with Sacsayhuaman the head and the city's central historic Plaza des Armas the puma's heart.

Leading out of a Cuzco, a circular route through the Sacred Valley leads to a number of Incan ruins, including the impressive archeological sites of fortress Ollantaytambo and Pissac, with its cascading agricultural terraces.

And, if you know where to look, other more subtle reminders of an Indian past are all around. The Spanish conquered Peru, but ancient pre-Hispanic customs, images and symbols persist in ways small and large.

In Cuzco's cathedral of Santo Domingo, which dominates the Plaza de Armas, hangs a painting of the Last Supper, a quintessential Christian image. But look carefully and you'll see that Christ and his apostles are being served guinea pig and chicha beer, two pre-Hispanic foods that are still popular.

In the cathedral of Lima, the statue of Mary is shaped like a triangle with Mary's head at the apex, mimicking the shape of a mountain and the figure of Mother Earth.

The town of Ollantaytambo, which lies at the foot of the archeological site, still is laid out in the Inca style; some courtyard walls, which line the streets radiating from the plaza, still have the massive Inca stonework. We entered the doorway into one courtyard -- watch out for the chickens -- to visit a family's home and get a glimpse of an old culture.

Inside their one room, 15 to 20 guinea pigs scampered on the floor, free to roam until they ultimately become dinner, a delicacy in these parts. 

In a niche in the wall sat three small skulls, black with age and soot, apparently of very old ancestors. Next to them hung three dessicated llama fetuses. Below, on a makeshift altar, was a ceramic figure of a very fat man, money clenched in his fists and a cigarette dangling from his lips -- a bringer of good luck.

At just about every meal, though, we had reason to chew on what may be Peru's greatest gift to the world -- the potato. Four thousand varieties are cultivated, Corina reminded us frequently, and we enjoyed a goodly number of them cooked in any number of ways -- roasted in an open fire; mashed; stuffed with vegetables or shrimp, a dish known as causa; scalloped; soup.

I was in carb heaven except for one Inca speciality: dehydrated potatoes. As hard as a rock, these potatoes would keep in the Incas' larders for years before being rehydrated. The ones I ate tasted like they could have come from the kitchen of the last Inca emperor.

The accidental tourist

It was the weekend after Ash Wednesday, but the festivities before Lent hadn't ended.

Traffic was inching along as cars and trucks stopped and groups of colorfully dressed people headed toward an open fieldfor a village celebration. We craned our heads out of the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the festivities.

"Close the windows," our guide shouted.

Too late. My sister's face was covered with foam.

This was too good to miss.

So like hundreds of others, we decided to party, too. Outside the community field, kids were selling aerosol cans full of foam. Thankfully, none of us got sprayed again.

On the field, which was more than a little muddy, families, the old and young, musical groups, friends and relatives mingled, listening to music, drinking corn-based chicha beer and watching kids scale the trees adorned with colorful plastic items.

The scene was a kaleidescope of color and movement -- swirling panchos, twirling skirts, bouncing tassles. 

I counted six, maybe eight, trees -- all hauled to this field, "planted" and decorated. As young boys shimmied up the trunks, I wondered how long it would take before the trees were bare of their treats.

A stop like this is a matter of serendipity. It just sort of happens. The thing about Peru is that the unexpected is always happening. 

Machu Picchu will live in my memory forever. But so, too, will any number of smaller experiences.

I won't ever forget having lunch with villagers on a farm near Lake Titicaca. They didn't speak English and we didn't speak Aymara so we communicated by singing songs to one another. For some reason that now eludes me, we sang "Jingle Bells."

Or visiting a family on one of the traditional, manmade reed islands on Lake Titicaca. One of the small reed huts had solar panels on the roof; inside, the men were kicking back and watching TV.

Or enjoying a picnic lunch on the banks of the Urubamba river. Suddenly, before I knew it, a rooster swooped up and nabbed the roasted chicken right off my plate -- and everyone dissolved in laughter. 

Or the family at a home-hosted dinner in the Sacred Valley presenting with obvious pride the meal's piece de resistance: a roasted guinea pig, tomato stuffed firmly in mouth. Who could resist a bite?

Susan Hegger comes to St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon as the politics and issues editor, a position she has held at the Beacon since it started in 2008.

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