Saturday, December 31, 2005

Peru: New Year's Eve in Cuzco

Previous Post: Aguas Caliente

After a lovely late dinner with Mark and Kathy at Map Café (the glass box that sits in the courtyard of the museum near our hotel), we walk to the plaza.

The colonial churches and other buildings are beautifully lit and the plaza below is crowded. Firecrackers and small fireworks periodically flash above our heads.

We join the crowd and circle the plaza. The people watching is great - a mix of local people of all ages and touring backpackers. Many local women and children wear cheerful yellow confetti in their hair. It is a festive crowd.

Close to midnight we choose a spot on the Cathedral's stairs to watch and wait.

There is no times square ball here, no synchronized count-down to midnight. As the hands on the clock tower creep upward, the plaza quiets. I sense the crowd wondering When? Now? A few more assertive individuals shoot off larger fireworks from the midst of the crowd.

Attention turns to the empty street and the plaza beyond. A figure emerges and runs past us down the street along the plaza. I'm not exactly sure what this figure is. . . a paper mache' horse or donkey perhaps? As it passes, the crowd swarms into the street behind it, a steady stream circling the plaza once and then again, more and more people joining in, turning the street into a flowing wave of humanity.

I have no idea what any of it means.

When the fireworks begin to explode near our feet, rather than above our heads, we wind our way back through the ancient streets to our hotel.

Happy New Year world!

Peru: Aguas Caliente

Previous Post: A Perfect Morning at Machu Picchu

Because we have volunteered to take the later train and switch to a bus at Ollantaytambo (while the others take the "dome train" all the way back to Cuzco), we have some time to wander around Aguas Caliente - or Machu Picchu village, as the local officials insist it should be called.

If you read any travel guides for Machu Picchu, you are likely to think that extra time in Aguas Caliente is not a good thing. However, we were out shopping last night and I am fond of this little tourist town.

First we bid goodbye to the hotel and our room - the hotel wasn't much (hot water would have been nice), but the gardens and our view of them were delightful.

The village itself is a series of stepped "streets" lined with tourist shops and restaurants. It exudes a cheerful goodwill and the surrounding mountains make the little village seem cozy and welcoming.

Below the city's sloping streets, the Urubamba River tumbles and boils. A broad walking path allows us to wander along the river's bank, providing a close-up view of the ferociously flowing water. It is an amazing stretch of white water.

Back in the village we settle in at a restaurant across from the hotel, order a round of pisco sours, and await our turn to board the train.

It has been a glorious day.

A Perfect Morning at Machu Picchu

Previous Post: Machu Picchu in the Rain
Return to Machu Picchu to explore the mystical ruins further. To this day nobody can explain how the Incas managed to transport the huge blocks of limestone for the city's construction onto the mountain top. Visit quaint Aguas Caliente before your afternoon train ride to Cuzco.
Last night we decided not to get up too early this morning - the odds of witnessing sunrise appeared to be close to nil during this rainy period. Now, a little after 8:00 a.m., we are on the bus, headed up through low clouds and dense fog. The mountains beyond the windows are completely obscured from sight.

Once inside the gate, we are uncertain about how to get to the hut that stands alone at the top of the agricultural terraces - and whether we should even start there. (Well, actually, I am the only one to hesitate because I think we should wait until the fog clears). Soon we are headed up a steep trail under a thick green canopy. It is cool and shady on the trail, but rather crowded as we continually meet people coming down from the Sun Gate. Some seem elated by their time on the Inca Trail, however, others seem exhausted, stumbling clumsily down the trail. I concentrate on my footing and keep moving.

At the first opportunity we leave the trail and walk out on a terrace. The fog and clouds are moving and lifting.

As we approach the hut at the top of the terraces, the sky above is gloriously blue.

Below us the ruins of Machu Picchu are bathed in glorious sunshine. It is a spectacular scene.

We linger near the upper-most hut, taking pictures, examining the ruins, and enjoying the way the view changes as we walk along the terraces.

While we aren't the only visitors up here today, it doesn't feel crowded and I feel the isolation of this place and how it could be possible for this once lively site to disappear for so many years.

Mark, Lane, and I continue on toward the Sun Gate.

The trail starts off wide and flat and the walking is easy, although Lane and I put on our umbrella hats to shield us from the now searing sunshine.

From the trail we have lovely views of Machu Picchu itself, as well as the temple of the moon at the top of Huayna Picchu and the bus route that zig-zags up the mountainside far below. These man-made structures clinging to the mountainsides look tiny and insubstantial.

There are also ruins along the trail, each providing an opportunity for us to stop and both examine the carefully set stonework and soak in the sweeping views.

The trail gets narrower and rougher as Machu Picchu disappears from sight behind the mountainside.

As we near the final section of the trail to the Sun Gate, I tell Lane and Mark to go on without me - I'll wait here and meet them when they return. I can make it TO the Sun Gate, but I can tell that my legs are tired and I'm pretty sure I cannot make it up to the Sun Gate AND back to the bus. (And I'm quite sure they don't want to have to carry me!) Despite my protests that they go on without me, they decide we should all head back.

Back at the main site we quickly find Kathy and then the rest of our tour group (a smaller group today). Lucho has begnn today's tour where we left off yesterday, heading toward the far end of the main site.

It is fascinating to walk through these structures and think about the people who built this place, how they lived here, and why they vanished - leaving their existence a secret for so many generations.

Friday, December 30, 2005

Peru: Machu Picchu in the Rain

Previous Post: On the way to Machu Picchu

The rain has stopped by the time Lucho rounds us all up to catch the bus up to Machu Picchu, but the sky is remains dark and the air still wet with moisture.

For those not hiking the Inca Trail, the trip to Machu Picchu generally involves a bus trip up a road with 13 switchbacks. If you are lucky enough to get a window, it is possible to look straight down to the river valley far, far below without being able to see the road between you and the river.

There is no way to describe being at Machu Picchu.
Once through the entrance gate, I walk only a short distance before the partially restored ruins surround me. The immensity of the place is overwhelming, yet at the same time it feels like being on a tiny island suspended between the misty river valley far below and the mountain tops that disappear into the clouds above. It is a mystical, magical place, yet the rocks around me are large, solid, and very real.