Machu Picchu

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I was still feeling awful, constantly nauseous and shaky, but mind over matter and all that, we had an Inca city to visit. Voted one of the 7 modern wonders of the world (by somebody?), I had been here in my 20s, although much of my memory of that time was wiped by excessive partying in Cusco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, and still today a magnet for backpackers looking to party, hippies looking to get strung out, and well heeled old Americans who wheeze around the city in brightly coloured tour groups with remarkable fortitude.

Its still not that easy to get to Machu Picchu, although admittedly easier than it was for Hiram Bingham, who ‘discovered’ it back in 1911 when he noticed Inca artifacts in the houses of local peasants and asked them to show him where they found them. The Spanish never found it, although they still managed to kill most of the inhabitants off through disease. Well, that’s one of the theories as to why it was abandoned anyway – there were just two local peasant families living there when Hiram Bingham uncovered it.

First, we had to get a taxi at 5am to the station which is not in Cusco but half an hour drive away in Poroy. Then we got on a super swish train along with masses of tourists (foreigners aren’t allowed on the ‘ordinary’ trains unless they are permanent residents).

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We edged our way slowly through the mountains towards Aguas Calientes, the town at the bottom of the mountain upon which MP perches. At one point they announced a ‘zig zag zone’ and the train zig zagged its way down a mountain, shunting back and forth as it went. We moved from fairly arid mountains to a more jungle/rainforest type environment, with some weird and wonderful cactuses (ok, pedants, cacti) and then orchids, vines and weird and wonderful flowers and trees.

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Once in Aguas Calientes, we had to queue up and get a bus (no way was I walking like I did 19 years ago – its straight up for an hour and a half minimum). The bus journey itself was, ahem, interesting – racing round steep curves for 40 minutes.

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The road up….. 

19 years ago, we arrived on a crusty local train, stepped off directly onto the train tracks, dumped our bags in a small hostel in the (then) tiny village of Aguas Calientes – which had about 3 hostels, one slightly nicer place, a couple of local eating places and not much else – and started walking. Things have definitely changed – AC is a big town now, with loads of places to eat and stay, from relatively nice hotels to dumps, but even the dumps have wifi! Getting tickets to MP is also a much more bureaucratic affair than back then, which is not surprising given just how many people visit (thousands per day in high season).

Anyway, once up at the top we checked our baggage in and found a private guide – another difference from when I was first here, when I just wandered around with my trusty Lonely Planet.

The guide was great, and although it was a fairly steep climb and I was in constant fear or throwing up, he made us go slow and answered all of Lauren’s questions until we made it to the highest point and I could rest, take the obligatory photo (attempting not to get too many of the thousands of other tourists in), and breath again.

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I won’t go on about MP, yes its incredible, yes its worth seeing, and yes a lot of what the guide had to say about the social, economic and military organization of the Incas was interesting. I’m glad we went, and Lauren learned loads – she was particularly taken by the ‘compass stone’ – an exact replica of the southern cross, pointing due South – and the temple of the sun, constructed so that the sun lights up the altar exactly at the solstices.

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The ‘Compass Stone’
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Temple of the Sun, where sacrifices to the sun were made. 

Once we had seen everything – including the chinchillas chilling on the stones (if you zoom in on the photo above, you can see one on the bottom right corner of the altar), and the llamas munching away on the terraces – we agreed we’d had enough, and retreated back down the mountain to Aguas Calientes for a late lunch, before I had to retire once more to bed.

 

Next – on to Quito, then, the Galapagos!

Uyuni to La Paz to Lake Titicaca to Cusco

After two days barely moving and still feeling dreadful, I decided we’d better try to get to the capital. I decided to fly – it was three times the cost of the bus, but still only 80 USD each, gave us a great view of the salt flats and the Andes, and got us there in a hour rather than a bone rattling night bus that got in at dawn.  Sometimes its OK to just whip out that credit card.

I also treated us to a nice hotel in La Paz, and an airport pick up. This latter turned out to be a mixed blessing as while I was in no fit state to negotiate Bolivian public transport, the driver spent the entire 45-minute drive telling me about corruption in Bolivia and the president, of whom so many had high hopes but who recently ignored a referendum on whether he should change the constitution and stay for a third term. The usual story of someone getting into power, doing lots of good and then not wanting to leave and slowly getting corrupted. I’m sure its more complex than that, but I spent most of the ride trying not to throw up, while following his rapid Spanish and trying to get him to turn around and look at the road rather than me.

I did get some antibiotics from a pharmacy in La Paz, no prescription needed, and they did at least seem to stop the diarrhoea in its tracks, although I was still constantly nauseous and shaky.

I wanted to show Lauren the witches market, a bit of a tourist trap but also genuinely stocked with things local witches use for their magic (icons, herbs, llama fetuses etc), so after a brief rest, I staggered a few blocks to get her some lunch and show her the market. After that, it was back to bed for the rest of the day.

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Next day we got the bus to Cusco, which was a mammoth day-and-a-half with a stopover of a few hours in Copacabana, on the edges of Lake Titicaca. At one point, we had to get off the bus and catch a small boat, so that the bus could cross the lake on a wooden ferry.

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The Incas believed the sun (which they worshipped) came from here, and that the first Incas also came from here. For lack of anything else to do in Copacabana – where I have vague memories of stumbling about 19 years ago, completely out of it with altitude sickness – we joined a boat to the Island of the Sun – immensely holy to the Incas, now a bit of a tourist trap. Lauren nattered away to an Irish couple we met on the boat, and ran around on the island, climbing up an ancient Inca staircase and admiring the Incan ‘fountain of youth’ as well as the local donkeys, while I sat shivering at the bottom.

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Supposedly the Inca fountain of youth….. 

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After an uneventful if exhausting trip across the border to Cusco in Peru, we arrived at 5am and thankfully the guest house we had booked let us check in. I went straight back to bed for a few hours, then we ventured out, to find ourselves slap bang in the middle of some major procession of traditional costume and communities. No one we asked gave us a clear indication of what it was – someone said it had to do with a convent, another it was a rehearsal for something, but it was rather fun.

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We basically spent the next 3 days in the room, making brief forays out to get food (which Lauren ate, and I either couldn’t face or ate and threw up). I was trying to get my strength up for what should be a highlight – the Inca city of Machu Picchu. We had tickets and train reservations, and spent a couple of hours at the museum learning about the Incas in preparation, but I really needed to get my strength up. There is only so much gatorade a girl can drink.