Thursday, May 10, 2012

Throwback Thursday: Machu Picchu

I promised a Wayback Wednesday post this week, and I didn't really make the cut.  So here's a Throwback Thursday post.  Enjoy!

In 1999, I was studying abroad in Argentina.  Since we were in South America, a group of us decided we would travel.  The study abroad program we were in was fairly lenient, and allowed us to take a week off from classes to do this.  They wanted us to enjoy our trip to South America and experience more. 

A group of us decided to travel to Machu Picchu in Peru.  I'd been to Peru before, when I was in high school.  I loved the people, the food, etc. so I was super excited to go back. I traveled with a group of four other students from my program.  We flew from Buenos Aires to La Paz, Bolivia first.  La Paz arranged their flights so you had to stay at least twenty-four hours, requiring payment of a "tourist" tax on the way out of the country.

La Paz is shaped like a giant bowl.  Flying in, our plane landed at the top of the bowl, and it was snowing. According to Wikipedia, La Paz is 11,195 ft. above sea level, but the altitude varies as the city is built upon hills.  We traveled down (literally) into the heart of the city and watched the snow turn into rain as we arrived at our hotel.

We stayed in a large hotel, which seemed more like a dorm.  I didn't have a great impression of the city, but we didn't stay long.  The city seemed dirty, and the area of town we were staying in did not have very many activities for us to do.  We ate at McDonald's, and I ate an avocado burger.  I remember thinking it was genius!  One of my traveling partners, Jeff, became ill the night in La Paz and spent much of the night in his room, most likely due to altitude sickness.

The next day, we went to the airport to fly to Cusco, Peru.  We were surprised by the tourist tax, because we had no inkling that we'd have to pay $25 to leave the country.  We also were searched, although luckily not stripped searched, in private stalls at the airport.  A lady took us into a stall, pulled the curtain closed, and patted us down for weapons.  Luckily, none of us were stupid enough to bring any weapons, so we were free to board the plane.

Flying to Cusco, I was reading the Celestine Prophecy, a book about new age spirituality, in which the protagonist travels to Peru and Machu Picchu.  I had randomly brought the book with me to Argentina.  While the writing style was not great, Redfield has some interesting thoughts on spirituality, and I thought it was beyond coincidental that I was reading the book at that very moment.

When we arrived in Cusco, a man met us at the airport telling us he was to take us back to our hotel.  We weren't sure if he was our escort or not (scary!), but we went with him anyway, and sure enough he took us to the right place.  At the hotel, we were given coca tea to attempt to alleviate any altitude sickness problems.  This tea is made from the coca plant, which is also used to make cocaine.  Well, apparently by this time my body was sick of the altitude, and I became ill.  In fact, I thought I would die.  I went through a huge pack of crackers and some soda.  One of my friends, lovingly, read to me from her touring book about how you could die from altitude sickness. 

I managed to make it to the ruins at Saqsayhuaman (jokingly called Sexy Woman by Americans), but after that I was holed up in my room for the rest of our stay in Cusco, while my friends enjoyed touring around.

The two photos I took in Cusco.  That llama kept trying to spit on me!

The next day we woke up, and I felt a little bit better.  We decided we would take a helicopter to Aguas Calientes, the little town at the base of Machu Picchu, and then take the train back later that night.

The helicopter tour was incredible.  We saw a lot of the countryside in Peru.  Choosing to travel this way brought a whole new dimension to the trip.
View from the helicopter.

Arriving at Aguas Calientes.
When we arrived in Aguas Calientes, we were told we could eat and shop a little bit at the street vendors before we boarded our bus to the top of Machu Picchu.  We walked around the dirty little town were accosted every few minutes by children (and occasionally adults) trying to sell us something.

When it was time to go we all boarded a small bus.  The bus began heading up a one lane road on a mountain.  This was a one lane road, but the driver insisted it was two lanes, and every time a bus came down, he would veer our bus to the cliff side of the mountainous road (no guardrails), and we would continue up.  Thanks to my fear of heights, I spent the majority of the ride in the middle seat, close to my friends, with my eyes closed!

Once we reached the top, the bus driver gave us instructions on when we needed to be back, and we went into the park.  The site of the green mountains was breathtaking. According to Wikipedia, Machu Picchu is still a mystery, because when it was brought to the attention of the outside world in 1911 it had long since been abandoned by the native Incans.  The Spanish did not know of the site during the Inquisition, so it is considered highly culturally relevant.

The site was once thought to be the birthplace of the "Virgins of the Suns," but lately scholars have thought it more likely that it was the large estate of an Incan land owner. Regardless, of what it was used for, it is the most beautiful, spiritual place I have ever been.

Just arrived at the top of Machu Picchu

My friends tramped over to Huayna Picchu, a smaller mountain to climb.  I politely declined, as it seemed like mountain climbing without all the safety techniques, and our guide nicely told us that people often (or maybe sometimes) fell to their death there, and just the week before a man and his tour guide had done the same. 

While they were gone I sat on one of the terraced hills, and I looked out at the lush green mountains at eye level with the clouds, and I thought of the people who had stood there before me 500 years ago.  I thought about what their lives must have looked like, and how they had enjoyed this big expanse of land with nary a thought to anyone else.  They had looked out and absorbed the beauty of earth and the beauty of life surrounding them, just as I was at that moment.

When we left, I felt a huge disconnection from the spiritual world as we re-entered the world of fast track life.  As we were driving down the mountain, a little boy from the village below raced us down, as fast as he could.  When the bus stopped at the bottom, he climbed onto the bus, bowed for a huge applause and begged for money. 

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