Saturday 19 July 2014

Days 74 - 79: Cusco and Machu Picchu - Buying Brand Inca

Not sure where this is (?)... nice photo though!
We arrived in Cusco, along with the thousands, the night before the summer solstice festival - a matter of lucky timing.  The main square was over-run with celebrations which, at this stage, resembled the parade of athletes around the stadium at the Olympic opening ceremony, except that we weren't quite sure who the 'teams' were.  Nonetheless, we couldn't help falling for beautiful Cusco with its grand plazas, rows of white terraces, and blue balconies.  We weren't the only ones.  Cusco is packed, not only with backpackers but with much wealthier tour groups - and don't the clothing and jewellery shops know it.

The Inca "gate" to the
valley containing Cusco
The mad scrum to obtain free books
being handed out at the festival
The next morning our first-floor restaurant on the main square gave us a good view over the festivities - almost our only glimpse of the day.  Alas, we spent the rest of the time grappling with poor wi-fi, a disfunctional BA call centre and trying to nab cut-price places on a trip to the Galapagos.  At least we managed a couple of hours in the Inca Museum, which follows the pattern of other museums I have visited in Bolivia and Peru - exciting artefacts but dry and limited interpretation.  (I don't just want to know the number of millimetres in length of each piece of metal (I can see it in front of me); I want the story: how did it get there?  Why did that society use objects like this?)

Colonial Cusco rises on foundations built by the Inca empire.

Inca stonework eclipses the Sacred Valley
Magnificant Pisaq
The next day we bought our all-important Machu Picchu tickets then took a bus to Pisaq.  At five soles each (about a pound), it cost three percent of the price of getting to the celebrated Inca Royal Citadel.  But it turned out to be worth much more.  Pisaq is an amazing place.  It takes the Incas to find a ridge line, high in the hills, and see potential for a city - to see the steep slopes of a mountain and spot agricultural potential.  Terraces cover the hillsides while the ceremonial sites, temples and houses hug the hilltop.  Walking between the seven developed areas you get a trek and a journey to the past all in one - perfect for a couple of mountaineers. It was such a good day that it begged to be rounded off with a pisco sour (with papaya no less) so we drank one before splashing out another pound to return to Cusco.
Immaculate terracing (restored) at Pisaq
The beauty and size of Pisaq is striking
The next day took us to another Inca site, Ollantaytambo, complete with another round of faithfully-restored terraces and a temple complex made from immense stone blocks.  The drainage and water supply systems (of all things) wowed me.  Carefully-aligned grooves channeled water along each terrace and into each set of buildings.

'Weren't the Incas incredibly sophisticated?' said the voice in my head. Then another voice reminded me that we are looking at artefacts from an era only five hundred years ago and that technologies in many parts of the world were similarly advanced.  Because so little is known about the pre-Hispanic civilisations in South America, in the absence of written records, it's tempting to think of them in the way I might think about, say, the Ancient Greeks, as belonging to a distant past.  But five hundred years is hardly far distant.
After wandering around the ruins it was time to go for the classic Inca meal of a Mexican wrap and a beer, then take the train to Aguas Calientes ('Machu Picchu' according to With my train-spotter husband, I'm unqualified to comment on trains except to say that it was very plush, offered great views up the wooded gorge, had windows in the ceiling as well as the walls, and was over-run by noisy American high school kids.  Also, being a Peruvian train, our monstrous fare didn't even get us a carcass-free meal.

It's called a diesel railcar Susan!
The station at Aguas Calientes
Aguas Calientes had been sold to us as a dive, but there's something special (and a bit wrong) about staying deep in a wooded gorge with a mountain stream tumbling swiftly alongside.  Basically, it's a town in the path of a flash flood, present or future.  Until then, other types of liquid occupy the attention of visitors.  The phrase 'happy hour' is spoken here more often than in all of the cities of England combined.  In some restaurants it means not 'two for one' but 'four for one'.  FOUR for one?!  This wasn't the time to drink the night away however, as we planned to take the 5:30am bus to Machu Pichu the next morning.

Susan locates the sacred city
What is there to say about Machu Picchu that hasn't already been said?  It lives up to its reputation (including for being over-run).  To escape the crowds, we bought tickets for the mountain above Machu Picchu - not the small peak of Huayna Picchu but the higher peak whose 600m of ascent puts off most visitors.  We were feeling pretty fit so we skipped to the top in forty minutes, passing a number of puffing bodies on the lower slopes.  It was a beautiful climb up a steep stone-paved path through the forest, turning into something more closely resembling a stone ladder near the top.  When we arrived on the summit, only two people were there before us.  We sat down with them, surrounded by swirling mist through which tantalising glimpses of surrounding peaks appeared.  Eventually the fog began to lift and Machu Picchu emerged from the cloud inversion.  With every raising and lowering of the cloud, cameras whirred.  Whatever its archeological merits, it is impossible not to be wowed by Machu Picchu for its lofty location, perching amidst the clouds.

First glimpses of Machu Picchu from
Machu Picchu mountain
Steep terraces
Huyana Picchu is the mountain behind

With the air clearing, we jogged back down the steep path and emerged from the trees onto terraces immediately overlooking Machu Picchu.  Here we sat down for a busy half hour's gawping.  This proved so strenuous we decided we needed lunch and a beer to fuel another gawping session in the afternoon.

The agricultural terraces around Machu Picchu are so steep and narrow that I couldn't help wondering how many men had been lost overboard, fetching up as Inca skeletons in the valley, while building them.  There are even a few cheeky terraces built on what I would describe as a cliff (but the Incas would appear to describe as a field) near the summit of Huayna Picchu.  I would want a rope and my climbing harness to venture there; the Incas, by contrast, presumably thought that a scythe was sufficient equipment for the location.  But did they really need to build terraces right on the top of the mountain?  Surely this is the definition of showing off.

Temple of the Condor. Obvious, no?
When our jaws were tired from dropping, we returned to Aguas Calientes for a celebratory glass of guess which drink?  - yes, pisco sour - before returning to Cusco.  Time to flop.

Machu Picchu busy eclipsing Pisaq
After a couple of days to recover from the excitements of Peru so far, and the asthma attacks induced by damp hostels, we finally rolled out of Cusco.  Inca statues passed us on the way.   As in so many similarly adorned towns, their manly figures lined the roadside complete with rippling muscles, broad chests and completely symmetrical facial features.  No cleft lips for the Incas.  No weedy forearms.  No bellies.  No sagging skin.  It's official - the Incas were hunks.  All of them.

This, I suppose, is the brand that so many travellers are here to buy.  Brand Inca.  You can not only walk the Inca trail but eat in the Inca restaurant, go Inca rafting, stay in the Inca Hostel, take the Inca bus (they had buses?), use the Inca toilet, get up some adrenalin on an Inca biking trip, dare the Inca zip line or drink Inca Kola (which looks like urine and tastes somewhat worse).  I hope there are some Inca skeletons in the soil below Machu Picchu tossing in their graves, rattling at every turn.  How can we have turned an archaeological study into this?  Yet we too bought a fair few Brand Inca products on our trip and loved them (Inca Kola excepted).  And all the while, the poor old Tiwanaku continue to be ignored!

The train ride to Machu Picchu is an amazing ride clinging to the edge of a narrow gorge
Ever seen trains parked in the middle of town? Welcome to Aguas Calientes
Train running through the centre of town 
A statue of C3PO in Cusco
Beautiful Cusco

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