By Cheryl Pruss
A 1.5 hour taxi ride took us to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. From there we boarded the Vistadome train to Aguas Caliente, where we would catch a 30 minute bus ride to the ruins of Macchu Picchu. We considered the 4 day hike to the ruins, but friends who had made the trek had told us that after making the trek, they were too tired to enjoy Macchu Picchu. The landscape with a very full, raging brown river (the Urubamba River) ran alongside the train. When we reached Macchu Picchu, we checked into our splurge hotel, the Sanctuary Lodge, and immediately went out to walk around the ruins for a few hours. It was lush, green, a large complex, spread across several mountains and across valleys. The next morning we were up before sunrise and inside Macchu Picchu before the first busses began arriving from Aguas Caliente. We had the place to ourselves (well, almost), as just the hotel guests were in there at this hour. We explored the ruins and my husband, Joe, signed up for the 10am hike up the big mountain which gave us two hours to return to the Sanctuary Lodge for our complimentary breakfast. We had worked up an appetite and Joe really took advantage of the outstanding breakfast offered. I wasn’t feeling great, and ate very lightly at the time. After breakfast, we went back to Macchu Picchu. This time we hired a guide and had a tour of Macchu Picchu, learned the purpose of many of the buildings and saw details not previously noticed by our untrained eyes. Our guide told us that Macchu Picchu had been built (start to finish) in about 100 years and was finished just before it was abandoned. It was abandoned due to the Conquistador’s coming to Peru. The Conquistadors were seeking riches, and they stripped many Inkan temples of their gold. It is thought that the Inkan’s abandoned Macchu Picchu before the Spanish were even close to the place, as the Spanish never did ransack Macchu Picchu. This is one reason why Macchu Picchu’s buildings are still intact today.
With the 200 other hikers allowed on the trail at one time, Joe started to hike to the big
mountain. I finished the guided tour with our guide and met Joe later in the Sanctuary Lodge for lunch and a complimentary massage. Joe felt a great sense of accomplishment having hiked to the big mountain and really enjoyed the massage to loosen up his legs. My masseuse, hearing that it was my 60th birthday, gave me a gift from the gift shop, a little vicuna (with real vicuna fur) in a Sanctuary Lodge bag.
The sky was overcast and the sunrise consisted of the clouds turning a little brighter AND that was not a disappointment, as I was a very lucky birthday girl to be in this location for my special birthday!
A few days were spent outside Urubamba and then we spent a few more days in Cuzco. We visited local markets and ruins in the area and enjoyed an afternoon at the spa, too. The Pisac market, a town about 30 minutes from Cuzco, is particularly interesting. The market is very large, selling handicrafts at very good prices, with a wide variety of things to buy. The people come from surrounding towns and bring their handicrafts to sell here. They also buy supplies that they need including fruits, vegetables, meat, herbs, and coca leaves. The mayors of the different towns, who are all dressed up in really nice traditional clothes, stood together for pictures in the market.
Centuries ago, before the Conquistadors came, the indigenous people strapped boards to
babies’ heads at age 2-3 months. This caused the head to grow to a point or to be broad and square across the top – to show all which mountain they were descended from. Today they wear pointed hats, or they wear a hat which is broad and square to show which mountain they came from. Practices were modified as the people became influenced by the new religion of the Spanish – Christianity. Most local people today are wearing brightly colored traditional clothing and sandals made of recycled tires. The women of all ages have long braids, which are typically tied together at the bottom. In this area the indigenous people, descendents of the Inkas, have broad, flat faces and their eyes are more rounded.
By Train to Lake Titicaca
Our train, The Andean Explorer, took 10 hours to wind over the Andes to Lake Titicaca. We again crossed over 16,000 ft elevation and saw wild alpacas and llamas on the way. The train had lots of activities, including 2 meals, a fashion show of Alpaca clothing, and free Pisco Sours. The scenery was beautiful until we arrived at Juliaca, about 1 hour from Puno. Juliaca is a dusty, dirty town with parts’ sellers selling used parts from everything imaginable on horizontal pieces of wood right next to the train. Puno is the main town on Lake Titicaca and is 12,500 ft at water level. We had prearranged a nice hotel on Lake Titicaca, with several tours included in our package deal.
Armando, our guide for the next 3 days, met us with the driver from the hotel and took us to aboat where we would first travel to the Uros floating islands. Armando, 24 years of age, was born on the Uros islands and attended the local University to be a tour guide. He is Aymari. He introduced us to his sister and 1 year old nephew on the islands. They shared information about how the floating islands work. They cut blocks out of the root mass of reeds that grow in the area, and these root mass blocks float. Reeds are then laid on top of the root mass blocks, in multiple layers, forming a kind of soft land. They lash the root mass blocks together and families lash their little floating islands together to make bigger floating islands, as life is easier when they live with neighbors who divide up tasks to be done on the islands. Their boats are made of reeds, and have heads of animals made out of reeds on the bow end. There are empty liter Coke bottles embedded inside the reeds on the side walls of the boat to assist with floatation. Everyone on the islands dresses traditionally.
Tour of the churches and local landmarks
We selected an all day tour on our 2nd day at the hotel, to see local towns, old churches, and the Devil’s Gate. After asking us what we would like, Armando and our driver packed a picnic lunch for us. We observed harvest-related activities in each of the communities that we passed through. We stopped several times along the way and hiked to locations that Armando knew of, that had been used by the Aymari for centuries. The tracks that we followed were well worn, and we noted flat areas where animals had been kept in pens along the way. We climbed higher to find seats carved into the rock, overlooking the fertile farmland below. The churches that we visited were quite ornate for being so remote and used lots of gold. Finally we arrived at the Devil’s Gate, where we first had our picnic. They set up a table and provided a multicourse meal with wine. After lunch, we hiked a short distance to the Devil’s Gate. The story is that when the last Inkan ran from the Conquistadors (in Cuzco), the Inkan man’s father carved this gate into a small mountain (near Lake Titicaca) to provide a place for his son to escape through. Further, the local legend is that in 1970, a group of 40 men were having a religious celebration at the Devil’s Gate, and after hours of Shaman-led activities the stone gate opened up and all 40 men disappeared inside, never to be seen again. When we were there, Armando said there had been Shamans having a ceremony there the night before. We observed offerings of fruit and flowers at the base of the gate. These ceremonies still result in Shamans “crossing
over to the other side” – disappearing through the stone gate, after these ceremonies, per local beliefs.
I decided to sit by the Devil’s gate while Armando and Joe hiked a little higher. I was sitting, taking in my surroundings, when a local woman wearing traditional clothing walked up to me. I asked her if she spoke Spanish. She did and I was able to have a conversation with her. Maria was 54 and has five kids from ages 36 to 16. She offered me a potato which she had harvested from her field below. She was very interested in seeing my hands, and surprised that they were so pale. Hers were deeply brown on both sides from the sun and working the fields. I asked Maria if she had been in attendance in 1970 when the men disappeared. She said she was not in attendance, but that her brother was one of the 40 men who disappeared. We purchased a small rock from Maria, the caretaker of the Devil’s gate, with the Devil’s Gate carved into it.
The next day Armando took us to the Taquile Islands by boat. Here, we walked from water level up, up to the top of the island, passing areas being harvested and livestock. As we neared the top, we noticed a women walking with a loom, and another women walking behind her. I followed the women into an area that had some logs laid out where they sat and began weaving, while my husband Joe, Armando and five other people on the tour went a little higher up to get a view from the very top. I wasn’t feeling great, more on this later. In a few minutes our whole group was assembled on the logs, watching maybe five women and four men weaving. The people on Taquile and Uros are Aymari. They are one group who were NOT conquered by the Inkans, although the Inkans tried. The Inkans were very successful at conquering groups of indigenous people from what is now Ecuador through Peru, part of Chile and part of Brazil. The Aymari look a lot like the indigenous people of Alaska, a reminder that all of the indigenous people who originally populated North and South America crossed over the Bering Straits.
Armando said that there were no dogs or police on Taquile. Someone asked “what happens when someone steals a cow?” Armando explained how things work on Taquile. The Shaman reads the coca leaves and determines who stole the cow. He then summons the person responsible to a main public area, accuses them and they admit the crime. The Shaman then gathers people around the public area, gives the person lashes across their back, in public, and then banishes the person from the island permanently. They don’t have a lot of problems with this kind of thing happening he said. All of the men and women on the island dress traditionally and they believe it is important to retain their traditions. They have agreed to pay a 10 sole fine, per day, for every day that they don’t dress traditionally. The exchange rate is about 3 soles to $1.