Peru Adventure – Part 2

DSC_0366I didn’t really give Huayna Picchu a fair chance.

Less than 36 hours before I tackled the famous peak that figures predominantly in most photos of Machu Picchu in Peru, I was climbing 1,300-feet straight up a vertical granite cliff. Now, my body was paying for it.

My hamstrings were so sore I could not squat. My arms were tired. My hands were so bloated I felt as though I was wearing gloves.

But we were the chosen. Only 400 people a day are allowed to climb Huayna Picchu to reach its 8,924-foot peak. That compares to the 2,500 to 5,000 that flood the famous Incan ruins of Machu Picchu daily. Only 200 climbers were assigned to our three-hour time slot. We were going to climb that peak!

The seven in our group rose early to catch a bus from the base camp town of Aguas Calientes. After presenting tickets and passports at the entry to Machu Picchu, we skirted the mysterious ruins still shrouded in clouds and headed for the Huayna Picchu trailhead. I was delighted to meet a few alpacas along the way!DSC_0114

When our entry time arrived, we signed in the official register and started our climb. We were four 20-somethings and three moms; me, the oldest, at nearly 62.

I have to admit, that absent the challenges of the altitude the initial trek was more comfortable than the 900 rungs I climbed two days before. No one was pushing us, so the three elders stopped as often as we liked. All of that, of course, lulled us into a false sense of security.

What I didn’t know was that the climb hadn’t really started. When it did, it was 1,158 feet straight up to the summit. Due to occasional rain, parts of the trail were sloppy and many of the stones were slippery. As we got higher, the steps became more narrow, designed for the tiny Incan feet that built them. It’s probably a good thing we were unaware until late that these last steps to the summit are known as the “Death Stairs.” No guard rails. No safety ropes. There was only an occasional piece of cable to help you boost yourself to the next level.

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The 20-somethings made it quickly. It took the last of us more than an hour. But the reward was instantaneous. We had million-dollar views of the valley and surrounding mountains. We experienced dizzying views straight down over Incan ruins through the mists below.

We passed through a narrow cave requiring a few acrobatics, and were spit out onto a stone terrace overlooking Machu Picchu. Unfortunately, it was shrouded in clouds, preserving the mystery it is. We waited, though, to be rewarded with the occasional parting of the clouds, revealing teasing glimpses of the massive complex below.

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I was encouraged in that the path down was just over 45 minutes, leaving us a good part of the day to explore Machu Picchu. We lucked out when we grabbed a guide as we exited the trail. Eduardo was an impassioned Incan descendent who shamed me in the breadth of his knowledge about his history and ancestry.

Though my “seasoned” body was screaming surrender after two rigorous mountain climbs in three days, I agreed with the others to explore the more than 3,000 stone steps that link Machu Picchu’s many different levels

While many archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built in the 1450s as an estate for the Incan emperor Pachucuti, Eduardo believes it served as a sacred, religious site for the Incan leaders. Local lore holds that the five-mile site was abandoned to preserve its sanctity as Incans fled Spanish invaders in the 16th century. For hundreds of years, until the American archaeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911, the abandoned citadel’s existence was a secret known only to peasants living in the region.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 and designated one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007, Machu Picchu is Peru’s most visited attraction and South America’s most famous ruins. Increased tourism, the development of nearby towns and environmental degradation continue to take their toll on the site, which is also home to several endangered species. As a result, the Peruvian government has taken steps to protect the ruins and prevent erosion of the mountainside in recent years.

The most popular point at Machu Picchu is just a short climb from the entry. There, tourists flock to take the photos of themselves with the majority of the ruins splayed out behind them. If you are fortunate enough to arrive at a time with few tourists, it is a perfect place to stop, meditate and marvel on this magnificent testament to the past. Not only are its carefully chiseled massive blocks of stones a feat of engineering, but the location and use of the land is nothing short of landscape art.

Meg & Mom (1)The Incans selected a breathtaking site. In a bowl of natural splendor surrounded by magnificent Andean peaks, they created a granite masterpiece carved into the hillside. Their use of stone, green terraces, purposeful steps and narrow waterways created a living masterpiece. Many of the dwellings and temples still stand, their precisely fitted limestone and granite walls unyielding after centuries.

One of them, the Temple of the Sun, houses a rock believed to have been an altar. During the June solstice, the sun shines directly through a temple window in perfect alignment between the rock and the sun.

Another testament to the Incan regard for the sun is the “Intihuatana” rock. It’s a large, carved rock that sits on a raised platform above the main plaza. While some believed it to be a sun dial used to predict solstices, others believe it was simply a tool for observing astronomical changes. Interestingly, the rock is in the shape of the Huayna Picchu peak towering just beside it.

Just below the Intihuatana are the Sacred Plaza and the Temple of Three Windows. This was one of my favorite spots, as much for the architectural details – large blocks of stones weighing up to three tons – as the beautiful snow white alpacas that happened to be trundling through as we arrived. Because the three windows frame the three facing mountains perfectly, Hiram Bingham believed that the windows represented the three mythological caves from which the Ayar brothers – the three children of the sun – came onto earth.DSC_0106

It is easy to see the ruins in a day. New regulations have caused the Peruvian government to issue morning and afternoon tickets. But if you have a morning ticket and make sure you have re-entered for the last time before noon, no one will ask you to leave before the site closes at 5:30 p.m. The best times to go are in March/April and September/October when crowds are thinner and weather is cooler.

Machu Picchu deserves a spot on everyone’s bucket list. It’s one of those experiences that have to be, well, experienced. And that, we did.

 

Peru Adventure – Part 1

For the first time since I crossed the imaginary dividing line from middle age to senior, I felt old.
I have just returned – and almost recovered – from a five-day whirlwind trip to Peru planned by my 27-year-old daughter. She thinks I can do anything. She makes me believe it. But I almost didn’t make it.
Thank God the first challenge turned out to be the hardest. Had I gone just to Machu Picchu and enjoyed the sights like thousands do each week, I would never have attempted her two other challenges. But more on that in a later post.
We arrived in Cusco on Sunday night and took a taxi on a two-hour, bumpy ride to Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley. We stayed at the wonderful Hotel Miranda in the middle of town. Its gracious owner answered every question and met every need. And yes, some even tried coca leaf tea there.
The next morning, part of our group of seven climbed up a nearby hill to see the town’s ancient ruins. My cousin and I, senior members of the group, made what turned out to be a wise decision to conserve energy.
In the afternoon, we were picked up by a driver for Skylodge Adventure Suites. Never heard of it? Google it. What they have online is more than I could ever describe in words. Essentially, it is a hotel of four transparent pods anchored into granite rock 1,300-feet above the ground. To get there, you climb some 900 rungs wearing state-of-the-art climbing gear.DSC_0113
After arriving, I looked up. I was excited and ready to go. The pods didn’t look that far away. We donned our equipment, got a safety briefing and started the trek. My cousin – who is deathly afraid of heights – and I brought up the rear. To reach the first rung, you had to stretch your leg up, about three feet off the ground, and then reach above that to pull yourself up. My first thought was that there was no way in heck I could do that, even though I am in decent shape. Still, I am almost 62. My second thought was that if all the rungs were that far apart, I would never make the top.
“Lady, are you sure you can make it?” The friendly guide was smiling, as if to say, he KNEW I couldn’t. That lit the fire under me and I was off. There were a few rungs with significant gaps on the way up the sheer wall. Each time, I dug deep, took a big breath, and asked God to help me meet my daughter’s expectations. And each rung took me closer to the top.IMG_0049
My cousin – my hero – never wavered. She kept her face to the wall the entire climb and never experienced the amazing vistas the rest of us could see. But she put one foot in front of the other, one hand above the next hand, and never stopped until we made the summit. How could I do any less when I was following someone who could not even watch someone else stand anywhere near a ledge?
While the climb seemed to take forever, I am proud to say we made it in about two hours. In looking at comments from other climbers, 90 minutes to two hours was the norm. THAT was encouraging!
We were ushered into the top pod, the dining area, where we were finally allowed to disengage our hooks and sit down. I wanted to cry. Instead, I looked out into the vast wilderness below and marveled at God’s handiwork. At the same time, I marveled at the strength he instilled in me.
We enjoyed an amazing three-course meal. Yes, there is an oven in the pod! I was shocked out of my reverie after dinner when we were told to don our gear, hook up to the cables and turn on our headlamps. We were hiking, again, to our pods for the night. I had a moment of panic when I saw we were expected to climb in the dark. Again, I had to dig deep to follow the group out of the safety and comfort of the dining pod.DSC_0900
As there wasn’t another choice, I followed. We hiked a short distance to the first pod, which would hold the three “moms” in the group. We climbed down through the hatch into the pod where luxurious beds awaited us. There was a small curtained area hiding a camping toilet and tiny sink. The entire pod was transparent, offering views from every angle, but billowy curtains inside provided as much or as little privacy as we wanted.
We set a speed record for getting in bed and I drew the curtains aside. The views were astonishing. Spectacular. Sandwiched between a sky freckled with million stars and the twinkling lights of the village far below, we slept.DSC_0156.JPG
Early morning light brought unending vistas. It literally took our breath away to see that we were hanging on the side of the mountain, the lush green valley far below. We dressed quickly in the morning chill and waited for the guide to come get us. After a hot and filling breakfast, the guides gave us time for photos. Then we were hooked on and climbing again to get to the first zip line platform.
Six zip lines later, we were on the ground. I can honestly say I finally understand why people sometimes kiss the ground after deplaning!
I gazed up at the pods far above me and, again, thanked God for the strength and courage he gave me. I looked at my precious daughter and thanked God for allowing me to fulfill her belief in me. I turned to my cousin, who conquered probably the scariest “height” moment she would ever face, and swelled with pride.
I did it. We did it. And it is a treasured experience that forever will be etched into my memory.

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