Peru

Flying in to the centre of the Inca world is not the best way to get there. At 3400 metres in altitude, mountain sickness was a stinging reality. Throbbing headaches, dizziness and irrational behaviour are overcome only by drinking copious amounts of coca tea, according to the local Cusquenyans. Still, it took us a few days to acclimatise.

Our first mission was a day tour of the Sacred Valley, taking in the Pisac markets where Geoff and I both developed serious rug addictions. Every stall had a more colourful, more detailed version of our favourite designs.

It was serious business and there was lots of hard bartering to be done before heading on to the ruins of Ollantaytambo. The science behind Inca construction is just as amazing as the deep mythological importance of each feature. Ollantaytambo sits behind a mountain that has a huge face carved into the side, the nose of which points directly to Machu Picchu and the sun rises from behind its tip on the day of the Winter Solstice. The drainage and water courses remind me of Roman aqueducts, directing glacial streams through terraced gardens into the temple below.

I was heartened on the return journey to see I wasn’t the only one making language gaffes; I saw a sign promoting HORSE BAG RIDING EXPEDITIONS.

My brother Cameron and his girlfriend Maria flew in from Quito to join us for the next stage, a switchbacking train ride up to Aguas Calientes, the base camp for Machu Picchu. The ride was dotted with villages of mudbrick houses. Peru has done a good job promoting its Inca treasures and has capitalised on tourism but its not difficult to see that life is very different off the Inca trail.

We made a very good decision to stay in Aguas overnight, so we could afford to arrive at the ruins later, stay later (past the departure time of the daily train) and enjoy the ruins to ourselves at closing time.

Still, my first impressions of Machu Picchu took my breath away. I was speechless at the audacity of the thronging masses, shouting at each other from one end of their group to the other, climbing on the ruins to pose
for photos and ridicule people who refused to acknowledge their nagging pleas to everyone, in English, “Where do YOU come from?”

We very quickly took a sharp right turn and trekked away from the main ruins to do a couple of side trips to the Inca bridge and Sun Gate. They were hefty climbs alone and we were glad we didn’t choose to do the four-day Inca trail trek to get there. Finally, 3pm came, the tour groups trotted off to their buses and their bingo, and there was quiet.

No matter how much hype there is, you cannot underestimate the majesty of the ruins. The mountain setting is awe-inspiring: sheer cliffs 1000 metres high, dramatic shifts in light with sun and wind and rain. I’m going to
stop the descriptives because words cannot do it justice. We took photos aplenty, as you can imagine and I’ve included just one to show you I’m still alive and well, filled with the energy of the Sacred Valley (achieved by pushing against the stones with all your weight, according to Inca legend).

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