After seeing and experiencing the diverse ecosystems of Ecuador we switched gears and immersed ourselves into the rich and fascinating world of the Inca culture. Our first stop was the City of Kings, Lima, which was founded by Francisco Pizarro in the late 1500’s. We had not heard a lot of positive talk or read a lot of glowing reviews of the city. However, we found the city to be decent and the people nice. On our first day we spent it riding the new bus line into the downtown sector of the city. Knowing the kids love of churches and museums (insert sarcasm) first on the agenda was going to be the Monasterio de San Fransico.
However, it did come with a twist I thought the boys would be fascinated by. Buried underneath the church is are catacombs that hold over 70,000 sets of human bones of people buried there over the centuries. True to my thought the boys were thoroughly entertained, exploring the caves and discovering all the different rooms loaded with skeletons.
We posed for pictures in front of the presidential palace and sat around and people watched near the fountain in the main square. I began a quest to find a statue of Pizarro atop a stallion. Imagine with my limited Spanish trying to pantomime Pizarro riding a mighty stead. In the end we were unable to discover the statue so we made our way to the bus for our return trip to the apartment.
The next day we discovered our first Starbucks at the small outside mall on the cliff by the beach in Miraflores. It was like God shined sunbeams down from heaven and Angels sang from above. Oh the little things in life. After Starbucks we spent the rest of the day hanging out at the beach and watching the surfers.
To get to Ollantaytambo we flew to Cusco and grabbed a collectivo. For those that don’t know, a collectivo is a small shuttle/van mostly used by locals. After a long drive through the country packed in like sardines we arrived in Ollantaytambo.
It is a small rustic Inca village that has been continuously inhabited since the 1300’s and is a prime example of Incan city planning. Known mostly as a stopover for people visiting Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo has a very rich history of its own. It served as a military stronghold and a small city during the Inca Empire. It is most famous for a battle that took place in the late 1536 between the Inca’s and the Spanish Conquistadors led by Hernando Pizarro.
It was one of the only times an Incan Army won a major battle against the conquistadors. The Inca Emperor at the time, Manco Inca, used giant boulders and flooded the plains to take away the Spanish’s advantage of their cavalry. Walking the streets of Ollantaytambo and visiting the ruins I can imagine the great battles that took place here and see in my mind the Spanish Conquistadors marching through the valley attacking the fortress while the Inca army defended its fort and their emperor. The first impression you get from the ruins and for that matter any Inca ruins is the remarkable stonework they display. The walls are not made with rock and mortar, but are fitted together with exact precision.
Most of the time you can even slide a credit card between the rocks. One of my first thoughts was I wish they had been the ones to do my retaining wall. My retaining wall has been up for a little over a year and rocks occasionally fall off, but this city has been around for over 500 years and is holding strong. What is even more amazing is the size of some of the rocks, which weigh literally tons. How did they move them and place them in the wall without machinery?
Our other task for the day was to purchase train tickets for the ride to Machu Picchu. This turned into more of a hassle then we had anticipated. It took us three trips to the ticket office and one Internet search before we were able to procure tickets. We would be heading to one of the Seven Wonders of the World manyana.
Machu Picchu turned out to be one of the highlights and lowlights of our trip. Once we got to Aguas Calientes after a truly magnificent train ride through the valley we had to first find a place to stay and then get tickets for the park. We got lodging at Gringo Bills, which I would recommend for comfort, cleanliness, and just the overall ambience. We ate at one of the many restaurants in town that have identical menus and kept ourselves out of the torrential downpour. We sat at dinner worried that we had traveled all this way and spent all this money and our visit to MP would be on an overcast and rainy day. All we could do was get a goodnight sleep, catch the bus in the morning and hope for the best.
We woke at the crack of dawn to grab the early bus up the mountain to MP. The reason we were up at 4AM was to make sure we could get the stamp for hiking Wayna Picchu (sometimes spelled Huayna Picchu), which only 400 people a day get to do. We got our stamp and we herded into the park with the hundreds of other members of the dawn patrol. After a brief hike we came to an opening by the Caretakers Hut above the main area of Machu Picchu. This is the million-dollar view you see in National Geographic and all the travel literature. It was amazing. We have seen and heard about MP since we were children but the first site of it is still spellbinding and breathtaking. It is not only the ruins, but it is their location. They are set against sheer cliffs on the top of a mountain. There are peaks on all sides, green valleys and a river below.
We spent the morning exploring the upper part of MP and took a hike to an ancient Inca drawbridge, which was thought to be an escape route in case of attack. If you are faint of heart and afraid of heights I would not suggest this hike. At 10:30AM we headed to the other side of the park to trek Wayna Picchu. Oh, what a hike it was. Let me start off by saying that the Lonely Planet guidebook does not give this hike justice for how difficult and at times scary this hike really is. Unlike the States where everything is about safety, in SA people just assume you have common sense and won’t fall off a cliff. The hike is not that long by length, but is straight up hundreds of stairs. At times you are climbing up like a ladder. Now I am no Ironman triathlete, but I am in pretty good shape for an old guy. This hike was pretty tough for us especially in the altitude. At times we passed people on the trail that I thought were going to die. The kids on the other hand, thought it was a race to the top and they beat us there by a good 15-20 minutes.
It was neat though how Alex and Tyler took photos of each other on the top and even asked someone else to take a shot of them in front of the sign. The biggest congratulation goes to Nick who by far was the youngest person on the trail that day. People kept commenting on him and some women even stopped him to give him kisses. Once at the top we enjoyed unbelievable views of MP and the valley below. We had a picnic on the top and shared our PB & J sandwiches with some fellow travelers who were drooling over our spread. After our lunch break, we headed back down the trail, which was even sketchier. We took a slightly different route and ended up having to climb straight down a ladder without any handrails or safety rails. Alex and Tyler flew down, but I think Amy had her stomach in her throat climbing down with Nick between us. One slip and we would have a major injury. Lucky for us we got down safely with no broken bodies. We didn’t leave the park until 4:30PM after a full day of hiking and exploring.
By the time we got back to Aguas Calientes (town next to MP) we were famished. Tyler picked a place by the river and we had a large feast of pizza and enchiladas. Before heading back we grabbed some coffee and dessert. By the time we finished our coffee my stomach started to feel kind of funny though Alex and I still went for a walk in town and played pool at the hostel. We went upstairs to bed and the worst part of trip was about to begin. First, the cramps and then the vomit came. This followed a pattern for the rest of the night for Alex and I.
The next morning came with a bit of relief. Alex had vomited all over the bathroom and I was up all night, but I think we were feeling better. We had to catch the 2-hour train back to Ollantaytambo. Amy and I didn’t feel 100 percent but we figured we could make it back to Apu Lodge and relax. Boy, were we wrong! Ten minutes into the train trip Amy was in the bathroom getting extremely sick. Concern came from all the passengers in our section with numerous people asking if they could be of assistance. I have never seen her this sick. She finally was able to fall asleep for the rest of the train ride. We finally arrived in Ollantaytambo and had to hobble back to our lodge. For Amy this was the walk of death. I am proud of the boys for how they stepped up to help out. After much sleep and a little more bathroom time we finally felt better and packed our bags for the next destination.
We got to Cusco no worse for the wear and ready to start exploring again. The problem lay with finding trustworthy food to eat. Much to Amy’s horror, it was McDonalds to the rescue. We stuffed ourselves with artery clogging crap, but it tasted so good. With full bellies we got a good night sleep at the Ninos Hotel. This hotel has all its proceeds go to helping children. It didn’t have the best acommodations but the cause was well worth it. The next morning we took a walk up the hill to easily the best sounding name for a ruin I have ever come across. At the top of the hill near Cusco stands Saqusaywomen pronounced “Sexy Women”.
This was the fort where Manco Inca directed his army in attacking the conquistadors after they had been driven from their capital city. Like Ollantaytambo and MP the architecture was incredible. One of the rocks there weighted over 3 tons. From there we walked back town to grab a cab that took us around to the many other smaller ruins in the area. We had purchased a pass, which people must buy in order to view some of the ruins and museums in the area, and we wanted to get our money’s worth, so we visited almost every spot on the pass. After a couple days in the City of the Gods we were off to my favorite lake in the world, Lake Titicaca. Can you say that without smiling?
To get to Puno, which lies on the shores of Lake Titicaca, you need to take a 7-hour bus ride through the Andean plains. There is not a lot between Cusco and Puno. We finally got there in the night and found a place to lay our head. The next morning we headed to the docks and rented a boat to take us to two different islands on the lake, Isla Taquile and Uros. The first is a colony of people that separate themselves from the rest of Peruvian society.
They reminded us of the Mennonites that we came across in Belize. A simple hardworking people set in their ways and ideals. The second island was one of the famous floating islands that the lake is known for. It was an interesting visit and we were able to meet and talk with some of the people that inhabit the islands.
The boys were excited because we were able to get a ride on one of the reed boats. To finish the day were able to witness on our boat ride home, a spectacular sunset.
Back to Cusco for another night at the Ninos Hotel and then head to Argentina the next morning. Unfortunately in our rush to get to the airport in the morning we forgot both Amy’s Kindle and Tyler’s headlamp. Oh well, two more things to add to the lost or stolen list. So ended our exploration into the world of the Inca. Next up the Tango, Penguins, and Patagonia.