Thursday, January 1, 2009

Machu Picchu

Llamas on Machu PicchuI'm not usually the type to buy Christmas presents for myself. I made an exception this year.

This picture was taken from just below the "guard house" in Machu Picchu. I took it after getting myself soaked and filthy by mountain biking downhill across rock slides and rivers and then trekking three days across Inca trails carved straight into the side of a cliff face. It ended with an hour's trek just before dawn straight up the side of a mountain to gain entrance to the Incas' most famous ruin in one of the most spectacular settings in the world.

When we first started, I looked around at the mountains and forest and thought that this was all kind of familiar, like hikes I'd done at home. But after a steep uphill climb that brought us out to the side of the Sacred Valley I realized this was like nothing I'd done before. Everything but the path was vertical. If the spectacular views of the mountains and river didn't make you dizzy, vertigo would instead. Just try going up and down the steep craggy stairs. I'd handled much more steep and rickety stairs back in the Mayan ruins, but the sheer drop hundreds of feet to one side was like having someone very large breathing down your neck hissing "don't mess up, don't mess up, don't mess up" into your ear the whole way through. Absolutely worth every step though.

I can't pretend it was all hardcore rough and tumble adventuring. Yes, we had plenty of that, but the most challenging thing for a couple of my Australian friends in our group was being told by a security guard that they couldn't drink their beer in the hot springs they were relaxing in. Against the rules apparently. Also challenging was trying to convince our guide that, no, we weren't going to spend all night in the tourist discotec, because we were going to sip rum and coke with the locals in front of a tienda, while some of us played soccer with kids on the street instead. Though somehow we ended the night by astonishing everyone else in the club by showing up later, making complete fools of ourselves with a chair, a pole, and several dance offs, and then conga lining out of the place. Funny how that goes.

Machu Picchu was great for fantastic views and ruins of incredible size. But it was also great for people watching. I was the first in my group to the top, around 5:45am. There were maybe fifteen others milling around. Within less than 45 minutes, a line of more than a hundred was standing outside the entrance pouring in from the stairs and the buses that had started to arrive. More than half seemed to be either American or Japanese. When I took that photo up there with the alpacas, I was surrounded by a mob of at least fifty vying for the same shot. Hundreds and hundreds of people of all ages were pouring in, from babies to people using walkers. It was big enough not to feel crowded even though at least 500 people were on the site at any given time.

One thing that struck a personal chord for me when I was walking around the ruins comes from my grandfather. When he was in the US Army in WWII, he looked around in Germany and made a simple observation. The houses and buildings made of stone still stood where others made of other materials had fallen. Some of these houses were quite old. So, when he came home to eastern Washington State, he decided he was going to build himself a stone house. They lasted longer. So, over the next few years, he did it. Looking closely at some of the structures on Machu Picchu, most of them were made in kind of a similar way to my grandpa's house. That's more than 500 years through storms and earthquakes. Perhaps my Grandpa's house will last a bit longer than he originally realized.

As usual, this whole account is a few days behind where I actually am. I'm sitting in La Paz, Bolivia surrounded by slightly hung over travelers unforgivingly awake again after new years eve. I realize I haven't really updated in detail what I've been doing since the Galapagos. The quick summary runs as follows: I spent some time in the Ecuadoran mountain town of Otavalo, including a haunting nighttime solo hike to my farm stay hostel through thick fog my flashlight could barely handle. I then booked it down the coast of Peru, stopping long enough to have some amazing ceviche and chat up some Lima natives before heading up to Cuzco. After Christmas and my trek, I moved on to Bolivia, stopped by Copacabana and lake Titicaca, and then headed to La Paz to ring in 2009. Next on the agenda, with any luck should include a visit to some family friends, my first real foray into the Amazon rain forest, and a trip to see something called the Salt Flats of Uyuni. If only I could start every year this way...

Happy New Year, everybody!

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  1. Dumb question from your mother....are alpacas and llamas related?

    Nice pictures. The Sprite bottle Christmas tree is clever and would appear to be social commentary as well.

    Loved the picture featured in the blog. Is that you on the left? You need a haircut! :) love, M

  2. Dear Joel,
    Oh! How I want to visit M.P. You are an inspiration. I am so glad to hear from you. I am going to catch up on your blog and will write later. Yes, I have left the U of C to do other things. In just a week I have made it as far as Starbucks. Next stop Peru? Perhaps.
    hugs, Patti Lahey