We flew into Cusco on a commercial flight in the morning, arriving around Noon. The 11, 000 ft altitude hit me like a I had walked into a foreign land. I felt dizzy and my eyes wouldn’t focus very well. I carefully put one foot in front of the other as we descended the stairs of the airplane and walked across the tarmac to the open door. Inside the terminal, the group of us gathered, some retrieving checked luggage and others clustering around two young men who held signs indicating the traditional Holland America Tour. We were split into two groups and shepherded to two modest size buses. We piled in and collapsed into the seats. “Hello,” said our handsome young man with a smile so big you just wanted to keep looking at him. His deep brown eyes reflected a welcome that was sincere and caring. “I’m Danny and I will be serving as your guide for the next 3 days. You all are beginning the process of getting used to this altitude. Some of words of advice: Go very slowly today. Drink lots of water. Breathe deeply. Your body is used to having more oxygen available.” And then he explained the schedule of the day: check in at the hotel, lunch, touring a museum and Cathedral, rest, then dinner. We would use the bus for much of that. Our Machu Picchu adventure had begun.
Machu Picchu is a name derived from the Spanish pronunciation of the Quechuan words that mean Old and Peak. Quechua is an indigenous language spoken by the Quechua peoples, primarily living in the Andes and highlands of South America. It is the most widely spoken language family of indigenous peoples of the Americas, with a total of 8-10 million speakers. Approximately 13% of Peruvians speak Quechua. (Wikipedia source)
Cusco was once a thriving Incan city – the capital of the Incan Empire from the 13thinto the 16thCentury when the Spanish conquest began. When the Spanish moved in, they leveled the Incan Temples and built churches right over the foundations. The museum we visited had actually been part of a convent that was built on the Temple of the Sun. We could see the foundation that still stands, perfectly formed from well crafted and notched basalt stones, fit together perfectly with no mortar. This kind of architecture was reserved for the emperor and the temples. Much of Machu Picchu had mostly stones fit together in a more traditional way, with the exception of the king’s residence and the temples there as well. The buildings are not only architecturally impressive, they are also astrologically so. The temple of the sun is lined up to capture one of the solstice suns – winter or summer – and sometimes, using different windows in the same temple for both.
Danny told us that he did not think the religious beliefs were all that different from the Christians for the Incans believed in an overarching God who could not be seen but could be experienced in the natural phenomenon of the earth, like the sun, the moon, the stars, plants, animals. But the Catholic Spanish thought that they worshipped multiple gods and sought to convert them to the Christian God. They also took their gold and silver, which the Incans used for decoration, not as money or valuables. What was valuable to them was the llama, the corn, the stone. And, of course, most things were held in common, with the very best given to the emperor who ruled over the whole empire.
The book that I read in preparation for this adventure was “Turn Right at Machu Picchu”by Mark Adams. The author retraced some of the journeys of Hiram Bingham III, Yale history professor who explored these Andes and discovered (for the rest of the world, anyway) Machu Picchu. In his journey, Adams learns that Machu Picchu was believed to be the summer residence of the Incan Emperor Pachacuti (1438-1472) and that it is one of four of these kind of communities built in the Andes, not that far from each other. The others are: Choquequiro (believed by some to be the twin of Machu Picchu and possibly larger, although it is still being reclaimed from the jungle and is only one third uncovered), Vitcos, site of one of the holiest shrines in the Inca empire; and Espiritu Pampa, the “long-lost jungle city where the Incas made their last stand against the Spaniards.” (p. 5 e-version). And the Inca Trail which is talked about in the Machu Picchu books (a trail that pilgrims hike, taking four days to get into Machu Picchu, instead of riding a bus) is really just a very small part of a vast network of Incan trails that connect these various communities. This is definitely Incan territory – even still today, where the descendents live and work and serve as guides.
Still adjusting to the travel and altitude, we were up early the next day, fed a nourishing breakfast and then off to Machu Picchu. Our bus, with Danny narrating, bumped its way out of the city and up, up even further into the mountains. Our destination was at 8000 feet, but up and down was the rule of the trip. After a couple of hours of bumpy and fast bus ride, we boarded a very luxurious train which followed the Urubamba River (Quechua for sacred river) much of the rest of the way. The river is key to locating the various Incan settlements and communities, and actually circles around Machu Picchu. It is one of the sources of the Amazon River. Two+ hours later our train arrived at the place where the buses take you up to the entrance, or you begin your hike on the Inca trail. The bus ride from there is harrowing, following switchbacks on a narrow road where two buses can barely pass each other. And then we were there.
Danny got our tickets, and we showed our passports – the names on both had to match – and walked through the gate where we had to make a choice – easy tour or regular tour. I debated. I knew the regular tour would require a challenging climb and had some doubts about whether I was up to the physical challenge but I had come all this way and wanted the full experience (or as much as you can get in 2 hours). We met our local guide, Henry, and we were off, climbing right away.
This past summer the Seattle area had several days of unhealthful air due to smoke from surrounding fires in Oregon and Western Washington. Recently I learned that my asthma which has been relatively dormant for many years was aggravated by that air and I could no longer take in (or push out) as much air as I should be able to. After several weeks of medication and a heart assessment, my doctor had given me the ok on this trip. My air intake had improved even more (taking the medication) since my assessment but even so, the elevation was a challenge. In spite of the fact that I exercise regularly with my personal trainer and have strengthened my muscles, I began to think on the way up that I would not be able to make it. One of the Holland America staff rested with me part way up and encouraged me and we went up the steps slowly and then there it was – that view that I had seen in so many pictures! Still gasping for air, I took it all in.
A number of people have commented to me that they started to cry when they saw Machu Picchu. That did not quite happen for me and yet I felt the special energy of the place. People from all over the planet come to see this wonder of the world left by the Incans so long ago. I wonder if it affected them, too, when they made the trek (on foot) from Cusco. The beauty of the mountains and the green vegetation and the structure of the buildings are all inspiring. I was reminded, of Shug, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: “I come to church because the people who come all bring God with them.” (my paraphrase). Perhaps it is the longing to touch and be in the presence of something so magnificent and beautiful and sacred that folks bring to Machu Picchu and that longing unites us all.
Old Peak – it is a term that applies not only to the place to my experience. I was reminded, by my physical limitations, that I am getting old, even though I hardly think of myself that way. It is in surrendering to the need for help that I experienced the true presence of love in that place. And perhaps I am reaching the Peak of my life as I have the opportunity to visit new places and embrace new cultures. The Peak of the mountain is where many have encountered the holy. May I continue to be open and present to that possibility no matter where I find myself.