Post Date: 12/24/2013

CUSCO AND MACHU PICCHU

A further discussion about our South American adventure in November:

After we visited the Galapagos we flew to Guyaquil, Ecuador, then after a brief overnight flew to Lima, Peru where we had another city tour and overnight before flying on to Cusco. Lima is a huge, sprawling city hosting a third of Peru’s population, about 10 million people. The experience that stuck with us in Lima was the cathedral. There is literally an obscene amount of gold in the chapels and main altar. But more interesting was the “chapel” devoted to Francisco Pizarro, the conqueror of Peru. He was eventually assassinated and beheaded. This “chapel” is really a medical museum with lots of pictures of his skeleton and skull showing the results of various wounds and ravages of age. It was quite well done from a medical perspective and I found it very interesting. In another chapel there was a painting called the “Andean Last Supper.” This painting had Jesus and the Disciples in a little tighter grouping than Leonardo’s painting with two other interesting features. Prominently presented on the platter in front of Jesus is the roasted carcass of a Guinea Pig, a Peruvian delicacy. And, the Judas character, holding a sack full of money, is a portrait of Francisco Pizarro. One other flavor of the land is illustrated by all the portraits of Mary and Jesus. Instead of the usual European halos, both Jesus and Mary have a sunburst behind their heads. The chief god of the Inca and Quechua people was the sun, Inti, who now crowns the new gods of the conquerors. (The term Inca meant the king. The rest of the people were called Quechua, the name of the language the indigenous people still speak in Peru.)

The Galapagos Islands are mostly at sea level as are Guyaquil and Lima. Cusco is over 11,000 feet high. City Hall is about 11,800. Altitude sickness after such a rapid transition is a real problem. Commercial aircraft are pressurized to about 8,000 feet so when we landed in Cusco the air pressure went down a further 3,800 feet. Upon arrival at our hotel, the Casa Andina, we were each given a cup or two of Coca Tea which doesn’t really have any cocaine in it but seems to be a pretty effective placebo for altitude sickness for some people. After huffing and puffing up the steps to our second floor room and being shamed by the porter who carried all three bags upstairs at once, we were ready for our city tour. The first place we were driven was Saksaywaman, a large Inca and pre Inca structure outside of town and seemingly another 1,000 feet higher. This structure was first interpreted by Europeans as a fortress but it is now considered to be a huge outdoor temple, perhaps to the lightning god. The awesome aspect of this temple is its massive stonework, some stones well over 8 feet in longest dimension and apparently dragged there from a quarry some 40 kilometers away. These huge stones were carefully fitted, using only stone tools, to other stones of varying sizes and shapes, requiring an enormous amount of work. The reason for the interlocking of irregularly shaped stones has always been a mystery to me until our guide explained that there were pre- Inca structures built of squared off stones and mortar that were discovered to slip and come apart during earthquakes. The interlocking of irregularly shaped stones without mortar made the walls much more resistant to earthquakes. Now they have stood for hundreds of years to fill us with awe as we reflect that these structures were erected without beasts of burden or any iron tools. They represent the results of centuries of work by an organized, sophisticated, and dedicated Stone Age society.

The rest of Cusco is a charming city surrounding the central Plaza de Armas, with a lot of poor areas as one travels outside the city center. One interesting observation is the statues of the Inca kings in the Plaza de Armas that represent them as having rather large, convex noses, a shape that is still quite prominent on the people of Cusco today. Considering our current understanding that humans came into the Americas 15-30,000 years ago across the Bering land bridge from Asia and considering that the Chinese today usually have rather flat nasal bridges, one might ask if the ancient Quechua people came from somewhere else. Just recently anthropologists have been able to sequence DNA from human fossils found in Northern Asia and found that the Northern Asians more closely resemble today’s Eastern Europeans than today’s Chinese. It may be that those who came to the Americas from Asia across the Bering land bridge migrated from Europe, staying north of the people who migrated up from Southeast Asia to become the modern Chinese. That’s a lot to think about just because of a statue’s nose and our guide’s nose, but it fits pretty well with modern DNA research. Perhaps it was just the effects of hypoxia on my brain.

Cusco also has the requisite cathedral with lots of gold contrasting with the poverty of the city suburbs, a common theme in both Ecuador and Peru. We were also taken to some shops that had beautiful woven goods of Alpaca and Vicuna, and a gold and silversmith who also had gorgeous creations. We asked our guide if these shops were in his family and he chuckled and said that they were just friends. They were friendly enough to give us tea with real coca leaves in the cup.

That night we both had significant trouble sleeping because as our breathing got shallower, we both experienced significant air hunger. It was relieved somewhat by sleeping on three pillows. Other tourists told us that they asked for oxygen to be brought to their rooms and it was provided. The next day we were off on a train ride through the Sacred Valley. Today this is a high mountain valley that extends over 80 kilometers down to Machupicchu which is only about 8,000 feet high. What makes the valley sacred is that it was arable land and was used by the Quechua people to grow the food for the ancient Inca capital, Cusco. Today it is used for the same purpose. There are miles and miles of farms, mostly growing corn and other grains. But there are also lots of fruits, notably passion fruit, Maracuya, of which we saw three varieties, all different than the passion fruit we grow here at home. The apples were also different which reminded us of our recent visit to the Galapagos where Darwin noticed all the varieties of plants and animals and began wondering whether or not varieties of species could vary so much that they eventually became different species.

When we arrived in the modern town of Machupicchu, formerly Aguas Calientes, our luggage was taken to our hotel, the Sumac, a truly five star hotel, while we transferred to a bus for a 35 minute jolting ride up a mountain to the ancient city of Machupicchu. It was everything that we had imagined and more. The mountain that is so prominent in most of the travel poster pictures is actually Waynapicchu, the young mountain. The peak of Machupicchu, the ancient mountain, is directly to the rear of where everyone stands to get the classical picture. Machupicchu, the famous ancient city, was started in about 1440 by Pachacutec, one of the greatest Incas, and was worked on for over a hundred years until being abandoned in about 1570 when the Spanish were working their way inland from the coast. (These are Wikipedia dates. Our guide said the city was started about 1420 and abandoned in about 1535 when Pizarro sacked Cusco.) All the stone work was accomplished by hammering softer rock with harder stones, just like Saksaywaman near Cusco. The stones are not as large and they were readily available on the site where Machupicchu was constructed. Probably the most amazing thing to me was the terrace work climbing up the mountain on all sides of the city. Here food was grown in situ, supported by frequent rains in the cloud forest environment and fertilized by human waste. There are not any large graveyards. People were apparently buried here and there so discovery of skeletons is mostly by accident. Only the Inca and the rich got a tomb and mummification. Several of these have been preserved and are in museums.

One can make an interesting observation about the stonework. Because the Quechua had no iron chisels and had to shape stones by pounding them with harder stones, they could not make sharp angles when carving several steps into a big rock. Stones could be pounded into right angles from the outside, but not from the inside. Thus multiple steps cut into a single rock always had a “U” shaped curve in them whereas steps constructed by using a different stone for each step had better, “L” shaped right angles. There were also three different degrees of stone polishing or smoothing. The Inca’s (king’s) house had all its stones finely polished. The houses of other nobles were also polished but not quite as well. The rest of the stonework of the walls and the other public places was left pretty rough. The Temple of the Sun was also finely polished and had two windows placed precisely to line up with the rising sun at the summer and winter solstices.

There is a lot of climbing up and down in Machupicchu and although the altitude is only about 8,000 feet in the main plaza, it’s still hard work. So after lunch, we elected to go to our hotel, shower, and rest. During lunch a local band came in and played traditional Andean Flute tunes. The one we all know is “El Condor Pasa,” a tune that was composed in 1913, inspired by traditional folk melodies. Paul Simon made it famous by writing words to it in the 1960s. It was really haunting to hear this melody played on traditional instruments by the descendents of the indigenous peoples who developed the tune. After a very nice lunch it was on down the mountain to our hotel.

The Sumac hotel was a wonderful place. For dinner we both had Lomo Alpaca, Alpaca steak, and a variety of fruits and vegetables. The wines from Chile and Argentina complemented the food perfectly. Afterward we had a nice conversation with a couple at the next table from Mexico City. Even they had trouble with the altitude in Cusco although Mexico City is rather high itself.

The next day was supposed to be a 2.5 kilometer hike up the Inca trail to the Gate of the Sun (Intipunktu) with a gain in altitude of another 1,000 feet. Carol opted out but I, in a pointless feat of machismo, did the hike and was rewarded with a number of glorious views. As an aside I would point out that there is a great business opportunity for a Jamba Juice bar and a Starbucks at the Gate of the Sun. There is a constant walk-up crowd thirsty for liquids and a caffeine jolt. It’s a can’t miss idea. A couple of the more charming encounters I had on the trail were a group of elderly Japanese coming down as I was going up. I said, “Ohio gozymas,” essentially the only Japanese I know. They all stopped and bowed to me, repeating the greeting. And, a little farther on, two llamas came walking down the trail, heading back to town on their own recognizance. They kept to the right and really didn’t acknowledge my existence as we passed. I stopped to take a picture and they didn’t pause, pose, or object.

So, after a great dinner and a pretty good night’s sleep at only 8,000 feet, and my long hike up to the Intipunktu, we got on the train for the three and a half hour journey back up to Cusco. About two hours into the journey, during a fashion show of Alpaca and Vicuna sweaters, scarves, and capes put on by the service staff in the train, our journey came to a halt. It had been raining and we learned that three separate landslides had occurred up the line blocking the tracks. We also learned that this had also occurred three weeks before and is a rather common event during the rainy season. Amazingly, the railroad workers cleared all three landslides in only two and a half hours and we were on our way again, arriving in Cusco in six hours instead of three. Our guides were waiting at the station along with guides for a lot of other groups. They were used to such delays. We even made it back to our hotel for a nice dinner before the kitchen closed. The dining room had several paintings that added some more Andean flavor to the usual religious themes of God, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. One painting of the Annunciation had the usual characters, this time including Saint Anne, the mother of Mary. Instead of a halo she was wearing a brown hat, the only figure with a hat. Mary had the usual sunburst for a halo. We learned the significance of the brown hat on our tour of Cusco in the central market. There a lot of indigenous women bring their goods for sale. They wear two kinds of hats: brown if they are pure Quechua and speak only Quechua and white if they are Mestizo and speak both Spanish and Quechua. So the Andean artist got both the chief god of the Inca and the symbol of the Quechua people in the representation of the Holy Family. I bet you didn’t know that Mary’s roots were Peruvian.

After a somewhat better night’s sleep we left early in the morning for Lima, then Los Angeles, and finally home in Solana Beach.
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