I was quite nervous about going to Cusco. The flight was short, only 50 minutes. Lima is at sea level, Cusco at an elevation of 11,000 feet. I was afraid I would get altitude sickness. Once in the airport at Cusco, we felt the effects of the altitude, the thinner air with less oxygen, right away. Lightheaded, it felt like we swam to baggage claim, and stood around trying not to expend any energy. We were taken straight to our hotel where we were instructed to rest for several hours. I put my suitcase down and climbed into bed, determined to give myself the best chance of acclimating to the altitude. I was able to sleep, while my body produced lots of extra red blood cells.
In the afternoon, a tourguide named Lilly came to collect us and take us around Cusco a bit. We all found ourselves breathing heavier than normal but enamoured with this city of Inca ruins and foundations, and colonial history. Our guide, who looked to me like an Incan princess, was not only very beautiful but very knowledgeable, passionate even, about the history of the area. She also knew Quechua, the ancient language of the Andes.
One of the first sights I saw as I started my tour of Cusco was a little girl in very colorful traditional Andean costume holding the cutest baby goat and wanting very much to stand as close to me as possible to have our picture taken, for a fee of course. Hard to resist. Another thing I noticed right away was the popular footwear: sandals made from old tires. Many people, young and old had them on. They probably never wear out.
We visited such exotic sounding places as Sacsayhuman (pronounced like "sexy woman"), Qoricancha, Tambomachay and Pucapucara. I found the mystery of these ruins intoxicating. I also found it shameful that so much knowledge from these brilliant indiginous people has been lost in such a relatively short period of time. It is hard to believe that we don't even know for sure how they were able to cut the stones they used in their precise and exceedly beautiful asthetic buildings, and how they were polished and shaped. The massive stones fit together like jigsaw pieces without the use of mortar. These people also did incredible things with their water supply, channeling the water underground, running fountains, creating systems that are in some cases still operating today.
Early the next morning we boarded a train for Machu Picchu. The train ride was fascinating. Cusco sits in a valley cradled by the Andes Mountains. To get out of Cusco and into the Sacred Valley toward Machu Picchu, the train must get across some very steep high mountains via a series of switchbacks. Once over that mountain, leaving the shanty dwellings and wandering pigs and dogs along the tracks, the scenery was dramatic and beautiful. At the few stops along the way, people were selling all kinds of things. You can shop and purchase things without ever getting off the train, negotiating and paying right out your window. Many of the adobe brick houses we passed have two bulls made of pottery sitting on the roofs, a traditional protection from earthquakes.
I never tired of seeing all the terraces, some entire mountainsides completely terraced for agricultural purposes long long ago. Some are still in use. Potatoes and corn were the most common crops grown in the area. As we got closer to Machu Picchu, some parts of the Inca trail were visible. It winds along impossibly steep mountainsides.
My guidebook describes Machu Picchu as "the most celebrated ruins in South America and a place that retains its mystery, allure, and spectacular beauty despite its enduring popularity, Machu Picchu is one of the most dramatic places on earth, one that holds a mystical appeal . . ." With such an build up and expectations, I was prepared to be disappointed. I was not. It is a place that photos cannot do justice in capturing, as it's setting in the mountains is something that really has to be experienced in person. Wandering through the site, I found myself really wishing that my husband and boys were there. I certainly hope to bring them to this wondrous place sometime. Machu Picchu was the single most crowded attraction I visited on my entire trip, but even that could not detract from the magical experience of being there.
Exhausted, sunburned, hot, but very happy, we descend on the scary switchback road in a bus to get back to the train. We stay in the Sacred Valley that night, at a lovely hotel called Sonesta Posada del Inca Yucay. We check in and are in our rooms for maybe ten minutes when a spectacular rainstorm, with thunder and lightening starts, and the lights go off in the hotel. It is exciting and dramatic. Both my friends whip out little flashlights, and I am so impressed. At least we can see for a while before the generator comes on and provides some light. We dash through the rain to the lovely little restaurant where we all convene and celebrate a day full of contrasts and drama.