|Rob Ennals > Travel > Around Peru in Seven Days|
Day 2 - The Butlins of the Inca World
by +Rob Ennals
Our mission for Monday was to visit Machu Picchu, the jewel in the crown of Peruvian tourist destinations. Since we had planned our holiday at the last minute and didn't have much time, we had opted to take the train rather than hike the inca trail. The train station followed the same model as the market, with a huge collection of tiny stalls, all selling the same selection of products (including large bags of coca leaves). When a train pulled away, another collection of street sellers was revealed, sitting on the tracks behind the train.
For breakfast, we stopped at a stall selling sandwiches made from bad-peru-bread and bad-peru-cheese. This type of bread and cheese seemed to be the only kind available in the southern part of Peru, and, despite many attempts, we never really grew to like it. The bread tasted stale, even when fresh, and the cheese tasted like what american processed cheese might taste like if you mixed it with play-doh.
After a long, but pretty train journey, we were at Machu Picchu.
Historians currently believe that Machu Picchu was built as a retreat for the Inca social elite. This might explain the spectacular choice of location, and why they were prepared to chose a site that wouldn't otherwise seem particularly practical. We thought about how it compared to modern holiday spas, and imagined incas going on package holidays to relax in machu picchu - complete with inca sun loungers on the terraces.
Inca tradition dictates that all things must be shaped in the form of some kind of animal. Cusco, for example is built in the shape of a Puma. Machu Picchu is shaped like not just one, but two animals. One side of it is shaped like a Dragon, and the other side is shaped like a Condor. Indeed it is the Condor-shaped part that led to it's name - which means "Old Bird" in Quechuan, the Inca language.
Like all Inca sites, Machu Picchu is actually much younger than one might expect from looking at it. It was built around 1450, making it roughly the same age as King's College Cambridge (built in 1441, and the place where Simon and I went to university). However the fact that Machu Picchu is abandoned, and the primitive techniques used to build it, make it look timelessly ancient.
Like Ollantaytambo, Machu Picchu has a fresh water system in which water flows through a system of channels, having been sourced from a local spring. In keeping with it's role as a holiday retreat, some of this water was channelled through what appeared to be decorative water features.
In addition to the breathtaking scenery, and interesting buildings, Machu Picchu is also home to a collection of interesting wildlife, including centipedes, geckos, and a collection of friendly llamas, who we later discovered are the official lawn-mowers for Machu Picchu - the site being far too awkward for one to use conventional non-camelid lawn-mowers. Naturally, most tourists lose interest in Inca ruins when presented with a collection of Llamas, particularly since one was a bambi-like baby llama.
One of our missions for the day was to climb Huayna Picchu (pronounced Wah-knee Pitch Who, and sometimes transliterated as Wayne Picchu), the mountain peak overlooking Machu Picchu. Huayna Picchu means "young bird" and refers to the image of a condor that can supposedly be seen on it's rock face (we couldn't see it). Since Huayna Picchu is around 1000ft higher than Machu Picchu, it provides one of the best views of the citadel.
At the base of Huayna Picchu, we were greeted by a security guard who told us, Black-Knight-like, that we couldn't go past. It was 1:30pm, and the last entry was apparently at 1:00pm, to ensure that everyone got off the mountain before 4:00pm, when the mountain closed. Simon was undeterred, and assured the security guard that we were bad-arse and thus would easily be able to get up and down within an hour. I wasn't quite as confident as Simon was, but the security guard was convinced and let us through. Simon proved to be right, and we reached the top in around 25 minutes, giving us plenty of time to admire the view, before running back down as fast as we could.
On our way out of Machu Picchu, we had to wait around for a while at the small street market that had formed around the railway station. Simon and I both bought T-shirts advertising local beverages, and I felt quite tempted by a t-shirt with the slogan "Coca is not a drug - it is sacred". Indeed the shop had a large selection of pro-coca t-shirts, many of them following very similar styles to the pro-maruana t-shirts that are found in the west. As we spend more time in peru, it became clear that there was a fair amount of tension over the role of coca, with the US putting pressure on Peru to crack down on coca, and the locals seeing it as a key part of their culture.
Rather than take the train back to Ollantatambo, we instead opted to take the train all the way back to Cusco. This was a mistake. The section of track from Ollanta to Cusco was extremely slow, involving a series of swithbacks, in which the train often took several minutes to descent only a few feet. Taking the train between Machu Picchu and Ollanta was unavoidable, as there is no road, but the route from Ollanta to Cusco would have been much faster by bus.
Our final mission for the day was to visit Sacsaywaman (pronounced rather like "Sexy Woman"), Cusco's inca fort, and the head of it's Puma shape. Unfortunately Sacsaywaman had closed at 7pm, and it was now 11pm. Rather than leave Sacsaywaman till tomorrow, messing up our schedule, we decided to break into Sacsaywaman at night and explore it by torchlight. We hailed one of the crazy Cusco taxis and had it drive us to Sacsaywaman and wait for us to come back.
Sacsaywaman is a pretty amazing place. Architecturally it as far more impressive than Machu Picchu. It's imposing stone walls are made of enormous blocks (some weighing more than 300 tonnes), fitted together so accurately, without any form of cement, that a piece of paper will not fit between them.
Simon's guide book told us that Sacsaywaman is also the site of an important battle, in which 200 Spanish conquistadors defeated an army of 100,000 inca warriors. It's amazing to think that the spanish had such a technical advantage over the incas that they were able to defeat an army that outnumbered them 500 to 1. Simon's book contained an inca poem, written shortly before the arrival of the Spanish, that spoke of the Inca's position as masters of the world they knew. One passage seemed particularly poignent: "May you always be the conquerors. May you never be the conquered. May you always be the pillagers. May you never be the pillaged.". Little did they know that, very soon, they would not only be conquered, but conquered with such ease that they would be forced to re-evaluate the whole idea of who they were.
It was now almost midnight, but we were hungry, and hungry for Cuy - the famour Peruvian Guinea-Pig dish. This time we were successful - we found an expensive tourist-focussed restaurant that was prepared to serve it to us. It tasted largely as one would expect. A bit like rabbit, a bit like chicken, and a bit like quail. Given the small, bony, nature of guinea-pigs, it wasn't the easiest food to eat, and extracting any meat from it required a certain degree of dexterity and patience. Simon enthusiastically enjoyed knawed off his guinea-pig's face, much to the enjoyment of our waiter.