Peru, the World of the Incas
Machu Picchu is one of the most spiritual places I have ever visited.
Our entire experience visiting Peru and Incan sites were so much more awe-inspiring than I anticipated. On our arrival in Cusco at the wonderfully repurposed Belmond Hotel Monasterio, we were greeted with a cup of warm coca tea to help ward off the effects of the high altitude. At an elevation of 11,000‘, the transition from sea level can be daunting to the respiratory and digestive systems. If guests still need relief, oxygen concentrators in each room can be activated (for an extra charge). We had a charming 2-level suite and enjoyed every aspect of this beautifully appointed historic hotel complete with tranquil courtyards, excellent dining, and an ornate chapel. BTW, when I say coca tea, don’t confuse this with chocolate cocoa, this drink is an extraction from the same coca plant that also produces cocaine. It is a stimulant. Caffeine and chocolate also help stave off the effects of reduced oxygen levels.
The weather was delightfully cool and the food delicious; we paced ourselves carefully due to the altitude (ate slower, with smaller portions and limited alcohol consumption). I could not bring myself to eat the local delicacy of guinea pig, which I could not get beyond thinking of as cute pets. During this trip, we were also introduced to the delicious Pisco Sour cocktail and outside of Peru, I have never been able to match its perfection.
We were there during the month of April at the end of the rainy season, and while in Lima my Spanish was just good enough to understand TV news reports about catastrophic floods in Aguas Calientes. I knew to get to Machu Picchu you had to go to Aguas Calientes.
The Urubamba River had torn through the small village, taking lives and covering a good part of the train tracks with mud and debris. Tourists were stranded. I spent several days doubting we would ever get to see Machu Picchu. We were fortunate to be the first train back, a three-and-a-half-hour ride that stopped about a ¼ mile out for us to walk the rest of the way to the station along the messy tracks. Another train was stuck in the mud and, sadly, we saw rescue workers carrying out a body. At that point, about 13 people had been known to die in the flood. A Russian helicopter was helping evacuate stranded tourists. We were lucky to have missed the flood and lucky to get there.
A short 30-minute bus ride took us up the mountain to the 31-room Belmond Sanctuary Lodge, just a few feet from the citadel entrance to the Machu Picchu ruins. I was surprised to realize the ruins were tucked into the landscape at just under 8,000′. In total darkness that night, our small group was able to enter the site accompanied by an Andean shaman to pay tribute to Madre Tierra for the favors we had received. It was a mystical, spiritual experience, made even more emotional by the tragedy in the village below.
Up well-before dawn the next morning, we walked away from the ruins, along a portion of the Inca Trail, so we could be positioned to see the sunrise over the ruins and the most-photographed mountain, Huayna Picchu. More magic. As guests of the Sanctuary, we were allowed into the ruins early before the busses filled with day tourists arrived.
A bonus of traveling with Abercrombie and Kent (A&K) on this trip was having a native-born archeologist accompany us into the ruins. I grew up with a father who was a geography professor specializing in Latin American Studies and having this expert accompany our small group made a significant difference in my overall experience. To be on-site with only a handful of other people and an expert was a dream come true.
A couple of people in our group hiked the challenging climb up Huayna Picchu. The path was slippery, narrow, and without any sort of barriers, and since I am not a fan of heights, I chose to spend more time exploring the ruins.
Spanish invaders never found Machu Picchu and that is one of the reasons it remains in such good condition. You can see from the geography how it nestled within the mountains, providing natural camouflage. There are many theories about the purpose of the site, but it’s hard not to believe it had a spiritual purpose.
No trip to the area would be complete without seeing the beautiful Sacred Valley of the Incas, the ruins of Quengo, and the massive Ollantaytambo site. The town of Ollantaytambo also made a perfect place to stop for lunch. In the colorful market village of Pisac, I bought one of the small bags used by locals to gather coca leaves (it looks great framed in my home). Back near Cusco, we visited Sacsayhuaman, with its incredible 125-ton stones placed together with such precision you can’t even slide a piece of paper between them. Stops included the ruins of Tambomachay, with its Incan aqueduct and baths, and Puka-Pukara, the fortress used to defend Cusco and the Incan Empire.
Back in Cusco, we were exhausted but knew we had gained a rare perspective on one of the world’s great cultures.
Cusco is a beautiful colonial city and was the capital of the Incan empire. The Incans considered it the center of the world. Dating from 1592, the Hotel Monasterio really set the stage for a truly enriching cultural experience. Centrally located just a block from the Plaza de Armas, we toured the area’s colonial sites and enjoyed wandering the streets. Everywhere you looked you could see signs of the two civilizations that inhabited this land since Spanish invaders used stone from Incan temples they destroyed to build their city on top of the Incan capital. Who knows what Incan secrets rest just below the city streets.
A final note: In the Hotel Monasterio there were coca tea bags replenished daily in the room and I threw a couple in my makeup kit. Good thing I remembered to take them out just before we flew home (as in on the way to the airport). It’s the only time I have ever seen dogs at the door of the plane sniffing everyone before they even deboarded on the jetway back in Miami. Close call.