From February, 2016
As I think probably any excited family would, within mere days of learning that we were going to be residents in America Del Sur, we began a list of the places that we hoped to visit during our time here.
Admittedly, over the course of almost 3 years, this list has pared down considerably. It hasn’t been the travel with children that frightens us. I can proudly say I think we’ve finally nailed that (as much as possible, anyway). We love exploring new places with them, looking at these marvels of the world through their eyes, and watching them morph into little world explorers in their own right!
That has been on of my favorite results of living abroad.
The “weeding out locations” I refer to has been more a result of a reality check that a great majority of these “go-to” places are unfortunately not entirely conducive to three children that like to actually try to jump off cliffs, whether their friends are doing it or not. (-:
And unfortunately, some of the most beautiful hotspots in South America are home to just that: cliffs. AKA: at best, deterrents to mom and dad relaxing or enjoying the trip at all!!
But it’s okay! Because in lieu of those, we have discovered some real treasures! SO MANY beautiful places that are cliff and danger free, most that we never would have been able to predict, and even better, right in our Chilean “backyard”! We haven’t had to go to the “Top Places” listed by Trip Advisor and/or the Blogging world…we have found hidden treasures and quiet magic a short drive away!
However, two locations continued to compel us, even draw us.
Machu Picchu and Cusco, Peru.
It hasn’t been just that Machu Picchu has been ranked the Number 1 travel destination repeatedly.
Though many of the reasons for that ranking were our reasons, too.
It was also because Tom, an anthropology minor, and me, a childhood Indiana Jones wannabe and serial lover of all things historical, desired to see a place that has often been called magical, is obviously awe-inspiring, and clearly a place of important world history.
And you know – it’s practically in our backyard here!
*Wink-Wink* (It’s amazing how the definition of that changes when you live on a different continent!)
Plus, it was our 10 year anniversary, and so, you know, it was almost like we had to make a big trip. (-;
The only caveat being, Machu Picchu was constructed at the top of a steep mountain, and Cusco has one of the highest elevations in the world.
Presenting not only the risk of incomparable cliffs, (and our sanity!), but also altitude sickness.
Now look, I know there are many people that bring their children to visit Machu Picchu. But after everything that I had read online, the rare, though possible serious risk involved with hitting such intense heights, we could not justify making this trip with our young kiddos. I just hope that our experience will instead inspire them to make the same trip themselves in their futures.
AND SO ENTER: Our amazing Ama, to save the day! She flew down and spent a lovely 3 weeks with us. And one of those weeks, she stayed with and cared for the kiddos while Tom and I spent 5 days making our dream a reality!
THANK YOU, AMA!! And thank you also to Boss, for being willing to give her up for that long!
AND ALSO, MY DEAR HUSBAND, TOM: You, who secretly planned out the entire thing, front to back. Drivers, beautiful hotels, excursions, a getaway that we so needed. You knocked this one out of the ballpark, hands down.
YOU ARE THE BEST!
End Result? Memories for a lifetime. I cannot begin to describe the magic that one feels when entering Cusco, and then Machu Picchu.
It possesses a beauty, a tranquility, an enchanting sort of magic, like nothing we have ever experienced.
We made the 6 hour flight to Lima, Peru from Santiago, and stayed there one night, at the beautiful Lima Country Club.
We dined at a dinner theater later that first evening. Tom realized his adoration for Peruvian Food, and I learned of my newfound love for Peruvian music and culture!
Onwards! Bright and early the next morning, we flew to Cusco.
Let me just say, this altitude thing is no joke. The actual minute we disembarked from the plane, we felt the weight on our chests. It was as if we couldn’t take a full breath, ever. In the beginning, before we adjusted, it even felt a touch claustrophobic.
When we arrived at our hotel, we immediately made ourselves a cup of the Peruvian go-to remedy for altitude sickness…. Coca Tea….waiting just inside the front entrance for people like us. (-;
We sipped it while marveling the wonder around us. The JW Marriott Convent Hotel, a recently refurbished hotel from the ruins of a Spanish, colonial convent, was designed with a freshly polished, though antiquated imperial elegance. Its gloriousness curiously hidden behind stone walls in a back cobblestone street of Cusco.
The Coca leaf, (yes, that same leaf), is chewed habitually by the Peruvians that live in those upper Andean Altitudes. They have been chewing it for centuries, claiming that it helps ease the negative consequences of their thin air, including enhancing their performance at those altitudes. In fact, after Spainish colonization, (seen so vividly throughout Cusco), King Philip II decreed that the Coca leaf was essential to the well-being of those that lived in the Andes. It also plays a central role in religious cosmology of the Andean indigenous population.
The Coca tea wasn’t bad…essentially flavorless. But chewing on the Coca leaves, with their rough texture, wasn’t very enjoyable. (We only chewed leaves given by our tour guides, who regularly carried bags of coca leaves and offered them as we hiked).
Our first day in Cusco, the exquisitely adorned, imperial city nestled in the middle of the Andean mountains, we toured the city streets, local Incan, archaeological ruins, and churches (though photos were prohibited inside).
Cusco is like nothing I have ever seen. Stunning majesty in the middle of nowhere, wealth in the middle of indigenous simplicity. The Catholic churches bathed from roof to floor in silver and gold, the art, the meticulously carved sculptures and woodwork, the colorful Quechua women and children mingled throughout… I would have been happy to spend a solid week there, exploring its gems, uncovering its certain additional treasures.
And what an incredible experience, to meet and learn about the beautiful Quechua people, the remaining indigenous Andino people, descendants of the Incas. Watching them as they wove their way through the cobblestone arteries of the city, sharing their stories, art and color.
The women are typically very tiny, adorned in their brightly colored and patterned traditional costumes, many with a bowler hat. They can be seen strolling about with their llamas or alpacas, carrying their babies in colorful blankets on their backs, hair hanging in two, trademark braids at their sides. The precious children, sporting the trademark red, flushed cheeks and noses, results of the high altitudes, quietly tag along, though their smiles come easily. The men, though fewer in number, can be seen in their ponchos and cowboy hats.
Strange how timelines flow. Once upon a time, their own ancestors were colonized by the creators of the very omnipresent splendor that now adorns streets of Cusco. But today, it has all become a culture woven within the same fabric, symbiotically illuminating each other, contributing jointly to the light that is Cusco.
Communicated through Cusco’s current flag: an upside rainbow of colors, signifying that Cusco is a neighbor to the world.
And as the day crept on, we also, oddly, found ourselves to have an increasingly building sense of the giggles.
And so, for a bit, it seems the altitude and its ensuing lack of oxygen was actually quite enjoyable! (HENCE: LLAMA SELFIES!)
But as evening neared, our laughter faded into exhaustion, and we returned to our hotel room earlier than planned. Normally, we’d enjoy a dinner and some wine, but by that point, the altitude had REALLY taken it out of us. We called the hotel front desk, and they brought up an oxygen tank. A quick test revealed our levels to be low, particularly Tom’s. We each took a turn with the mask, which quickly brought our levels up to normal.
I have to admit, the first night of attempting to sleep without our customary levels of oxygen was a little restless. Thankfully it improved from there.
And it reminded us that we were SO happy we didn’t bring the kiddos…I can’t imagine, especially, with the younger ones that can’t tell you that they are having a difficult time breathing?
The next day we hopped on the bus first, then train, to make the 2 hour trip to Machu Picchu itself.
The drive through the lush, green Peruvian valley, with views of the white-capped Andes, the rising sun burning off what was left of their hazy fog cover, the brown, Urubamba river, our constant left-sided companion and guide towards the final destination, the soothing Andean flute music (my new favorite), seemingly perfectly timed to the real life slideshow of natural and “Incan-ic” masterpieces presenting themselves outside our windows…
Words, photos, videos…none of it can do this moment justice. It was as if the weight of the world lifted off of our shoulders, even if just for a bit. Serene, magical, enriching, enlightening, perfection.
And it also became easier to breathe….Machu Picchu is at a lower elevation than Cusco…7,800 feet.
The small city at the base of the Incan World Wonder, its “base camp” essentially, is called Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters, for some hot springs there). The only way into Aguas Calientes is by train, (or hiking the trail), which means this tiny town is completely pedestrian.
It was shocking to learn the magnitude of tourism that it welcomes. More than 1,500 people arrive at the UNESCO Heritage site everyday. Most of those people, like us, arrive by train, spend the night, and head back to Cusco on the same train the next day.
In Aguas, we stayed at the Inkaterra Resort.
Tom, you did again. You were 3 for 3. The resort was absolutely blissful.
Home to its own set of trails in the rainforests along the river, we observed countless species of butterflies (many of which can only be found there), along with some actual pre-Incan pictographs on their site. Given that our breathing had improved slightly, we were also able to explore with a little more bounce in our step!
That first day, and almost immediately, we boarded one of the countless buses that quickly fill and take groups up the mountain to the place that we all came for.
Let me just say, these buses might have been the most frightening part of the journey!
Bumbling along, no actually, it feels like they race along, the Haram Bingham road, these bus drivers climb these mountain switchbacks at alarming rates. I’m not sure if they communicate telepathically or what, but thankfully one always knew to stop where the roads switch back to allow the other to pass…because there is NO way they could pass each other along the actual road. Not only that, but the condition of the road was questionable. It wasn’t until after we returned that I read an August 2015 article that had indicated the road had only 15 months of utility remaining! Gah!
Not exactly comforting when you look out the window and realize you are precariously traveling along at the edge of a mountain!
Nonetheless, it was worth it, and I suppose in restrospect, (now that we are home safe), part of the experience!
The lost city of the Incas, the name Machu Picchu means “Old Mountain” in Quechua. And it was everything I could have imagined, and more. It literally appears, and feels, to balance on the top of a mountain, surrounded on all sides by corresponding mountain peaks and clouds. In the early morning hours, you actually feel as if you are in a city in the clouds. Looking down, it is possible to faintly make out Aguas Calientes, the switch-back thrill ride that brought everyone up, and the Urubamba river that brought us there, and has dutifully carved its way amongst the mountains (all named by the Incas).
For most of our time there, it was still fairly slow going, as we were quickly reminded of our limitations with the altitude being what it was. So on that note, for anyone who has done the Inca trail hike-RESPECT!
To be in those ruins, untouched by any sort of vandalism and/or real damage, ruins that are near-perfectly preserved and so intelligently designed hundreds of years ago, was mind-blowing.
There is still some debate as to the purpose for its construction, but it seems to be generally believed that this massive fortress (13 square kilometers and nearly 150 buildings and over 100 flights of stone steps) was a summer estate for the 9th Incan Emperor, Pachacuti. More interestingly, nearly 60% of its construction is underground, including deep building constructions and drainage systems/aquaducts! I personally found the engineering incredible, particularly how perfectly the stones fit together (not even a blade of grass can fit between them) and how durable they have remained. They have withstood not only the test of time, but the occassional earthquake as well. Although it is built on two fault lines, the construction was designed in such a way that during a quake, the stones actually jump into the air, do a little dance, and fall right back into place.
Interestingly, there has also been some debate as to how lost Machu Picchu really was. Haram Bingham, a United States archaelogist (and the inspiration for the Indiana Jones character), discovered it while searching for another lost city, Vilcabamba. (For this, everything is named after him…the trains, the road, a hotel…). However, Peruvians, currently in an effort to reacquire over 40,000 artifacts that are currently in the US at Yale, are arguing that a Peruvian family was actually living in the ruins when Haram stumbled across it.
As for our second day there, Tom had originally scheduled us for an early morning hike up to Huayna Picchu, another, even higher part of the city, before we left, but once we learned the dangers involved (ranked top 10 most deadly hikes in world!) we changed our minds. (If we weren’t parents to 3 beautiful angels, it might have happened, but such is life!)
And it actually turned out great, because instead we did the hike to the Temple of the Sun, which was just as high as Huayna Picchu, though on the opposite side, and although it ran along a mountain side, was not frightening, but rather exhilerating and beautiful, with jaw-dropping views of Machu Picchu below us. We were able to see, from there, the view that the initial explorers witnessed, and the current Inca Trail hikers witness, upon entering the lost city.
And from there, we boarded the train, enjoyed a lovely dinner and a little shopping in Cusco with the bit of time we had left, and set sail for home the next morning.
It was a worldwind of non-stop magic, this trip. For me, and I think I can safely say this for Tom too, one of the best, if not the best, trips we have ever enjoyed, one that we don’t remotely take for granted. Having that time together, in one of the most magical places in the world, is incomparable.
We feel, we ARE, SO blessed.
Plus, the fun didn’t even end there!
We came home and were able to enjoy some Chilean explorations with dear Ama and the Bunch. More to come on that, NEXT POST!
Huq p’unchaykama (Quechua for “Until next time!”)