I probably should have slept for more than an hour, but I wasn't thinking properly. I blame the decent bag of weed a friend of mine scored in Lima along with a steady flow of local beer Cusquena. Whenever I'm done with a work assignment in a foreign country, I partake in a tradition among my fellow reporters and stay up as late as possible partying, drinking, and gambling. Sunday night was no exception after dinner with my colleagues at a restaurant hanging over the cliffs of Miraflores in Larcomar Mall, overlooking the Pacific Ocean as an illuminated cross flickered in the distance. We stayed up way, way, way late on Sunday night playing cards with my buddies, joking around, and listening to friend’s selection of Costa Rican reggae.
My wake-up call was set for 7am, even though I finished packing at 6am and crawled into bed as sunlight filled my expansive loft. I slept for an hour before it was time for me to meet up with Shirley and Sos -- my travel companions to Machu Picchu, both good friends from LA and we got along perfectly during a journey to Costa Rica a year earlier.
The journey to Machu Picchu isn't easy because there’s no direct road from Lima to Machu Picchu (aside from the infamous Inca trail). Tourists have to take a train to the foot of the mountain, which isn't the most accessible spot in Peru. In short, we flew southeast from Lima over the Andes Mountains into Cusco (or Cuzco as some locals spell it), then take a two-hour bus ride from Cusco to a small town called Ollantaytambo. From Ollantaytambo, we would board a train on Peru Rail which wound alongside the Urubamba river (which I dubbed the Chocolate Milk River, because it looked like... chocolate milk) through the Andes and reached an even smaller town called Aguas Calientes (literally translated into Hot Water because of the warm springs at the edge of town), and from Aguas Calientes we could hike up to the top of Machu Picchu, or take a 20-minute bus up to the top.
No wonder the Spanish never conquered Machu Picchu. They might have heard it existed, but they never got that far into the Andes. Besides, by the 1530s, Machu Picchu had been deserted for many years, but let's not get too ahead of ourselves.
At the least, we had a two-day journey ahead of us to get from Lima to Machu Picchu. If we wanted to trek to Machu Picchu from Cusco, it would have taken four or five days, something we considered, but none of us had the luxury of extra time to hike the Inca Trail. Alas, we flew to Cusco as a staging area for our trip to Machu Picchu.
We landed in Cusco on Monday around noon and I kept thinking how it reminded me a bit of Telluride, Colorado -- a plush valley in a mountainous region -- except Telluride is tiny and Cusco is huge with almost a half a million people, the majority of them living in shanty towns and adobe shacks up on the mountainside and descending into the city to work in various aspects of the blossoming tourism industry.
Cusco is not just a launching point for Machu Picchu -- it's also the site of its own historic Incan ruins. At its height of power, Cusco was the Washington DC and NYC of the empire -- the center of both political and commercial interests for the entire region. Cusco was strategically built to be the true center of the Incan empire. But then the Spanish waltzed in and conquered the Incas, but that's a whole other story.
At the airport in Cusco, we were swarmed with different sales people from competing Machu Picchu tour operating companies. We ignored them and headed outside. Before we left Lima, Shirley and Sos arranged the entire trip through a company (referred by the client who had flown me to Peru in the first place) so all we had to do was show up at the airport and find the dude waving a piece of cardboard with our names on it. He waved over to us and we followed him to his big, shiny, white Mercedes van. A very tiny, yet well dressed lady with a limp (think the Peruvian version of the seer in The Poltergeist flick, which I quickly nicknamed the "Go into the light!" lady) climbed into the van and told us that she was taking care of our entire sojourn. Her English was passable, but Sos and her conversed in Spanish as the driver left the airport and took us into the center of town to our hotel. The tiny lady with the limp apologized for traffic in advance. We had chosen the holiest week of the year to visit Cusco and Machu Picchu. Even though Peruvians worship Incan gods like Inti, the powerful Sun god, they're also devout Catholics (the religion brought over from Spanish missionaries). The previous day was Palm Sunday with Easter less than a week away. On that particular Monday, the entire town was getting ready for a festival celebrating the Lord of Earthquakes, because Cusco was nearly destroyed in the mid-1500s by a destructive quake. Sos loosely translated the Holy Monday festival something to the effect of the Black Jesus.
We arrived at our hotel located on the most famous street in Cusco, the Avenue del Sol. The tiny lady with the limp told that our rooms weren't ready yet, and we had ten minutes to drop off our bags before a bus took us on a five-hour tour of Incan ruins around Cusco. I had broken up my luggage into two pieces; I left my carry-on behind at Lima airport in storage (which had work clothes) and only took my backpack (with 2 days of clothes, rain gear, headlamp, laptop, and camera) with me. I ditched my backpack at our hotel and the tiny lady handed us cups of light greenish tea -- the infamous coca tea or coca matte. Instead of chewing coca leaves to help adjust to the altitude, we sipped the bitter tasting green tea. I eventually acquired a taste for what the locals subbed "Incan Red Bull."
Cocaine in a cup, baby! Yep, talk about cocaine in liquid form. I wish I could grow that stuff in my backyard without the DEA destroying it.
A few sips definitely perked me up considering I was working with an hour of sleep. The coca tea also helped open up the breathing passages in my lungs. I sipped more tea as I staved off the massive migraine that invaded my head. I had been to Colorado enough (flying from sea level to the mountains cause side effects like headaches, stomach aches, and the shits), so I knew what was wrong with me, so I didn't freak out. Part of the reason the locals discourage foreigners from flying directly to Machu Picchu is due to the abrupt change in altitude. Most tour operators want you to spend a day or two in Cusco to adjust to the thin air (oh, and to bilk you out of a few more gringos out of tourist dollars). At times I was gasping a bit considering Cusco was in excess of 11,000 feet or almost 2,000 more than Telluride.
I slammed the rest of the tea, grabbed my camera, and piled into the back of a tour bus with Sos, Shirley, and six others. Our first stop was the old Suntur Wasi (aka House of God) that was also an Incan temple called Koricancha (aka Temple of the Sun) that was destroyed by the Spanish, who built Santo Domingo church on top of the remnants of exquisite masonry. We met our guide who was knowledgeable, but chatty. He was rather famous for running the Inca Trail in 4:09... yes, a shade over four hours... (but I had no idea what he was bragging about, I assume he meant a specific section). In high school when I was on the cross country team, I once ran a mile under 5 minutes and thought I was a badass. That was on flat terrain in Central Park and not in the high altitudes of the Andes.
The Capilla del Triunfo cathedral (in the Plaza de Arms main square) and Santo Domingo church represented Spanish domination of the culture, spurred on by greed to accumulate gold and silver, which the Incans didn't see any intrinsic monetary value other than that it was shinny and that the gods gave it to them. Our guide showed us spooky parts of the old temple and the engineering was astonishing.
Cusco is in an active seismic area, so the original architects created stones that had some "give" to them so they could absorb a major quake without tumbling over. That's some of the stuff that you'd see on the History Channel's Ancient Aliens -- because there was no way humans could have created such precise construction with rudimentary tools. Blocks of stone the size of washing machines sat on each other. You couldn't even squeeze a business card or Metrocard in between the cracks. Check out more photos of the ruins here.
I quickly found out that most Peruvians got angry when you mention or reference aliens because they take offense to the fact that gringos like myself doubted that their Peruvian ancestors were the most advanced culture on Earth at the time. However, I also met a few locals who believed in "gods from the sky" that assisted in construction of the first temples and shared their knowledge about astronomy. You can interpret those gods as aliens if you wish, which meshes with my view on the legends and lore of ancient cultures like the Incas. I believe that men and women built the pyramids in Egypt, South America, and the Incan ruins, but with a little help from their extra-terrestrial friends. I wanted to see proof for myself... with my own eyes... and after this trip, I'm a firm believer, yet, I have even more questions. At Capilla del Triunfo, I saw the first example of temple construction with assistance from other worldly beings.
At the church/temple I got yelled at by a security guard for snapping photos of the artwork. As a former museum security guard, I apologized with a hearty, "Lo siento!" But made sure I was much more stealth with future photos, especially the spooky alien stuff, like the images I saw on a gold-plated relief.
During our tour of the cathedral, our group of eight doubled in size because a different tour guide couldn't finish up his tour. That sucked because the new folks included a pair of annoying families... from the good old US of A... of course. Within seconds of their arrival, one of the fathers put Sos on uber-tilt. The guy was born in Peru but moved to Miami where he raised a family. He was very well-to-do and his wife and daughter wore super-expensive Chanel sunglasses. He kept asking stupid questions and our guide loved talking, so we had to sit through extra lectures on stupid shit. The other family had a young boy and a girl who were typical annoying Americans than give us a horrible reputation abroad. The chubby son was a bit of a momma's boy and he complained about going everywhere because of rough headaches. I felt bad for him because my head was pounding too, but I was also gutting it out by abstaining from pharmies. The little girl was bored and spent most of the tour in the cathedral smacking her father in the nuts. Too bad we couldn't ditch our tour and got stuck with them for another three long hours.
The next stop on our tour covered the Saqsayhuaman ruins. We piled into the bus and drove up to the mountains surrounding Cusco. Saqsayhuaman was supposed to look like a puma's head, but in reality it looked like a fortress.
The walled complex on the outskirts of town became the last stand for the Incas, who holed up there when the Spanish invaded Cusco. We were visiting scared ground where many warriors lost their lives. Saqsayhuaman had been the center of many rituals for centuries before the Spanish arrived. Again, the engineering and construction was so impressive and precise that it was hard to imagine aliens didn't have a hand in its construction. Some of the rocks are bigger than city buses and two or three stories in height.
During our time in Saqsayhuaman, our guide gave a long lecture (spurred on by the annoying guy who asked questions). I took the opportunity to lie down on the soft grass. I was so tired after less than an hour of sleep that I actually passed out for five minutes. Sos and Shirley poked fun of me because I started snoring, but luckily it wasn’t loud enough that anyone else heard.
Our guide wandered over to a different series of rocks and picked up two plants. One was eucalyptus, which he showed us how to pinch the leaves and then inhale/sniff the plant. The aroma of eucalyptus gave you an instant boost in lung capacity, sort of like the effects of Vick’s vapor rub when your mom rubbed it on your chest when you were a little kid and had bad congestion. Our guide also picked up another herb (I forgot the name) and it had similar effects. We sat on the rock and got high on natural herbs.
Our next stop was a healing spring. It wasn't as impressive as Saqsayhuaman. I wished we skipped the springs and spent more time at Saqsayhuaman. We hiked up a steep incline to reach the springs. An old guy in our group lost his mud and had serious breathing problems. His right arm went numb. Our guide pulled a bottle out of his jacket -- combination of herbs and rubbing alcohol -- rubbed it on his hands and cupped his hands over the guys nostrils and mouth. He told the old guy to inhale and he repeated the process a second time. The old guy sneezed and all of a sudden, he could breathe again -- in fact that was better than ever. The guy went from looking like he was having a heart attack, to looking like an Ethiopian marathoner.
I had a second batch of coca tea and I was also jacked up, enough so that I kept pace with our guide as we reached the top of the trail near the springs at the same time. Although my noggin was still throbbing, my lungs were able to handle the thin air and we chatted for a few minutes while everyone caught up. By then, Shirley and Sos had gotten chilly from the mountain air. Their thin SoCal blood couldn't handle the cool, brisk Andes air so they purchased alpaca hats from women hawking souvenirs along the trail and picked the perfect spot to sell tourists warm gear.
By the time we reached our hotel, I was starving and had a wicked headache. I popped a Vicodin to reduce the pounding, throbbing pain. We ate dinner at a place next to our hotel. Our waiter was awful, but the food was good and we got free Pisco Sours. I loaded up on pasta because I needed to load up on carbs for the next day, when we took off for Machu Picchu. A local band using traditional Incan instruments (wood flutes) played random cover songs like Bridge Over Troubled Water.
I retreated to my room and collapsed on my bed. I had been working on an hour of sleep and I had less than six hours before a 4:30am wake up call. The tiny lady with the limp arranged for us to leave Cusco at 6am in order to reach Machu Picchu by noon. Unable to find any basketball playoff games on TV, I settled on a random baseball game with Spanish-speaking announcers. It was the last thing I heard before I drifted to sleep.
Paul McGuire is the author of Lost Vegas.