Machu Picchu is truly a place to wander and wonder

What drove religious and political leaders of Cuzco, Peru to leave the relative comforts of that city and move their followers to an isolated inland fortress centuries ago? Fear of Spanish invaders? Fear of other aspects of the world?  Those were my questions when I boarded the train at Cuzco for a day trip to an important religious and political site in the varied history of Peru.

Machu Picchu is truly a place to wander and wonder. The massive rock that looms there was constructed to fight Spanish forces approaching from the west.  Perhaps obvious conflicts between Incan religious and political powers also spurred exploration and led to the challenging building in a “forbidden,” but honored, place.

The early settlers are easy to identify: religious Incan leaders fearing the Spanish habit of forcing their beliefs on people Spain conquered. Those leaders uprooted themselves and their followers to head for safety into an unknown and unsettled territory.  Exciting lore surrounds the journey: why this particular site and about the builders themselves?

Today, a very challenging walking trail leads to Machu Picchu; a comfortable train conveys tourists there; a modest number of hotels and restaurants meets most needs.  A day trip means one can return to Cuzco to known comforts. (But stay overnight; at sunrise the rock seems to glitter.)

The story of this site is a tale of intrigue, fear, betrayal, and ultimate success that defines the value of visiting the towering rock.  It honors bravery and imagination. The little restroom is now improved.  Walking around the area, peeking into the tiny window-less huts, and gazing with amazement at the nearby mountain that towers so protectively over the site, are some of the rewards for making the trip. (Little llamas cavorting beside one is also a special treat.)

Chloe Ryan Winston’s latest novel, Peru Paradox, has just been published; available at Barnes and Noble.

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Peru’s Three Gifts to Travelers

Peru is a land of three wonders:  the gigantic Amazon River, the mysterious drawings in the sand called the Nazca Lines, and the most wondrous place of all, Machu Picchu.  The Amazon at Iquitos was my first stop.

Iquitos, Peru is proud of two things: its massive oil-producing reputation and its claim to be the uppermost port on the headwaters of the Amazon River. I soon decided that both claims perhaps were somewhat exaggerated.

Our tour group arrived in Iquitos late one winter afternoon to explore a bit before going on to another stop downriver for overnight.  Rather than joining them, I planned to explore Iquitos then meet them later that evening at one of the Amazon lodges, which looked like an inch away on the map. It was arranged and, when the time came, I went with a guide to the river to see two men in a canoe waiting for me.

Sunset on the Amazon (7613489930).jpg
By Pedro Szekely from Los Angeles, USA – Sunset on the Amazon, CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

My blue Samsonite hard luggage marked me as a tourist, but I wasn’t yet concerned.  It was after I clambered into the canoe, my passport, travelers’ checks, and pills clutched to my chest, that I realized as the two men began to row away from the shore that I was the only other traveler on this journey. And it was getting dark. And I had no idea how long it would take us to travel that “inch” that had looked so easy.

We swung out into the dark river beneath a now-dark sky. The only advantage to being away from the oil-fueled flames marking the oil well sites was that the sky was filled with at least a zillion stars.  That kept me busy for about five minutes.

Then I understood my unease.  I was alone, in a canoe, with two men I didn’t know…not even their names, and no one really knew where I was. Or that I’d even successfully left Iquitos.  Now the idea of escaping took hold.  I looked away from the canoe, finally spotting a series of tiny lights in the distance.  A town. On an island, perhaps. If either man made a move toward my possessions—or me—I’d jump out of the canoe and swim toward the lights. That idea went nowhere; sanity prevailed.  If I swam carrying my heavy suitcase, it would pull me deep into the water, and I couldn’t leave it, nor the small carry-on that held all my papers, in order to go toward those tempting lights.

No, but that was not the only reason I scrubbed the idea of swimming. The Amazon is famous for having those body-chomping piranha fish which can skin your flesh off in mere seconds. Besides, I didn’t swim too well, although maybe fear would propel me some of the distance to safety, but not before the fish got me. Suddenly the warm night and the bright stars didn’t offer the consolations that they had minutes before.  My back stiffened until I could almost feel an iron rod in place of my spine.

Making matters worse, there was no conversation with the two men.  The little lights disappeared, and the true darkness of an Amazon night, without the interruption of city lights and their reflection against the clouds, made the world pitch black.  I might not even be able to notice if the men moved toward me.  They continued to talk softly, but my stay-out-of-jail Spanish wasn’t quick enough to translate.

What seemed a century passed before lights flickered ahead; the men’s voices got louder and seemed a bit more cheerful.  Maybe they’d been afraid of the river, too?  We pulled into a small dock, the men jumped out, lifted out my suitcase, and one of them held a hand for me to take.

It all seemed so normal.  When I looked at my wrist watch a little while later, I realized we’d been on the river only two hours.  But now I was safe, in a room where the walls came part way up its sides and the bathroom was many darkened steps away.  However, there was a light on in the restaurant, which was part of the lodge, so I quickly hurried over to get dinner.  I hadn’t eaten since noon and it was now past eleven.

Two French women were eating dinner in the restaurant, but neither acknowledged my presence.  They looked so very soignée and rich. I looked like I’d been drawn through that proverbial knothole backwards.  An imperfect end to an imperfect day.

The next day, after our tour group was together, the tour director promised us an exciting trip to visit an Indian village to watch “the natives in their local habitat.” Despite knowing those people needed the money that visiting tourists provided, I couldn’t bring myself to walk around peering at people as though they were manikins in a store, so I opted out of that trip, too.

Later, after the rest of the tour group left for their “natives” trip, a young man with the Lodge asked if I’d like to take a canoe ride down the Amazon and see the local flowers and butterflies.  I agreed.  This was the highlight of the trip so far.  We floated down a daytime Amazon, not nearly as frightening as a nighttime Amazon.  He was most informative, pointing out things to see, but the one thing I most recall was the flight of a few truly giant butterflies with wings of the deepest, clearest blue that I’d ever seen.

But Peru wasn’t finished with me.  Two days later we were in Nazca, staying overnight with plans to fly over the famous Nazca Lines the next morning.  When I awoke, I was so cheerful and eager that I decided to eat breakfast, usually not a good decision when I fly.  I happily climbed into the four-passenger plane and sat beside the pilot.  Two other people were already aboard, and when I turned to greet them, there were the two stylish French women.  They still didn’t speak to me, nor even nod an acknowledgment.

We took off, our pilot smiling and eager to show off his precious Lines.  In fact, he was so anxious, that he swooped and swooped and swooped, over the Monkey, the Tiger, and the Snake among others. Each time he asked me if I saw them.   Each time he turned the plane on its side, my stomach also went sideways.

Nazca_monkey

Fortunately, there were small bags ready for the purpose for which I used them.   I was terribly embarrassed to be unattractively ill in front of the two svelte French women. However, the pilot, anxious I saw everything, kept asking, “Did señorita see that?” He’d point to another one of the animal symbols in the hard-packed dirt below us.  I‘d nod, then have to take recourse to the bag again.

When we landed, one of the other tour members came up and said, “That pilot scared us to death when he took us up.  Was he okay with you?”

I nodded.  The pilot was fine.  Only my stomach had objected. Besides, I still had that wonderful Peruvian treat to come—Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu is featured in the fourth installment of the Briana Fraser series, Peru Paradox, soon to be released. You can purchase the first three books in the series from Barnes and Noble or from Amazon.

Machu Picchu

If a traveler goes to Peru without taking a trip to one of the world’s wonders, Machu Picchu, he or she hasn’t seen a hidden city with a mysterious past. Historians fight verbal battles over why this amazing site, built in such an unfriendly terrain, was constructed, existed, and remains for us to explore still today.Machu Picchu in public domain

From the towering rock monolith at one end to the little homes still remaining, to the
majestic mountains surrounding the site, and the clever little Alpacas who dance among the pane-less homes….it’s a mystery that still hasn’t completely been solved or resolved.

After hearing stories from early explorers, who were frustrated about not finding a place rumored to have been a religious site or a political stronghold, it was an

Hiram Bingham

Hiram Bingham

American, Hiram Bingham, who found it. He’d been ridiculed for what had become an obsession of his, but Yale professors are hardy, so in 1911, he began his trek to investigate the truth about the lost Incan city.

That trek involved getting through a thick jungle, across a bridge made of logs lashed together by vines over raging waters, avoiding poisonous snakes.  Even before he’d started, he’d been the butt of jokes, both at Yale and in Peru, but he was determined.  Determined to find the famous “lost city” of Peru lore…..but he found something more amazing.

And here is what he saw.

First, the towering rock at one end of the citadel, where all the structures were made of rock, by hand, so well that “knives could not separate them.”  But the stories of why and how and who continue to this day to be asked by historians and explorers.  Was it built to protect their leaders from the Spanish invasions of Peru? Probably not.  Was it built to be a priestly retreat from the temptations of the world? Maybe. Stories about who could live there might contradict that idea.

Bingham found about a hundred skeletons; he thought 75% were of women. (Later studies said the bones were about half of men and half of women.)  Was this a hideaway of some sort for the military leaders? Or did political leaders in Lima want to have a private place to escape their responsibilities? If you visit Peru, the answers to those and other questions continue to circulate between and among Peruvians and visitors to Peru.

As a visitor to the site, after getting used to the altitude, the “interesting” train ride from Lima to the small station at the foot of the mountain, and then to walk through the slightly-kept areas to peek in the pane-less windows cut in the sides of the homes, was a moment to think about the past here. It was fun to be close to an Alpaca, who chose to ignore strangers.  The small structure at the top, which wouldn’t house many visitors, was rumored to be scheduled to be replaced by a hotel.  This visitor objected mightily: it would ruin the entire atmosphere.  But at last report, there is a hotel closer to the site.

A century after Bingham, it’s a wonderful experience.  A trip to Peru must include a trek up to the new “lost city” which has been found.