Friday, December 24, 2010

7 Days in Peru - The Inca, Mountains, & Pisco Sours

If you've been wondering why things were a bit quiet here - I was out of the country from December 12-19 in Peru. It was an interesting trip. (CLICK on any of the pictures below to blow them up)

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Peru sits on the Pacific Coast just south of Ecuador, west of Brazil and Bolivia, and north of Chile. The country is dominated by the Andes Mountains and ranges in terrain from coastal plain, desert, alpine, and tropical rain forest. Although it is on the equator, the elevated terrain and influence of the southern Pacific current hold the temperature way down. And no, I also discovered that the coriolis effect does not cause the water to spin clockwise in the toilet.

We flew into Lima and then in to the City of Cusco which is approximately 3,000,000 people, 11,000 feet above sea level, and being the former Capital of the Inca Empire is the launching point for all things Inca. There's a picture of the Cusco Airport to the left.

After spending a day getting used to the altitude and recovering from 24 hours of air travel, we checked out the ruins in the Sacred Valley 13,000 feet up at Pisaq (right) and then back towards Cusco at Puca Pucara, Quenco, Tambomachay, and the former fortress of Sacsayhuaman (zoom in on the map and look for gray splotches and ruin symbols). The next day, we road the super fancy Hiram-Bingam Train down into Machu Picchu at 8,500 feet and spent two days exploring there. I climbed Wayanpicchu and up to Intipuku (the Sun Gate), we explored the city, and basically wandered around dumbfounded for two days, and then went back to Cusco for the duration.

There's too much to write about in one column. But here's a few thoughts.

First, Peruvians are awesome. Peru was a very welcoming place. There's no question that Peru is a Third World Country. The vast bulk of Peruvians do not have a car, internet, or a computer. But they are a happy people, proud of their cultural heritage and their history.

The Inca were simply amazing. The Inca could move 120-ton rocks without wheels and erect them into extremely precise structures that still stand today without mortars and have survived earthquakes in one of the most active fault zones in the world. If you look at intricacy of the polygonal stonework they create, their abilities were simply mind boggling given the technology they possessed.

The food we had everywhere was awesome. One day, we wandered off out of the tourist area and at lunch at a restaurant in "downtown" Cusco. We were fed a four-course meal with a soup, appetizer, and two main courses for 8 soles or about $3. I rediscovered Quinoa, dried corn & beans, and the Peruvians really like their soups. Peruvian beers are great - Cuscena, Pilsen, Cristal, and of course Chicha, the traditional Peruvian beer. I also had my fair share of Pisco sours which if you've never experienced is a must, and coca tea and coca products are served everywhere.

My brother got to know the bartender, Carlos, at our hotel who invited us to spend an afternoon having lunch with him and his family. Outside of Lima, learning english is one of the keys to earning a decent living in Peru. Carlos and his family were all very curious about America and eager to see our country, but it was also apparent that even visiting the United States is out of reach for all but the rich in a country like Peru.

Inca traditions are proudly carried forward today by Peruvians and the clothing is dominated by all things Alpaca - a North American form of camel. I have never seen so many hats, gloves, bags, rugs, masks, scarves, etc. You can outfit an entire family at a Peruvian market with about a months's worth of clothes for about $200.

My visit to the Inca markets was eye opening. You are first greeting by entire pig's bodies splayed open and various animal parts and organs. If you want a slice, they whip out the saw and saw off a chunk for you. There were piles of vegetables, spices, beans, & corn everywhere. Rows and rows of ignots of chocoloate were laid out. Women were working on clothing with old school Singer sewing machines nonstop. As you walk, everyone says "Amigo, tienes un precio especial para tu" (Friend, I have a special price for you) - of course, NOTHING has a price tag on it in Peru.

Lastly, I can't finish this without saying something about Machu Picchu. I took this trip with my brother, sister, sister in-law, and my father because my dad has always wanted to see Machu Picchu. I can't begin to explain how profoundly unique and incredible Machu Picchu is. The ruins sit on a "penninsula" of a mountain, surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River 2,000 feet down. You are surrounded by mountains 3,000 to 4,000 feet above you on all sides. You are surrounded by sounds of rushing water at all times. It is a cathedral of nature.

The point of the penninsula has a steep mountain called Wayanpicchu. When I saw that it had a "trail," of course, I had to climb it. The "trail" is basically a series of switchbacks that end at a staircase which pretty much goes straight up - it's also not up to code - no railing, even stair height or grip strips. On top of this mountain, the Inca built a guardhouse, terraces for growing food and facilities. It was just incredible.

The Inca basically carved off the top of the mountain and built a fortified city on top with terraces running down cliffs to the river for growing food. It was "discovered" by American historian Hiram Bingham in 1911 after a child led his him up a staircase. The City lies at the end of The Inca Trail which is a stone road that runs from Cusco. Many people spend 4 days backpacking up and through the Intipuku - the Sun Gate - which frames the sun into Machu Picchu's Sun Temple on the Winter Solstice.

If you ever have a chance to go to Peru - GO.

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