The Road to Machu Picchu

Hola amig@s,

Greetings from the roof of our house in Córdoba… where instead of rainy and windy it is currently very hot and humid. I’ve been here now for just over a month, though it feels much longer. Time seems always simultaneously to morph, accelerate and creep along when you move between worlds like this.

After my first few weeks here I met up with Cara (a friend from high school) in the airport in Cusco, Perú. Getting from here to Perú logistics-wise wasn’t too difficult considering I’ve gotten used to asking random strangers for directions and waiting for obnoxious amounts of time in airports. A lost ring and a forgotten waterbottle were the only casualties. In Cusco Cara arranged for she and I to stay with a family of friend of her’s (whom she had met in Guatemala), which was great a) because we didn’t have to spend any money for a hostel and b) because we got to interact more with local people. From the airport we took a taxi to their house… only to find after much knocking that they weren’t home. They didn’t end up getting home until about 10:00 pm at night, but luckily their neighbors were very kind and generous with us. After just about a half hour, a girl about our age from across the street came down from her house to see what was going on, offered to let us store our luggage in her house, and to showed us around the city. When we returned later that evening only to find the family still wasn’t there, the neighbors across the street invited us in for coffee and let us watch their TV.

Cusco was unlike any place I’d ever seen before: a city built in a valley in the center of a ring of Andes mountains. The streets are paved mostly with cobblestone and the buildings made of stone, which gives the whole city a rustic/ancient feel to it. The precision and general good craftsmanship with which everything was built is very apparent as buildings there have remained intact for so many years, some even despite earthquakes.

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Cusco is extremely touristy; practically every third person you see is speaking a language other than Spanish (mostly English, French, German, and Swiss German). Definitely a place you could get around más o menos easily without knowing much Spanish. Peruvian Spanish has a completely different sound and vocabulary to it than Argentine Spanish… no one uses “vos” (informal you) and everyone says “ahorita” (right now) every other second. After living here for a while I’ve grown to like the sound of Argentine Spanish and feel more at ease and comfortable hearing it– people outside of Argentina really like to make fun of the pronunciation of the “ll” and “y” here and of the use of “che” which I found amusing.

I found street vendors to be much more aggressive in Cusco than in Córdoba.. practically everywhere you go someone is trying to shove a printed advertisement or a baby sheep into your hands. Yes, a baby sheep. Women dressed in traditional clothing line the streets, many of whom carry tiny baby sheep complete with tiny knitted hats in bags or on leashes in the hopes that tourists will stop to look and want to pay to take a photo. It’s hard not to fall into the trap…

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Twice…

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Most of the people don’t actually wear traditional clothing on a daily basis anymore, but wear it more as a costume to attract tourist attention and make money which I found pretty sad/uncomfortable. Street vendors in Cusco constantly called me “amiga” or “mami” and expected me to barter with them and negotiate prices, something which I had never encountered before and wasn’t really sure how to go about. Essentially the first time you ask how much something costs they give you a relatively high price and you continually suggest lower prices until you arrive somewhere in the middle.

Cara and I spent our four days in Cusco wandering about the city and exploring different markets, cathedrals, museums, plazas, nearby Incan ruins etc. One day for lunch in a huge outdoor market we ate heaping bowls of rice with fried egg, plantain, avocado, onion, tomato, and potato. It may sound like a strange mixture but it was delicious. No, I didn’t try guinea pig or alpaca meat, though there were many opportunities to do so. I did drink copious amount of mate de coca, which is made with the same leaves that are used to make cocaine (though it does not have the same effect). Although I was nervous about the possibility of altitude sickness, the most I experienced was a mild headache and general exhaustion for the first couple days. Also, I became out of breath very quickly when climbing even small hills… let alone mountains.

On our third day, Cara and I decided to go ahead and choose one of the 509850932850 tourist businesses in Cusco and sign up for a trek to Machu Picchu. We left a day later at 4:30 am in a bus from the Plaza de Armas, the central plaza in Cusco. Our group was comprised of 14 people from all over the world (but mostly Europe): Switzerland, Romania, Germany, France, Australia, Israel and Perú and two Peruvian guides. Out of everyone (not to overly generalize/stereotype), we found the Swiss and Australian people to be the most friendly and the French and Israeli people to be the most distant. It was a running joke that the only people on our trek that got consistently lost/fell behind were the couple from Perú. We were also endlessly amused by the poorly translated English slogan on our guide’s shirt: “Salkantay Trek: Many Places in the World Are Not The Same.” Everyone was between the ages of 22 (we were the youngest) and 35, though our guides told us that they have had children as young as 7 and adults as old as 70-something complete the trek. The tour group provided horses which carried most of our belongings for us for the first 4 days, so that all we had to carry were smaller backpacks with what we would need during the day.

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The common language between the majority of us was English (as most of the people from Europe did not speak very good Spanish) so that’s what we ended up speaking most of the time. It really is wild (and also depressing/problematic) how much more convenient it is to travel abroad as a native English speaker and as a U.S. citizen– No one would care if I overstayed my tourist visa here in Argentina and every big city I’ve traveled to in South America caters to English-speaking tourists. I have experienced 0% hostility towards myself as an immigrant here in Argentina. The most common reactions I get when I tell people where I am from and what I am doing here are a) general friendliness and pleasant surprise: “that’s so great that you like Argentina so much!” or b) disbelief: “I can’t believe that an American would choose to move to Argentina to work!” Also, people are consistently surprised that I can speak good Spanish. When Cara and I went to tour a famous cathedral in Cusco and asked for the audiotour in Spanish, the woman working there told us that she didn’t believe that we could speak Spanish since we were from the United States. She said this even as we responded to her in Spanish.

Though there are many ways to arrive at Machu Picchu, Cara and I chose the Salkantay trek, which is called that because it takes you past a mountain called Salkantay. The trek is 4 nights and 5 days long. You can see the map below… the little tents mark where we stopped to camp the first 3 nights.

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The trek was definitely grueling.. Only 13 of the 14 of us actually made it to the end… after the first day the German woman got sick and went back to Cusco. During the second day of hiking the Peruvian woman’s shoes fell apart and she had to tie the bottoms on with her shoelaces. We walked for 8 hours the first two days, about 6 hours the third day, and about 2 1/2 hours the last day. What was particularly incredible about the trek was that the scenery changed so much… The first day we hiked along trails with  beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and bathed in the fragrant smell of eucalyptus trees and mint plants. Image

Often cows, horses, and donkeys randomly appeared along the way, either stopping to munch some grass or clopping along carrying some sort of cargo. When we got closer to small towns or farms we saw plenty of chickens, turkeys, pigs, llamas, and (as always) dogs. The first night as we slept close to the foot of Mount Salkantay it was very cold and since we were sharing our small tent with the German woman (who was up constantly getting sick) I slept very little. Consequently, I woke up the next morning with a miserable cold. The second day was by far the hardest… we woke up very early in the morning to walk 3 hours straight up a rocky mountain. As you get higher and higher up it becomes harder to breathe and while moving you are basically constantly out of breath. Our guides told us that on the second day a lot of people either a) cry or b) get angry, wonder why they decided to go on the trek, and shout things like “Incas de mierda!!”. Not gonna lie, in many moments I was on the verge of both. But this made it all worth it:

I don’t think I was ever so happy to see a tent as when we arrived at our campsite the second day. By the time we got there I had lots of blisters on my feet (not exactly used to walking for hours at time) and my sinuses were exploding. We stayed up “late” (9:30) that night playing cards and got up early again the next morning to begin our 6 hour hike. That day we went from snowy/rocky mountainside to super green and humid forest full of flowering plants, butterflies, and fruit trees.

Late in the afternoon we swam in a hot springs which felt incredible after all the hard work our bodies had done.

On our fourth and final day of hiking we walked along a set of train tracks to the town of Aguas Calientes, which is situated right below Machu Picchu.

Upon arriving at our hostel (a place with actual beds and showers) in the early afternoon I think all of us immediately fell asleep. At dinner, our guides gave us the choice of waking up at 4:00 to walk a few hours straight up stairs to Machu Picchu or to wake up at 4:30 and wait for a bus to take us up. Needless to say almost all of us chose the bus.

Machu Picchu was, of course, incredible. We were given a guided tour in which we learned that Machu Picchu was actually built roughly in the shape of a condor, which (along with the llama, the snake, and the puma) was considered by the Incan people to be a sacred animal. We marveled at the precision with which the structures there were built, as well as at how much of an asshole Yale professor Hiram Bingham (official scientific discoverer of Machu Picchu) was to have taken all of the artifacts he found at the site back to the U.S., only to eventually return less than half of them to Perú. The architecture is rich with symbolism.. a lot of things are built in threes (three windows, three stairs) to represent the land of the dead, the land of the living, and the realm of the gods. The Incan people also apparently sacrificed a lot of llamas and women to the gods when weather was bad etc… Yikes. We fed the llamas the remains of granola bars we didn’t want and climbed Mount Huaynapicchu, which overlooks Machu Picchu. There aren’t really words adequate to describe the place, or really any of the trek at all… the closest I can come to explaining the enormity of the scenery is to say that it felt like we were on the set of Lord of the Rings.

 

That’s all for now…. gotta run out to post office and cast my vote for Obama! Soon I will update you all on my job search/Argentina life.

Much love,

Lila

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