Saturday, December 10, 2011

Well folks, I'm sorry that it has taken a few extra days for me to finally start this blog entry, three days after returning to Lubbock. Since my last entry I have managed to add a fair number of additional photos to my earlier posts, but this is the first time for me to actually sit down, collect my thoughts, and write a few more lines about this unforgettable trip to South America.

Altogether, I spent 4½ days "on the ground" in Peru, but it seemed like weeks. In my last entry you had read about Day Two, a day marked by brilliant sunshine and a veritable smorgasbord of visual stimuli. My driver had taken me to the wild animal refuge, the ruins (and rather touristy market) of Pisac, and then to the high-elevation town of Chinchero at more than 12,000 feet. On the way to Ollantaytambo, where I was going to spend the night, we detoured to two more tourist attractions. First there were the salineras close to Maras, salt pans that are communal property that have been "farmed" since pre-Inca times. A small rivulet of super-salty water exits the ground, and the water is channeled through an intricate system of tiny canals into the many hundreds of salt pans, none of which is much bigger than a hottub and only a few inches deep. The intricately terraced site produces—through evaporation and a skilled collection process—thousands of pounds of pure salt that is supposed to have medicinal value and is an outstanding choice for the discriminating cook. More importantly for the itinerant tourist is the absolutely stunning visual impact—please remember that clicking on a photo will open it with much more detail:
Hundreds of salt pans above the Sacred Valley close to Maras
Salt that is ready to be collected

Check the salt-encrusted hands and feet of these local salt "farmers"
Close-up of the salt crystals
The contrast between deep, blue sky, the white of the salineras, and the verdant green of the Sacred Valley far below was overwhelming. Rarely have I seen something as unusual as this.

Onward we drove, across what looked like something out of movie from Mongolia. Sheep, potato fields, earth-tone colors, glaciers, and immense skies made for an unforgettable tableau.
Is this Mongolia or Mars?
Eventually we arrived at Moray, an ancient Inca agricultural laboratory where the best growing conditions and species improvements were researched in intricately designed growing terraces that featured a myriad of different growing conditions. it is said that each one of these terraces has a different microclimate, and that the Inca (who did not know how to write) kept detailed records by means of their quipus, strings of knotted yarn that served as memory aids. To descend the terraces one uses the projecting stone steps built into the walls.
The biggest of the three circular "labs"

The Inca improved the yield of crops through research

My driver and guide for the day, Jaime
Maybe you can understand why, after just these two days, I felt as if I had been traveling for weeks! So many impressions, so many sights—and the next one just around the corner, as I wasn't done for the day, yet. My hotel (the highly recommendable Apu Lodge in Ollantaytambo) is situated in a village that remains much the same as it was in the days of Mancu Inca's last stand against the Spaniards. Narrow, cobbled streets that are not fit for cars give Ollanta, as it is called, a historic charm that I found nowhere else in Peru. The ruins (there are actually two complexes on opposite sides of the valley) are spectacular.
Downtown Ollantaytambo
The lovely Apu Lodge in Ollanta
Looking from the ruins toward the ruins (more visible when enlarged)
I know, this is a long entry, but I can't help it: he highlight of the trip is about to come. It was in Ollanta that I caught the morning train to Machu Picchu, one of the most scenic rail journeys I have ever embarked on. when you look at the pics, please keep in mind that this was supposed to be the rainy season in Peru! I still can't believe my luck (even though my house doesn't have a good-luck charm like almost all places in Peru.
Good-luck charms abound on Peruvian roofs, covering marriage, work, and health
The train trip to Machu Picchu is not cheap. There are various comfort levels (I went with the least costly "Expedition" service and was quite comfy), and trips at different times of the day are priced differently. My ticket from Ollanta to MP (about 1½ hrs) and then back from MP to Cuzco two days later (about 4 hrs) cost $100. One explanation, of course, is that this train services mainly tourists, and the rail line is owned by the same company that also runs the fabled Orient Express. Anything having to do with MP and being involved with tourists carries a $$$ premium. Be that as it may, the train was on time, clean, and super-scenic.
Expedition # 83 servicing Machu Picchu rumbles into Ollanta Central
The train travels along the east bank of the Urubamba river, a wild river that eventually empties into the Amazon. The Sacred Valley narrows down considerably, and soon the mountain climb steeply from river's edge. i had to think of the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon as well as some of the impossible landscape in the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) of Mexico, where I had traveled before it became a tourist mecca in the 20 years ago. There are no roads that lead to Aguas Calientes, the small station that serves as a gateway to Machu Picchu. Come by train, or don't come.
Rolling downriver along the Urubamba, about to exit the Sacred Valley
Even the Expedition service features Vistadome windows
The valley narrows, and the vegetation slowly changes
The next two days I spent in Machu Picchu, which is at a much lower elevation (around 2,200 meters) than Cuzco (1,000 feet higher). I climbed around the ruins, hiked up to Huayna Pichu and the Sun Gate, and sat for hours in the sun, marveling at these exquisite ruins. Since it was low season the number of tourist seemed rather light, even though this was the 100th anniversary of the (re)discovery of MP by Hiram Bingham in July 1911. The hiking is not easy and my legs were pretty shot after two days of steep ups and downs, but every step is worth it if for nothing but the amazing vistas of the surrounding Andes. Here is a sample of the many pics I took.
Rainy season at Machu Picchu
80% of what you see is original, 20% is restored

The Urubamba surrounds MP and Huayna Picchu (the "sugar cone" in the back)
Remove the boards, and traversing this section becomes impossible

The "sun dial" in what may have been the main temple

Unbelievable stone work abounds

Vizcachas, a mixture of rabbit and squirrel, it seems
MP as seen from Huayna Picchu, early in the morning clouds
Macchu Picchu with Huayna Picchu in the back

The clouds are lifting

In the afternoon of Day Four I took the late afternoon train back to Cuzco. No problems finding a taxi that took me the final 20 minutes from the terminal to my hotel (it was a rather entertaining trip as the driver chatted incessantly, telling me about his great desire for "cachar" (check the Andean meaning of the word if you can't guess it) and his inquiring into my sexual prowess and habits. I spent another half day in Cuzco on Tuesday, witnessing the big parade on occasion of the Dia de la Policia in the main square, wandering the local indoor and outdoor markets, and eating a final meal of alpaca before flying back to Lima in the afternoon.
Olives, not potatoes
Indigenous women wear some of the strangest hats
Chicha (a type of corn-based beer) street seller
This is a gigantic squid! I couldn't believe my eyes.
Too much chicha

Peru, land of 5,000 varieties of potatoes
Beans, peppers, spices, corn—all the good stuff in life
Fine beef tongues and other yummy parts

Modern art in the streets of Cuzco
Have a close look at the repair/patch job of these pants!
On Wednesday morning I started the 4,000+ mile trip back home via Miami (shame on ICE and Officer Cuneo, who thought it was necessary to treat me like a drug-running thug upon re-entering the good ol' US of A), and shortly before midnight I was back in the flat and rather unexciting Hub City. What a trip!

Thanks for reading. In the next day or two I'll add some info on the logistics of this trip.


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