domingo, 17 de junio de 2012

It's what you've been waiting for, its the Big Daddy, its the Macchu Picchu Mountain

(Before you start reading. Every picture in this entry from the actual Macchu Picchu trek was taken with an absolute crap camera because my good one decided to get a virus... really not the best time for that to happen. So the picture are as crap as the camera, although I did try my best through the tears.)

I had now seen the desert, the mountains and the jungle; it was time to get a taste of history. And Peru is a country of a rich, colorful history. Millions of tourists flock to the country just to catch a glimpse of its lingering remaints of ancient civilizations, and to be a part of the discovery excavation of new sites happening every day throughout Peru, even in the center of Lima city.

Everyone knows Peru for the Incas. Lesser known are the many pre-incan civilizations who's ruins scatter the country as well. The Incans are put in the spotlight simply because they were the last, the most recent: When the Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish invaded Peru in the 1500's, the Incans were dominating the scene. So we're able to read texts written by the Spanish that describe the Incas, whereas it's harder to find information about Peru's preceding cultures. 

Like Native North Americans, the indigenous peoples of Peru were said to have migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia. You can see the similarities between the Peruvians of more indigenous blood and Native Americans; I even catch flashes of Himilayan-style features in the short mountain peoples. Apparently, many theses have been written of Himilayan genes in Andean folk. 

Peru was home to the Norte Chico civilization, one of the six oldest in the world, and civilizations circa 6,000 BC have been uncovered on the desert coast near Paracas. (Ancient humans among the more ancient penguins). The first known city in all of America sits in Peru, just a couple hours north of Lima. For an archeologist, Peru is about as exciting as it can get. I should have started from the beginning, checked out remaints from the Chavin, Nasca, or Chan Chan cultures (to name a few out of hundreds), but like everyone else, I just had to mission down to the Big Boy, Macchu Picchu of the Inca.

After flying from Iquitos, I stayed at HQ Villa for two nights to get some stuff done in Lima (send package, buy plane ticket to Cusco). It`s probably the coolest hostel I`ve stayed in in Peru; it`s literally a mansion a couple are renting out and have converted into a gorgeous hostel. I had to split up with Ed and LB- they had booked the Inca trail about a year in advance. (It's the “official” way to get to Macchu Picchu, a series of stone steps put in place by the Incas to reach the city; there are a limited ammount of spaces and it costs much more. The trail is protected by UNESCO. Obviously I hadn`t booked it so I would have to find a separate trek).
My day in Lima was both productive and a Miraflores learning experience- I ran about pretty much the whole neighborhood. (Bank – other bank – post office – photocopy shop – post office – supermarket – tape store – post office – Starbucks) (last one was guilty pleasure, had to get it out of my system).
There was a barbeque at HQ Villa on the night before my morning flight to Cusco. I talked to some up and coming archeologists about the ancient cultural scene in Peru. I was realizing how much of an archeological hotspot Peru is. The conversation got me excited to travel down and finally see the mother of them all.
I`ve been putting it off. I think it has a lot to do with that I would love to do Macchu Picchu with a close friend or family; it seems like a special, almost spiritual experience, and sad to do alone.
I got on the plane again with a pack much lighter than ever before. After sending home all the souveneirs I`ve bought, all my books, about half my clothes, and some electronics, I decided I might as well throw out my guide book, sunscreen and towel as well. I also left my favorite Marmot rainjacket at HQ Villa (that was NOT deliberate).


Cusco. Every gringo in Peru, probably every gringo in South America, visits Cusco at some point. The likelyhood of you running into someone you know in the city is probably around 300%. During my stay there, I ran into 8 PSFers and everyone from the Santa Cruz trek except for German Sebastian (definitely too touristy for that guy) and Clement. It`s surrounded by mountains similar to Huaraz, so my first impression was that they would be comparable, but as we neared the center it became clear that Cusco is far more upscale and built up, a beautiful colonial city.
Cusco is hopping. The city is just like an old European town: cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways wind up the hills, crude stone steps form passageways along which decorative lanterns hang. In the center, two beautiful old cathedrals dominate the square, and a sparkling gold fountain erupts in the gradens of the plaza.
Ringing the square, fancy five star restaurants with balconies look out and over the life below. At one million residents and over 2 million visitors a year, Cusco is the tourism capital of Peru.With all the influx of  big spending trousitas, Cusco has bilt itself up to be a meld of luxururious tourist town and classic Peruvian city. Around its periphery, houses are classic creamy white adobe with red tile roofs, similar to what you`d see in Huaraz.
Walking along the cobblestone streets I could be in Italy or Greece. Then ahead of you, you spot a group of Peruivan teenagers clad in traditional garb and practicing a traditional dance. Then you remember you`re in South America. 

Cusco has been designated the "historical capitol of Peru", and for good reason- the city has been rebuilt three times, foundation over foundation. From 900-1200, the Killke peoples inhabited the city; ruins from their time (Most notably Sacsayhuaman, located right outside of Cusco central) were carbon dated to pinpoint the time period. The Killke were taken over by the better known Inca people in the 1200's, and the empire reigned until the city was raped by the Spanish in 1532 and 1533. 
In those years, Cusco was the center of the battle between the Incan empire and the Spanish. The battle began in Cusco and spread up the hills into Ollantaytambo, where our Macchu Picchu tour made its breakfast stop, and continued into the hills toward Macchu Picchu. 

Fransisco Pizzaro showed up in 1534 and renamed the city "the very noble and great city of Cusco." Cusco is a tradegy thinly coated in a gold crust. Under the gorgeous colonial buildings, cathedrals and monuments, the foundations of ancient Incan architecture bleed out, squashed under their fancy replacements. Fourteen churches are scattered about Cusco; they were each built over an old Incan temple- it's a case similar to the building of Mexico city over the ancient Aztec capitol. 

The city was retaken by the Incas for a couple days in 1536. Then they all got smallpox and died. From that point on, Cusco became the center of Spanish colonization and the spread of Christianity in Peru.
My first night in Cusco, I met up with Ed and LB for dinner. It was their last night before the trek and since Ed`s birthday was in a couple days (he had planned it so he would turn 19 the morning they arrived at Macchu Picchu), he decided to have his fancy birthday dinner that night.
We went for a three course extravaganza in one of the fancy restaurants overlooking the square. We sat at a window; I ate a typpical Peruvian combo of Alpaca and quinoa and watched the lit up square below. It was a wintery scene; yellow lights lined the streets and illuminated the cathedrals; people ran about in thick winter coats and scarves. Yes, it is cold here. I was wearing all my layers (of course that no longer includes my rain jacket).  
After dinner we hiked up a steep, cobbly, narrow alleyway to a mirador that looks over the whole city. It was stunning. Cusco really is a jewel in the Andes. The hostel I am staying at, Pariwana, is also gorgeous- it`s built in a square around a center courtyard of stone, and looks like a mini castle or monestary. The hostel offers free breakfast and coffee, and essentally a jfull free internet café in a cozy living room with couches and beanbags and coffee tables. There`s a TV room with a flat screen and unlimited DVDs and a restaurant- it looks like the cafetería of a ski lodge, cozy tables and benches and a bar, delicious food. 

Cusco at night:

Alpaca steak :)

And during the day..

It was more admiring than actual enjoying. The idea was to get out of Cusco and up Macchu Picchu. It was time to get down to business.
There are two main alternates to the Inca Trail: The Inca Jungle Trek and the Salcantay trek. I was too lazy to shop around (a mistake), so I asked the information station at Hostel Pariwana about the differences. What I undestood was the Jungle trek is a four day combo of mountain biking, white water rafting, hiking and ziplining, while Salcantay is just hiking, and five days; on both treks you arrive at Macchu Picchu on the last day, and the entrance ticket is included in the package. When I looked uncertain, the travel agent (who I`m sure hadn`t done either of the treks), said "If you want more adventure, do the Jungle Trek." Yeah, that sounds about right. So I signed up.

The Inca Jungle Trek got off to quite a strange start. At six, nine of us crammed into a bus for the three hour ride up to our biking take off point:  A big giggly group of five English girls, a quiet English guy, two French and one Argentinian girlfriend of one of the Frenchies. The group of five girls got on my nerves within the first minute. They were not just giggly, I was discovering, but seemed incapable of controlling their shreiking volume of their laughter. They were the type of girl I often had to lead on treks in Nicaragua- the type that thinks it`s normal to trek in convers and feel the need to apply copious ammounts of makeup each day of the hike. One of them even cracked out fingernail polish on the way up. Oh god.

Our stopping point was at about 4300 meters. The mountains rippled like a green velvet carpet thrown over a lumpy pile; on top granite spires raked the sky like forks, slate flames. Snow freckled the upper reaches and down the river valley the hills faded from green to a brilliant turquoise to a carribean blue. Incredible. But freezing. It dawned on me what a terrible idea it is to downhill mountain bike on such a frigid morning- you`re not moving enough to warm yourself up.

The first thing our guide did was lay out an array of knee and elbow pads. Seriosly? I told him they weren`t necessary because I wasn`t going to fall. First fingernail polish, now elbow pads. What kind of a pussy trek was this?

 I froze for the first hour or so. The views were magnificent, and we soared down smooth paved roads cut through the thickly vegetated cliffs in switchbacks, white capped mountains receeding behind us and the blue valley opening ahead. In total, we descended 3,000 meters in about four hours of biking.

(The following pics were taken with a crappy camera :( )

As we zoomed down, the sun shone stronger and I finally warmed up a bit. With the temperature change, the trees around us began to change as well. We were entering selva alta. Selva baja (lower jungle), the term for the Amazon rainforest on and surrounding the river basin, extends up to more or less 800 meters of altitude. Above that the term is selva alta (higher jungle).

I didn`t think I`d see the day when mountian and jungle join forces,  but it`s a reality. There may not be monkeys in selva alta, but the humidity increases noticabely, parrots squack in bushy trees and burst out into the sky; an abndance of animals and plant species suddenly erupts from the cliffs.

Dr. Seuss must have found inspiration in Peru. As I biked, the trees around me began to sag with moss and morphed into comical shapes: long skinny trunks with a ball of leaves at the tip waved; 30 foot long silly looking ferns hung out and over the road with thin fuzzy leaves; jungly ivy dripped over the rock.

Wild alpaca, maybe the funniest looking animals around, lined the roadside. They blinked at us out of oversized shiny black eyes, their cartoonlike fluffy heads balancing on thin long necks and fuzzy little bodies. Banana trees erupted out of the foliage and palm trees balanced out of vertical soil.Tiny plantations appeared in the valley. It was a dramatic vhange but we were still in the mountains! It was amazing, an ideal combination.

The paved road became gravel, and flashback of Tom and I`s insane bike ride on Ometepe island invaded my mind. Every few minutes a waterfall flowed down the cliff and over the road; our bikes crashed through the invading rivers and spewed water on our backs.

The bike ride ended in Santa Maria, a small mountain town which I`m sure is quite dependent on passing Macchu Picchu tours. To be honest, I really had no idea what to expect on this trek- I was sort of picturing tents, hard core biking, roughing it, grueling uphill climbs. Lunch was the next shock. We ate at a very fancy restaurant overlooking the jungly valley and were served an entrada of soup, a drink, and a fancy beef and potato dish. So this is where my money was going. And that is how we ate for the next four days.

We were supposed to go rafting next, but the group decided against it, and I couldn`t be the only rafter, so I went along. We got back into the van. I was a pain. "Why are we driving? Why don`t we just walk?" I desperately needed to move my muscles. With the sedentary jungle tour, I had been sitting around for more than a week. I thought "jungle trek" might have something to do with trekking.

The van stopped at a path winding up into the cliffs and we got out for the final piece foir the day- only a 30 minute climb, but very steep. We climbed stairs to rise back above the river valley as the sun lowered, and the leaves around us glowed a soft orange. Our goal was a cluster of houses cinging to the jungly hill ahead, the house and small farm of a family our guide knows.

The agency I'm with differes from others because we stay with host families along the trail isntead of in hostels in town. In this way, they provide sustainable tourism- the beneficiaries of tourism should be the local people whose land we pass through, so the agency gives money to the agriculturos along our way. The farming these mountani-jungle people practice is simply to bring in enough food to survive; they could do well with some extra cash. So us trekkers and them maintain a good simbiotic relationship.

Their house, our home for the night, was awesome. It`s an extremely cool combination of typical mountain dwelling and typical jungle dwelling: The main house is the classic adobe and red tiles, two stories, but on the wooden porch hangs a jaguar skin and jungle crafts dangle. The dining shelter is round with a connical thatched roof exactly the style in the jungle. On the wooden beams hang coati and raccoion skins, next to which perched a wild parrot.

When we arrived I was not done hiking. Our guide "Amoroso" ("if that`s too hard to pronounce, you can call me ´mi amor´,") announced that if we felt like it, we could hike around on the trails surrounding the house. But- we werent allowed to go alone, because there were "snakes, tarantulas, poisonous worms, anacondas, and aliens." I was the only one who wanted to keep hiking- our group was a bunch of potatoes. I told the guide I was going alone. "No you`re not. The snakes can smell a woman because they know women won`t kill snakes; they`ll find you and bite you." Hmm.

I climbed up the hill, the trail we were to take the next day. I wasn`t paying a guide to babysit me. I was starting back down when I ran into the mom of the family we were staying with. She waved me over. "We`re going down to collect firewood. Come along!" COOL! She was acompanied by her little 5 year old son and the dog. We started down the side of the cliff through little sloped plots of corn, coffee, and cacao. Leafy, luscious platano and banana trees, potato plants, green been trees, mandarin and mango. The ambiguous greenery around us revealed itself to be an incredible variety of produce, and a real, although disorganized, functioning farm.

The variety of crops gown in the fertile mountian soil is astounding. There are 2,000 variets of potatoes alone, and 500 types of corn. We passed by a platform I`d seen before in other communities; a round stone laid sab ringed by a low stone wall. It`s where they prepare the coffee beans. The woman demonstrated, picking the bright red coffee berries of the trees around us and tossing them onto the stone to dry. As they dry they turn brown; then they`re peeled and sold in town.

I asked about the sloped plots- aren`t they hard to plant and sew? She explained that the grade actually makes the farming easier: Campaseños working on flat land have to hunker over their fields, breaking their backs; mountain farmers can stand nearly upright as they work.

I was having so much fun I didn`t realize I was being punished for wandering off. Our guide had told the woman to fetch me and make me collect firewood; she had actually gone looking for me. When we got to the firewood pile she only had one carrying cloth so I carried one lone log up to the house. Sins repented. I dropped off the log, turned around, and walked back up to the viewpoint. I never was bitten by a poisonus worm, but I did see the biggest, fattest, gnarliest catepillars I`ve ever seen in neon colors, spikes and stripes.

Chicken and rice for dinner, and bed. Our room was nicer than any hostel I`ve stayed in, and I fell asleep quickly despite the chattering of the five english girls around me. I drifted off musing that maybe my frustration came from jealousy- it was my first trek without friends, and I felt pretty alone. Groups traveling together are very hard break in to, the Frenchies spoke french, and the Englishman liked his silence. My positive attitude about making friends on the trek was waning.

We awoke to a valley blue with dawn and pooling around the river was a small sea of dense white fog. It reminded me of the fog that collected with Cosiguina's crater, an earthbound cloud. In this case, the condensation is due to warm Amazon air that travels up the river adn emits steam in teh cool morning air. As the day warms. the fog evaporates and reveals the river again. The river we have been following eventually becomes the Ucuyali, which with the Maranon becomes the Rio Amazona. Thus the humid breezes are channeled through the valleys directly from the depths of the river basin.

We feasted on a luxurious breakfast under our jungle shelter- bread and jam, omelets, maracuya juice and coffee, and sweet potatoes (probably the 578th variety I've tried of Peru's 2,000 varieties of potato). We started walking around 7, up the trail I'd climbed the night before.  The "jungle trail" we walked on was made and used by the Incas, just like the "real Inca trail". It was discovered about 7 years ago and since has become an alternative trek for those unwilling to pay the 500 dollars required for the Inca trail.

When the Spaniards came to Peru, they seemed pull the names "Inga", then "Inca" or "Inka" out of thin air; no one knows the indigenous empire's true name. We do know that they spoke the language Quechua. Today, 2-3% of Peruvians still speak the language; most mountain people still learn it as their first language. Our guide's first language was Quechua; I asked him to teach me hello and goodbye and he told me that because of the unique mentality of the mountain people, those words don't exist. Instead of saying the impersonal and pretensive hello, Quechua people ask how you are. Instead of goodbye, they say "see you soon". In such small familiar communities, I suppose the sentiment would actually be true. The name "Peru" is not Quechua. It comes from the "Biru river" in Northern Peru, which the Spaniards misunderstood, misopronounced and thus named the country.

We climbed to the top of a small jungly mountain and ahead of us the mountain Slacntay, meaning "Forever wild", appeared in the distance. I don't think there are many places where you can see a snowcapped 6,000 meter mountain through a frame of tropical flowers and banana leaves. In the Andes, the snowline is at 5,000 meters; because we are so close to the equator, the temperatures are higher at altitude. In Europe, the snow line is around 3,000 meters. Directly on the equator, the snowline is nonexistent: in Indonesia, there is a 5,000 meter mountain devoid of any snow.

We hiked the stone steps of an old Inca trail until we reached a house where we took a rest; I think our guide just wanted to chat with his friend that lived there. I went into the house to talk to them too. Inside the shady house, the floor was made of ancient looking crude stone slabs. A spot of light played on a white baby guinnea pig: it cleaned its soft glowing fur, tiny round body curled into a ball. All around, dozens of bigger guinnea pigs putted around the room, white, black, gray, brown- all waiting to be eaten.

Their land was breathtakingly gorgeous; an adobe house sits nestled within thick leafy foliage, banana trees, and bright tropical flowers in pinks, purples and yellows. All around span green and blue mountains and cliffs; the river rushes far below in the canyon.

There are 7 families living in the community: there used to be 16. Many move to the city, to Cusco, fior a better education for their children, for an easier way of life. The woman of the house explained that in Quechua culture, there are three rules of life: to want, to work, and to learn. If you want something, you have to work for it. When you work, you learn. Children in the village walk an hour uphill to get to school (and when I say uphill I really mean uphill- basically vertical). They begin working at age seven.

In the 80's and the 90's, gangs from the cities invaded the mountain communioties with then intent of robbing them- their open door lifestyle makes them easier to rob than a bank. They went from house to house, demanding money, and then when it wasn't handed over, killing the adults. The army was called to deal with the problem; they arrived with their guns ready to kill the terrorists, and when from house to house asking if anyone had seen them. When families couldn't give a lead, the military shot the adults. This left many children orphans, with no food to eat. A procession of children marched from the moutnain communities down into the cities, where they were taken in.

Naturally, the disaster caused many families to move to the cities, and during the 80's and 90's, the populations of Cusco, Arequipa and other mountain cities increased drastically. The sweet woman explaining all this to me went on to say that she could never leave her moutnain home; the pure air, the simple life, the naturaleza bellisima... the mountain people I've met have been extremely friendly and open, adn seem to have a wonderful philosophy and outlook on life. I'm becoming really interested in the quechua people and how they live; I would really like to come back and live with a host family in the mountains for a while.

As we continued down the surrounding green became more and more tropical and jungly and began to remind me more and more of Nicaragua. We stopped in another small town for lunch: soup and shagetti with guinnea pig- I treid not to think of the baby one I was watching an hour before. We are truly being treated like kings on this trek. We were allowed an hour long siesta in hammocks strung under a tin roof lean to, nestled amont the banana leaves and flowers.

The rest of the day was hot, sweaty and exposed, through the open river valley. We stopped often to rest which was frustrating, but got to cross the river twice- once over a swinging bridge and once along a cable car. We passed through fields of coca leaves: Amoroso explained that coca leaves, although not listed in the ingredients, are the secret ingredient in coca cola and the key to coca cola's unique flavor. Of course, coca leaves are also used to make cocaine, but are only a small part of the chemical process.

Unfortunately, the campasenos who grow the coca leaves are repetedly blamed for Peru's cocaine problems by the government. The mountain people don't use cocaine; according to Amoroso they hardly drink either, they practice a pure Quechua lifestyle. The dirty handed are the buyers, dealers and manufacturers in the city, and of course the gringos who buy the cocaine in Peru (yes, this is surprisingly common among travelers). A campaseno knows exactly what's going on when a shady Cusceno shows up in the fields and demands to buy the entire field of coca leaves for triple the price the farmer could get by selling it himself in Cusco.

 But if a farmer refuses, you know what happens. The same thing that happened when they couldn't give the gangsters some cash. So thus the cycle continues. On top of that, Quechua mountian people have to deal with racism in the cities. There are various darogatory terms for them, most popular being Serano (man of the sierra/mountains). It's obvious who's come to the city from the high plains from their imperfect spanish: mountain people don't learn Castallano until they start school; their primary language is Quechua. Amoroso as well- of course I couldn't tell, but he admitted that his spanish grammar is far from perfect.

Around 3:30 we arrived at the famous hotsprings of Santa Teresa. They're big, stone rimmed pools with pebble floors,  nestled up between the cliff and the rushing river. It's a beautiful palce, tranquil and carved out of the land. We had two hours. I actually mde an effor to talk to the English girls, went over and sat with them and gave a friendly greeting, and their response was to immediately request that I watch their stuff while they go shower. (Oh gee, how I'd love to! I was about to offer exactly that, that's why I came over!) I refused and then stole their shampoo. Fortunately I ran into two friends from PSF, in the middle of the Salcantay trek. They commenced to rave and rave about how amazing and hard core it was and how much fun they were having and how accomplished they felt. Great. Now I wished I had done Salcantay.

The next part of the journey was an option of walk a couple hours or bus to Santa Teresa; of course I wanted to walk. I sat and shared a beer and a laugh with the Frenchies while we waited for the ok to go, and we complained about the lack of actual trekking on the trek. French humor is unique, adorable and hilarious. In regards to the situation, they taught me a useful French phrase: "Nous devez etre burre."

Santa Teresa was unremarkable but our gourmet meal was augmented with chocolate covered bananas for desert, and fruit and granola for breakfast, so I definitely did not complain.

The next day was Ziplining. I'd nver gone ziplining before, so I had no idea what to expect. We drove to the ziplining headquarters, where about 75 other trekkers were congregated from different groups and agencies. There were six ziplines of varying lengths and speeds (the longest being 400 meters and the fastest 65 km/hr), extending far, far above the river valley and the jungle from one cliffside to the other. From below, it looked pretty scary. I was one of the first to go, and with my harness clipped into the zipline standing on the edge, it looked absolutely terrifyling.

It wasn't. I swung over the dense foliage below and sailed along at a controllable pace, watching the jungle beneath. The scariest part was coming in fast to the end (forgot to break). Nice, but not the adrenaline rush I expected. The funnest line was the last, where we were permitted to go upsidedown and spin around and lay out flat hands free. I ended up finally making friends, with an Isreali dude who agreed to head up to Huaraz with me later and do the seven day Huaywash trek; he promised to teach me what it is to be Israeli.

Lunch was in a cute restaurant along the famous train tracks to Macchu Picchu, which we would walk along for the rest of the day. You could actually see part of Macchu Picchu from that spot, peeking over the mountain. Our walk along the tracks to Aguas Calientes (the extremely touristy town directly beneath Macchu Pcchu that's comprised entirely of hotels, restaurants adn giftshops) was three hours, and one of the nicest. We were bathed in a green shade, and through the banana leaves and across the river the hills rose and rose and rose, towers carpeted in a dense jungle shag rug. It's unbeleivable how the viny trees are able to cling to their verticle ground, their fuzzy emerald skyscrapers.

Ruins on the last low part on the right

We were following the Urubamba river valley. the same valley which Hiram Bingham traveled along when he "discovered" Macchu Picchu in 1911. Not sure if 'discovered' is the right word though- like us, he spotted the first of the Macchu Picchu's stone steps cascading over the mountain top and asked a local farmer what it was. Having been there (hence my hesitation to use the word 'discover'), the farmer gave him directions to the top, where Bingham apparently found a family living among the ancient walls and graphiti from a mule driver. The city was wildly overgrown as well; today, a tree is planted in one of Macchu Picchu's courtyards to exemplify the height of the vegetation at the time of its discovery.

Aguas Calientes appeared out of nowhere in a garish splash of colorful hotels. It's bigger than I expected, a long strip in a crescent following the S shaped river that snakes around the tall green mountains. We had about three hours until diunner again, so I went to the aguas calientes of Aguas Calientes, the hotsprings, to pass the time.

And then the moment I had been waiting for over the last three days, the real deal, the World Wonder of Macchu Picchu. We woke up at 4. The chorus of about 15 alarms began at 3:45 in a round of varying ringtones, singing throughout our cluster of rooms in the stanky hostel. It was exciting- we put on warm clothes and walked to cue up by the entrance gate under the bright blanket of stars to await for its 5:00 opening. I was literally skipping.

As soon as the gates opened, it was a race. I ran up the steps. In total the steps number roughly 2,000 from the river to the ancient Incan capitol, and they're tall. The whole way was a tunnel of pitch black forest. It's supposed to take an hour and a half, but I could not make myself stop (despite asthmatic wheezing) and made it in 40 ish. The record is 16 minutes.

I had heard that the best time to see the city is during sunrise, so I raced the sun, not realizing that we obviously wouldnt be greeted by the typpical colorful sunrise; the horizon is far, far below Macchu Picchu. It was more of a subtle gray lightening of the sky. As soon as the gates opened, we barged in and without barely giving the magestic city a glimpse, sprinted to the guard tower (the highest point within the city) to get a picture of the city without tourists inside.

I wandered around for an hour or so and managed to miss the first half of the official tour. I found them around 7:30 and tried to pay attention, but the thing is, nobody really knows the origins of Macchu Picchu. The most popular theories are that the city was the capitol of the Incan empire (it is the largest and most central ruins among 180 scattered throughout the area), or that it was simply a rich Incan's resort. Other theories insist that it was a religious center, an agricultural testing site (they could have tried out different crops in the small terraced field and gardens), a prison, or an outpost for the coronation of kings.

Therefore, when Amoroso insisted that one room was the "dining room" and another the "prayer chamber", I couldn't help but harbor suspicions. Nevermind its function, the city is stunning. It is just like all the picture's you've seen, and we lucked out with perfect weather. Brilliant green courtyard scascade down in terraced steps, stone houses ring the periphery, temples rise in the center and a "sacred rock", said to hold magic energy within the quartz, sits in the center.

you can just barely see the rainbow flag...

But by far the best part of the day was what followed. You may have heard of the mountain Huayna Picchu, the emerald pinnacle rising directly above the city like something out of the city of Oz. From the top of the mountain, you have the classic overhead view of Macchu Picchu, and any tourist capable of making the extra climb buys a Huayna Picchu ticket. They run out fast though, and when I made my reservation there were no spaces left.So I bought a ticket for the lesser known mountain Macchu Picchu, a bigger mountain farther back from the city.

I'm convinced it was 100 times better then Huayna Picchu. I climbed up with Nir, my Israeli buddy. It was a repitition of the climb to the city, another 2,000 steps, and even steeper. By then it was hot out and we were sweating and struggling. Below, we watched Macchu Picchu recede smaller and smaller below us.

At the top, a giant rainbow flag waved in the breeze. It's not the gay pride flag, but the flag of Cusco- it simply symbolized the legacy of the Incan empire. We sat on a perfectly placed rock at the edge of the cliff overlooking Macchu Picchu, and were blasted by perhaps the most beautiful view I've seen in my life. We stayed on Macchu Picchu mountain for 5 hours.

Below us, you could see the vast layout of the moutains. I realized that the beauty of Macchu Picchu is not the city itself, but its context; the aesthetic folds of the land in which it is placed. I'm sure the Incas selected that exact spot for the natural curvature of the land; I'm sure they scoured the surrounding mountians for miles to finally land on this particular location. The hills rise, fall, and curve around the stones like a sculpture of the most skilled sculpter.

Macchu Picchu sits on a pinnacle in the very center of a vast bowl of moutains. They're arranged in thin green wall-like layers cupping the city like the petals of a rose, lined up spiraling inwards with the river snaking in valleys between- the Urubamba river's exaggerated S shape hugs Macchu Picchu and Huayna Picchu in its contours. Within the crescent Huayna Picchu rises in a verticle cascading spiral. From the hollow center, jungly traees spill out like the fruit of a cornicopia.

Macchu Picchu is a slanted triangle next to the mountain, and to its other side a smaller mountain creates another coil; another rainbow flag waves at its summit. The three complete the spiraling center of the rose. The petals are perfect verticle trialgles just like a saw (hence the word 'sierra'), layered sharp points, a deep green washed in the sky's aqua blue. And above it all, white capped mountins form a diamond lip like the salted edge of a martini glass.

A picture could never, ever do the scene justice. In the rose bowl of the moutnains, an energy seemed to eminate and wash over us. I was caught in a spell. We stetched a bit after the climb, then just sat and gazed at the scene below for five hours. It felt like one. I even took a nap on the sun soaked rock. I just could not leave. Sitting on the warm rock, bathed in sun, the greens and blues below filled me with the warmest energy I may have ever felt.

So all my pics off the top were in the nice cameras internal memory, which had to be deleted in order to get rid of the virus. sorry... 

In the last hour, a vivid movie flashed in my mind in a montauge, cut by instants of reality- the breeze belw my hair across my face in a gust, the rainbow flag creaked in the wind like a sailboat's mast, the turquoise mountains glowed below- it was like heaven, like the last scene in Into the Wild as he's dying and his memories and the sky throb in an intense sequence.

The guard on the mountian had to kick us out three times, because I literally couldn't leave; it was like breaking up with someone. Finally we walked down an hour after the mountain was supposed to close and hours after the last tourists had gone back down. Nir and I walked down both mountiains (no one actually does that, everyone just takes the bus, but I figured that if we made it up the natural way we might as well finish the job).

We got back to Aguas Calientes around 5 and had a loooong extended dinner until our train at nine. I didn't get back to Cusco until 1:30 AM, but I was happy; the trek had gotten off to a frustrating start, but the last day made everything worth the (lack of) sweat.

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