Peru, part 15
Paul and I walk to the main square of Ollantaytambo but just before reaching the square we encounter our first group of festival participants. They are decked out in glittering outfits but aren’t wearing their masks. Several of the men are walking down a side street so Paul and I follow them as we are hoping for a photo-op. It suddenly dawns on me the reason for this side trip and I turn around and walk back to the main street. Paul however continues trailing them and it isn’t until he has taken a photo of the group that he realizes that the group was on a bathroom break. How embarrassing!
We reach the main square and the sight of the dazzling garbed dancers is something to behold. Each group dresses in unique costumes and masks as they cluster along the edge of the street waiting for the parade to begin. Musicians playing flutes, drums and some instruments unfamiliar to me accompany each group. There are two beautifully clothed little girls performing an impromptu dance to the delight of tourists and natives alike. Vendors somehow find spots along the crowded street to grill meat which adds a delicious aroma to the energy charged air. Some troupes are a mix of men, women and children while other groups are strictly men. The masks the people wear include decorated ski masks or factory made masks with oversized features such as long noses or enormous lips. As Paul and I watch the little girls dancing one of the men wearing a mask with large lips prances over to me and with a flourishing bow takes my hand and “kisses” it. Paul is laughing so hard he didn’t get a photo of the debonair fellow pressing those fake lips to my hand.
When the parade of dancers begin performing it is obvious that each group has put in a lot of time rehearsing their routines. The dancing is excellent but Paul and I agree that our favorite performers are the men dressed in long-tailed coats wearing masks with Pinocchio-like noses. Their enthusiasm is catching and the extra pizzazz they put into their dance makes them stand out among their peers. The true crowd pleaser are the children particularly the little ones who try to mimic the grownups. Many of the tots do a good job of dancing, while others are overcome with awe of the pageantry surrounding them.
Darkness is falling when the reason for the celebration, the town’s patron saint, is presented to the crowd. Sixteen costumed men carry the elaborately decorated litter on their shoulder where a banner honoring El Senor de Choquekilla sits atop a miniature altar. The parade of the patron saint subdues the mood of the crowd but once the litter bearers finish the circuit around the square the performers once again begin whirling and parading through the town square.
Paul and I are hungry so choose to eat at a wood fire pizza place. We ate a pizza prepared this way in Puno and loved the taste. While waiting for our pizza pie I am reviewing the photos on my camera when I realize a husky boy is trying to see them too. I smile at him and move my camera over so he can get a better view. His dramatic verbal response, which I can’t understand, is always the same for every photo. I can’t stop my laughter when his eyes grow big and he enthusiastically repeats the same phrase for each photo. When I come to the end of the pictures my young friend begins to mime out characters of the parade for me which brings more laughter from Paul and me. This kid is a character.
Although it would have been fun to stay for the fireworks we only know that they are shot off some time after midnight. The time frame is too vague for us so we decide to call it a night and walk the dark street back to our hotel. We were told the dance troupes will take turns dancing until dawn. Wow, I can’t imagine the energy a person must have for this all night celebration.
We are up at six a.m. and it is another gorgeous day. After eating breakfast we have time to explore the town before our train leaves. We see one tired-looking, troupe of dancers leading a procession of villagers towards the town square but other than that the costumed revelers are few and far between. We admire the Inca stonework throughout the village and enjoy watching the people who are going about their daily lives. An old man carrying a heavy load on his back, a handsome young fellow in his festival costume perhaps on his way home, tethered pigs and cattle in the backyards of some houses, a simple but beautiful church gracing the edge of the town. It is quiet and peaceful on this Sunday morning and not another tourist is in sight, it pays to get up and out early.
Paul and I return to the hotel, gather up our backpacks and check out of the El Albergue. We literally step outside the hotel door to board the train at ten a.m. I have a great window seat that looks over the river and though Paul’s seat is across the aisle he joins me once we are underway as no one is sitting next to me. There are wonderful rural scenes along the way and best of all we see three men working a field with oxen pulling a wooden shaft plow. We have seen the plows but not the actual use of the old plows.
When we arrive at Machu Picchu a young man from Inkaterra, the hotel where we are staying is waiting for us. He leads us to the hotel which proves to be top-notch from the beautiful rooms to the stunning grounds. When we check in we find that they have upgraded us from the cheapest room to a Jr. suite replete with a fireplace! We have no idea why this was done but we sure aren’t going to argue about it. After settling in we wander the trails that meander through the hotel grounds. We run into the professional photographers who were at The Amazonian and later the couple from New York that were at Manu. They have already been to Machu Picchu and both groups give the ruins rave reviews. We make our way to the pool and settle into lounge chairs to watch hummingbirds sipping nectar at feeders as we nibble on the refreshments provided for us hotel guests. Life is so tough here:). There are 120 species of hummingbirds in Peru, we saw 22 of them.
Our inclusive dinner is at 6 p.m. and there are a variety of starters (appetizers), main course and desserts to choose from. I opt for the beef tenderloin on mashed potatoes, Paul chooses the pork tenderloin and both meals are delicious. Even though I couldn’t finish my main course I still order a hot fudge sundae for dessert, described in the menu as a delightful, messy treat. The description is perfect as the dessert arrives in a tall glass full of ice cream and brownies with thick chocolate fudge encasing the outside of the glass. It is fun to eat and I devour every last spoonful. Our guide came to introduce himself just before our meal. Victor Hugo is his name and he tells us he will fetch us at the hotel tomorrow morning at 5:30 a.m. so we can arrive at the ruins by sunrise.
I knew eating all that chocolate last night was a mistake as I woke up at 2 a.m. this morning. Oh well, my gluttony was worth the short night’s sleep. We eat breakfast at 5 a.m. and pick up the sack lunches we ordered from the restaurant last night. It is a ridiculous amount of food and we wish we had just had them fix one lunch especially since the box lunches cost 15 dollars apiece. That is a pretty stiff price for a cold lunch. We stuff a couple of sandwiches, chips and sweets in Paul’s day pack and put the rest of the food in our big packs for supper tonight. We check out of our rooms at the receptionist desk but leave our backpacks with them. Victor Hugo arrives on time and we walk to the bus terminal to join the line of tourists waiting to board the buses for Machu Picchu.
We are not on the first bus to leave by any means but we still get to Machu Picchu before the sun rises above the mountain peaks. As we drive the road, which is a series of switchbacks, we catch the first glimpse of Machu Picchu about half way up the mountain. The sight of this ancient city growing out of the mountain top is jaw dropping. The other ruins we have been to were impressive but Machu Picchu is in a class of its own. I wasn’t the only one on the bus that let an involuntary gasp escape.
Once off the bus, we join the long line of tourists waiting to hand their tickets over to the gate keepers. When we enter the archeological park, Victor suggests we walk through the ruins first as most tourists climb up to the watch tower and wait for the sun to appear above the mountain peaks. We agree with Victor and know we have made the right decision as we watch hundreds of people snaking their way up the trail to await the sun. There are very few other groups touring the astounding ruins so there is no peering around or over other people in order to see all the incredible buildings, sacred areas and tremendous vistas. I can’t even begin to describe this wonderful Inca city and will join the chorus of folks who say Machu Picchu is a must see place.
Victor might be a small man, (I feel like an Amazon next to him) but he is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to Machu Picchu and the Inca. He points out the stone replica the Inca made of the Southern Cross. He shows us a stone in one of the walls which archaeologists removed so they could count the angles the Incas cut to make it fit perfectly, thirty-two angles! He describes the various stone buildings and the purpose of the many unique things that we are seeing. Victor talks about the incredible things the Inca did during their short reign over this part of the world including building 30,000 miles of rock-paved roads. Not only did they build the roads but they shored up the mountainsides with rocks to prevent landslides from destroying the roads. Again I ask myself how in the world did the Inca do all this, a people with no written language and had not discovered the wheel.
We have our own tremendous sunrise experience as we are standing in front of a line of buildings sitting atop several terraces. A perfect shadow of the structure is projected on the grass as the sunrays light up the mountain peaks. The throngs of people high above us erupt into cheers the instant the sun peeks above the mountain crest, its rays lighting up the ancient city. It is an awe-inspiring event. We are nearly finished with our tour as the horde of sun worshipers begin to descend into the city of Machu Picchu. Holy Smokes I am glad we were contrarian in our decision on how to tour this wonderful place.
Victor leaves us now as he has another group to bring up for an afternoon tour. Paul and I thank and tip him for giving us such a great tour. We walk to the path that leads to the guard-house and find ourselves following a large group of tourists. Some of the people trying to hike the steep trail are struggling due to age, weight and one woman even has a knee that doesn’t flex, perhaps she has a brace on. There is one point where the challenged group stops to rest so Paul and I are able to pass by them. I admire their tenacity but the people who must help drag them up the rough trail sure have a tough job. Once we reach the summit Paul and I sit down near the watch tower and soak in the view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding landscape. We are sharing this high point with a few people instead of the hundreds that were here an hour ago.
The sun is high overhead and the heat is cranking up. Despite the temperature Paul and I proceed to hike to the sun gate and the road we are walking is part of the original Inca trail. The stone path has a steady but gradual incline though in a few places we have to clamber up steep steps. All in all the worst part of the hike is the heat but there are shady spots where we can stop for a few minutes to cool down. Machu Picchu itself sits at just over 8,000 feet so I have had no problems with altitude at all. As Paul and I approach the enormous vertical stones of the sun gate a half-dozen youngsters lounging on the walls begin clapping and offering encouragement to us. Hey, I know we look ancient to these young whippersnappers but we certainly aren’t gasping for breath plus we are striding out as we approach the finish line. We aren’t really offended by the kids and acknowledge their applause with smiles and waves. The view of Machu Picchu from here gives a whole other perspective of the ancient city and the hour hike to reach the sacred gate was totally worth doing. The temperature continues to rise and on our way back down we meet several people who are really struggling with the climb and heat. Most ask us how much farther the sun gate is and many are dejected when we have to tell some of them that they are only halfway to their destination. We encourage them to continue as the view is worth the effort. When we reach the watch tower we sit down on a terrace, our legs dangling over the edge, to eat our lunch and enjoy the atmosphere of this unique place.
After we finish eating, we take a bus back to Aguas Caliente. Upon leaving the bus we have walked several blocks when a young man runs up to us and asks if we have lost a camera. I confidently pat my camera case and I feel my face drain of blood as I touch an empty bag! The young guide and his client explain that they noticed the camera lying on a bus seat and remembered that I was carrying a big camera case. Talk about being observant and extremely honest. He tells me that they left it with the bus station people as they went to search for us. I am in panic mode and immediately turn back for the station at a fast walk. The fit young man tells me to slow down that the camera is safe and not to worry. My adrenalin is flowing much too strongly to follow his advice. When we get to the bus depot the Peruvian man talks to the people he left the camera with and to my deep relief they hand my camera over. I profusely thank the guide and young woman with him for their honesty and for tracking us down. Paul hands the guide 20 soles which he accepts and as we part company my hero advises me to be more careful with my camera. I smile and agree that indeed I will. I still am not sure how the camera was left behind. I often leave the latch of the camera case unhooked so I can remove the camera quickly if a photo opportunity arises. I would guess that when we stood up to get off the bus, the case tipped on its side when I hoisted it to my shoulder and silently dumped the camera on the seat. On our walk back to the hotel I occasionally touch my camera bag to remind myself how lucky I am to still have my camera!