Monday, March 7, 2011

Machu Picchu & The Amazon

Machu Picchu!  How does one describe the wonder that is Machu Picchu?  I think it’s nearly impossible to capture the full experience through words alone, but I’ll try.  I had always heard of Machu Picchu but didn’t really know what or where it was, and then learned a little more when my cousin went there a few years ago, but I still had no idea what to expect.  And because I had no expectations, it made it even more remarkable! 
We hiked up to Machu Picchu and were met at the top by llamas.  It appeared that they had been planted there to make the visit more authentic, but they were just wandering around their home territory.  We arrived so early in the morning that there was still a thick fog hanging over most of Machu Picchu itself and the surrounding mountains. 
While we waited for the fog to clear we headed towards The Inca Bridge on a very narrow pathway with a steep drop off on one side.  The Inca Bridge itself is closed to the public due, I’m sure, to the safety risk.  The views from here were incredible with the mountainsides and trees partially visible amidst the clouds.  The mountainside across the way looked as though it had been sliced down the middle to show its vertical streaks that ran tan, brown, gray and white.  

By the time we returned to the entrance gate for our guided tour the fog had lifted and Machu Picchu was visible in all its glory!  The site itself was breathtaking!  And huge!  The village, I guess you would call it, was such a vast expanse that it was difficult to take it all in at once.  Take what you see on the postcards of Machu Picchu, multiply that by about 5, throw in some gorgeous mountains, valleys and rivers below and then you can come close to imagining what Machu Picchu is like!  Every angle provides more amazing views.   2011 marks 100 years since it was discovered by Hiram Bringham.  When he found it it was covered by trees and vegetation so thick that it’s surprising they found it.  It’s held up surprisingly well given that thousands of people tromp all over it day after day.  One day, however, it will be closed to the public and will only be visible from above via plane or helicopter.  It’s sad, but necessary to preserve this wonderful place.  The Incas really had it figured out here, way up high on the top of a mountain complete with three sections – residential, urban and agricultural. 

I had the opportunity to hike up Wayna Picchu, the huge mountain that is seen behind Machu Picchu, and was going to until the guide told us that it was a 70 degree incline and steps all the way!  We opted instead for the hike up to the Sun Gate which was at a 30 degree incline and was mostly flat pathways.  The Sun Gate is the first point at which you would see Machu Picchu had you been hiking the Inca Trail.  Imagine after 4 days of hiking how amazing it must be to reach that point and see this other world.  We hiked up the path, stopping a couple of times along the way to catch our breath.  The hike was challenging yet invigorating and provided gorgeous views at the same time.  At one point on the trail I encountered a llama just grazing along the side of the path.  It was clear that this was his mountain and if he wanted to make any sudden moves I had better get out of his way, and unfortunately the only way out of his way would have been off the side of the mountain.  Luckily he didn’t move as I passed him!  Finally at the top I looked down on Machu Picchu to take in the enormity of it all at once.  Wow!
There is an intricate system to the Inca world that shows where they had villages.  There was not an Incan Kingdom or Empire; it was actually more of a democracy, similar to the United States.  In the region that we’re in Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu are three of the four villages that exist.  They know from studying their history that there is a fourth village relatively close to these three which they’re in the process of trying to discover.  So interesting!
The Amazon!  How does one describe the wonder of The Amazon?  Due to fog, a closed airport and a cancelled flight we got to the Amazon a day later than was scheduled and only got to spend less than one day there.  I could have easily stayed for a week or maybe longer.  We arrived in Puerto Maldonado and took a bus to the river where we boarded a long, skinny covered boat that was close to the water level.  The wide river was a muddy brown color and very calm on the surface but you could tell that there was a strong current underneath.  I imagined myself on a nature show on the Discovery channel as we peacefully floated up the river.  I actually thought of none other than the late great Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter, trolling these waters for crocs!  There were turtles sunning themselves on a log while a butterfly sat perched on their backs.  Seven macaws – yes macaws - flew by.   It was amazing to see birds with such vibrant colors as those set against the backdrop of a bright blue sky out in the wild.  Up on the banks of the river we saw a capybara which is the largest rodent in the world and looks like a cross between a rat, mole and guinea pig and is about the size of a full size pig.
Our lodge was deep in the heart of the jungle in a rustic, gorgeous setting!  Our guide, Julian, took us on a hike through the jungle that was one of the single most awesome things I’ve done.  The paths were muddy (Remember  the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Ed Rooney is snooping around the outside of Ferris’ house and he steps in the mud and loses his shoe and then pulls it out of the mud? It looks exactly like that!), the trees were lush and green and the sounds were incredible.  I saw red howler monkeys swinging from tree to tree, toucans perched high above us, a very large hairy black tarantula, a parade of carrier ants proudly carrying large pieces of leaves and many other insects.  

We climbed a 120 foot high tower that took us up above the highest of the trees.  As we approached the top the tower began to sway a bit but was much steadier on the top platform which was pretty small for 9 of us!  We watched as the sun set in a beautifully colored sky.  As far as you could see were trees, a few sticking up taller than the others, and I could see the river far off in the distance.   Gorgeous!  Stunning!  Unbelievable!  As I descended the tower a monarch butterfly flew in and out of the tower and fluttered around enough to make me think I could capture it in a photograph but it eluded me.  Back at the lodge after our hike that stretched into the night I looked up at the sky and was in awe of the spectacularly star-filled sky.  It looked like one of those paintings of a starry night that you don’t think could possibly be real because there’s just too much going on.  It is in fact real, and it exists in Peru!
In the evening I relaxed in my hammock in my room listening to the symphony of frogs, monkeys, wild pigs, birds and crickets while writing in my journal about the day’s events by candlelight.  Pure heaven!  My room was open on one side to the jungle and the doorway was also open to the elements covered only by overlapping canvas sheets.  In the corridor leading up to my room was a staircase down to the jungle floor, practically welcoming jaguars, pumas and anything else into my room!  I did have a visitor around 2:30am.  I heard chirping and scurrying and I shot up in bed and flashed my torch in the corner just in time to see a big ol’ nasty rat crawl through a hole in the wall and jump down onto my daypack.  I scared it away, but it returned a few minutes later as if to say “This is MY jungle and I will go where I please!”  Around 3am it started raining and there is nothing better than the sound of rain in the jungle combined with the animal noises.  What serenity!  We ended our trip with a 5:30am hike through even more of the jungle.  I love it!

(More Amazon pics coming soon - technical difficulties!)

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