We arrived in Cuzco very late at night, meandering our way through narrow cobblestone streets via taxi, but the nicest lady, Maria, our Senora, woke up for us and put us to bed. Every time we came and went, we were greeted with hugs and huge smiles. We were very appreciative of the warm beds and hot showers. The rest of our time in Peru, we used her hostel as our base and left our stuff there when we went to Machu Picchu and the jungle and kept coming back and sleeping there and leaving early and coming back again. Maria helped us figure out how to get tickets, where to go to nice dinners, and just generally she was so very nice and pleasant.
After talking with Maria and discussing amongst ourselves, we decided we wanted to stay two nights in Aguas Caliente, the touristy town that everyone has to pass through to get up to the ruins of Macchu Picchu. We went to bus stations, tourist offices, etc. to plan the trip on our own, and it paid off financially. We also knew we had to take the train there from Ollantaytambo because all the tickets from Cuzco were sold out. So we had to get from Cuzco to the outlying town of Ollantaytambo somehow. We took a local bus to a town called Chinchero, walked around it, saw some more ruins, and went shopping. And then we got a cab from that town to Ollantaytambo, where we would catch the train for Aguas Caliente. Yes, it was a bit confusing, but we actually managed the little adventure quite easily: because we kinda knew what we were doing, the locals kinda knew what we were doing, and our collective Spanish was good enough to get us through.
And the ruins at Ollantaytambo were amazing. That's where the picture of the guy's face in the rock is from and it was an enormous structure, much bigger than Machu Picchu, but it's not on a peak of a mountain like Machu Picchu is. This is why we were happy to leave our stuff with Maria for a few days; we couldn't have done all that moving around if we had our big packs with us. So we had day packs with just a change of clothes and toothbrush and stuff. Incidentally, the guy’s face in the mountain is indicative of many Incan legends. In their stories, famous events are commemorated by a principal character turning to stone or another object in the region of the story so that the story is remembered and so that there is a continual witness to events in that region.
When we got to Aguas Caliente, it was very late, but we had made a reservation at a small tourist hotel. When we got there, they brought us to 2 other hotels on the street, and we were not sure what was happening. We were very happy though, when they finally showed us a room with a balcony overlooking the rushing river and green cliffs. Claire was not feeling well, so she just was happy to go to sleep! Thankfully she felt better in the morning in time for our trip to Machu Pichu. Jeff, Laurie, and I stayed up playing poker and drinking a little beer. Laurie is becoming quite the poker fiend and ended up taking our money. The next morning, we took the bus up to the peak from Aguas Caliente, the town below, and just wandered around the ruins of Machu Picchu (Picchu means "Peak" in Quechua, by the way). After the whole day of walking up and down the Incan steps at nearly 13000 feet altitude, our breaths were taken away in more ways than one! But those Incas sure made good, sturdy steps. We walked down the trail to the town instead of taking the bus, nearly 1400 stairs down through the mountain (yeah, we counted in homage to Oma...).
Incredible the work they did! And the empire itself was only around for about a hundred years. The Incas go back much further than that, but before the 1450's they were not an aggressive people. It was the 9th Incan Emperor that felt he had a special mandate from the Sun God, the very same one born in the middle of Lake Titicaca, to conquer and assimilate neighboring peoples for the Glory of the Incan people. (Sounds familiar.....I believe that's nearly word for word how one would describe the Roman Empire in its later years.) So he did that. And quickly. They spread from central Peru down through Bolivia and Chile, and ended up in Northern Argentina, the Salta area. In 100 years, they spread out over nearly a third of the continent and did this all the way through the mountains where traversing them is no easy feat. It's not like they spread out over flat, easily navigable land in all directions. This is the Andes; they had to cross over, through, and around whenever they were in communication with a faraway vassal (which they did, using hieroglyphics) or, of course, if in war.
Interestingly, the Incas were very advanced in their methods for assimilating neighboring peoples. Pachacuti, the 9th Emperor, sent spies to regions he wanted in his empire; they brought reports on the political organization, military might and wealth. He would then send messages to the leaders of these lands extolling the benefits of joining his empire, offering them presents of luxury goods such as high quality textiles, and promising that they would be materially richer as subject rulers of the Inca. Most accepted the rule of the Inca as a fait accompli and acquiesced peacefully. The ruler's children would then be brought to Cuzco to be taught about Inca administration systems, then return to rule their native lands. This allowed the Inca to indoctrinate the former ruler's children into the Inca nobility, and, with luck, marry their daughters into families at various corners of the empire. Quite sophisticated. And in only a century.
About a hundred years after Pachacuti began to conquer peoples, the Incas found that they were very good at assimilating the people into their culture. However, they did not completely deny them their native customs. The Incas found a way to combine their cultural ideals, allow the home culture the ability to continue practicing some of their traditional norms, and therefore, together form a shared history. They did it really well apparently because the empire would've continued its strength and dominance on the continent if not for the pesky Spanish arriving with their disease and guns. It wasn't much of a fight, unfortunately. The Incas fought hard but just didn't have the manpower or technology or immunization. There were two Incans, Tupac Amaru and his great-grandson, Tupac Amaru II, who both lead notable uprisings against the Spanish in the late 1500's and early 1600's. Again, they fought hard and seemed to overachieve given their numbers and tools, but they just couldn't beat the Spanish.
And the Spanish liked the gold and the silver that the Incas also appreciated. End of Act I.
Machu Picchu itself was never touched during all those years of fighting. That's why it is in such good condition and why it was found with that moss all over it. The Incas never lead the Spanish there; they abandoned it and let it become hidden, which is why the major theory is that Machu Picchu is one of the holiest places in Incan culture. Unfortunately, the Incas didn't leave much of any written history, which forces the historians to guess, but we did hear some incredible stories!
On the second day, we got to the ruins early in the morning to see sunrise at Machu Pichu. It was so misty that the sunrise wasn't very clear, but it was just amazing to be there in the morning where all the ruins were misted over. Since we were there the day before, we knew where all the tourists head straight for. We went the opposite way and were immersed in our own morning stillness and magic. We spent our second day climbing Wayna Pichu, the large mountain in the background of that perfect picture of Machu Pichu everyone who has visited has taken. They only let 90 people up very day and they are every strict about the time as well as signing in and out since the trail can be treacherous. It wasn't an easy hike straight up, taking us about an hour to reach the top. In that altitude, that many stairs proves to be a bit harder than we had anticipated, but it was worth it. It was so peaceful up there (well, minus the obnoxious American tourists who could be heard from miles away...my goodness, were they loud!). The most impressive part of Machu Pichu is how it is just propped on this mystical green mountain cliff. You wonder how it was built and what it looked like then. They had to flatten many parts of the top of that mountain. The view of it from Wayna Pichu made it look so tiny in the middle of these kelly green cliffs and mist rolling through. Unreal.
We took a train back to Cuzco for the night and had to wake up the next morning at 5am for our trip to the Amazon! It was a jam packed week. Our guide was set to pick us up early and we had just spent 2 days climbing around ancient ruins at 13000 feet. Suffice it to say, we were pretty tired but were psyched to be ending the trip with a bang!