Machu Picchu Man... I Want To Be a Machu Man
Cusco, once the beating heart of the Inca Empire, is now the centre of Peru's tourist economy. Fine colonial buildings with huge Incan foundations line the narrow cobbled streets around the grand Plaza de Armas. Above the city stands a large, white statue of Christ and everywhere flies the flag of the town - its rainbow colours remarkably similar to that of the gay pride flag.
Our journey into the Inca past started at Qoricancha - now a museum containing Incan artefacts, including mummies removed from their jars. The foundations are built in the Inca style, using a mortarless construction that fits together so well you can't fit a knife through the gaps. Spanish conquistadors, however, sliced a section through the building and built a colonial-style monastery on top.
Next stop, Ollantaytambo - the only town in the empire which managed to defeat the conquistadors. What remains of the old fortifications is typical Inca stonework and steep terracing set against a magnificent mountainous backdrop in the valley of the Rio Urubamba.
Getting there we took the local bus from the mud-pit station near the market. A young brother and sister carried a basket of puppies and kittens between them to be sold, a young lad in a knitted pigtail, pompom hat, a tiny lamb tucked under his arm, followed closely behind. After some discussion on the bus we discovered we were riding upfront with the driver - all imminent head-on, seatbelt-free collisions now in plain view. At Urubamba we squeezed ourselves into the remaining space on an Ollantaytambo-bound colectivo, strapping the backpack to the roof along with various sacks of agricultural produce.
Arriving intact, we spent a pleasant afternoon exploring the sun-drenched terraces before catching the train to Aguas Calientes - Machu Picchu pueblo. With no roads to MP, PeruRail have worked themselves a nice little monopoly. The prices for the train reflect this....
AC laid out its stall as a tourist trap as we set foot off the train - there is no other way to leave the station except through the market. AC is a divided town. There is the locals' side of the train tracks and then there is the tourist side where the streets are made of textile and pizza purveyors. It is also in cloud forest, a fact that became apparent the next morning as we rose at the crack of dawn to catch the 5.30 bus to MP. Everything was shrouded in a blanket of mist, which had not yet burned off by the time we reached the entry gates to MP.
Unperturbed we slogged our way up the steep and slippery Machu Picchu mountain, the dew bedazzling the spiders' funnel webs, until we reached the summit, where we had a magnificent view of the valley...filled to the brim with cloud. Hmmm...Nothing for it but to wait with the few other hardy souls who had braved the climb. We were abundantly rewarded when a cold hour later, the flowers opened their petals to the morning sun, as the mist began to swirl and rise and magically appeared before us Waynu Picchu and the lost city below. We all know what it looks like. We've all seen a million pictures. It's still a total knock-out.
Back in the real world, the train returned us to Cusco down endless switchbacks, lights out and windows closed "for security".
One last Inca ruin before we head off to Lake Titicaca and the Bolivian border. Cusco is overlooked by the massive walled complex of Saqsayhuaman, only 20% excavated. Legend has it that Cusco was designed by the Incas in the shape of a puma and this is its head. We spent an enjoyable morning rambling among the ruins before returning to town to find a massive security presence lining the streets.
Tonight was to be the procession in honour of the Lord of the Earthquakes, marking the beginning of Semana Santa. A life-size representation of Christ crucified was carried (extremely slowly) on a bier from Plaza San Francisco to the Plaza de Armas accompanied by a base drum beat and the continuous toll of discordant church bells. Young and old, rich and poor, family and friends thronged to watch His coming, scattering red rose petals as he passed. Ambulantes plied their trade amongst the crowd selling peacock feathers, huge towers of candy-floss, sweets and cattle whips. Along the route, church doorways were adorned with whicker baskets and red pompoms. When finally He reached the cathedral, He bowed in blessing to the people and police sirens alarmed the square. The great cathedral doors swung open. He turned, glided inside and the sirens were silent.