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The Peru Papers ~ Part II: on to Machu Picchu
By Jane K. Starbird

A Brief History of the location: The Inca civilization was the last of many Andean Indian civilizations. From approximately 5,000 BC, the lower plains and later the high Andes had been occupied by Indians who understood plant cultivation. Each new era brought developments of new skills like weaving, stone carving and cultivation.

The Incas came to power in 1200 and ruled until the Spanish Conquest in the 1530s.Machu Picchu was built during the last 100 years of the Inca domination. It was built to house the elite astrological priests who studied the stars and offered ceremonial praise to the gods for the bountiful crops. Machu Picchu was abandoned and forgotten until rediscovered by Hiram Bingham, an American, in 1911.

Jane in Peru!

Saturday Jan. 31, 1998: Our journey to Cusco begins with a late flight from Iquitos to Lima. We spend hours in the hot Iquitos airport sitting on the floor. Instead of just hanging around reading, I use the time to shop for hand–carved gifts in the airport shop.

When we finally arrive at the Lima airport, a new travel escort group awaits our tired party of nineteen. We are herded onto a bus and taken to a hotel for some needed rest. 

It is 1a.m. by the time we get our room assignments and keys. There is a loud wedding party going on in the nearby ballroom, reminding me that we are in a country that uses the cooler nights for more than sleeping. Our wakeup call is in three hours.

Sunday, Feb 1: We fly from Lima to Cusco. The altitude of Cusco is 11,000 feet and walking from the plane to the building feels like I have become one hundred pounds heavier. It is a strange sensation. We are told to move slowly but there is no way we could move fast. Our bus stops for refreshment. We are advised to drink the coca tea they bring us. This is a tea made from the coca plant, the same plant that cocaine comes from. The tea is a mild stimulant that they say will help with the fatigue we feel from the altitude. We are all still exhausted from lack of sleep and now the high altitude adds to our misery. There is a full day of sight-seeing ahead of us. We load into the two ten passenger vans and head straight out of town to the Sacred Valley of Urubamba.

Our first stop is Pisac where the twice–a-week open-market is going strong. Most of us feel like zombies, even though our guides, Anna and Raul, generously dispense water bottles to us. Some folks have just folded over in heaps on the bus.

Peruvian Market
Market Day!

The Pisac market is a bustling place with lots of foodstuff and goods from all over the region. We eat onion and cheese empanadas hot from an ancient brick oven. We are hungry, as our last meal was breakfast in the hotel in Lima at four a.m.

Everything for sale is interesting but we have only thirty minutes to shop. It's not a tourist attraction, the prices are wonderfully low. This is business for these hard working rural people who have come to the Pisac market to survive by selling their produce and handmade goods. It’s a pleasure to simply smell the produce and see the colors of the clothing that the Andeans are all wearing. What a delight!

We drive on to stop at a restaurant for a buffet lunch and then later we arrive at the Valle Sagrado Hotel in the Urubamba Valley. The afternoon activities are to rest or to go off on another side trip to the small community of Willoq. When I see the quiet room and the huge pool I opt to remain and rest, and then take a dip in the pool. The altitude is 9,000 feet here and I quickly find that I have no breath or energy to swim. I can hardly even sit at a table to sip coca tea. Our dinner is the most subdued of all the evenings on the trip. Some people are at different stages of altitude sickness but there are few complainers in this group.

Monday Feb 2: We get up early to travel by van to Machu Picchu. It seems like we are climbing but in fact we have come from Cusco at 11,000 feet down to 9,000 feet. When we finally get to Machu Picchu we will be at a lowly 7,216 feet. There is much excitement about finally arriving at our destination.

A llama
A llama looks at Machu Picchu

We are all eager to see the ruins of this special place. After checking into the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, we continue our trek via special bus to the very top of the mountain. We get to stay up there later than all the non-local travelers. They must go back to the city on the last train that leaves around four p.m. The time we are left alone with the clouds and the structures is magical. We are told the structures were built four hundred years ago during the last years of the Inca control over the Andean populations. The site was used for astrological study. The Incas wanted to know all the solstices to determine when to begin the planting and harvesting cycles. I can feel the almost magnetic connection with mother earth and nature. I wander up to the sacrificial stone and feel its coolness. What happened here?

Tuesday, Feb 3: We have another whole day here at Machu Picchu and by now all of us feel adapted to the high thin air and hiking is easier. The sun comes out once in awhile and manages to give us good sunburn if there is a part of the body exposed. We troop up the path to the Sungate on the Inca Trail. We watch the Andean porters run by us carrying huge loads for visitors who pay them $10.00 a day. This allows hikers to make the trek in four days if they choose to hike from the train depot in Ollantaytambo.

Usually there is moist cloud cover all day until evening and then it becomes cooler and refreshing. I always enjoy the crispness of a high elevation. There are probably forty birds on the list that would reside in this area but there is little privacy for wildlife viewing. Except for the colorful Rufus-collared Sparrow there is no evidence of bird life. But it is fun watching vast numbers of a longwing butterfly species all emerge from their pupa stages at the same time. They are a bright orange with a black-striped wing and the sky is full of them. I wish we were with an entomologist who shares the excitement I feel watching them.

This is the rainy season, which we are told means fewer tourists, but it seems as though there are plenty. Machu Picchu is a mecca for tourists and people from all over the world come to visit. I hear many languages spoken wherever I go on the ruins.

It did finally pour rain as we stopped for a pizza meal in a small restaurant in the tiny town where we caught the bus up to the ruins. The day ends with a truly compelling train trip all the way back to Cusco. Sitting near the front of the train is great for viewing the river gorge and the sky for Andean Condors. The train shows continuous videos of Condors and wildlife and the history of the region. We also listen to Andean music at the same time. It takes three hours to get back to the city.

Wednesday, Feb. 4: Our final day in Cusco is a reward. With our friends we wander around the charming city noting colonial Spanish influence and strong Indian heritage. In the evening there is another local nightclub dinner party with dancing and singing and a chance for all of us to forget the job of packing and flying home in the morning.

Farewell Peru and thank you for the wonderful experience.


The Greatest Voyage in Natural History
International Expeditions, Inc.
Helena, Alabama
September 1996

Peru, The Rough Guide
Dilwyn Jenkins
Penguin Group, 1997

Find it here!     

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