>What Would An Inca Do

>

Dodging falling rocks? Hiking railroad tracks in the rain? Cooking boots on an open fire? When in doubt (on the way to Machu Picchu) just ask yourself: ”What would an Inca do?”
Machu Picchu was the ultimate destination in this trip. While most of my itinerary I’ve kind of made up as I go along, I knew I’d be making the classic pilgrimage to this preserved Incan city at some point. When my friend Jenny (who taught English at the same school as me in Spain last year) decided to fly down and join me on this journey we chose Cusco, the jumping off city to Machu Picchu, as our rendesvous point.

But mother nature is fickle and the rainy season brought unprecedented destruction to the Sacred Valley. Flooding and landslides destroyed homes, roads, train tracks and took lives after intense rains during the months of January and February. Cusco declared a state of emergency and the citadel of Machu Pichu was closed after a group of tourists got stranded in Aguas Calientes (the small town at the base of Machu Picchu) and had to be helicoptered out.

I was hearing about all this while in Bolivia – getting contradicting and misinformation from backpackers and websites regarding when Machu Picchu would be reopened. Jenny came to meet me in La Paz, Bolivia and we explored Lake Titicaca while waiting for the time when we could make this epic trek we had so been looking forward to. Honestly, I thought more about how the flooding was effecting my trip, instead of it’s effect on the local people. This, of course, changed as soon as I got there.

We arrived to Cusco in late March in anticipation for Machu Picchu reopening on April 1st and found a tour operator and haggled (thanks in part to the large numbers of Jews in our crew) until we settled on a four night all-inclusive trek to Machu Picchu for 130 USD per person. After enjoying the lovely colonial city that is Cusco we eagerly set off on our mission.

Rainy season. Really. No joke, a lot of rain. We were the first group that had been taken through this alternative trek (not the ”Inca Trail” which is extremely expensive) in two months and immediately we saw first hand the destruction that had ravaged the Sacred Valley. The road we drove on had been recently cut into the mountain sides after the previous road had washed away along with the river banks and homes. After a white-knuckle ascent, we mountain-biked down a winding road that had engorged streams crossing various sections of the pavement, creating small rivers to ford. We arrived soaking wet and freezing to the small town of Santa Teresa where we dried our clothes over an open fire and sipped rum to ward of the cold. What Would An Inca Do?

Day Two began rainier than the last. We grumbled and acquired slick plastic rain ponchos of varying colors – imitating the rainbow Inca Pride flag. We began our day long trek, following the gorge of the River Urubamba. The rain was pouring down and we were running underneath rock slides, dodging the boulders that crashed down around us. Our faith in our guide, Neyser, and constantly reminded ourselves of Incan strength is what got us through. The footbridge crossing the raging Rio Urubamba had been washed away and in its place there was a recently constructed cable and small platform underneath used transported humans, two at a time across the swollen and rushing Urubamba. This is crazy!!

When we reached the entrance to the official Inca Trail we found out that the guards (who had big guns) weren’t letting anyone in who didn’t have a train ticket out from Aguas Calientes. What? Our guide, Neyser, who seemingly channels Incas and doesn’t take ”NO” for an answer, waited for his other guide buddies until we had enough numbers and about 30 of us rushed the gates and the small number of guards couldn’t do anything about it! Viva la revolucion, this feels good! We continued on as the sky cleared and hiked all day through the stunning gorge of the Rio Urubamba, gazing up at massive mountains covered in lush jungle. We reached the base town of Aguas Calientes by nightfall.


Machu Picchu. We arrived at day break when the whole Incan city built on a towering ridge that is Machu Picchu was shrouded in clouds. After two months of closure, we arrived on it’s first day open and everyone there was so happy and appreciative to be back at work, or able to enjoy this wonder of the world. And wonder it is. Wonderful, like jaw-dropping open in awe of the majesty of this location on earth, and then in the human feat that is constructing a sacred city in such a setting. Wonder in why it was deserted by the Incas and how it remained undiscovered until it was stumbled upon in 1911 by the gringo, Hiram Bingham.

Machu Picchu was a royal city and religious retreat built high above a canyon at about 8,000 feet in a cloud forest. It was built between 1460 and 1470 A.D. by the Incan ruler Pachacuti and is comprised of about 200 structures including several temples, residences, storage structures and other public buildings. The constructions seems to blend seamlessly into the landscape, as structures and sculptures follow the patterns in nature, water flows through cisterns and stone channels and temples hang on to steep precipices. They terraced the steep hillsides around the citadel to plant corn and potatoes to support their small population.


As the day progressed the clouds parted and we were able to witness more and more of this marvelous ridge and ruins. The crowds of people (which were significantly smaller than usual due to it being the first day open) left in the afternoon and the second half of the day was spent practically alone to explore the space. I don’t believe I have ever in my life witnessed something so grand. Machu Picchu is a backpacker’s mecca, the destination for exploration and discovery.

Something about how difficult it is to reach it, particularly when I went due to recent flooding, makes the final ascent so much more satisfying. Something about being shrouded in mist in the morning and then the clouds parting to reveal more and more of this amazing place. Something that left me feeling satisfied and complete and aware of my place on this planet, at this particular moment and somehow making issues I had been working on to understand a little bit clearer.


The day we hiked out was a 30 kilometer hike down railroad tracks, following the gorge farther up. We lucked upon a train car with railroad workers who generously lifted us 10 K of the way, allowing us to catch a bus and arrive to Cusco before nightfall. The most grueling yet ultimately satisfying pilgrimage I have ever done. The most awe-inspiring place I have ever been fortunate enough to witness. This is my mission for you…. Find your way there.

>Closer to the Sun

>

The only thing that could’ve pulled me away from La Paz, Bolivia was the lure of Lake Titicaca and the Isla del Sol. Lake Titicaca is one of the highest navigatable lakes in the world nestled in between Bolivia and Peru. At 3,800 meters (or 14,400 ft — higher than Mt. Hood to give a little comparison), Lake Titicaca’s altitude means thin air, sun burns and according to Incan mythology, proximity to the gods.


The entire lake was a sacred site to the Incans. Their world was created when God Viracocha emerged from the lake to create the sun, the moon, the stars, and the Incans. Isla del Sol, the largest island on the lake, is the birthplace of the sun. I took a boat from Copacabana, Bolivia to Isla del Sol, to pay my dues to the sun for solstice. Let there be light.


There are no cars or paved roads, just a couple of small communities made up of about 800 families who fish and farm, and supply food and beds for tourists to augment their income. We stayed on the north end, where a small sandy beach offered a perfect location for admiring the sun, and by night, the stars.

The preserved Incan ruins on the northern side of the island from 2,000 BC are remnants of a convent for chosen women, stone walls to guard their prized virgins. A path cuts down the center of the island to the south whichmakes for a great day’s hike. The views are sweet but the altitude takes a toll… rest stops necisary.

Upon returning to the mainland from Isla del Sol, I was delighted to learn my good friend Becky Brown just gave birth to her son, whom she aptly named Yapsa, which means the light of the sun, moon and stars. Loving life so filled with light.

Crossing the border into Peru, I explored a couple more islands on the western side of the lake. Taquila is a small island with a smattering of inhabitants who practice their traditional trade of weaving and maintain their indigenous way of life, with a bit of Christianity thrown in.

The last islands we visited are not really islands but rather floating masses of tutoro reeds upon which the Uros people have lives since pre-Incan times. When the Incans threatened the Uros’ laidback fishing lifestyle they began to constuct their homes on large rafts made from the reeds that grow in the shallows of Lake Titicaca. The rafts are lashed into the ground, but are movable, and therefore able to flaot from their aggressors. The peaceful Uros live on and off the reeds. The tuturo reed is used to build their islands, their boats for fishing, the wood for their cooking fires and small nicknacks made for the tourists who come to marvel at their uniquely simple and peaceful way of life.

Interesting to note how much tourism has changed this isolated place on the earth. While feeling blessed that I am able to witness and expierience this unique place and peoples, I’m uncertain of how I feel hearing that tourism has now overtaken fishing as the Uro’s mainstay, for example. I wonder how much longer we have until you can take a taxi from the north side of Isla del Sol to the south side. Oh the joys and sorrows of globalization…

>Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

>I never really focused on Bolivia as a destination before I came down to South America, more like a country I had to go through to reach Peru from Argentina. But as soon as I starting chatting up fellow travelers it became clear that, Bolivia, and in particular the unique and alien landscapes of the Salar de Uyuni where an experience not to be missed. In Salta (NW Argentina) I connected with some like-minded travelers who as well were drawn by tales of dazzling white expanses, pink flamingos and endless stars. We did a 4 day tour (for barely over 100 USD!) from Tupiza to Uyuni, traversing expanses of mountains, deserts and miles and miles of salt.


At almost 12,000 feet above sea level the perfectly flat and brilliantly white salt flats cover about 4,000 square miles of southwestern Bolivia and the dramatic surrounding area around the salt flats is equally as intriguing. We aquired a Jeep, a guide and a cook to accompany us on our journey.
On the first day setting out from Tupiza (a small town which boasts being the setting for the demise of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid) we drove through stunning canyons and and watched as trees and shrubs gave way to giant cacti and fields of grasses where herding families live in small, spead out compounds and tend to their llamas and alpacas.


After spending a freezing night in one such compound we left behind inhabitable land and continued onto more stark terrain – passing ranges of harsh grey mountains and expanses of deserts that are puncuated with geysers, hot spring and lakes of varying degrees of color. From white, to green, to red and yellow, these lakes take on their hue based on the different amoebas that make their home in the lakes.

The lakes are home to flocks and flocks of pink flamingos with blacktipped wings, whose bright colors pop against the surreal landscape.


Massive rocks of ochre, yellow, coffee, beige and orange rise up from the windswept desert, formed over time by the elements into statuesque shapes, including the famous Stone Tree formation.

And then you arrive at the Salt Flats. About 40,000 years area the area was part of Lake Minchin, a giant prehistoric lake. When the lake dried, it left two modern lakes and two major salt deserts- which contain about 10 billion tons of salt. I was there during rainy season so much of the salt was covered in a thin layer of water which made for wet, salty feet and a world of reflections and mirror images.


Just outside of Uyuni lies a train cemetary. Tracks that go nowhere and the huge bodies of ancient steam locomotives lie stationary. The setting makes for a fantastic photo shoot.


The hallucenogenic landscapes of Southwestern Bolivia and the salt flats are unlike anything else in the world. Shocking and awe-inspiring at once, Bolivia does not dissapoint. Get there!