Over the Andes to Cusco and Machu Picchu

Over the Andes to Cusco and Machu Picchu

Raising the window shade per the flight attendant’s pleading as we approached Cusco on Friday morning, I just about jumped out of my seat when the fuselage appeared ready to scrape the peaks of the enormous Andes. Visions of the book/movie Alive flashed before me, but then I pondered the relative youth of the pointy mountain chain compared to the now-rounded Rockies. Once in town I explored the former Incan capital, checking out the 1560 cathedral and its painting of the last supper showing a number of amusing “fusions” between the Spanish and Incan cultures.

Christ appears ready to carve up a platter of cuy, the Incan specialty of roast guinea pig, with carafes of chicha morada (purple corn juice) ready to pour. Jesus looks as hesitant as I did when served the pig hoof last week, but at least we both got to wash it down with the strangely flavorful purple juice. In another cultural combo, since the Inca worshipped mountains, the virgins in the cathedral’s paintings are basically bejeweled mountains with pretty heads on top – or so explained our tour guide. When I asked why Mexican virgins are also mountain-shaped, he changed the subject.

Onto the ruins outside (and above, as in 12k feet) Cusco, including Saqsaywaman, which seemed to me like the Incan version of Stonehenge.  Massive stones they didn’t have the technology to transport, all lined up in the shape of a profile of some sort (as seen from passing spaceships).  “Saqsaywaman” is Quechua, the Incan language and one of Peru’s two official languages today, for “zigzag head”.  Our guide hinted that aliens may have helped them move the stones.  Equally mysterious was the water temple, whose fountains are alleged to have been pouring out of the rock nonstop since the Incan empire, with no ecological explanation. Aliens.

Since several tour participants were starting to experience altitude sickness, the subsequent ruins were seen via five-minute group jogs through the sites, and eventually through bus windows.  Color returned to tourists’ cheeks when we arrived to shop at the alpaca store, where we received a stern lecture about the fact that all other stores in Cusco carry counterfeit alpaca. Back on the bus, I gravitated toward several New Yorkers and engaged in the customary bonding ritual of exchanging resumes, memories of roach-infested NYC apartments and miscellaneous insider information.  They of course knew of “the” restaurant in Cusco, where we miraculously got a table sans reservation.  Chi Cha was excellent, both the fried duck and quinoa I ordered, and the wonderfully type-A company.

My final day was a great run to, around and above Machu Picchu.  It was the workout I’d been craving all week, and was really the most fun I’ve had traveling alone in a very long time.  The day before, I went from one tiny travel agency to another in Cusco, trying to find train tickets to MP, someone to watch my things while running, taxis to Cusco’s Poroy station and back, and to package it all into a nice day-trip.  I did so with wavering confidence, but it worked like a charm.  The early-morning ride to the train station went through neighborhoods not on the usual tourist circuit, providing a nice glimpse of the other side of Cusco.

Then the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town near the bottom of Machu Picchu, is a beautiful journey through the countryside and the Andes, ending in the entrance to the jungle quite abruptly.  I found the hotel owner who’d agreed to let me change there and got into running gear for the humid jungle.  The locals kept pointing to the buses headed for Machu Picchu as I shook my head, repeating that I’m running “all the way” to the bottom of MP, AND up it.  Many do the walk, but I got the impression that it’s not often run – the hotel owner even wanted a photo of his adorable little daughter with “the athlete”.  It was indeed sweltering and the Inca trail up the mountain had massive steps that I could run only intermittently, but the steamy air and bizarre plant life that engulfed me felt fantastic.

Taking a wrong turn at the entrance of the site, I ended up running to the top of the ruins, then further up to the Puerta del Sol or Intipunka, and snacked in my soaked gear along with scattered dreadlocked French teenagers.  Not much time to actually learn about MP, so I meandered among tour groups and heard snippets of semi-interesting details (“these rocks are limestone, and those aren’t”).  Hours later, riding back to my hotel in Cusco, I asked the taxi driver “so what was Machu Picchu and who lived there?”  He’d never heard of anyone going there just for a run.  He told me all about it for the next half hour, and I was glad to have a personalized debrief.

Overall, a great but challenging trip.  I love Peru, but am incredibly happy to be headed home to Colorado.

Next episode?  Denver’s Leadership Exchange trip to Boston in mid-September, most likely.

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