Machu Picchu, by the skin of my teeth

Machu Picchu is actually one of the most visited tourist sites in the world, with up to two thousand people per day walking its paths and photographing its grounds year round.  This may sound like a turn off, especially if you are anything like me in the sense that you generally look for the path less traveled (or for places without paths at all), but let me tell you here and now folks – this one is worth it.  The site is amazing, in practically every sense.  From its location and scenery to its history and general energy, I could hardly recommend it highly enough. 

There are some challenges associated with getting there, especially if you are not particularly wealthy, since access is basically granted either through the wallet or the leg muscles and lungs.  Those with the bucks can take a train either directly out of Cusco or from several points between there and Aguas Calientes, the small town at the park’s entrance, but as of my writing there are only two companies to choose from for this service and they seem to be in cahoots with regard to a mutual neglect of competitive pricing.  Another option is to walk the Inca trail, a several day backpacking trip along the route originally used by the Inca themselves, but this one too is pretty expensive, illegal without a licensed guide, and generally booked out two months in advance.  So what’s left is the back door: arrival at what is called the hydroelectrica on the river Urubamba, either by foot from wherever you started or via seriously harrowing taxi transfer along a one lane winding gravel road with thousand foot drops off the left side most of the time and heavy truck traffic coming the other way as you round just about every tight curve, your driver blaring his horn more or less constantly in an attempt to avoid what seems like an all too likely head on collision, then the walk (+/- 2 hours) along the railroad track from where the road ends to the entrance of the park. You might be able to guess from my description which route I chose on the way in, and also why I decided to go ahead and kick out the cash for a train on the way out.  In the end I am glad I did it the way I did, but to be honest as the taxi slid to a stop less than one meter from the grill of a tandem truck in the middle of one of the curves with the cliff edge just inches from the tires and me looking over it, head out the window, I knew it was a once in a lifetime experience for me.  I would walk back out if I had too.

Arriving at Aguas Calientes after my escape from the cab and the walk down the rail line I was very happy to find that while rooms for the night were available for $1,500+US  there were also decent places to sleep for fifteen Soles ($5.50US), and that while many of the restaurants offered “American Menu” dinners at $50US a plate, in the market I could eat better food and drink the same fresh squeezed juices while sitting amongst locals and park staff for around seven Soles ($2.50US).  I was also surprised to find that the river, which I already knew to be extremely polluted downstream of Cusco, sported spectacular looking rapids, and also held trout!  Walking along its banks downstream from town that evening I encountered fishermen pulling smallish rainbows from the pools with the same coffee can setup some of my friends in Patagonia use.

The next morning I headed up into the site itself (another choice between expensive bus, and walking a long stone stairway path) arriving to find brilliant weather and what has to be some of the most impressive topography on Earth.  It is no wonder Pachakuteq, the Inca (which actually refers just to the “king”, not to the whole culture) at the time of Machu Pichu’s construction beginning in 1438, chose this site for his masterpiece.  Too bad about his timing though; it was inhabited for less than one hundred years before Manko Inca, fighting a losing battle against the Spaniards and in the midst of repetitive outbreaks of the same European origin viral epidemics that had been decreasing his culture’s population already for decades, ordered the city’s evacuation and the closure of all its entrances.  After that the jungle took back over, and the site remained more or less undisturbed until Hiram Bingham’s “discovery” of it in 1911. 

Since that date the place has been through a lot – excavations, reconstructions, tourism “development”, long drawn out fights over artifact ownership, and now, two thousand people a day walking all over it.  But still, it’s really, really cool, and I just enjoyed the hell out of it.  Check out the pictures and then come down here and see it for yourselves folks – I highly recommend the experience.

Quilmes Ruins, Santiago del Estero, Wine, and the North

I did some traveling over the last week or so, ostensibly looking at Dorado water between Santiago del Estero and Salta, but mostly accomplishing what would be called “touring”, of some pretty cool country. Heading north out of the city the land becomes agricultural again at first, then quite arid, then mountainous and even more dry, and then suddenly there are grape vines and wineries and giant barrels everywhere and one is of course obliged to stop and taste. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Driving north along route 307 we passed through several small towns that seemed to get friendlier and more approachable one after another. Starting with El Mollar, then on to Tafi del Valle where we spent one night at a nice little hospedaje run by one of the unintentionally funniest women I have ever opened my ears to (and believe me, these ears have been through it) we proceeded north all the way to the Ruins of Quilmes.
The Quilmes tribe was one of the many original Calchaquies civilizations, and they built large stone cities all along the Aconquija mountain range, which actually reaches heights of over eighteen thousand feet. This surprised me quite a bit at first, being as far as I was from the Andes, but after a couple of museum visits that showed the geology and plate tectonics of the area it all made perfect sense.
The Quilmes had a mixture of agricultural and hunter/gatherer practices, and were in fact the very last of the northern civilizations to submit to Spanish rule, largely due to the leadership of a fellow named Juan Calchaqui. Juan was captured as a young child by Spanish soldiers, then educated to some degree before his escape and return to his people. I can only imagine that his familiarity with Spanish customs and military practices helped his strategic planning process during the decades of armed resistance to colonial domination that followed.
The cities of the Quilmes tribe, like the one pictured here, were built almost entirely of stone in strategically defensive positions amongst the mountain range, with the actual dwelling floors being several feet below ground, surrounded by what looks from the outside like a short stone wall which is in fact head high from the inside(if you are of Quilmes blood I guess),and were covered with a thatched sort of roofing material except at the center, which was left open for smoke to pass through. The ruins pictured here are situated at an elevation of over six thousand feet, and a heck of a long walk from the river flowing (sometimes) through the valley below. Apparently at the time the Quilmes lived here though there was a spring which supplied water to the whole village.
Even before the Spanish the Quilmes had been having a tough time for a long while, almost constantly at war with the Incas, who, much like the Europeans, had come from the North seeking to dominate what they saw as inferior cultures. Interaction with the Incas left its mark though, and many Quilmes produced but Inca style statues can be seen in the area as well, including giant heads and Stonehenge like pillars, which are pretty darn cool.
Continuing north from the ruins into the wine country of Colalao Del Valle, Tolombon, and Cafayate in Salta province we visited several bodegas (vineyards) and drove through a lot of parkland that would remind any Yankee of Arizona or New Mexico, other than for the abundance of llamas, pigs, and goats running around and the poor condition of the road.
I must say though, the people in these towns could not have been nicer. This was especially refreshing after spending the previous week in a large city that sees almost zero tourism, constantly being stared at with mistrustful and challenging facial expressions due to my generally sticking out like a sore thumb (or, like a six foot-four Germanic looking type as the case may be). But these folks up in the North were as open and inviting as a tourist could ask for anywhere in the world, and almost every single one of them seemed to have a smile that was as authentic as it was welcoming.
Our last night of the trip I had a big goat asado and sampled a beer called Norte, which suffice to say, we do not have in el Sur. The goat was alright, but in the future I think I’ll stick with our southern lambs (and our southern beer).
The wine we sampled from the area though was in fact good, exceptionally good, and I’ll be looking for some more of it in the near future. More fruit stands were raided on the way back down the highway in the morning too; the prices, variety, and quality of the fruit being near unbelievable to a guy used to spending what it takes to get the same stuff out of the produce section at Kroger’s back home.
It’s down again to Santiago now and then shortly headed south and west towards Mendoza.  I hope you’re all doing well; look for me to write again sometime soon.