Journey to Machu Picchu
AAA Home & Away


An amazing reward awaits those who make the climb to Peru’s Lost City of the Incas.

Seated 8,800 feet atop a massive mountain range, I overlooked the world below under a ring of billowing clouds—a life-changing and empowering experience.

Machu Picchu - Photo by Beverly Mann
Terraced landscape at Machu Picchu
Photo by Beverly Mann

The last half hour of my arduous climb to the peak of Huayna Picchu involved hanging onto a wire cable while gingerly navigating across narrow stone steps, inching my way through a small cave, then climbing a short wooden ladder for an ineffable view of Machu Picchu, Peru’s Lost City of the Incas. From this amazing aerial vantage point, I could see the ancient ruins in the shape of a condor, the Inca symbol of sun and wisdom.

While I was there, Machu Picchu, the first official monument of Peru, was celebrating its selection as one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. UNESCO also declared it a cultural and natural Patrimony of Humankind in 1983.

Inspirational Calling
My Overseas Adventure Travel tour guide, Vanessa, who actually can run the mountain in 20 minutes, is still in awe at the view. Group member Vivian, an occupational therapist from North Carolina, stated her motivation to climb to the top, “As I was climbing and looking upward, I felt the beauty of the mountains pulling me and inspiring me to move forward.”

When Ron, a retired history professor from Virginia, stood on top of the peak next to me, he commented, “Out of all the wonders of the world, this has to be numero uno.”
 

This architectural phenomenon—cushioned by the towering dome-shaped Andes, which appear chiseled out of the earth—was created in the 1450s by the Incas and was fortunately never found by the Spanish conquistadors. It wasn’t until Hiram Bingham, who later became a Yale professor, was brought to the site by a local in 1911 that this ancient city became known to the world.

The intricate terraces irrigated by natural springs for growing crops and the ceremonial enclaves where mostly female human remains were discovered add to Machu Picchu’s mystery. What happened on this mountain? Were women used for sacrificial rites or were they being trained as priestesses?
Traditional dress in Cusco, Peru - Photo by Beverly Mann
Mother with her two children in traditional dress
Photo by Beverly Mann

I was even more amazed at the fauna and flora that existed in this magical setting. Lamas parade around the trails, and wildflowers, red begonias and angel trumpets fill the open areas.

There are two ways to reach the ruins—from the original Inca trail, which takes as long as four days, or a two-hour bus ride from the city of Cusco to the ancient village of Ollantaytambo, then via a train to the picturesque town of Aquas Calientes, where our group stayed overnight. From there, it’s a 20-minute bus ride or hefty hike to the entrance of Machu Picchu.
 

Strenuous Hike
Once at the site, our tour group split. Many took the two-hour hike to the Sun Gate, while several of us went to the highest point at Huayna Picchu, which actually was a shorter hike, though definitely more challenging.

Carmen, our Cusco-born tour guide for the hike to Huayna Picchu, gave us strict instructions to take deep breaths, go slowly and make sure we had plenty of coca (herbal) tea beforehand to assist with the altitude change. The only time I was bothered by the altitude was in Cusco, at 10,800 feet; I suffered a bad headache, which Tylenol and coca tea cured.

We descended from the ruins to our bus before sunset and rode along the serpentine road, passing snow-capped peaks and endless greenery. We had to slow down to let several pigs cross our path. Upon our arrival back at Aquas Calientes, we dined at Inka Washo, where I enjoyed a delicate grilled trout with cooked vegetables and rice. Eating well was not a problem in Peru.

Still trying to process the breathtaking beauty of my climb, I realized our leader Carmen helped set the mood a few days before with a visit to a shaman conducting a curandero (healing ceremony). We were seated in a circle on a mountain slope, inhaling the aroma of nearby eucalyptus leaves while goats and lamas wandered by.
 

Rafting on Urubamba River in Peru - Photo by Beverly Mann
Rafting on Urubamba River
Photo by Beverly Mann
The shaman prepared his ritual offering to Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), which consisted of coca leaves, sweets, beans and a lama's fetus, as we made three wishes with our own coca leaves pressed closed to our hearts. The shaman blessed us individually, then placed our leaves in a pyre as part of the offering.

I reflected on this moment when I ascended Machu Picchu and realized how fortunate I was to have had these experiences. Little did I know that the adventure was going to be more than just reaching Machu Picchu.

During our stay, a civil uprising of teachers and workers began throughout Peru. Major roadways were blocked, and some train tracks and airport roads were destroyed. Police used tear gas to stop the protestors. The violence was in contrast to the gentleness I observed in the faces of the Peruvian people.

Despite those events, our trip continued. We rafted the Urubamba River, visited a host family for dinner and went to the famous Ceramica Seminario to view artisans painting pottery before we headed back to Cusco for our flight to Lima and the U.S.
 

Serenity vs. Tension
We arose just before sunrise to avoid the protestors, who were placing huge rocks and boulders along the road, so we could make it to Cusco, where the tension had ceased and we could take a plane home.

As we traveled through the Sacred Valley at 4:30 a.m., our bus skirted rocks already placed on the road. However, the valley’s beauty was astounding. Navy-blue silhouettes of the snowcapped Andes pierced through a rose-and-pale-blue sky. The lights in the distant town of Urubamba twinkled like amber stars reminiscent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night—without the turbulent waves of blue.

As the sun peeked through the landscape, it illuminated the tiled rooftops of the beige stucco houses scattered amid the grassy plains. There was a strange quiet on the bus. Perhaps people were either entranced with the scenery or contemplating their safe journey home.

Once in Cusco, I had enough time to shop in the colorful neighborhood of San Blas near the Plaza Mayor, with its three colonial churches. I stopped briefly at the Center for Traditional Textiles on the main Avenida Sol across from my hotel, Juan Carlos.
 

At the center, artisans can be seen at work daily, weaving and spinning natural fibers for the crafts that are sold there. Some 70 percent of the sales are returned to the weaver. Since its inception in 1996, the center's purpose has been to revive Peru's Quechua weaving. Quechua incorporates the traditional weaving patterns of pre-Incan times. The tidy museum within the store is well worth a visit.
Roasted pig at La Casa del Inka in mountains of Cusco - Photo by Beverly Mann
Roasted pig at La Casa del Inka in mountains of Cusco
Photo by Beverly Mann

Safe at Home
Fortunately, my plane connections went smoothly. Home safely, I unpacked and placed my carving of Pacha Mama on my mantle, which brought back the indelible image of the Andes towering over the fertile plains of the Sacred Valley.

I remembered the shaman and his blessings to Mother Earth and wondered if any of my three wishes were now going to come true.

Planning Your Trip
To book your own trip to Machu Picchu, contact your AAA Travel agent or visit AAA.com. For further information on Overseas Adventure Travel, call (800) 873-5628 or go to www.oattravel.com


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