Peru, Part 4: Machu Picchu! or Baby Llama Drama
Machu Picchu means “old peak” in Quechua (kay-CHWAH). It’s pronounced “MAH-choo PEEK-choo” but most people miss the k-sound in the second word.
Machu Picchu* sits at roughly 8,000 feet in elevation in a valley surrounded by four peaks in a mountain ridge near the Sacred Valley of the Incas. It was built in the 15th Century and remained standing after the Incas fled and the Spanish conquistadors arrived, which is remarkable because the Spanish destroyed or damaged most of the Inca sites throughout Peru. They didn’t know about Machu Picchu, though, and neither did much of the world for most of the next four centuries.
No one fully knows how the Incas carved the stones they used to make all of the buildings on Machu Picchu. There is a quarry on the site where most of the rocks came from, but rocks are also believed to have been brought from a distance away and carved to match on site. They are friction fit (no mortar or grout) so when an earthquake hits, the stones are able to move. They don’t just move, though: they bounce around. They dance.
No one fully knows who lived on Machu Picchu (royalty, religious figures, regular folks); initial excavations and assessments of the skeletons incorrectly determined that most of the remains found were female, which led people to the believe that these were sacred virgins** or nuns cloistered away, serving an Inca king. Later tests of the skeletons revealed an almost 50-50 split (male-female) of the remains. It turns out the early assessments were made by looking at the size of the frame (height, width of hips/shoulders, etc.) and taking samples from the skull; the later tests were done on the pelvis, which gives more accurate results. Peruvians tend to have smaller (shorter) frames, so judging based on height was a bad idea. At 6’1″ and 5’9″ respectively, Sara and I towered over most of the locals (male and female).
When you first get to Machu Picchu, after taking a bus to a train to another bus, traveling on narrow winding switchbacks that only allow one bus to traverse (in either direction) at a time, the mountains seem to appear out of the clouds, as if out of a dream. We arrived at around 10 AM; by noon the morning fog had burned off and the sun made the site quite warm. I got sunburned on both shoulders, despite applying sunscreen three times throughout the day. It’s closer to the equator and at a higher elevation than I’m used to.
Llamas aren’t usually found at that elevation; they live higher up in the mountains but were brought down to Machu Picchu for the tourists’ sake. They have since adapted and seem to be quite content, roaming all over the ruins. They were usually in areas where tourists couldn’t go, but sometimes they would come up to the fence that separated them from us.
Our guide gave us a tour of the site, pointing out the Temple of the Sun****, a rock that served as a compass (each point faced a different cardinal direction), a sacred rock carved in the exact outline of the mountain range behind it, and a rock***** that is said to have a magnetic energy to it. We weren’t allowed to touch the rock, but we could hold our hands up close to it in order to feel the vibrations. It felt warm (probably because of the sun) but I didn’t feel any kind of magnetism.******
After the tour, Sara and I and two other women from our trip (the recent legal bar exam-passers) decided to take one of the two hikes off of Machu Picchu toward the Gate of the Sun, the point on the Inca Trail when you first glimpse Machu Picchu on the hike. It’s a higher elevation than Machu Picchu and kind of a rigorous hike, but we had plenty of time for the two hours we were supposed to allot to make it there and back. After a quick stop at the house on the ridge (which gives you the postcard view of Machu Picchu and which is where I took most of these pictures) we made our way (wheezing and winded) up toward the Sun Gate. We got to a check-in point at the end of a long staircase, at which point the guard told us we could not continue.
“Check-in closes at 12:30,” he said, pointing to the sign. It was 12:35.
Needless to say, we were very disappointed–I mean, we would have cut the guided tour short by 5 minutes or not stopped to catch our breath afterward if we had known–but we went on a different hike to an Inca bridge instead (the bridge itself wasn’t that spectacular to look at, but the hike was nice). The Urubamba River snaked through the valley down below. We still had 45 minutes when we returned from our hike, so Sara and I decided to explore some ruins on a part of the site that hadn’t been rebuilt. But first we wanted to see a llama up close, and there was one that had moved into an area where we could actually go, so we tried to find it. We went from room to room, looking for the animal, but he had moved out of sight. So we plunked down on the far side of the quarry and enjoyed the peace of being away from the crowds (3,000 people visit Machu Picchu each day).
We usually take a picture of our feet wherever we are on vacation (dorky, I know), but as we were doing so, I looked to our right and saw this guy:
He was looking at us like “Hey, what’re you doing on my lunch spot?”
I looked to our left a few minutes later and saw these two:
All was fine and good until the mama llama decided to charge, probably to protect her baby:
I stumbled back and almost fell off the mountain. That would have been a story, right? I can see the headlines now: “Woman Plummets to Death After Being Charged by Llama on Machu Picchu,” “Llama Mama Charges Woman Off Sacred Site,” and (from the NY Post, of course) just “Baby Llama Mama Drama!”
When we got back to Cuzco, we spent the next day exploring the square. It was the saint’s day for the patron saint of the local cathedral, so there were dancers and bands, a parade, and a statue of the saint carried around on a platform. It was very colorful and festive. While we were standing, watching the parade, a woman walked over to us carrying what I thought was a stuffed animal in a sling. As she got closer, however, the stuffed animal moved–it was a baby llama! Even away from Machu Picchu I couldn’t escape them. After that they were everywhere–women with baby llamas they would shove in tourists faces to get them to pay un nuevo sol to have their picture taken with. All I could think was, Where is your mother?
Aside from that baby llama drama, Cuzco was beautiful and a much nicer city to tour than Lima. It was also at a much higher altitude (12,000 feet vs. sea level) so walking/hiking around was more difficult, but the locals gave us tips on dealing with the altitude, including drinking plenty of water, taking it slow, and drinking coca tea, a local remedy. I didn’t notice any effects from the coca tea, but then again, I didn’t notice any effects from the altitude, either. Well, mostly…
Stop back next week to find out what my altitude issues were!
*You can’t bring yourself to pronounce it “peek-choo” can you?
**Why is it always assumed if it’s a group of women that they’re virgins?*** If it were a group of men, would it be renamed “Macho Picchu”?
***How can you even tell if a skeleton is from a virgin or not? This sounds like the beginning of a joke with something about “boning” in the punchline but I can’t think of what it would be.
****There’s one at every ruin!
*****So many rocks. Peru–especially Machu Picchu–is a geologist’s dream.
******But my hands aren’t made out of metal, so…