May 12, 2011

PERU: Machu Picchu takes your breath away

ORLANDO, Florida / Orlando Sentinel / May 12, 2011

Machu Picchu takes your breath away
Commander Coconut

For years, I had dreams about Machu Picchu, the Inca city in Peru — as if it were a setting for some sort of Shirley MacLaine-style past life. Dreams come true: A few weeks ago, I was finally in the Sacred Valley, home to Machu Picchu and other Inca communities. I felt at home.

We had come by bus from Cusco, the high-up-in-the-Andes capital of the Inca empire, which, at its peak in the mid-1500s, had 12 million people.

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The empire's end came when the Spanish tromped through, hungry for gold and killing everyone in sight to get it. (You go to South America and you don't come away with a fondness for the Spanish or for the Catholic Church.) The conquistadors didn't destroy Machu Picchu only because they didn't find it. The city, later obscured by years of jungle growth, was known to locals but wasn't visited by outsiders until the early 20th century.

Cusco, Peru, altitude 11,000 ft, heart of the Andes Mountains.

It is on most lists of the top man-made wonders of the world — it boggles the mind to think how workers toted the huge stones that make up the buildings and terraces to the heights, especially because the Incas did not have the wheel. They did use pulleys, and they were adept engineers when it came to flood prevention and water retention.

Machu Picchu (Photo below) is a place to climb and gawk, but it's also a place to sit and think and to listen (to birds and to the rushing Urubamba River way below). Interestingly, I did not see any litter or graffiti; that's how much the site is respected.

I crossed off two "bucket list" items on my South American trip because I also visited the Galapagos Islands, straddled across the equator 600 miles west of Ecuador.

These are the isles Charles Darwin visited in 1835 — before he wrote "The Origin of Species" — an archipelago containing fascinating giant tortoises, assorted lizards and iguanas, finches and blue-footed boobies, equatorial penguins and scads of California sea lions, not to mention dazzling sunsets and a striking serenity.

During our time in the Galapagos (photo on left), we stayed four nights on a catamaran that slept 16 plus a crew of eight; for shore excursions, we were transported in dinghies. Once as the Seaman II catamaran (photo below) was speeding along, a dozen or so dolphins raced alongside.
Learning experiences: South Americans are smiling and friendly (if a bit aggressive in their peddling activities); you must put your used toilet tissue in the wastepaper can, not the toilet bowl (!); that pet guinea pig is just as likely to become the
main course at dinner (!); pre-Inca tribes were present in Peru long before the time of Jesus; it's literally a breathtaking trek when you climb 209 uneven steps at an altitude of 9,500 feet; the Inca civilization would probably be more respected if it had had a written language; we had many good looks at the famous Southern Cross constellation; snipers are stationed at dig sites to prevent looting; we visited a shaman named Enrique, and his spiel made as much sense to me as any organized religion; the alcoholic drinks chicha and pisco saur have a kick; we chewed coca leaves to help alleviate altitude sickness; lava fields are not made for strolling; Quito, Ecuador, has beautiful colonial buildings, plus you get the chance to have your picture taken standing on the equator. (Photo below: View of street in Quito, Ecuador)

Tea party folks would love Peru: There's no welfare, no Social Security, no Medicare. You're on your own, which accounts for the hundreds of thousands who live in shanty towns ringing the capital Lima, a city of 9 million. I think I saw our future.

My advice: If you're going to visit Machu Picchu or walk the many Inca trails or swelter in the Galapagos, do it while you're young.

And if you can find any airport other than the hellish one in Miami to go through, do it.

E-Mail: Commander Coconut

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