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The Peruvian Experience: Macchu Pichu

A week into my stay in Peru, I finally got the chance to visit Macchu Pichu. For as long as I can remember I’ve been fascinated by the idea of lost cities, both fictional and real, and I can still vividly remember the day when I first heard about the discovery of the ancient Incan complex, deep in the Peruvian jungle. On that cold, rainy day more than ten years ago, even as I cracked open the encyclopaedia I still felt a rush of excitement at the thought of seeing the stone ruins.

We didn’t trek straight into the Macchu Pichu complex, as I was hoping we would. We didn’t take the Inca Trail – the route which leads straight up to the Sun Gate at Macchu Pichu – but instead, trekked through the Lares Valley to the old sun temple at Ollantaytambo and got the train to Macchu Pichu Pueblo, where we stayed the night. Our tickets had been bought well in advance, and so when we arrived at our hostel, all we had to do was wait for the next morning, when our chance to see the lost city would come.

It was an incredibly early start. We set off at sunrise and climbed onto a tour bus, breakfast in hand, as we wound our way up the mountain path. Vines and creepers surrounded us; crawling down the mountain on one side, while a sheer drop was on the other. We drove higher and higher, the jungle plants growing thinner and thinner, until we finally reached the complex. By that time, it was about seven or eight o’clock in the morning, and the ticket barrier was already very busy. Once our tickets had been verified, we climbed another set of smooth, Incan steps, half overgrown by plants, and finally got our first glimpse of Macchu Pichu.

It was incredible.

The enormous stone ruins were half-open to the elements, making the open rooftops look like the ribs of a skeleton. Huge terraces ringed the mountainside in steep, narrow steps, running right up to the summit, which was half-hidden by plants. The smooth, pale stone gleamed in the early morning sunlight, making the complex beneath our feet look as if it was almost glowing. Vines, trees and flowers crawled up the mountainside and the ruins came down to meet them, disappearing into the jungle as they crept further down the mountain. And above it all, the enormous mountain of Huayna Pichu towered over us, silent and dark.

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It was, without a doubt, one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen.

Because we arrived so early in the morning, the site was relatively quiet. We were by no means the only tourists there, but the complex was quiet enough that we occasionally had patches of the ruins to ourselves. They were more than beautiful; as we explored the Incan city the old buildings towered over us, crumbling in places but still majestic. We wound our way through tiny paths and steep steps in the quiet, still morning, half-lost among the ruins. At the centre of the city there was a small field, where llamas and alpacas were grazing. Occasionally they got bored and climbed out of their pen to explore alongside us, and more than once we turned a corner to find ourselves face to face with an angry-looking llama, as though we had wandered into its living room. As we moved through the old city and the day grew hotter, we saw more and more tourists, until by the time we left – around midday – the place was completely packed.

I’ve tried my best to do the city of Macchu Pichu justice, but words will always fall short when describing a place like that. It’s far more than just looking at the ruins; it’s more like standing in the midst of history, or finding a little pocket of the world that time has left in peace. With so many of the old Incan complexes destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors, seeing something so whole and so untouched almost felt like a gift. It is highly likely that there are other lost Incan cities hiding somewhere in the Peruvian jungle; countless Incan paths – smooth, paved paths, not just dirt tracks – have been found leading away from Macchu Pichu and spiralling off into the jungle. Those paths must have gone somewhere, although nobody knows where. The thought that there are dozens, possibly hundreds of old Incan cities just waiting to be discovered is an incredible one. Perhaps, in the future, they will be discovered by someone much luckier than I am, and whoever pulls back the vines and looks upon the cities for the first time in centuries will get to see the Incan civilisation as it was meant to be – ancient, proud and untouched.

But until that day, we must let Macchu Pichu keep its secrets.

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The Peruvian Experience: Saqsaywaman

On our third day in Peru we began the acclimatisation process. Altitude sickness can be fatal, so it was incredibly important that we adjusted in enough time before the trek. We went on a short walk up to the Incan ruins of Saqsaywaman, which was about 3800m above sea level at the highest point. We spent a morning climbing up to and exploring the ruins, and then headed home feeling thoroughly pleased with ourselves.

The ruins themselves were spectacular. No-one knows what the complex was intended for – our guides maintained it was the temple of the lightning god, whereas some historians believe it was a mountain fortress – but it is truly something to behold. Dark, hulking stone makes up the walls, each rock taller than a grown man. The smooth, neatly cut boulders fit together seamlessly, running along the hillside in a long, zigzag pattern and rows of terraces are cut into the earth. Historical documents say that when the conquistadors invaded, much of the fighting was concentrated around the site, and after the battle was one the Spanish invaders took apart most of the original Incan buildings and used the stone to build their own settlements. However, much of the site still remains intact. When I stood up on the hill, the last remnants of the Incan settlement sprawling out beneath my feet, I was struck by a sense of real awe. Despite the best efforts of the Spanish invaders to destroy it, the Incan legacy has lasted for centuries.

The rest of the acclimatisation trek was relatively easy. Our guides had chosen a route that took us up to the altitude we needed to reach, but avoided the steeper paths. We went through some truly beautiful countryside. Enormous green hills, some spotted with grey and brown rocks, were on our every side, twisting chaca trees lining the paths, while the city of Cusco lay miles below us. I loved seeing the city from a distance; watching the bustling city from the peace of the mountains is a strangely relaxing experience.

Then, we headed back into Cusco, where we had the afternoon free to explore. We spent a few hours climbing up the steep, stone streets with nothing in particular to do. We made our way past stalls groaning with colourful woven blankets, shop windows twinkling with hand-made jewellery, and restaurants with the windows thrown open, so the smell of roasting alpaca wafted down into the street. Dawdling through the streets of Cusco is perfectly safe, but it’s very difficult to go far without being stopped by a street seller. Most of them will leave you alone if you tell them you aren’t interested a couple of times, but on one memorable occasion two women came barrelling out of nowhere, pulled a lamb out of their shirt, threw it at my chest and asked me to pay for holding it.

The next day, the real work began.

The Final Countdown.

Well, this is it. I have made my fundraising total and tomorrow, I will be setting off for Lima. From there, I will travel to Cusco, and there I will start the trek up to Macchu Pichu, the ruins of the ancient Incan city.

 

I’m bricking it.

 

But amongst the general malaise of excitement and fear that surrounds my imminent adventure, I have to admit that I’m very proud of what I’ve done. I’m proud to have raised money for such a fantastic charity, I’m proud of the friends and family who have supported me and I’m proud of myself for pushing myself to do something that, just one year ago, I would never have dreamed of doing. I only just managed to scrape together my funds – in the end, it was only a few well-timed donation and the entirety of my waitressing wages that pushed me towards the total, but I don’t regret it for a second.

 

None of this would have been possible without the help and support of my friends, and in particular my family. They have seen me through countless panics, be it over fundraising, insurance and vaccinations, and without their support I would be lost. I am very grateful to have so many wonderful people prepared to help me with my crazy adventures, and it means the world to me that they would lend their support to my deeply ridiculous schemes. I love you guys.

 

With that, there is nothing more for me to say apart from thank you, and goodbye. It’s been awesome.

Living Below the Line – Day Three

Third day of living below the line. Things are starting to get difficult, I’m getting lots of headaches and I’m rapidly losing energy. But it’s all for a good cause; every donation will go directly to charity.

If you can spare even just a little that would be amazing. Even a donation no more than the price of a cup of tea is enough to make a difference to someone’s life.

Please support my efforts by donating here: https://www.myraising.com/jo-harwood/incatrek2013