SOUTH AMERICA BLOG 13

Tuesday Feb 22, 2011

CHRISTCHURCH EARTHQUAKE:

This blog-entry (a long one and a late one) has been greatly overshadowed by events that happened this day in Christchurch. News of the awful earthquake reached us in Peru – and it was with sad and anxious hearts that we began our homeward journey. By the time you read this, we’ll be back in New Zealand. Our thoughts and prayers go to all those caught up in this tragedy …

I’m not often lost for words. But, as I sit here at a café table in Santiago Airport (Chile), attempting at last to give you that full report I promised on magical Machu Picchu, I truly don’t know where to start. I mean, like the Peruvian Andes, the Sacred Valley and the Lost City itself, the scale of what we’ve seen over the past few days is so vast that it’s hard to get your head around.

So, if you don’t mind, I’ll take it in stage-by-stage bites …

1. CUZCO: PERU’S MOUNTAIN-TOWN

Our extra-early Friday morning flight from Lima to Cuzco took us up-and-into the rugged, cloud-scraping Andes – and, from my window-seat, I got a bird’s-eye view of what was in store for us, as coastal plains gave way to ever-steeper mountains, ever-deeper gorges, and (in the far distance) ever-higher snowy peaks and ridges.

Hard to imagine a more spectacular setting for our about-to-start Andean adventure …

Cuzco, set in one of those valleys, was once the foremost city of the Incan Empire – but today it plays host to hordes of tourists (just like us) who pass through en route to Machu Picchu. Massive Inca-built walls line steep, narrow, cobblestone streets … plazas and markets are thronging with local Quechua Indians, all decked out in colourful garments (and all trying desperately to sell us the same range of souvenirs and postcards) … and ancient treasures are carefully guarded inside colonial mansions and churches.

This city of 400,000 residents sits at 3200 metres (10,600 feet) above sea-level. Machu Picchu’s a little lower, at 2400 meters (7900 feet). And, within minutes of getting off the plane, we were feeling the affects of altitude – wheezing like asthmatics after the slightest exertion, and feeling like concrete-blocks had somehow been tied to our shoes.

But there was no lying down and resting for us Kiwis: we had places to go and people to see!

We dropped our big suitcases at the Costa Del Sol Picoaga Hotel, grabbed a quick breakfast, and piled into a small bus for a two-hour trip along the Sacred Valley to the Indian town of Pisac and its famous market.

From there, we pressed on (past rumpty roadside shop-fronts and mud-brick houses) to the remarkable Incan fortress of Ollantaytambo – accessed by a steep staircase, and featuring the massive Temple of the Sun (formed from six huge rectangular monoliths weighing 50 tons each). Finally, en route to dinner and bed at the lovely Casa Andina Sacred Valley Hotel, we were overtaken by a noisy, colourful street parade – and given an up-close example of local Indian culture.

Wonderful? You bet!

2. UNFORGETTABLE MACHU PICCHU

Saturday morning saw us out of bed early (again) for our pick-up-and-transfer to the railway station – where we boarded a luxury tourist train that carried us alongside the cascading Urubamba River through heart-stopping, vertical-sided, neck-straining gorges. Then, leaving the train, we rode one of a fleet of small buses up a twisting, edge-of-the-cliff dirt road (around no less than 22 hairpin-bends!) to fantastic Machu Picchu, set on a green saddle between stunning high peaks.

Mere words and photos can’t possibly convey what we saw and learned up there. But, for what it’s worth, here’s a little history …

Six hundred years ago, at the height of the Incan Empire, Machu Picchu was a bustling centre of culture, cultivation and worship. But this vast city-of-stone was never quite finished – and, today, it’s a silent shell: narrow stairways and alleyways wind among empty homes, temples, town squares, and astrological sites … and a still-functioning water system bears witness to lives long departed. In the late 1400s, something disastrous happened – and Machu Picchu was abandoned!

Nobody knows why, for sure. Best guess? The city’s leadership got news that the Spaniards had landed down on the coast – and while Incan warriors went to meet the invaders, the remaining population simply melted into the jungle. And no-one lived here again until an American explorer, Hiram Bingham, cleared away the encroaching overgrowth and exposed this astonishing sight in 1911.

We oohed and aahed and puffed and panted and climbed and clambered all over the ruins. And then, as light rain fell following our buffet lunch, we did more of the same.

An unforgettable day? You’d better believe it! The Lost City of the Incas will have us enthusing for many years to come …

3. BIRDS OF THE CLOUD-FOREST

This tour (like our African safari) has been a nature-lovers treat. And I can’t help adding a mention (plus a few pix) of the stunning birds we’ve encountered here in the Peruvian Andes.

While driving from Cuzco to the Sacred Valley, we spotted an adult woodpecker perched on a fence. (And, nearby, we spotted a baby, peering out from its nest-hole in a cliff.) But it was in the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and its surrounding acres of flora and fauna that we Kiwis got serious about bird-watching.

This fabulous eco-hotel, established deep in the ‘cloud forest’ behind the village of Aguas Calientes, is home to a gorgeous collection of native orchids and birds – and we spent much of the next day watching tiny, multi-coloured fruit-eaters, fly-catchers and nectar-drinkers flit and dart and feed amongst the branches just above our heads.

Of special appeal to me and my assistant-photographer were the extra-tiny hummingbirds: their delicate wings doing a blurring 100 beats per second as they hovered over feeders the staff had hung in the trees!

Cock of the Rock

And then, a rare treat: a brilliant orange-red Cock of the Rock (Peru’s national bird, bigger than a Tui) decided to touch down in the garden, right before our eyes!

Lost for words? Almost!

Yours bloggedly – JOHN