More than Words // MachuPicchu & Amazonia // Peru > click the photo below for full story <
Sometimes things just flow so easy… We met Emily’s parents with a welcome sign at the Cusco airport, Colette hopping the gate to run into their open arms. The rent-a-car guy was there with the combi-van WB had rented. Colette rode with Oma & Granpere in their van, following the Westy for the hour and a half ride to the Sacred Valley. We ambled past patchwork fields of fall corn tied together in large bundles, purple flowered potato plants, and rows of tall eucalyptus dividing it all. The sky presented a glorious welcome display, puffy white clouds draped over the dramatic mountain peaks.
Then again, things can change rather quickly. In our rear-view mirror we noticed only one headlight working on the rental. Then the directions got a bit, um how shall we say, South American? You know, “past the sign for this and that, follow the white adobe wall” since there isn’t a street address for the house we would be staying at for the next 5 days. SO, Warren took the lead… and when the small side road split, he veered left, the road becoming narrower and then both wheels were in the ditch.
The item on our van which draws perhaps the most stares from strangers is the Hi-Lift Jack from GoWesty. Bolted to the front bumper and zippered in a neoprene wetsuit, it is quite a sight. Adam unstrapped the 35 pound steel machine, and set to figuring out how to lift the van, when the chassy was sitting on the road… With the help of some friendly locals gathering and stacking rocks under the tires, the van got un-stuck, and off to the house we drove.
The night, however, had a few more awful and annoying tricks up her sleeve and it was late before we FINALLY settled in. Exhausted & happy to be together, we smiled and swore that with what seemed like every possible mishap out of the way, we felt sure that the rest of our time together would be spectacular! (Spoiler alert: it was!)
We 5 (Adam, Emily, Colette, Warren & Suzie) enjoyed a relaxing morning at the beautiful & spacious home in Urubama before heading off to explore nearby Ollantaytambo. Built below the Incan ruins, the city is the closest post for the train to Machu Picchu and as such, sees a lot of tourists come thru. The town, surprisingly, maintains a unique charm that has not been overrun by the many eager feet that pass thru. Masters of terracing and aqueducts, the monolithic ruins remain a reminder of the ingenuity of the Inca.
Our mouths were agape at the beautifully clad women casually spinning wool, whilst walking the roads or taking a rest. The Sacred Valley of the Inca is still very much a well of ancient culture that resides within this modern world.
My mother has said “Your father was an interested and loving dad to you three, but he is absolutely, over-the-top as a grandfather.” It’s true, he is coo coo for his Coco-puff (and conversely, she for her Granpere).
There is a grounding and peace that comes from having family visit- there is no explaining your ‘story’ or your idiosyncrasies, you are who you are, and in fact they have helped shape who you are. Truly blessed.
From Ollantatambo, we wound up the narrow dusty road towards Machu Picchu, enjoying the grand vistas of the Sacred Valley and our time together. The 5,400 pools of Salineras de Maras were built in pre-inca times and are fed by the highly salty water that emerges from a natural spring in the mountains.
The scale of these terraced pools is overwhelming! Can you spot the salt-farmer in the bottom, right?
Like salty stalagmites, the formations of the crystalline walls create a blinding light at mid-day. The natural formations have endless variations: towering pinnacles, bulbous warty walls and floating salt snowflakes.
Traditionally any person wishing to harvest salt could gain permission from the local co-operative and farm their own pools.
The color of the harvested salt depends on the skill of the salt miner and ranges from pure white to reddish-brown. Emily eagerly purchased salt from the shops for our personal pantry.
Close to Maras is the agricultural phenomenon of Moray atop the high plateau at 11,500 feet. These huge circles were (thought to be) an Inca laboratory to study how different crops would grow at various temperatures. Top to bottom the difference can vary by 27 degrees! A sophisticated drainage system was dug through the mountain and pops out of the other side. Damaged by heavy rains, the eastern side of the primary circle collapsed in 2010 and precariously awaits repair. Yes, that is a real place, a real picture, a real moment. The majesty of the Sacred Valley extends up her flanks as the thin air seems to let an otherworldly light filter thru the strata.
After searching the tiny dark streets of Urubamba, we finally located the much raved about restaurant El Huacatay. Thankfully, it was worth the search and we were rewarded with some of the finest Nuevo-Andean Cuisine our happy mouths had yet to experience. A Coco-sandwich is really the only way to make the dazzling day any sweeter.
Sunrise early rays kiss the top of Chicon, or Ch’iqun, as we set off to Cusco airport to pick up Laura!
It is a joyful reunion for all, but especially Colette & Auntie Lolo. In Los Angeles, Laura lives in the back house and was a daily fixture for the first 21 months of Colette’s life!
In the Plaza de Armas, talented weavers from all over congregate to sell their wares directly to the throngs of tourists and travelers that come to Cusco (ourselves included). Dexterously handling the strings that she spun on her drop-spindle (from her sheep that she shorn), this weaver shuttled the lead weft through her finger loom, creating intricate patterns.
A striking Quechua man in the winding San Blas streets above the plaza.
The main cathedral is not only filled with some of the finest paintings from the “Cusco School,” it also makes a fine resting place.
No, Cusco is not that liberal. This flag represents Tawantin Suyu or “Inca territory” and is the ethnic flag of the Quechua Amerindians which live in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and even Argentina & Colombia.
We 6 piled atop an open-air bus for a tour of the city. It was a sunny afternoon, and we gladly popped coca-leaf candies as we sipped our cold Cusqueno beers, leaving the driving to someone else for once.
Cristo Blanco spreads his arms wide over the city. Llamas and musicians clustered around the statue, the music drifting across the valley. The sheer joy of the musician was so palpable, it was contagious!
This doña was perched atop the hill as well, dishing up the simplest and tastiest boiled potatoes & boiled eggs served with cilantro-chile sauce. Warm and sweet toasted barley tea washed it down- all for about 75cents.
Nearby Saksaywaman, pronounced like a drunkenly slurred “sexy woman”. The huge boulders are fitted together with no mortar, and are the largest of this construction in the Americas. This military fortress is today used for tai-chi, soccer and the winter solstice celebration Inti Raymi.
Just about the only reason to wake up at 4:45 am- is to visit Machu Picchu. That’s right folks, Machu-fuckin-Picchu! The 6 of us excitedly loaded onto the “Vista-Dome” train for an hour and a half ride with a view, up the narrow canyon from Ollantatambo to Aguas Calientes.
From Aguas Calientes, we got our bus tickets and loaded on for the switchback intensive 20 minute ride up the steep incline. We were much surprised to feel how ‘tropical’ the area felt compared to the dry altiplano, and at 7,972 feet it was almost balmy!
We joined the eager throngs, lining up for the que to enter the famed peak…ooh, the anticipation…
… and then BOOM, we are at Machu Picchu!
The grandeur and awesome power of the “Lost City of the Inca” is heart-filling! LOOK at this beautiful ancient city! Machu Picchu is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World- and rightly so!
Perfectly camouflaged, a chinchilla surprised us as it leapt from room to room.
The millions of stones are fitted together without the use of mortar- a building style called ashlar which was a signature of Inca architecture. Peru is a highly seismic area and this building style was more earthquake resistant than construction using mortar as stones could shift slightly then resettle without collapse.
Several theories exist as to the use of Machu Picchu, such as it was a palace for the coronation of kings, a prison, or agricultural testing station, but most popular is as a religious site. Ritual burial sites found under platforms and the stylistic stonework that is only found at other religious sites are key factors to this accepted hypothesis. When you are atop this glorious structure, the feeling is very sacred, the valley resonates a green vibration. As if the layers of time have been peeled back, you can imagine the sounds of life in the bustling complex. Machu Picchu has a top capacity of 4,000 visitors per day, and even then the city is so well planned that it does not feel crowded among the many steeps and rooms.
Like so many before us, we joyfully smile amongst the magic of the hilltop temple.
The peak we commonly think of as Machu Picchu, is actually Huayna Picchu, meaning “young peak” in Quechua. The peak behind the lower levels is Machu Picchu the “old peak.”
The trapezoidal shapes of doors and windows are a hallmark of Inca building style, the sacred shape proving to be more stable, not to mention visually appealing, than a rectangle.
Oma, Granpere & Colette left on an earlier train, leaving us 3 to continue the exhilarating stair-intensive day of discovery.
At about 2pm, the crowds broke and Machu Picchu, earlier a dizzy place of harried exploration full of flag bearing leaders of mass tours, became a quiet medetative temple. The remaining people breathing a collective sigh in harmony with the earth.
To the west we followed a trail for 20 minutes towards the Inca Bridge. The stone path was used as a secret entrance into Machu Picchu for the Inca army.
Precariously carved into the side of the sheer cliff, the trail is left with a 20 foot gap that is bridged with wood… below it drops over 1,900 feet to the canyon floor. Hopping the fence and climbing on this prohibited structure in *not* recommended.
Just around the corner from Machu Picchu is this huge hydro-electric plant. It generates 90 MW of power for Cusco, Puno & Apurimac regions.
As soon as the sun set behind Huayna Picchu, the guards blew their whistles and ushered the few remaining visitors out. We caught the last bus down the switchbacks to Aguas Calientes and had an hour to wander before boarding the train back to Ollantatambo.
In the Sacred Valley, we headed east towards Pisac, meandering the paved road that follows the rivers grassy banks.
A huge clay oven is fired up as the Sunday crowds converge for roasted potatoes and cuy relleno, guinea pig stuffed with parsley, black mint, oregano, green onions, cleaned and boiled innards, then topped with crushed toasted peanuts.
Baby animals are a favored ‘prop’ for the locals… nothing draws a toddler faster than a little goat with a colorful necklace! Mother’s Day was a relaxing day together with 3 generations soaking up the rich and vibrant culture of Peru’s abundant heartland.
Our beautiful time in the Sacred Valley as a family had come to a close. We boarded the plane for opposite effects in hot, humid climate of the Amazon! These beautifully segmented jeweled pools are not as dazzling as they look. This is what used to be a river, and has been broken up by gold miners. Toxic mercury and other heavy metals are used to separate flecks of ore from rock, these pools a scar that will not quickly recover from the damages inflicted.
The terra cotta colored Madre de Dios river winds her serpentine path through the thick bio-diverse expanse of the emerald Amazon basin. What a mighty sight!
In Puerto Maldonado, we transfer from the airport to our first taste of river life on the Madre de Dios. Loaded in for our first of many boat rides, we cruise down river to Corto Maltes Amazonia Lodge, our indulgent base camp for the next week.
This trip into the jungle was not geared for r&r- it was hit the ground running (with plenty of sunscreen and bug spray)! Our guide Jose was the kindest, most conscientious person AND a passionate wealth of information about all the marvelous and unique flora & fauna of the region. Colette loved Jose’s demonstration of the “parrots nose” heliconia! Here, the mighty 2″ long bullet ant creeps- but beware! A bite from these ants can cause a week-long high fever. Some tribes use these in rites of initiation for young men- putting these ants in gloves that the boys must brave before becoming men. Yikes!
Camphor is used medicinally to relieve aches and pains and these branches smell just like a Thai massage parlor!
Here, the “mother vine” ayahuasca curls around a tree which has been long used for divinatory and healing purposes by many Amazonian tribes. The brewed decoction is a strong cleanser, which causes chills, vomiting and diarrhea for many, but shamans explain this represents the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one’s life. Translating to “vine of the soul” in Quechua, most report a profound and positive change to their life after having faced their demons through this channel.
Jose pointed to this spiny palm tree and asked “What do you think these were used for?”
Adam promptly replied “To blow dart monkeys!”
Wait a second… he wasn’t joking. The protective spines of the palm were used in hollowed out bamboo mouth guns, the tips of these ‘arrows’ were dipped in poisonous frog extraction or the tincture from paralytic plants.
This humble looking leaf has become quite popular by a certain robed gentleman from Hollywood. If you break the leaf in half, it unfolds itself popping back upright… that’s right folks, you are looking at natures viagra! Only 1% of the plant species within the Amazon have been studied and over 25% of western pharmaceuticals are derived from here. The natives believe nature holds a cure for every ailment. With such vast diversity, it seems this may be true, but our challenge is to preserve what remains instead of destroying it.
After dinner one evening, we set out for a night tour along the banks of the Madre de Dios River. We spotted the largest rodent in the world- this mama capybara and her young! Adults average 4 feet in length and weigh from 75- 150 lbs! They curiously stared at us from the banks, not at all afraid of us humans with flashing cameras. Far more cautious of humans are the dwarf caiman, the smallest species of crocodile. We would have never spotted him hiding under the branch on the rivers edge, if not for our eagle-eyed guides. Early the next morning (this was a theme!), we took a walk to the clay licks in hopes of spotting the macaws, parakeets and parrots that gather on the cliffs, licking the salty clay. Jose, spotting a ‘special’ looking hole at the base of a tree, grabbed a stick to entice the possible resident out. He was successful, and out came a spider at which we gasped! He laughed and said that it was only the baby. He further prodded and out came this behemoth tarantula! This is the Goliath Birdeater, also locally called the chicken spider because 1) it can kill and eat chickens and 2) the mother will shroud her young under her legs as she runs thru the forest floor, looking like a chicken with her young. A slight mis-nomer, these spiders primarily feed on insects and not birds, but can also eat frogs, lizards, bats and even poisonous snakes. This is the second largest spider in the world, but may be the largest in the world by mass!
Colette was ready to spot the birds from inside the blind. Unfortunately, the guides said the birds are rather skittish of human voices, and a certain excited toddler couldn’t contain a few outbursts. It was also a little drizzly, which keeps the birds away, so no earth-licking avians were spotted. Perhaps another day! After breakfast, we headed out for a long day at Lago Sandoval. Jose forewarned about the heat of the uncovered boat ride, many insects and long hike down a trail so muddy, you must wear golashes- so Oma opted to stay with Colette at the resort, enjoying the swimming pool and some alone time instead.
A few hundred years ago, the lake was an “S” curve in the river, and as the vegetation grew from the edges, the surrounding jungle has remained swampy. This meander below may one day be a lake.
The air was thick as sweat pearled down our noses and backs, butterflies flitted about the shaded understory, and we trudged up, down and around the slippery mud trail. These parts of the rainforest only have a thin top-layer of soil, and below is clay, so the tallest trees, such a the massive cieba, have giant butresses to help prevent them falling over!
Lodges on the lake must transport everything in via boat- apparently some remodeling of sorts was going on, as these strong porters carried wheelbarrows of tiles and construction materials to the canoes.
Through the creepy stillness, the jungle finally gave way, breaking to reveal the perfectly still Lago Sandoval.
Aguaje palm trees are an important source of food for macaw, monkeys, flycatcher birds, fish and is also a popular human fruit used in jams, juice and even wine. They are semi-aquatic, having two types of roots- one for water, one for land.
This wild lookin’ bird is the hoatzin and is a trippy bird indeed. Roughly the size of a pheasant, these tropical birds have bizarre calls which can range from rough squalky barks to guttural groans to raspy hisses, which has earned them the nickname of “asthma bird.” They are herbivores and have a funky digestive system, which makes them smell like manure & taste awful!
This charming fellow is one in the troop of about a hundred squirrel monkeys we saw! They chattered unceasingly, as they leapt daringly at the lakes edge from branch to branch. Laura just about exploded in delight! We saw some kids swimming on the edge of the lake and joked that would we have known, we certainly would have brought our swimsuits. “Welllll, I don’t think you would want to.” Jose quickly chimed “There are caiman, piranha, sting rays, giant otters and even a rare anaconda that live in there.” Well, in that case, no thank you… We prayed these monkeys caught their intended branch, lest we witness any of them aforementioned critters having a mid-day monkey lunch.
After a long return hike we loaded onto the motorboat to enjoy the cool breeze as we drove back to the lodge. It is a miraculous difference how much relief is gained by having some moving air hit your face.
We returned to discover Colette had made a new friend!
Day 3 started at a more humane hour, and we set off by boat as always for a languorous ride to an animal rescue and rehabilitation center, Amazon Planet. Amazon Amerindians would use army ants to suture open wounds! Instructions look something like this: 1) catch army ant by the butt 2) place pinchers where you desire a stitch 3) let ant bite into flesh & bite shut 4) pinch off body, leaving head in place 5) voila!
The rescue center rehabilitates wounded animals and also takes many from the black market pet trade and held for a short period of time before they are released.
Preciosa the stunning jaguar, was brought to the rescue as a cub. She is super playful! Unfortunately, she will not be released, as her familiarity and interest in humans is too great. Remote cameras dot the surrounding forest to gather data and track wild animals in the vicinity. Here, the elusive Amazonian Emily.
From the rescue center we took a hike to the tallest canopy overlook in Peru. Certainly not the grandiose modern feats we traversed in Costa Rica, this had a flair and exhilarating fear factor all its own!
From the top of the mighty cieba tree, we felt the light breeze that only reaches these tallest emergent trees, the tree ever-so-slightly swayed above the canopy. Down on the rainforest floor, no such breeze can penetrate the dark, damp bottom layer of this complex ecosystem.
It is really difficult to capture the scale and angle of this last portion of the rickety bridge, but we think you can get a feel for it here!
Back on the boat we set off for the long ride back to camp, enjoying the serenity of this beautiful Rio Madre de Dios. Each day, each ride down the river, we had that magic element of *time* to simply sit and ponder.
We saw the ravages from the air. Here we saw the damage being done first hand by some illegal gold miners. Over 100,000 people are employed in this market, which is estimated at $640 million US dollars a year! Our guides told us about 300 new migrants, usually from the highlands, arrive to the Amazon basin daily to try their stakes in this nuevo gold rush, as the global price for gold continues to skyrocket.
Make-shift rigs spew diesel fumes from one end, as they slurp the muddy river bottom up, spitting the sludge through high pressure hoses into a sieve that catches the larges pieces of sediment. This liquid then slides down the front slide, where the gold ore is caught in carpets. At days end, the carpets are rinsed in barrels with mercury, where the gold flake adheres to the mercury. These toxic metal blobs are then set in a frying pan to cook off the mercury, which is then turned into a gas thats very dangerous to breathe.
“Fwee-meen wiff Gramm-pear!” The pool was a much appreciated luxury and the perfect way to rejuvenate between activities.
The resident scarlet macaw gets weird in the bushes amidst the beautiful grounds.
Yes, that does look like bliss on her face; Colette sleeping peacefully in Oma’s arms.
This lovely fruit farmer is 93 years old; He farmed ‘organic’ before organic existed. We toured his farm, sampling the fresh cacao, red peppers and mandarins. Over 30 types of herbs, fruit and vegetables are grown on the property including, turmeric, sugar cane, corn, lemons, chili peppers, yuca, beans & plantain.
This is the huito fruit- the blue seeds are used like henna for temporary tattoos which last about 2 weeks. A tea is also made from the pods, which causes abortion and is used for young girls who get pregnant, an issue that Jose said is common.
All the pretty ladies!
After our farm visit, we went to visit this family from the Ese Eja tribe. It is estimated there are only 1,800 of this tribe living. He explained that missionaries brought his grandparents to the Madre de Dios river from deeper in the Amazon. They were taught the Christian faith, to wear western clothes & to speak Spanish. They have remained in the area, but returned to their roots.
The patriarch is quite a character, and relished the opportunity to teach us about his culture. He would speak in his lyrical Ese Eja language, speaking it like a song, which had soft tones that would be interjected by long “eeeeehhhhhya” type of sounds, not at all reminiscent to Quechwa or Spanish which we have been hearing. He would then translate what he had just said into Spanish and Jose would translate to English.
Hunting is done by traditional bow & arrow, no sugar or salt is eaten, fish are caught from the (polluted) river surrounding their island, and they grow fruits and vegetables. Clothing is made from palm tree branches which are washed and worked into a soft natural material. Pannels are stitched together simply, the garment is never washed- simply thrown out to decompose when it is “too dirty” (but who knows what that line is).
Jose joked that he tried in vain for half an hour, only having blisters to show for his efforts. The patriarch’s son (sorry I forgot to write their names down!) used bamboo and some coconut bark fiber to twist a fire to life in a matter of 30 seconds. The patriarch then stomped out the fire with his bare feet (!), gathering the unburnt material to use again.
Granddaughter Daisy was pretty sweet. She even showed us her pet agouti, which will eventually be dinner.
Colette is suddenly a big girl, climbing down earth embankments with such confidence.
Closing time always seems to come too soon and our time in the incredible Amazon was no exception. We laughed into the wee hours playing “salad bowl,” drinking wine & tropical cocktails, and soaking up our sweet time together. The next morning we loaded onto our trusty motorboat and set back to Puerto Maldonado.
We all six took the same plane from Puerto Maldonado to Cusco, where we 3 departed to continue life in our beloved Westy.
A teary and joyful goodbye was had as we disembarked the plane, leaving Oma, Granpere & Auntie Lolo to travel to Lima, then back to the US of A. We three, spoiled from our unbelievably good time together (Machu Picchu & the Amazon!!!), prepared ourselves for the next chapter on our journey.