A pilgrim in Peru: Part Four, visiting Machu Picchu at sunrise

On Day Four I awoke as the sun was just starting to tint the sky, and made my way to the Aguas Calientes bus stop. With about two dozen Peruvian guides and Western and Japanese tourists, I piled into the bus for the weaving 1500-foot ascent to a place I’d been dreaming of visiting for decades: Machu Picchu. I’d finally set foot there the day before and wandered its time-bridging grounds, but I’d felt like I was missing something, the connection wasn’t quite complete: I had to get there for the sunrise. As the bus jounced and switchbacked through the lightening dawn, this feeling weighed undeniably in my stomach and my head: a yearning, an expectation.

As the sky brightened, I worried that I was too late. But I had forgotten that Machu Picchu, despite its high altitude, is still a bowl surrounded by towering peaks. I raced up to the site and saw with relief that while the peaks to the west were tipped with bright sunlight, the ruins were still in shade. I made my way directly to the sun dial, known as Intihuatana or “hitching post of the sun,” which sits atop a pyramid-like construct of terrace and wall in the site’s northwest quadrant.

I positioned myself at the sun dial and waited, absorbing the stony stillness and the fresh scent of grass, the texture of tree. I watched the sun’s rays light the peaks behind and around me, slowly getting higher and higher, closer and closer.Minutes passed. The molecules in the air ever so slightly brightened. Then, in a suspended moment, light flared over the top of the mountain directly in front and touched the sun dial.

I was looking through the lens of my camcorder when it happened, and at the moment the sun appeared, rays shot out in six searing streaks at 45-degree angles. I felt like one streak was searing through me as well. I felt transfixed, transformed. For a suspended moment I felt drawn into the sun, enwrapped by the sun, plucked into some profound energy-stream of sun worship that coursed through the ground where I stood. This flowing energy seemed to stitch through me and through the world around me – the sun dial, the rock plazas, doorways and walls, the temples and the terraces. For a moment I felt a thoughtless understanding, a pure, empty-headed universe-connection, a solar spear-tip that pierced my heart and soul.

Then it was gone. A group of gossiping students clambered over the rocks, guides replayed their learned lectures, camera-wielding couples postured and posed. But somehow, everything had been transformed.

In retrospect, all I can say is that some deep energy radiates from that place. It’s a combination of the altitude, the pristine quality of the ruins themselves, the purity of the air and the sky and the sun – and something else too, a kind of spiritual energy that courses like water-springs through the site. I had felt it on the Sacred Plaza and by the Temple of the Sun, but I felt it especially at Intihuatana at dawn: the hitching post of the sun.

At mid-morning Manuel joined me and we took a walk along the Inca Trail. Most trekkers take the trail from Ollantaytambo or from an intermediate stop called Kilometer 104 along the rail line to Aguas Calientes, but Manuel and I met at the Watchman’s Hut and walked up the trail in the opposite direction, away from the ruins and toward the Sun Gate, or Intipunku, where trekkers first see Machu Picchu. We shared the paved path with orchids and llamas and workers who were trying to repair one section of the trail that had been weakened during the rains. Looking into the jungle to the right of the trail we could see more Inca walls in the thick shade. Manuel said there were probably Inca walls scattered throughout the mountains. The dense slopes seemed alive with them, echoing with the spirit of the people who tilled, ate, and slept, planted, played and prayed here 500 years before.

We reached Intipunku and then continued along the Inca Trail away from the site. We descended into a world of luxurious blossoms and thick cloud forest shadows. I remarked to Manuel that I was amazed by how well the path was paved, and he told me that at its height, the Inca empire had been laced by a network of 19,000 miles of trails, virtually all paved. I stopped and touched my hand to the rough stone and tried to conjure the imagination and organization, technology and toil, required to complete such a feat. I tried to picture the worker who had placed the very stone on which I stood, whose fingers had touched the very pocks and ridges my fingertips traced. What did he eat? Where did he sleep? What did he dream?

We walked for a half hour to a point where we could see another ruin on a mountain slope: Winay Wayna, a cleared site most trekkers detour to explore. I thought of the deep-shaded walls we’d passed before – who knew what secret cities these vast jungle fastnesses still held?

The trails wound on and on, I realized, some into the cloud forest fastnesses, some into the secret cities of the soul. And on this lonely, well-trod mountain trail, I finally felt whole.

Manuel and I returned to Aguas Calientes, where we were treated to a specially prepared lunch in the restaurant at the Sumaq Hotel, including a presentation on the proper pisco sour preparation (I sampled a number of these in the name of research) and ceviche (ditto).

After lunch we drove to Cusco, and John and Manuel dropped me at Inkaterra La Casona, a colonial house that has been lovingly converted into a stylish and exclusive hideaway – so exclusive that there’s not even a name over the door and I had to knock to be let in. After settling into this true home away from home, I explored the city’s beguiling back-street mix of cathedrals and cobblestones, museums and galleries, boutiques and bars. Past and present intertwined in the ancient Inca capital, but with threads of the local and the global woven through, too. In this way, it seemed to me then, Cusco’s shawl was perhaps the richest of all.

A pilgrim in Peru: Part One, Arriving in Peru
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Two, visiting Moray, Pisaq and Ollantaytambo
A pilgrim in Peru: Part Three, arriving in Machu Picchu
Tomorrow: A pilgrim in Peru: Part Five, going to Racchi, Tipon, Pikillacta, and off the tourist trail
Related: How to hike the Inca Trail

This trip was hosted by both LAN and Geographic Expeditions, but the opinions, joy, and amazement concerning the people and sunrise in Peru are purely my own.

Peruvian adventure travel and agritourism on Lake Titicaca’s Isla Amantani

While I sat at the table with her young son, Ayun, I watched Imeliana Calcin stuff wood into the stove. Although she’d greeted me at the boat dock in a skirt and faded t-shirt, she’d changed as soon as we arrived at her family’s tiny adobe house. Now, clad in the intricately-embroidered white blouse and headscarf for which the women of Isla Amantani are famed, she was preparing sopa de quinoa for our lunch.

I was on the Peruvian side of Lake Titicaca, the
unfortunately-named, highest commercially navigable lake in the world. Amantani, like neighboring Isla Taquile, is a small, natural island (not to be confused with the famous, totora reed “Floating Islands” elsewhere on the lake) populated solely by subsistence farmers like the Calcin’s.

Since the mid-eighties, agritourism has helped provide income to the islanders. Visitors stay in modest guest rooms, or share a dwelling with families, joining meals and even helping with seasonal crop harvests, if they so desire. The islanders hold frequent dances to provide visitors a chance to interact with the communities, and learn more about Amantani’s culture.

Otherwise, there’s no other real tourism infrastructure on Amantani-no restaurants, bars, or shops, although the locals sell their embroidery at the dock. The farmstays are arranged by tour operators in the lakeside city of Puno, or through adventure travel agencies such Northern California’s Bio Bio Expeditions, the company I booked with.

The residents of Amantani and Taquile speak Quechua, the language used by various cultural groups throughout South America. The islanders, however, are more closely related to the Aymara people of the Altiplano of the Central Andes. The approximately 800 residents eke out an existence by growing quinoa, trigo (emmer wheat), corn, potatoes, and oca (a type of sweet potato); and raising sheep, chickens, pigs, alpacas, and cuy (guinea pigs, a typical indigenous dish throughout Peru). They make a mild, salty queso fresco from the milk of their cows, and sun-dry part of their potato crop to make chũno, which can be reconstituted in soups and stews for sustenance throughout the harsh winter.
I first heard about the island the previous year, while running Chilean Patagonia’s wild Futaleufu River on a Bio Bio trip.

I was really impressed by Bio Bio’s genuine regard for preserving the ecological and cultural integrity of their host countries. After learning of my interest in agritourism, Peruvian guide Piero Vellutino told me about Amantani, and suggested I visit the following summer, during the dry season. Piero-whose family is famed for their whitewater expeditions and first ascents- is National Peruvian Kayaking Champion, and an all-around badass. He and his wife, Patty, are also the Peruvian base outfitter for Bio Bio. Their company, Terra Explorer Peru, is based in Cusco, and together, the companies offer customized cultural extension trips such as cooking classes and market tours, because, Piero explains, “that’s what makes places special and distinct from one another. Water is the same everywhere.”

I booked a trip with Bio Bio to run the Apurimac River and walk the Inca Trail, then added two days on Amantani-which has excellent sea kayaking, and plenty of walking trails. Due to time constraint, I was unable to sea kayak, and instead opted to focus on food. That’s how I ended up in Imeliana’s kitchen (which also happened to be her famiy’s dining and living room, as well as bedroom). Ayun and I snacked on choclo, boiled native corn harvested that morning by his father, Esmael. When he’s not tending to his crops, Esmael can be found down by the boat dock selling blended fruit juices from a collapsible table. Entrepreneurial spirit is a necessity to support his and Imeliana’s six children, but they were genuinely sweet, gracious hosts who made me feel a part of the family.

The Calcin’s live in Colquercachi community, the largest on the tiny island. Through sign language and rudimentary Spanish on both our parts, Imeliana taught me how to prepare the soup, and described typical meals- primarily some type of grain-based soup or stew, rice and boiled potatoes, and corn. When lunch was served-brothy soup augmented with greens, potato, carrot, and onion, accompanied by fried queso fresco, and sliced cucumbers and tomatoes- several of the children straggled in from school to pick up their lunch. Imeliana portioned their meals onto aluminum plates, wrapped them in cloth, tying the ends into a handle, and sent them on their way with a dazzling smile. The meal concluded with muňa tea, a mint-like herb prized for it’s medicinal properties.

After lunch, I hiked to Pachatata, the highest point on the desolate, nine-kilometer island. I passed women harvesting potatoes in brick-red dirt fields, and men carrying sheaves of trigo upon their shoulders. At the “summit,” there is a small temple used for private rituals and feast days. Spread out beneath me in all directions lay terraced farm plots, divided by low rock walls. Far across the lake, the snow-covered Bolivian Andes were visible. Amantani is wild, and lonely, and emblematic of a way of life that-for better or for worse- has changed little in thousands of years. It’s not a luxury holiday, but it’s a rich experience that helps preserve a globally vanishing way of life.

If you visit Amantani or Taquile, it is appropriate to bring a house gift such as fresh fruit, which is difficult to find on the island, or staples such as rice, sugar, or flour. Donated clothing for the island’s children is also appreciated.

LAN offers flights from Lima to Juliaca, which shares an airport with Puno (one hour by minibus). Alternatively, you can take a coach from Arequipa or Cuzco (five and six hours, respectively). If you’re traveling alone to Puno by bus, be sure to book a trip that gets in at a reasonable hour. I ended up arriving at 4am, and the Puno bus station (or any bus station, really) isn’t somewhere you want to be, alone, at that hour.

Sopa de Quinoa
Quinoa has been cultivated in the Andes since approximately 3,000 BC. It has a mild, nutty flavor, and is a complete protein (meaning it has all the essential amino acids). Substitute it for couscous or rice in soups and salads, or as an accompaniment to meat or vegetarian dishes. This recipe is actually one I obtained from a dairy I visited in Ecuador; it differs from Imeliana’s in that it contains…dairy. But it’s so unbelievably delicious, especially when made with pasture-raised eggs, and good-quality milk, butter, and cheese, that I had to include it.

Recipe courtesy of chef Jose Maria Pumisacho, Hacienda Zuleta

Serves four

2 cups quinoa
6 cups water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 scallions, white part only, sliced
1/3 cup heavy cream
½ cup of milk
yolks of two large eggs
½ cup of grated, semi-firm cheese that melts well, such as Gruyere
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Put water into a stockpot, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer, add quinoa, and cover the pot, stirring occasionally. Cook quinoa for approximately one- to one-and a half hours, or until the grains are soft.
While quinoa is cooking heat an eight-inch frying pan over medium heat, add butter, and when butter is melted, add onions and cook until transparent. When quinoa is ready, add onions and half of the milk to the quinoa and bring to a boil for five minutes, then reduce heat and let simmer.

While quinoa mixture is simmering, add egg yolks, the remaining milk, cream, and cheese in a blender, and process for one minute. Add this mixture to the soup right before serving, and stir it into the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately.

Photo of the Day (1.08.2010)

Today’s shot, from Flickr user epicxero, was taken (you guessed it) at the magnificent ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. Located about 50 miles from the town of Cusco, Machu Picchu is certainly at the top of my list of places to visit before I die. Sure, a lot of tourists go there, but looking at this photo, can you blame them?

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