Vida Huancaína

Our adventure in the Andes


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Cousin Adventures: Machu Picchu!

The majestic Incan ruins of Machu Picchu were the last and most impressive stop on our gringo trail itinerary!

Machu Picchu!!

Machu Picchu!!

We departed from Cusco via a bus/train combination operated by Peru Rail that takes you through a river valley to the town of Aguas Calientes.  The tiny town is built up between the mountains were the ruins rest and alongside the Urubamba River.  It’s really not much more than a place for tourists to gather before heading up to Machu Picchu, and it is the most expensive town that we have visited in all our time in Peru because every supply has to be brought into the town by the train. IMG_5145

from right: train tracks through the middle of town, rushing Urubamba River, and bridges connecting the two sides of town

from right: train tracks through the middle of town, rushing Urubamba River, and bridges connecting the two sides of town

I had visited Machu Picchu 10 years ago as part of my semester studying abroad in Ecuador; Chris had visited 5 years ago during his first pre-dissertation field work trip to Peru; and it was our cousin’s first trip. It has changed SO much since my first visit.  The amount of development along the route from Cusco, and then the town of Aguas Calientes itself was just astonishing.  The train 10 years ago had hard wooden benches, and I purchased corn on the cob with cheese from a woman selling it from a bucket.  The train now not only has fold down tables laid with table runners and center pieces to accompany the hot meal that is served, but it also has entertainment including a local dance performance and a fashion with the staff modeling alpaca sweaters and ponchos made exclusively for the railway by one of the top alpaca knitwear producers in Peru (yes, you read that right, a fashion show).

clockwise from top right: fancy table spread inside the train, sorority posing with Machu Picchu seal on the train, view from the panoramic windows inside the train, and posing with train again

clockwise from top right: fancy table spread inside the train, sorority posing with Machu Picchu seal on the train, view from the panoramic windows inside the train, and posing with train again

Our train arrived to Aguas Calientes around 1 pm and we wandered around the town (for all of the 15 minutes that it takes to walk through it) and then rested up for our early morning journey to the ruins.  We were up at 5:30 am, purchased our bus tickets, and were on the bus up to the entrance by 6 am.  The bus ride takes approximately 30 minutes on a very winding road that zig zags up the mountain.  You can also hike to the entrance, but we opted to pass on the hour-long (or possibly more) hike to save our energy for exploring the ruins!

Being the height of the rainy season, the ruins were shrouded by misty clouds, ever shifting in shape and allowing you to see only portions of the ruins and surrounding mountains at a time. Armed with our rain jackets, we went off to explore the ruins. Many independent tour guides were waiting outside the entrance upon our arrival and we negotiated with a lovely guide to show the three of us around.  She guided us through the ruins, explaining how the ruins were built by the Incas in the 1450s, but was abandoned to help fight against the Spanish after their arrival in 1533.  The ruins were then re-discovered in 1911 by Hiram Bingham of Yale University with the help of a local family who lived at the bottom of the mountain.  Despite all the years that the ruins passed without occupants, the majority of the stonework buildings remain intact and even the fountains still flow with clear, fresh water.

windows looking through windows

windows looking through windows

misty morning

misty morning

here come the natural lawnmowers!

here come the natural lawnmowers!

llamas and ruins!

llamas and ruins!

fountain still flowing with water

fountain still flowing with water

The Incans used a trapezoidal design in their building construction, making the buildings extremely resistant to earthquakes.  The mountain is covered with large boulders and stones, which were used as the building material.  To carve out the rocks, they chinked out holes into the large stones covering the mountaintop, filled the holes with branches soaked in water, and as the branches dried the rock would break apart.  From there, the rocks were sanded down using sand until they could be used.  The buildings of the common people had more jagged stones, whereas the temples had the most polished stones, almost smooth to the touch.  And, quite amazingly, some were built in concert with the large boulders with stones sitting just perfectly atop the boulder.

example of how they carved the stones, by putting wet branches into those small holes

example of how they carved the stones, by putting wet branches into those small holes

buildings worked into the existing rock on the mountain, even jutting out above the abyss

buildings worked into the existing rock on the mountain, even jutting out over the edge

buildings built on top of existing rocks and boulders

how on earth did they manage to build on top of that big boulder?!

houses of the commoners

houses of the commoners

three windows

three windows in a temple building

template of the condor (see that rock on the ground?  the piece pointing towards you is the nose of the condor and the wings are the big rocks rising above it)

template of the condor (see that rock on the ground? the piece pointing towards you is the nose of the condor and the wings are the big rocks rising above it)

It’s thought that the sight was chosen for its strategic location, high up for protection, alongside the Urubamba River for water, and the abundance of building materials scattered over the mountaintop. The city had incredibly good urban planning, with different sectors designated for certain activities–crops, animals, textile and pottery production, a marketplace, and more.  To protect against erosion, terraces were built up the sides of the mountain and then the main buildings were placed on the top of the mountain.

our guide said this rock is in the shape of the sight of Machu Picchu and was used to plan the city

our guide said this rock is in the shape of the sight of Machu Picchu and was used to plan the city

fortification terraces extending down the mountainside

fortification terraces extending down the mountainside

agricultural terraces

agricultural terraces

My favorite part of the entire visit was climbing up the watch tower to catch a glimpse of the entire sight, including Wayna Picchu, or the Young Mountain, the rises up at the other end of the ruins.  We watched the clouds shift across the ruins, sometimes completely obscuring the surrounding peaks, and listened to the rushing waters of the Urubamba River rising up from far below.  It was such an incredible moment, sitting together with my family, looking out over the ruins of Machu Picchu and imaging the energy that it must have taken to built such an incredible place so high up in the mountains with such precision to leave it standing more than 500 years later.  A humbling and special experience that I will treasure forever.

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cousins and terraces

cousin in a window!

cousin in a window!

cousins!

cousins!

with the hubby

with the hubby

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so happy!


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Cousin Adventures: Cusco

Cusco was the third stop on our gringo trail adventure. The city sits high in the Andes at 10,000 feet/3,000 meters above sea level and is the jump-off point for Machu Picchu. Hosting tourists from all over the globe, the city is well-maintained and offers everything that a gringo could want (at an escalated price, of course, for a captive audience).  Vendors and restaurant-owners shout loudly at visitors, luring us to purchase their goods or enter their establishment for lunch.  It’s a bit of an offense to the senses, leading us to avoid the main plaza and other highly-touristed areas as much as possible.

Cusco's main plaza

Cusco’s main plaza

plaza at night

plaza at night

We visited a few sights around town, starting with one of Chris’ favorites in all of Peru–the Museo de Art Precolombino.  The museum has a subset of objects, including pottery and carved wooden artifacts, that were originally housed in the Museo Larco in Lima.  Our favorites of all the examples were from the Mochica people.  The Moche lived in the northern, coastal region of Peru, and Chris and I had actually seen an example of one of their elaborate pyramid tombs during our trip to Chiclayo last year.  Their pottery incorporates anthropomorphized animals, and the museum had pieces that represented birds, deer, and llamas (Chris’ fave it the duck and mine are the llamas in the below photo collage).  The museum is really well done, with interesting displays and wonderfully written little blurbs about each piece that not only include information, but also evoke thoughtful emotion.

Museo de Arte Precolombiano

Museo de Arte Precolombiano

top left: carved wooden objects, others: examples of pottery, including the Mochica's anthropomorphized animals like birds, deer, and llamas

top left: carved wooden objects, others: examples of pottery, including the Mochica’s anthropomorphized animals

The second sight we visited was Qorikancha.  If there is only one sight you visit in Cusco, this should be it.  It is a great example of how the Spanish usurped the Inca’s power by taking over the location and the meaning of the place.  Qorikancha was a principle religious site founded by the Incan king, Manko Kapac, and then revitalized and adorned with gold under the rule of Pachakuti.  The Spanish looted all of the gold decorations and built a Catholic monastery on the grounds, on top of the Incan foundation and around remnants of the old religious site.  These remaining examples of the Incan architecture are absolutely spectacular.  The Incans perfectly carved out pieces of stone so that they fit seamlessly together without mortar, and then polished them by hand to an absolutely smooth sheen (I don’t think you’re supposed to, but cousin and I touched it just to see how smooth they are!).  It’s just incredible.  And that they’re all standing, completely undisturbed by multiple large earthquakes since their construction in the mid-15th century, is just remarkable.

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you can see the multiple layers of construction, with the perfectly square stones of the Incas on the bottom, the less precise Spanish architecture, and the modern buildings that house the present-day museum

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view of Cusco from the site

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Spanish colonial architecture of the monastery

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remains of the Incan temple inside the monastery

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look how perfectly those hand-carved and polished rocks fit together!

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more views of the remaining Incan temple inside the monastery

We stayed a few blocks off the main plaza at an adorable bed and breakfast called El Balcón.  All the rooms on the second floor are connected on a long balcony from which you get the most spectacular views over the city and surrounding mountains. One afternoon we were even treated to a view of a rainbow extending high above it all. We highly recommend El Balcón for a lovely little spot close enough to everything, yet just far enough away to be peaceful and relaxing.

a cup of coca leaf tea is offered to guests to help with the altitude

guests are offered a cup of coca leaf tea upon arrival to help with the altitude

the balcony at El Balcón

taking in the view from the balcony

rainbow over Cusco

rainbow over Cusco

Next up, the final installment of the “Cousin Adventures” series and the main event, Machu Picchu!


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Parques de Huancayo: El Bosque Dorado

So, we accidentally hiked up a mountain over the weekend.  We had gone in search of El Bosque Dorado (The Golden Forest), which we’d heard about from a taxi driver in town a few weeks ago.  He had described it as a tranquil spot with some Incan ruins.  We asked our host parents, who had never heard of it, looked in our Lonely Planet guidebook, which didn’t mention it, and finally scoured the internet and found one article about it from a local news station.  The article explained that it was about 10 km from the center of town in Paccha, an annex of Huancayo, and that it was a nice spot for recreation and doing things like tai chi and yoga.  Great, we thought, let’s go check it out!

We hailed a taxi near our house on Saturday morning and attempted to explain where we wanted to go.  The first reaction was, “Is that a restaurant?”  “No,” we responded, “it’s a park nearby.”  The taxi driver radioed back to HQ and they finally figured out where it was and approximately how to get there.  We hopped in the taxi and drove off up a dirt road to Paccha, which is basically a small town on the outskirts of the city where people were tending to their crops and livestock.  The driver didn’t know exactly where to go after we arrived in Paccha, so we pulled over to ask a man how to get to El Bosque Dorado.  He said it was way up the side of the mountain and that the roads weren’t well maintained and only passable in a 4×4.  We thanked him and continued as far up the mountainside as was possible.  He was right, the roads were terrible.  Eventually the little sedan we were in couldn’t get any farther, so we stopped and decided we’d try walking a little bit to see if we could see the entrance to the park.  The steep, rutted road snaked back and forth up the mountain and we had no real way of knowing how much farther the forest was.  There was literally no one around and so we asked the taxi driver if he’d wait for us to ensure we could get a ride back to town.  He not only agreed to wait, but decided he wanted to walk with us and see the forest for himself.

View from the beginning of our accidental hike up the mountain

View from the beginning of our accidental hike up the mountain

More road

More hiking up the road

After 45 minutes of walking pretty much straight uphill, the road leveled off a bit and we were surrounded by eucalyptus trees. We heard some people nearby and called out to ask them if we were getting close.  They responded that the forest was “casi en la puna” (nearly at the top of the mountain) and so we continued on down a tree-lined dirt path, sucking wind because of the altitude. Eventually the trees change to queñuales (the Quechua word polylepis, a gnarled tree native to the Andes), and then we entered El Bosque Dorado.

Path lined by eucalyptus trees

Path lined by eucalyptus trees

Entrance to El Bosque Dorado

Entrance to El Bosque Dorado (photo credit to Edwin, our taxi driver)

Down to the right off the main path, extended the ruins of an Incan amphitheater.  The stage and seats were all covered in a bed of green plants and grasses.  The stairs, made of rock, had a drain running down the middle for water run-off that still appeared to be functional.  We walked down the stairs to stand on the stage and take in the view.  Standing on the stage, you looked up and saw the mountains rising up even higher into the blue sky, quite an imposing sight that makes you feel really small.

View down into the amphitheater

View down into the amphitheater

Plants growing in the drainage built in between the steps of the amphitheater

Plants growing in the drainage built in between the steps of the amphitheater

View from the stage of the amphitheater

View from the stage of the amphitheater

On the way back down to the taxi, we stopped to take in the spectacular views of Huancayo and the surrounding towns.  It’s quite magnificent from that altitude and I am especially impressed now with the people who choose to make the hillsides of the mountains their home.

View of Huancayo from El Bosque Dorado

View of Huancayo from El Bosque Dorado

We highly recommend El Bosque Dorado to anyone visiting Huancayo and we hope to go back one day, but maybe next time we’ll hire a 4×4 to take us all the way there!