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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Kuélap: A fortress in the cloud forest

Our third and most anticipated stop was the ruins of the fortress of Kuélap!  We planned our entire trip to the north around this one site.  The ruins are not quite as extensive, but every bit as impressive, as those at Machu Picchu (and therefore are often called the “other Machu Picchu”).  Yet Kuélap is much, much more difficult to get to and much less visited by tourists.

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The site was once inhabited by the Chachapoya people (or the “People of the Clouds” since the region is primarily cloud forest).  Scholars know very little about them; we don’t even know what they called themselves!  Chachapoya is the name used by the Incans after they conquered them.

The ruins are situated on top of a mountain at 3,100 meters/10,170 feet above sea level. Using retaining walls, the Chachapoya filled in the top of the mountain with dirt and then built a variety of buildings on top of it.  The site was rediscovered in 1843 and archaeological excavations point to the site being occupied between 500 and 1570 AD.  Some refer to the site as a fortress due to its size and strategic position atop the mountain, and scholars estimate that the site was large enough to house some 3,000 people!  This panorama video gives you a sense of just how immense and remote these ruins are.

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Our tour started outside the grand entrance to the ruins.  It is thought that this entrance was only used by the nobility and upper classes, which included religious authorities.  It leads to the second story of the fortress, where this class of people lived.  The gate starts out wide at the opening and narrows as you go farther inside, an ingenious form of security because any attacking parties would be forced into a single-file line and more easily defeated.

There is also another entrance farther down that was used exclusively by the lower classes and animals and led to the first story of the fortress.  There are still llama hoof prints etched into the walkway!

Main entrance for the upper class residents

Main entrance for the upper class residents

A look inside the entrance

A look inside the entrance

Lower class and animal entrance (there are llama hoof marks preserved in the stone steps!)

Lower class and animal entrance (there are llama hoof marks preserved in the stone steps!)

Glance into the lower class entrance

Glance into the lower class entrance

The buildings are made from bricks of a limestone mix, which have slightly eroded away over time given the large amount of rainfall received each year.  The homes are made of a circular construction, the easiest and most stable type of building for an area prone to earthquakes.  The roofs were thatched and built at a steep angle to facilitate the runoff of the frequent rains.

Ruins of dwellings

Ruins of dwellings

Unrestored bricks

Unrestored limestone bricks

??? building

The northernmost building on the site is thought to have been a lookout or shrine.

Trees and foliage have taken over the ruins, which are only partially restored/excavated

Trees and foliage have taken over the ruins, which are only partially restored/excavated

One of the typical round houses

One of the typical round houses

Rhomboid shapes are typical decorations on the houses

Rhomboid shapes are typical decorations and thought to have sacred meanings for the Chachapoya

More rhomboid and zigzag decorations

More rhomboid and zigzag decorations

View of houses practically built on top of one another

View of houses practically built on top of one another

It was around this point of the tour that our camera battery ran out. 😦  Luckily we had Chris’ old iPod with us and were able to get some other snapshots to at least give you a sense of what it’s like up there, including some of the llamas that wander the site!

Majestic llamas that roam over the ruins

Majestic llamas that roam over the ruins

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Curved walls of round buildings

A house that was restored what the scholars imagine they looked like

A house that was restored to what the scholars imagine they looked like

Guard llama (they advise you to stay back from the llamas and avoid eye contact because a tourist was kicked by one last year!)

Guard llama (they advise you to stay back from the llamas and avoid eye contact because a tourist was kicked by one last year!)

More round dwellings

Remains of round dwellings

More dwellings with a view

More dwellings with a view

The Chachapoya lived here for nearly 1,000 years before the Incas arrived and conquered them around 1470 AD.  There are a couple of buildings which show an Incan influence in their building construction.  One such building is El Tintero (Inkpot), which is in the shape of an inverted cone and thought to be an Incan building constructed using Chachapoyan techniques.  Excavations revealed many bones from what appear to be animal sacrifices in the chambers below.  Additionally, there is an etching of a face on one of the bricks near the entrance.  The face is thought to be a depiction of the sun god.  And, as we sat near the building taking in its splendor, the sun peeked out of the clouds (the only time it did so all day!).

Main religious temple, thought to be in devotion to the sun god whose face appears on one of the bricks

Main religious temple, thought to be in devotion to the sun god whose face appears on one of the bricks

Sun god face etched into a brick

Sun god face etched into a brick

The most common launching-off point for these ruins is also the city of Chachapoyas in the Amazonas district.  There is an airport in Chachapoyas, but commercial airlines have stopped flying there because the cloud cover makes flying in and out very difficult and dangerous.  Thus, the bus (a 9-hour haul from Chiclayo on the coast) is the main method of getting there.  Once in Chachapoyas, it’s still a 2 1/2 hour drive in tour van out to the ruins, of which nearly 2 hours is on a dirt road that zigzags up the mountainside.  There is a project planned to build a telecabina (cable car) to access the ruins more easily, but it’s not clear when they anticipate the project to be completed.  So, for now, if you plan on visiting Kuélap be prepared for a long, but very worthwhile, journey to get there!

This site is hands-down our favorite so far in all of Peru.  We still quite a bit left to explore, but Kuélap will always stand out for us as an amazing and impressive site!


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Arwaturo Ruins

On Saturday we trekked to some nearby pre-Incan ruins called Arwaturo.  The name Arwaturo comes from two Quechua words that mean hueso quemado (burnt bone).  The ruins are located on top of a hill at 11,338 feet/3,456 meters above sea level, just outside Chupaca near the Laguna de Ñahuimpuquio (the brother of Laguna de Paca).  To get there from Huancayo, you take a combi (public van/bus) to Chupaca and from there hop on a collectivo (a shared taxi) to Arwaturo/Ñahuimpuquio.  The station wagon collectivo we took had 10 adults and kids crammed into it, and Chris rode in the trunk!

There are two entrances to the ruins, one with a steep climb up a stone stairway and the other along a pre-Incan walkway that cuts along the hillside with switchbacks taking you up the hill more gradually. The ruins were constructed out of rocks and mud/clay by the Wanka people approximately 1,200 years ago. There are 17 buildings in all that were used primarily for keeping grains dry and also for keeping a look-out over the valley.  The site itself is unprotected except for a local guide who can give you a little bit of information about the ruins.  The people from the nearby town still graze their cows there, and small chacras (farm plots) are carved into the hillside leading up to the ruins.

The view from the ruins is breathtaking.  You can see nearly the entire Mantaro Valley, as well as a beautiful view of the snow-capped Huaytapallana.  It is a peaceful spot where there is hardly any noise, save an occasional braying donkey or song coming over the breeze from a Santiago party in a nearby town.  I can’t imagine what it must have been like as a Wankan to wake up and look out over the peaceful valley.  How beautifully breathtaking it must have been!

Entrance to Arwaturo via the stone steps

Entrance to Arwaturo via the stone steps

Stone steps

Stone steps

View of Laguna Ñahuimpuquio from the top stairs on the way up to the ruins

View of Laguna Ñahuimpuquio from the top stairs on the way up to the ruins

Entrance to Arwaturo

View of the back side of the ruins as you finish climbing the steps

View of the ruins as you enter the site

Flowers and ruins

Flowers and ruins

Chris enjoying some ruins!

Chris enjoying some ruins!

Enjoying the view of the valley and Huaytapallana in the distance

Enjoying the view of the valley and Huaytapallana in the distance

The buildings extend all the way down the hill top

The buildings extend all the way down the hill top

View of Huaytapallana through a space in between buildings

View of Huaytapallana through a space in between buildings

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Buildings against brilliant blue skies

Chris taking it all in

Chris taking it all in

A little birdie friend

A little birdie friend

The pre-Incan walkway to the ruins

The pre-Incan walkway to the ruins

Placing another rock onto a stack along the pathway

Placing another rock onto the cairn along the pathway

Stacks of rocks along the path

Cairns dot the pathway

More stacks of stones on top the of the ruins

Another cairn on top the of the ruins with a glimpse of Huaytapallana in the distance

My make-shift panorama of the valley from the ruins!

My make-shift panorama of the valley from the ruins!


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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!