Monday, August 27, 2012

And Then the Vultures will Eat You

It’s about a 10,000-foot drop from Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain) to the river bottoms of the Urubamba River. If you’re lucky (relatively speaking) you might bounce off of a rocky outcropping, which would end any speculation in your panicked mind of the certain outcome. If not, the gravel and rock-strung floor of the Urubamba canyon will end any question of what happens when you slip and fall off Huayna Picchu.

There is no 911 call to make nor any medivac helicopter that can be summoned when you’re in Machu Picchu. If you fall off the mountain you die and then the vultures will eat you. Probably long before any recovery party can trek to the site of your scattered remains.

I thought about that scenario as I pondered my bad luck at not being able to climb Huayna Picchu the only afternoon I spent in Machu Picchu. If you want to climb this mountain adjacent to the ruins, you probably need to be in Machu Picchu for at least two days. Trains only arrive around noon each day and it’s safest to start climbing the mountain early in the morning at first light. Above all, you must return before nightfall. After dark, your chances of missing a step or walking off a narrow ledge on the edge of the mountain increase expeditiously. And then you die.

Machu Picchu is a pre-Columbian 15th century Inca site that was created at the height of the Inca Empire. It was built in classical Inca style with polished dry-stone walls. No mortar was used in constructing the buildings. Yet the stonewalls are so tightly packed together that not even a piece of paper can be slipped between their joints.

With its discovery in 1911 by explorer Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu made its debut as an authentic archaeological enigma. For as much as the ruins have been picked and poked and examined, the ancient city still largely remains a mystery.

You don’t have to be a mystic or a shaman to appreciate the wonders of this lost city of the Incas. At almost 8000 feet above sea level, the ruins sit high on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountain range in Peru.

Standing among the ruins for the first time is breathtaking. Flocks of birds soar by beneath your feet and you look down on the clouds that gather in the canyons below. The thin air can wreck havoc on those with respiratory issues or are out of shape. Few people move quickly at that altitude unless K12 is their playground or they’re mountain goats.

It was a wonderful confluence of several events that placed me high in the Andes back in the mid-80s. The need for a film crew to travel to Peru to do a documentary on that country, a boss who was anxious to send someone besides himself and a willing family that let me leave country and home for an adventure down south.

In some of my other blogs, I’ve waxed poetic about the Triangle Bar of my youth, my vision quest in the Amazon rain forest, meeting Snow White in Brussels and hanging out in the coffee houses of Amsterdam. Each experience represented a unique opportunity for me to meet new and wonderful people and create memories that I’ve now been able to draw upon as a writer. Machu Picchu was certainly one of those unique experiences for me. It figures prominently in my suspense thriller, “Follow the Cobbler,” which is now in its second rewrite.

In this age of computer technology and high tech medicine, it’s easy to look back at those ancients and laugh at their worship of the sun and the moon as their Gods. Yet their understanding of climate change (without Doppler radar), architecture (without 3D digital imaging), construction (without concrete or mortar) and agriculture (without computer forecasting charts) is quite remarkable. Their cures (now lost over time) for some ill-nesses would rival the best that the Mayo Clinic has to offer. For as much as they were behind the times, they were so far ahead of us.

To get to Machu Picchu, you must first travel through Cusco. Hundreds of years ago, Cusco was the historic capital of the Inca Empire. It’s an ancient city with many of its modern buildings built upon the ruins of its predecessors. Mayan culture abounds everywhere; in the people, their clothing, their mode of transportation and certainly in the central marketplace. Their lifestyle hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.

The Incas had a cure for altitude sickness too. Coco leaves. They’re illegal but everyone chews them. If cooked down to a paste and processed, you have cocaine. If left in their natural leafy state, you have a potent antidote for altitude sickness. We got ours in Cusco and I chewed them like candy until we flew back to the states. It seemed to work except one time.

At over 11,200 feet, movement around Cusco is slow and easy. I woke up, at 3:00 am one morning, unable to breath. If panic had set in, I’m not sure how I would have survived. Fortunately, I imagined a long slow run up a mountain trail and eased my nerves back into place and then steadied my own breathing. I doubled my leaf count after that night.

Of course there is a counter to the benefits of coco leaves. That would be forgetting you have them in your pockets or not cleaning out your pockets thoroughly of their residue before going through customs. A fellow ahead of us forgot that lesson and was quickly surrounded by machine gun cops and angry dogs. Then he was hauled off before he could explain his mistake.

There are two sure ways to get to Machu Picchu. Either by railroad or the ancient Inca Trail. Back in the 80s, the Shining Path (local terrorists fighting the government) were robbing and killing travelers along the Inca Trial. We opted for the railroad instead. You could take a tour bus but it takes forever and you’ll probably need to extend your visa before you even get there.

The ancient railway is a narrow gauge rail line that was recently washed out by the flooding of the stream, which runs alongside it for miles. The old wooden rail cars are as ancient as the locomotives themselves that pull the tourists and vendors to and from the ruins.

At every stop, tiny urchins and vendors flock alongside the rail cars, peddling their wares. Most of the children just have their hands out for offerings of money or food. It’s heart breaking to see those children begging for anything you have to offer. Many were about the same age as three of my grandchildren. There but for the grace of God…

Once I saw a mixed race girl, no older than five, standing on the tracks. She looked half white-half Indian. She stood out in stark contrast to her young companions and I couldn’t help but wonder what her future would be like in that predominantly Inca-Indian culture.

And there are often casualties along the way. On our train, there was one woman who was so sick from altitude sickness that she never got off the train, even at the base of the mountain. She stayed sick, doubled over in her seat and left, never seeing Machu Picchu after all.

At the base of the mountain you can’t see the ruins on top. The switchback that leads up to Machu Picchu only allows for two small vehicles to pass on the road. There are only inches between them when you pass. That gives you a taste of Huayna Picchu.

The secret of really understanding Machu Picchu is to stay at the tourist hotel built into the side of the mountain up there. That way, you have two days to explore the ruins and attempt Huayna Picchu.


Besides the terraced gardens, the numerous outbuildings and clusters of stone structures not yet categorized, tour guides like to point out the three main structures of the ruins. The Intihuatana (Hitching post of the sun), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. All three are located in the Sacred District of Machu Picchu. All three are fascinating but they’re not the heart and soul of Machu Picchu.

If you want to truly feel and understand the wonders of that place, you must wander off by yourself. Get lost among the ruins and let the grass covered stone pathways lead you
from one cluster of buildings to the next. Walk along the terraced gardens where crops used to thrive.  Imagine yourself, some 500 hundred years ago, living in that vibrant city above the clouds.

The ruins are the same, the pathways remain unchanged and the mountains and clouds and flocks of birds are all the same as hundreds of years before when dark-skinned ancients went about their daily business.

But instead of google, the Incas had their oral history. Without GPS, they relied on trail runners. They had no hiking boots so they wore thatched sandals instead. Woolen clothes were warmer than any Patagonia jacket. But coco leaves were still coco leaves.

I’m told the climb up Huayna Picchu is a slow and treacherous venture. The path up the mountain departs from the Sacred Rock area. The most direct climb to the summit takes experienced climbers several hours. Rising more than 1300 feet above the Principal Plaza of Machu Picchu, the pathway goes up an almost vertical stairway of more than 130 feet and passes through small caverns carved from rocky walls. Mountain mist can make the grass and stone pathway very slippery. High winds often buffet and pummel climbers even as the hot sun above bakes them.

If I ever get back to Machu Picchu, I intend to stay for two days. One to explore the ruins again and the second to hike up Huayna Picchu. I’ll go slow and easy, trusting on my instincts and fear of heights to keep me away from the edge of the mountain.

Even the sight of those circling vultures won’t keep me away from living my long dormant fantasy of climbing above the clouds.

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