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Cusco, Peru
September 4, 2004

Cusco and Machu Picchu

Colonial buildings on the Plaza De Armas in CuscoWe trade e-mail addresses and plans to meet again when they pass through Seattle, and Miriam & Philippe, the Swiss bicyclists get back on the road to generate some warmth. I am about as cold, I believe, so using clutch and shifter I move quickly through six gears and hit sixty as Peru Ruta 26 continues north to Abancay and on to Cusco.

Unlike the first hundred miles to Puqio, this is brand new highway, excellently engineered, with nice grades, proper camber on the curves, and a smooth asphalt surface. Even though the road is very high, the mountains are rounded, and so the highway moves gently through their folds, unlike the corkscrew curves that were the rule between Nazca and Puqio. So I maintain 60 Ė 70 mph during much of the one hundred thirty miles to Abancay, then slow considerably for the final one hundred twenty twisty miles to Cusco, twice over passes that are 3,900m (12,750í,) but Iím still in by 4pm. Itís been a nice day, but a long day, as three hundred miles down here, even on paved roads, is tough. And finally, four days and eight hundred thirty miles after departing Huaraz, I arrive in Cusco.

Two women in native attire in CuscoCusco

To follow my previous introductions, you come to Cusco because itís the number one tourist destination in Peru, and certainly one of the top destinations for travelers in all of South America.

In itís own right Cusco is a pleasant colonial city of some 300,000 people, although it doesnít seem nearly that large, founded by the first Inca in the 12th century, and thriving when the Spanish showed up uninvited in 1533. During the conquest that followed the Spanish arrival the city was razed, but many of the buildings surrounding the exceptional central square (the Plaza de Armas) were built on Inca foundations and date to the early 1500s. It also has all the amenities and infrastructure (nice hotels, great restaurants, banking and shopping) to support international tourism.

Indigenas protesting a school closing in CuscoTourists come for two reasons. First, Cusco was the administrative center of the Inca Empire, which during a period of a few hundred years prior to 1500AD conquered most of the Andes from Bolivia to Ecuador, a distance of some 1,500 miles even as the crow flies; and the nearby Machu Picchu (ruins now, and more about that later) was the spiritual center. Second, the nearby mountain ranges of the Cordillera Urubamba and the Cordillera Vilcabamba, both of which sport many peaks exceeding 5,500m (18,000í) support world-class climbing, trekking, mountain biking and river rafting, to name a few of the activities touted by the local outdoor adventure-travel agencies.

Iím here to enjoy the views of the mountains and to visit Machu Picchu, but also because motorcyclists crossing South America tend to congregate in Cusco to relax, re-supply and to meet their fellow travelers. Barely checked into my hostal, the Beemer ridden up three steps and secured in the lobby, Iím walking to the Plaza de Armas when I spot two bikes parked in the lobby of a nearby hotel. Both have British plates.

The Plaza De Armas in CuscoThe BMW 1150GS, identical to mine except for a larger gas tank, belongs to Richard and Jane Heaphy, a year on the road from Toronto, Canada, and overland to Brazil with plans to return to England for Christmas this year. The second, a BMW F650, belongs to Dan Walsh of Manchester, England; on the road for two years as a working journalist for the British bike magazine Biker. Over the following four days I meet the third of the British contingent, Jeremy on a KTM 640, and finally Daniel Todd, an American from the Bay Area presently living in Puerto Rico, and on the road for much of the past fifteen years throughout the world; currently on a Kawasaki KLR650. For a guy like me, this is like old home week.


Machu Picchu

Inca girl and baby on the road to OllantaytamboThere are at least three ways to arrive at the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. The first involves taking the train from Cusco to Aguas Calientes, and for most tourists that means buying a package deal from a tour operator, although you can do it independently. The second, a four-day hike on the Inca Trail involves hiring a guide and porters, a trip Jan and I plan for later. The third is to get to Ollantaytambo, a village some sixty miles from Cusco, by bus, train or car, then take the train from there. Ollantaytambo is the end of the road, so everyone but the hikers must ride the train from there to Aguas Calientes, then board a bus for the final eight kilometers (five miles) to the ruins.

Stonework on the Inca residence at Machu PicchuI decide to ride my motorcycle to Ollantaytambo, mostly because itís off the beaten path, but partly because I like the security of having the bike nearby. Also, the village is 600m (1,800í) lower than Cusco, so the road provides spectacular vistas of the nearby peaks and the valley below, as I make the ride.

Not much is known about Machu Picchu, but both from the high quality of the stonework, and from its remote and extraordinary placement, scientists generally agree that it was an Inca ceremonial site of great importance. The ruins includes a series of sixteen connected ceremonial baths that step down the hillside, with water fed from a series of Ruins at Machu Picchuchannels carved in the rock by the Inca stone masons and fed from a spring; engineered so perfectly that they still function today, hundreds of years after their construction. Also included is the curved two-story Temple of the Sun, and Intihuatana, deemed the most sacred shrine both from the quality of the stonework, and from the pillar, carved in rock, known loosely as the ďhitching post of the sun.Ē This pillar, perfectly aligned north and south, is where the Incas ceremoniously ďhitched the sunĒ at the summer and winter solstices, to prevent the sun from wandering any further from itís anticipated path. Scientists know, from this site and others, that the Incas had an excellent knowledge of astronomy.

Group pictures of the local guys and me at the hotel in OllantaytamboWhile I walk in contemplation and marvel at the engineering and construction skills of the ruins, it is the physical site that simply engenders awe. Machu Picchu is sited on a remote mountain with 360-degree views of the 5,500m (18,000í) peaks of the nearby Cordillera Urubamba. From the sacred site, the mountain plunges at least 1,000m (3,000í) to the valley of the Urubamba River, while Huayna Picchu peak rises at least 600m (1,800í) directly above the ruins themselves.

The setting is both peaceful and awe-inspiring. In fact, Machu Picchu is only the second man-made object Iíve visited that has exceeded my expectations, which were high to begin with; the only other the Great Wall of China, which Jan and I visited in 1993. Like the Great Wall, Machu Picchu simply takes your breath away. Unfortunately, my descriptions simply donít do it justice.



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