September 4, 2004
Cusco and Machu Picchu
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.