Cusco, Peru and Copacabana, Bolivia- According to the Incan creation myth, the creator god Viracocha emerged from the waters of Lake Titicaca and created the sun, moon and stars. The sun sent his son, Manco Capac, and the moon sent her daughter, Mamo Ocllo, to the surface of the lake, born from the Sacred Rock of the Isla del Sol, to found the Incan empire in Cusco. The empire spread throughout the Sacred Valley of the Incas and high up into the surrounding mountains. The architectural and astronomical wonder known as Machu Picchu is just one of many stone villages and fortresses found in the sacred valley. At its height in the mid 1500s, before the Spanish arrived, the empire spread from Ecuador to Chile. It’s center was Cusco.
What was the center of Incan culture is now the gringo capital of Peru. And along with the gringos come droves of poor Peruvians, most of Incan descent, trying anyway they can to make a living from the money we seem to carry in endless supply. From high dollar posh hotels and luxury train tours to dirty shoeshine boys and little girls selling finger puppets for pennies, the visiting gringo is inundated with constant persistent requests to buy something. “No gracias” is the gringo mantra, chanted over and over. Some people just print it on their shirts. Cusco has everything. There are Irish pubs, discos, expensive jewelry and art boutiques, shiatsu parlors, bungee-jumping parks, whatever you want, all literally built upon Incan ruins. After the Spaniards sacked the city and killed the inhabitants, they simply built their colonial mansions right on top of the existing Incan stone foundations (Typical Cusco alley with Incan stone foundation shown right). As a symbol of their triumph, they purposely constructed their (quite amazing) churches over previous Incan temples. It is widely believed that the famous lost treasure of the Incas is buried in tunnels underneath the city.
The reality of the continuing legacy of conquest becomes potent when you are on the way to a nice dinner on a colonial balcony (an incredible bargain at these prices!) and you pass a wrinkled old lady squatting on the curb in indigenous dress holding out her hat and begging in Chechua for spare pennies. Or when a barefoot boy of five in dirty rags follows you for two blocks, pulling on your shirt and asking for a new toothbrush. Colonialism, first of the Spanish, now of the international market, is a very heavy yoke under which many of the original inhabitants of this land have no choice but to labor. Most successful businesses are owned by foreigners. Outside of the tourist industry there is little opportunity for young Peruvians. How would you like to make your living kissing up to, or hustling, foreigners just to get by from day to day? For any gringo with open eyes, a trip like this brings into bold relief the reality of privilege.
But I am seeing, not changing, the world this time around. And so I travel on, sometimes giving spare coins or food, and sometimes just walking past, because there are too many.
From Cusco I headed out into the Sacred Valley, taking the bus, rather than train, as far as I could toward the lost city of Machu Picchu. Along the way I stopped to hike up to Salinas, a mountainside filled with 5000+ salt pools divided into small family plots. Many have been in continuous use since the Incas established them. From Salinas I walked in the blazing sun for two hours to reach the small village of Moras, and then on to the nearby ruins of Moray. The concentric terraced circles of Moray are thought to be a kind of agricultural testing ground for the Incas, with different growing conditions at each of the various levels. They are still being farmed today. It is considered a holy area and there is definitely a crazy energy circling about the place.
I hiked in, and at the very center of the innermost circle I found a single large mushroom, surrounded by three rocks. It was the only mushroom around. I was very tempted to eat it- just to see what would happen.
Then I crammed into some local transport and made my way to Ollantaytambo (once again breaking down), from where it is only two hours by train to Aguas Calientes, the small tourist village next to a raging river which is the last stop before the ascent to Machu Picchu. Earlier in my trip, as I was making plans for Peru, I wasn´t sure that I wanted to go to Machu Picchu. It is the most visited tourist site in all of South America, with thousands of often annoying people arriving each day. But absolutely everyone I talked to said that I must go, and those in the know told me to get there for the sunrise, before the hoards show up by train from Cusco at about 10am. After a brief night in Aguas Calientes, I got up before the sun and arrived with only a few dozen others at Machu Picchu. It was, simply, amazing.
I hiked up away from the others and hung out with some llamas. The sky began brightening long before the sun rose over the jaggy peaks to the east. Machu Picchu was covered in a shifting misty shroud, obscuring the famous mountain of Wayna Picchu which rises up over the fortress to the North. As the sun broke out in full force, the mists poured off down the mountainside and Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu stood boldly and clearly below, like a revelation.
I spent the morning exploring the agricultural terraces, homes, royal tombs, plazas, temples of the sun and the condor, ritual fountains, eavesdropping occasionally on an organized tour to hear the stories of Incan life on the mountaintop. Then, as I saw the caravan of buses heading toward the ruins, I made my way up the very steep ascent to the top of Wayna Picchu. Winded and drenched in sweat, I stood at the summit and looked down for an utterly brilliant 360 degree view of Machu Picchu and the surrounding mountains and deeply carved river gorges.
Machu Picchu cured completely the bout of the blues I had been having for several days prior. I headed back to Cusco refreshed and ready for more. More came in the form of Lake Titicaca, straddling the border of Peru and Ecuador, the highest navigable lake in the world, and the birthplace of the Incas. The 10 hour train ride from Cusco to Puno (on the Peruvian shore of Lake Titicaca) was a bit of a tourist trap, but it passed quickly enough. Then by bus across the Bolivian border to the charming little village of Copacabana on the shore of the Lake. For $5 I found a private room on the beach with a hot shower, and a balcony overlooking the harbor. After a delicious meal of freshly grilled trout, I packed it in for the night, having booked a boat ride to the Isla del Sol for the next morning.
It´s freaking cold at 12,500ft riding on the top of a boat at 8am. It´s also something everyone should experience. 2 hours across the water and we landed on the north end of the Island of the Sun. I hiked out to the Sacred Rock, from which the sun and the first Incas were born. A guide there told us that the rock was full of energy. I noticed later that all my pictures of the rock have a kind of shimmering glow. The picture here shows what appears to be a single ray of sunlight shining down directly upon the Sacred Rock. The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the island with its gentle indigenous inhabitants and small farm homes. The island is hilly and I was worn out from the altitude and the hike by the time I reached the southern village of Yumani, where I found a very basic and very cold room to sleep in for the night.
I rose for the sunrise, the most blinding I have ever seen. It’s small wonder the Incas worship the sun and believe that it was born in Lake Titicaca. It forces its way over the eastern mountains like a god and spreads out over the lake and islands, transforming everything in its path. Suddenly there is warmth. Suddenly there is no more sleep. Now we begin our day, under this life-giving and fearful force.
Most of the island was awake before the sun, anticipating the breaking of day. Small reed sailboats drifted like little black specks on the water. Mothers and children were moving their donkeys, sheep, dogs, and pigs through the steep cobbled streets. I sat on a terrace with coffee, juice, bread, and eggs and watched the morning unfold around me. There are no cars or motors on the island. Electricity arrived only four years ago and many people still don’t want it. It´s completely tranquil- another place and time. It’s beautiful, composed, elemental, and strong. There is nothing to do but live.
I could have stayed on, but my time is limited. Instead I entered that black hole called a bus and emerged on the other side in an opposing chaotic universe. La Paz.