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  Weekly Feature (October 26, 2008)


My South American Vacation
Helen's Weekly Feature


What I remember of many Septembers during my elementary school years was at some point during the first week back having to write about what I did during my summer vacation. Invariably I would struggle with the assignment as my family trips or my summer activities seemed to lack in comparison to those of my classmates. My school days are long past but I finally have a summer adventure that would match most any. Although the entire trip was over three weeks long the two day trek to Machu Picchu, Peru, one of the most spectacular places on earth, was perhaps the most memorable and the most scenic of the journey.

I travelled with my sister, her fourteen year old daughter and a couple of Brazilian friends. Upon arriving in Cusco, Peru, a city with an elevation of 11,000 ft. we opted for a two day excursion to view the Incan royal retreat, a much shorter journey than the Incans would have taken. We travelled in an eight passenger mini bus along gravel roads not much wider than the trails of 500 years ago, driven by a man who appeared determined to break some sort of speed record.

Along the over six hour ride we crossed many bridges made simply of two wooden planks placed at a distance equal to that of the wheels of the vehicles travelling the route and met, almost head on, many a vehicle driven just as madly in the opposite direction. Our journey was capped off with a forty-five minute train ride to arrive in Aguas Calientes, a town whose economy is based on those wishing to arrive in Machu Picchu before those arriving by train direct from Cusco.

After a relaxing evening and a night spent in a somewhat modest hotel, we began the next day at an unearthly hour. We awoke at 3:30 am as breakfast was at 4:00 and the ‘walk’ up to Machu Picchu would begin at 4:15. There was an option to take a twenty minute bus ride but the idea of walking initially appeared more appealing. Luckily we all survived to laugh about it later but the ‘walk’ was more like a climb and at an altitude of over 8000 feet it was no easy feat; it was pitch black and very similar to the Grouse Grind. However, we reached the peak as the sun appeared from the east and every step of the climb was forgotten.

At 6:30 a.m. our group had reached the entrance way. When I walked past the Guardhouse and the entire scene appeared before me every dream I had had since my first day of Spanish class over 25 years ago when I first read about this ancient city, was realized. I had seen this view countless times in books and there it lay before me, exactly as it had for over 500 years. It was both one of the most extraordinary moments I have ever experienced and one of the most surreal. Amid the jungles of Peru, carved into the edge of a mountain, at an elevation of over 8000 feet lies a sophisticated maze of structures, temples, waterways and terraces.

We had an amazing Incan guide who told us facts that the guide books fail to reveal. Yes, we saw the sacred image of the condor, the Temple of the Three Windows, the Temple of the Sun, and the intricate system of the sixteen fountains but it was the personal stories he related that we will remember. For example he told us how it was customary for Incans to give the first drink from their glass to Pacha Mama (earth goddess) so even today you can often see people subtly pouring an ounce or two of their beer onto the ground to please the goddess they still worship.

After a two hour tour, a couple hours of wandering and time spent on the terraces with the llamas it was only 11 a.m. but time to return to start the long journey back to Cusco. Some of us hiked back down to Aguas Calientes while others chose the easier option of the bus. The journey was almost over but the memories, images and feelings will remain forever. It is a trip that I highly recommend and I give you just a few of the many photographs I took over those two days. As well, should you wish more information on Machu Picchu you can visit or simply ask me—I have hours and hours of stories I could tell you.


A stop at the side of the road, on our way to Machu Picchu.

The train ride to Aguas Calientes.

One of the first views from the Guardhouse.


My niece, our guide Freddy and me.


A view of the terraces.

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