Tuesday, December 17, 2013

El Valle Sagrado and... Machu Picchu!!!

Hi everyone! I know that many of you have been itching to hear about my visit to Machu Picchu, and I promise that I'll write about it in this post, and include plenty of photos. But first, I'm going to write about the other archaeological sites that I visited the day before (if you're not interested in that, skip down the page to where there's a centered photo of Machu Picchu). Be forewarned that there are lots of pictures!
El Valle Sagrado

The Monday after Thanksgiving I took a tour of El Valle Sagrado, or the Sacred Valley of the Incas, with the other GV girls. We were in Cusco's Plaza de Armas at 8:30 am and piled into a fifteen passenger van with nine other visitors and headed up into the mountains. After stopping at a tourist trap to get cocoa leaf tea (which helps immensely with altitude sickness) we rode until we got to the mouth of the valley and stopped for a few minutes to take pictures. 

It was utterly gorgeous; the rich green of the valley, the darker, tree-covered mountains, the low-hanging puffs of clouds, and snow-topped peaks peering over the distant mountains. As we continued driving, I couldn't help but picture how much more beautiful it must have looked before being settled, when the Incas first encountered it.

A first look at Pisaq

Our next stop was the archaeological site of Pisaq. Our guide told us that this town was primarily agricultural, and strategically placed to protect the rest of the valley, especially Cusco, from enemy attack. The ruins are high in the hills above the modern-day town of Písac, and the ancient buildings overlook the farming terraces. 

The view from the top of the site
On the adjacent hill are a series of holes bored into the slope facing east. Our guide informed us that these were tombs, and that they faced east so that the dead would be facing the sunrise because the sun god Inti was very important to the Inca culture. He also pointed out a mausoleum that housed the bodies of over 70 of Pisaq's leaders. 

From the top of the Pisaq site

We got to climb up the hill and explore the ruins a bit, like the partially-covered structure that I'm pretty sure was some form of storehouse for goods. It was a great vantage point to view the valley, despite the wet and windy conditions. After about an hour and a half to explore, we got back into the van and continued with our journey. 

The next stop on our tour was Ollantaytambo. This town --- named for a fictional hero Ollanta who, according to his story, stopped for a rest (or a tambo in Quechua) there --- is the oldest still-functioning town in the Americas. It boasts Inca streets, water systems, doorways, and foundations to its buildings. The town was the royal estate of the emperor who conquered the region, and continued to be a stronghold for the last Inca emperor during the Spanish Conquest. 

We got to climb up the huge agricultural terraces that overlooked the city (each was about three meters high, five meters wide, and thirty meters long... I'll let math-y people have fun with that for size). The terraces were mainly used to grow crops for the town, like the all-important corn. 

The outside of the temple

Also during the tour, we climbed up to the temple on the top of the hill. This temple was unfinished at the time that the Spanish invaded the area, and in their search for gold much of the temple was destroyed. Later, another desecration of the temple came about when Catholic priests deemed the temple to be idolatrous. Today, the only destruction of the temple comes in the form of the orange lichen that grows upon the stone walls and slowly erodes them.
At a temple door with
our guide Benjamín

Our guide explained that the reason that the Inca walls have withstood so much was their unique construction. The rocks were molded in a way that water rolled off so as to not eat away at the stone, were cut to be trapezoidal in anti-earthquake architecture, and were fitted together using various methods of stonecutting; some would have bits jutting out to fit perfectly into dips in others and prevent sliding --- kind of like the blocks in a Lego house.
The Incas took rocks from the hill
behind me to build their temple

We also learned that the Incas took the huge rocks from the neighboring mountains at least a half-mile away. They would cut the massive rocks at least three meters tall and would use a series of ramps (and a lot of man-power) to gradually haul the stones to the temple site. How crazy is that!

Afterwards, we got to walk along the narrow ledges winding along the side of the adjacent hill. Since I'm such a fan of heights (sarcasm) this was an interesting climb, but we had a beautiful vantage point over Ollantaytambo and the rest of the ruins. We ended the miniature hike by descending the seemingly-endless set of narrow stairs alongside of the terraces.

During our miniature hike

The last part of our visit to Ollantaytambo consisted of taking a peek in an Inca bathhouse nestled in the cluster of buildings at the base of the terraces. The well in the bathhouse still works beautifully without any sort of modern technology, which was pretty impressive to me. After viewing this ever-flowing fount, we trekked back through the town along some of the ancient Inca streets still in use today, and my little GV group took the train to Aguas Calientes, the tiny town closest to Machu Picchu.

I'll just start off by saying it: Machu Picchu was incredible. I am so glad that I went, and feel extremely blessed to have had the opportunity to see one of the Wonders of the World.

We left our hostel in Aguas Calientes around 7am, and took a half-hour bus ride up the winding roads to the summit where Machu Picchu lay. I was amazed to see as we rose that little puffs of white were level with my view --- I hadn't realized that we were up high enough to be among the clouds. We waited at the gate for our guide, Dimas, and the rest of our tour group, and at 8 am we sallied forth into the site, climbing for about eight minutes until we reached the flat portion overlooking the city.
GV girls at Machu Picchu!

After elbowing past the crowd of people who also had tours entering the area at the same time, we got our first look. It was even more breathtaking than the pictures from magazines; the mountains are such a lush, dark green in contrast with the bright green of the fields and terraces, and the grey stones stand out against all shades of green. I don't think that I could ever get tired of looking at the natural beauty that surrounds the ancient city, or cease to marvel at the architectural and historical wonder that Machu Picchu itself is. 

Mist literally covering the city
Our guide was explaining how the city was "discovered" by Hiram Bingham in 1911 when my favorite part of the whole day happened. While we were overlooking the site at the first viewpoint, a huuuuge cloud rose up from the valley below and enveloped the entire city, shrouding it completely from our view for a full minute. I couldn't see the buildings at all! Then, just as quickly as it had risen up from below, it lifted off and drifted higher. I couldn't help but imagine this happening on a daily basis, and wondered how that affected the residents in the city. Did they take it in stride? Did they think it was some reaction of a deity? I guess I'll never know for certain, unfortunately.
The only door to the city

After this phenomenon, we went into the city through the only entrance, a ten-foot-high doorway that stands to this day. It was the only way to get into and out of the city, which makes sense from a goods-regulation viewpoint as well as from a protection viewpoint. Incas were pretty short, but the doorway was so tall to allow the passage of llamas, farming goods, and ceremonial litters carrying the Inca, or the emperor of the nation. 

The Temple of the Sun
Dimas showed us important structures and areas in the city, such as the Temple of the Sun, the central religious plaza, and the Sacred Rock of the Inca. He was extremely informative, which was great, and I learned a lot about the present site, its history, and the lives of the Inca who inhabited this mountainous region. 
Restored thatch roof

After our two-hour tour with Dimas, we got to do our own exploring throughout the city. I wandered around with the GV girls for a time, then went off by myself to make my own discoveries, be with my thoughts, and privately marvel at the city. During my time in the city, I tried to imagine all of the structures covered with the thatch roofs and bustling with Incas roving about in their daily activities. 

Inside an Inca house

Apart from being impressed with how well the structures in the city have withstood the passage of time, I was also impressed with the fellow tourists visiting Machu Picchu around me. For being as early in the morning as it was, and not during the high tourist season, there were so many people exploring the city with me, which surprised me. I heard more languages during my brief time on that mountaintop than I've heard in my life. I was inspired by one brave soul who was making his way through the ruins with a pair of crutches, which is a nearly-impossible task given the uneven terrain and endless stairs in a non-handicap friendly  --- that's dedication to a dream. 

I really don't know what more to say about Machu Picchu except that it is an utterly fantastic place, and I highly suggest that anyone able to make a trip there should do so. My pictures do more justice to the site than my words could ever do, even though photos do not capture everything that is so awe-inspiring about the place. 

Thanks so much for reading! I fly back to the States on Thursday, so I'll try to post about my visit to Buenos Aires before then, but no promises ;) I will hopefully see you all soon!


Pisaq's walls

Ollantaytambo from the ground level
We were our guide's favorites --- he specifically
asked for a picture with us

A sacrificial temple next to the central religious plaza
The Sacred Rock of the Inca
So many green spaces

This was a sacrificial table called The Condor.
In the space under that huge rock is a
cavern where mummies of sacrificial
animals were discovered.
Looking out from a grain storage barn

Under the Temple of the Sun

Such a beautiful place 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

A Week in Peru

El Palacio del Gobierno
Hi everyone! It's been a while since I posted last, but that's because I've been traveling South America! I won't write about everything that I've done and seen in one post, because that would be an insanely long thing for me to write and for you all to read in one sitting.

La Catedral de Lima

The capital of Peru, Lima was the first stop for me and the other three GV study abroad students, Hayley, Kristin, and Emily. We flew in on Thanksgiving Day and spent the next day exploring the city. We started with the Plaza de Armas, or the city's main square, and saw El Palacio del Gobierno, or the Government Palace, and la Catedral de Lima, or the Lima Cathedral. These buildings were so massive and beautiful, and still retain the early colonial style in their architecture. 

The band!

One of the coolest parts of the Government Palace is that there are guards stationed in front all day long, and every noon hour there is the Changing of the Guard. We watched the majority of this ceremony, complete with a band, heralding trumpets, and lots of high-stepping... I was quite impressed by the ability of the guards to get their legs up that high, and I can't imagine doing that every single day without fail in all types of weather. It was rather impressive.

In front of 
El Convento de San Francisco
We also visited el Convento de San Francisco, or the Monastery of San Francisco. We toured the building and had the opportunity to learn more about the history of this beautiful church and see the ancient books in its original library --- as a book nerd, this was pretty awesome for me (: Then... we went into real catacombs! The catacombs under the church was the only burial ground until a cemetery was founded in the 1800s. Over 70,000 burials have been discovered in the crypts and ossuaries there, and many of the bones that have survived, mainly femurs and skulls, have been sorted into massive bins and lie neatly side-by-side to save space. We even saw a few full skeletons as well during the tour, which was pretty cool to me. It's so fascinating to compare views of death across the centuries and see how different cultures treat their dead.
Pretty ceiling

We also poked around Lima's Casa de Literatura Peruana, or House of Peruvian Literature. The building used to be Lima's train station, but in 2009 the station was remodeled and opened to showcase Peruvian literature. There are separate rooms filled with books and magazines sorted by theme just like a library, and an outside area overlooking the old train tracks to sit and read. I particularly loved the stained glass ceilings that allowed natural light to fill the station.

At el Parque de la Reserva
By far the best part of our trip to Lima was El Parque de la Reserva, or the Park of the Reserve, which is home to the world's largest fountain complex, El Circuito Mágico del Agua. Huge and intricate fountains fill the park, and after darkness falls there are light and music shows to accompany the fountains. 

There's a little area of fountains for kids, a huge pool with fountains for the nightly shows, a tunnel of water, and, my personal favorite, a challenge fountain where you try to make it to the middle without getting wet. I made it to the middle, but I will admit that I wasn't dry when I got there :P to see what I'm talking about, check out 1:12 in this video. It was such a beautiful park, and I absolutely adored every minute of our nighttime visit to this whimsical spot.
Emily and me in the Tunnel of Water!

The Peruvian flag and the Cusco flag
After our brief stint in Lima, on Saturday we flew to Cusco, Peru. I loved this city, which was the capital of the Inca Empire before the Spanish Conquest, and for its historical significance had a totally different atmosphere than Lima, much more rustic than the industrialized capital. The Peruvian culture was displayed so prominently there --- mostly for touristic benefit, I know --- and it was just incredible to see the remnants of history that have withstood the tests of time and man. 
La Catedral de Santo Domingo

On our first night we explored the city and planned out the remainder of our time in Peru. We went to the Plaza de Armas and watched the sun set over the clay-colored rooftops, and admired the beautiful cathedrals and churches that bordered the square. 

Me and the 12-Angle Rock
On Sunday we wandered further through the city in search of a few landmarks and things to see. We meandered down the ancient streets and the Inca Wall, a portion of the old city wall that still stands today. We found the 12-Angle Rock, and marveled that the wall hadn't been destroyed after earthquakes or the conquest. 

We witnessed a town celebration in the Plaza de Armas, then visited a museum filled with pre-Colombian art. It amazed me to see so much intricate detail in these pieces, and the thought and care that was put into each work is astounding. 

There were pieces on nature, on deities, on people, ancient jewelry and pottery, and religious items. Being the dork that I am, I was rather excited to find so many pieces about my favorite animals --- owls!
Lunchtime show!

During our lunch of typical Peruvian food (which is delicious, I can assure you), we had the opportunity to watch a couple of shows featuring traditional dancers in flashy garb. It was really neat to see the stories played out through the dances and enjoy the upbeat music accompanying the shows. 

A view of the convent and courtyard --- see the
difference in Inca vs.  Spanish construction?

Afterwards, we visited El Convento de Santo Domingo, which was built on top of the Inca palace and temple Qurikancha. Inside of the convent and outside still stand some sections of the Inca foundation, huge dark stones cut to fit together perfectly without any type of mortar. These walls were built to be earthquake-resistant, and have survived devastating earthquakes that leveled the Spanish portions made with small brown stones and heaps of mortar --- the Incas were incredibly intelligent and advanced in comparison to the conquistadors. I loved seeing the contrast between the manners of building, and marveled at the Incas' constructions' durability. 

On our last day in Cusco, after our trip to Machu Picchu, we visited El Monasterio de Santa Catalina, another convent that still is in use today --- we could hear the nuns reciting litanies and singing through the walls --- and learned about the life of the women that sequestered themselves within its walls. Ironically, this convent was also built on the site of a type of Inca convent for the chosen Virgins of the Sun. 

Successful shopping!
After touring the museum portion of the convent, we went to Cusco's market, which was a massive indoor complex filled with rows upon rows of stalls selling beautiful Peruvian handicrafts. I loved all of the colors and patterns that we found in Peru --- I have the best Christmas presents to give this year! After a full week in Peru, we flew out of Cusco and headed to our next stop: Argentina!

I absolutely loved Peru --- the history, the landscape, the culture, the colors. I am extremely thankful that I had the opportunity to travel and see more of God's beautiful creation in this gorgeous country. I really want to go back to further experience and explore Peru, and I hope to in the future.

That's all I'm writing for now! I know that some of you are wondering "But... what about Machu Picchu?!?" Fear not! My next post will be entirely devoted to my visit to this breathtaking site, so you'll all just have to wait a little longer (:

Thank you all for reading and for thinking of me! I will be back in the States in a week!

Love from Chile,


Ordering Thanksgiving dinner! No turkey for us
La Casa de Literatura Peruana
Outside of the Government Palace
The biggest fountain the in park!
Another view of the Cathedral de Santo Domingo
Map of the Inca's Cusco
The courtyard behind el Convento de Santo Domingo
--- it used to be an Inca courtyard as well
My favorite Peruvian dish --- aji de gallina
A monument for the Inca founders
Ancient Inca street next to the Inca Wall
Tortilla de vegetales omnomnom
I loved the colors so much!