By Mikhail D. Poloskin & Jackie Yin
When one thinks of vacation, it’s always the picture of the seaside that first jumps into mind. Indeed, who can refuse the charm of the beach? But there comes a time when one feels an urge to go somewhere far and exotic, to meet people from a completely different world, to reconnect to nature and purify the spirit. If that’s on your mind now, then let’s raise the altitude to 8,000 feet as we fly across the equator to the southern hemisphere to the miraculous UNESCO World Heritage Site of Machu Picchu in Peru. Let’s discover the legacy of the ancient Inca Empire!
After a pleasant six-hour flight with LAN Airlines relaxing our bodies in a Premium Business Class seat similar to a seat one would find in one’s own living room, we landed in Lima, the capital of Peru. But we didn’t rush to Machu Picchu. We stopped by the Sacred Valley of the Incas to greet the Yachaqs, descendants of the ancient Peruvians who guard the gateway to the magnificent Machu Picchu.
The valley is deemed sacred by the Incas because the surrounding snow-capped mountains provide protection for the people and a perfect climate for agriculture. “Yachaqs” means “wise ones” in the local language, which is so true as you can see how well these communities preserved ancient Inca techniques of weaving and cooking. Sit down and watch how they dye fibers and wool with local plants and how they shuttle swiftly across bands of colors. Then in lively song and dance, cheerful women in their handmade dresses serve guests with authentic Andean cuisine, all of which is freshly harvested. Beside a surprising variety of potatoes of over 3,000 types, what’s also worth mentioning is the giant white corn, which used to be kept exclusively for the Incan nobility and nowadays is a star export of Peru.
As if to build up the expectation for Machu Picchu, our train ride with the Inca Princess was unforgettable. All seats were made of leather and were as soft as a cloud. As the train rode along the Urubamba River in the valley, our eyes were overwhelmed by views of countless cacti, crossing llamas and peaceful houses. The best part? Take in fresh air on the side balcony; a great spot for enjoying the wind and the sound of the river. But even if you can’t get a seat on the Inca Princess, any other Inca Trail wagon will still surpass any train experience you’ve ever had.
We settled in Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, the closest hotel to the 15th-cnetury Inca site of Machu Picchu. Although I’ve stayed in many other hotels before, I have to say that this one was phenomenal. Not only because of the comfortable bed and the interior design with aboriginal colors and patterns, but also because of the view it provided – the mountain and the Vilcanota River were just outside the window! I can’t describe the kind of satisfaction it was to fall asleep to the lullaby of the river with the mountain as a curtain. To be believed, you must experience it for yourself.
The next morning we set off to Huayna Picchu, because it is the best spot to catch a full view of the Machu Picchu ruins, which sits in a valley between the two mountains of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu and consists of more than 300 square kilometers. Although veiled by a thin mist due to the high altitude of almost 8,000 feet, the shape of the ancient city was easily identified: terraced hillsides protected by stones that look like rising steps, rows of stone walls, houses and squares. I was amazed by how the Incas were able to create such a wonder at such an impossible setting without advanced tools.
Although Machu Picchu has always been a myth for scholars, it’s agreed that the city was built around 1450 at the height of the Inca Empire, and abandoned about a century later as a result of the Spanish Conquest. In 1983, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and recently in 2007, it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World. The city was built on accurately cut stones fit together using a classical Inca technique that doesn’t request adhesive materials. Just walk through the avenues. The decayed stones and rocks will show you the omnipresence of time and you will feel taken over by a strong magical power. You will be lost in thoughts with imaginations of ancient legends. Standing on top of the world in a remote mountain, you will be reborn.
There was so much to see on the site: temples with altars where animals were sacrificed, sanctuaries, parks, residences, some with thatched roofs, the last remaining compass of the Incas and one of the several remaining sundials – all while climbing through more than one hundred flights of stone steps. A must visit is the Temple of the Sun, an out-of-this-world archeological treasure.
The ruins of Machu Picchu left us with an inexplicable feeling, something deep, something profound and almost melancholy. And it was with this state of mind, we attended an Incan ritual after sunset. Upon our return to the Sumaq, we had a Shaman gather all our worries into a plate of leaves (and other gratuaties to the Earth), which he promised to later burry in a sacred location. The Incas believed in the connection between human and Earth. Although I’m not a believer in spiritual rituals, during the entire ceremony my heart and mind were unbelievably calm.
I was convinced. This is, no doubt, a magical land. The locals’ worship of Earth can also be seen from their special way of preparing food, called the Pachamanca, or “earth pot”, where they bury raw food in the ground and cook them with burning rocks. Other culinary inventions include Ceviche and a drink called “Pisco Sour”. At the Sumaq, you can even prepare your own meal under guidance of the award-winning chef Luis Diego Lindo Izquierdo!
If time allows, a visit to nearby cities like Lima and Cusco can always broaden your horizons. Famous historical sites include the Main Square of Lima and the Statue of Christ in Cusco. My personal favorite is Museo Larco in Lima, a museum offering a unique collection of archeological items excavated from sites of the Inca Empire. It’s a good place for those who are studious at heart.
I was also fortunate to get a chance to visit the Corpus Christi festival during our day trip to Cusco. A festival where fourteen Saints and Madonna statues decorated by lavish clothing, are carried, cradled high on a base, by groups of followers from different Cusco Parrish churches. The task seems arduous, as there are about 40-50 men carrying each statue on their shoulders, and at times their faces get so reddened and their movements so uncertain, that at any instant the whole structure might fall. But, at those unsteady moments the crowd steps in to give a needed hand. The floats are carried around the main square in a glamorous procession; it all makes for a great sight.
You should also feel free to roam around on surrounding streets, to see native folk in their national dresses, singing and dancing to their national songs and serving their native foods. After a long evening of observing the festivities, we capped the night off, with a dinner at a modern restaurant inside a museum square called the MAP café. The great sophistication of the interior and architectural design reflects the quality of the food and service. After the meal, we retreated for the night to our stunning spacious rooms at the Casa Hartagena. Desperate to lie down and shut my eyes until tomorrow, I stepped out to my balcony to enjoy the evening air before my sleep, surprised to see a glowing statue of Jesus far away on a hill.
My weeklong trip left me a memory without parallel. Even though I’m thousands of miles away now, I still feel the pull from this ancient culture and when I close my eyes, I can still see the ruins, hear the rolling river and even taste the earth-cooked corn. And most importantly, it was a journey of reconnecting to the earth and to myself. Wherever I go, I know that the strength and wisdom of the Incas will always be with me. •
*If you are planning to take a trip to Peru, consider LAN Airlines which offers direct flights to these destinations. Their staff was professional and friendly and you will find that your trip will be comfortable, quick and hassle free. One thing I know for sure, is you will love their world class seats.
How to get there:
Where to stay:
SUMAQ Machu Picchu Hotel
Sacred Valley Casa Andina (Valle Sagrado)
Casa Cartagena Boutique Hotel and Spa