Memorable Trip to the Land of the Incas
Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas."
Visiting the "Lost City of the Incas."
Ecuador, a country that has fastidiously maintained its pristine environment by being one of the first in the world to provide in its constitution, equal rights and protection to wildlife, flora, and fauna as to the humans. A country where hunting and felling of trees are prohibited while killing insects, geckos and tree bats in hotel rooms and lodges is discouraged! The country with the famed Galapagos Islands and the towering Andes Mountains over which soar the huge Condors with wingspans of up to ten feet. It also boasts being host to 138 species of hummingbirds.
The capital city of Quito, at an altitude of 9,400 feet, lies close to the Equator. The Middle of the World monument on the Equator is an attraction for visitors to be photographed with one foot in each of the two hemispheres. The original inhabitants are said to have correctly pinpointed the exact position of the equator. The city boasts of some impressive monuments like the Jesus Church, with gold plated statues and facades, the imposing Basilica, and the Main Plaza with the distinguished Presidential Palace.
Traveling down the valley towards a rain forest, we stopped at Guango Lodge, famous for the very large variety of hummingbirds in their gardens. We proceeded toward La Punta Ahuano and stayed at Casa Del Suizo lodge (named after the Swiss founder). Its situated along the river Napo, one of the hundreds of rivers fed by the mountain glaciers that flow through the rain forests into a basin to form the mighty Amazon river. In the afternoon, we visited a Quechua family at their house and learned about their way of life. The dwelling is on stilts to protect them from flood waters. We later practiced our skills on a blow gun—a long wooden pipe that you hold up to your mouth and blow a puff to shoot an arrow at your target.
We ventured the next morning to a rain forest—a truly memorable experience. Donning ponchos and rubber boots in the persistent rain, we labored our way through dense foliage, avoiding contact with trees and poisonous insects. The climb up steep inclines in the slush was challenging and strenuous. Along the way, we crossed a small valley on a manual zip line and later, over a suspension bridge. We made our return trip on the river on a raft made up of balsa logs tied together. Assured by the travel guide that no dangerous creatures lurked in the waters, some of the more adventurous companions jumped into the river! For all our troubles, we were treated the next day to a thermal spa, high up in the Andes!
Ecuador appears to have had a less turbulent history than Peru.
A country made famous by its original inhabitants, the Incas, who ruled over a large portion of the continent before succumbing to the Conquistadors, the Spanish conquerors, whose mission was to conquer the territories, repatriate back home as much of the precious metals as possible, and to convert the “savages” to Christianity.
The term “Inca” was originally used to designate the rulers or the top elite of their Empire but was later used to refer to the mainly Quechua tribe that formed the bulk of the country’s population. Their rule spanned several centuries and reached its zenith towards the end of the 15th century when they ruled over what is now Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, and parts of northern Chile and Argentina. They were considered benevolent rulers and had integrated the other tribes in that region with their own and established Cuzco as the capital of their Empire. Called the “Imperial City,” Cuzco lies at an altitude of 11,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains and valleys. The Incas had built several monuments and impressive buildings, most of which have been either totally or partially destroyed by the Spaniards. Some of the reconstructed monuments have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites; among them are the Temple of the Sun and the Colonial Cathedral.
On the city’s outskirts and built atop a hill is a statue of Christ; the site offers a spectacular view of the city. Also on the outskirts is the famed fortress of Sacsayhuaman, a structure that rivals the Pyramids and the Stonehenge for its design and construction. The walls are constructed of huge slabs of granite rocks, some weighing over 200 tons. Even today, engineers find it hard to explain how such massive stones could have been quarried from the mountains, transported to the site and placed in perfect positions.
On way from Cuzco to the famed site of Manchu Picchu, one enters a lush valley along which meanders the Urubamba river. The Incas believed that the configuration of this long, narrow valley matches that of the Milky Way up in the skies, prompting them to call it the Sacred Valley. For several miles, the valley is flat and fertile and rich in agriculture produce. But soon the landscape changes dramatically with sheer mountains of granite rising thousands of feet above the foaming, roaring rapids. The towering cliffs and the gigantic precipices appear to have been expressly designed by nature as a sanctuary for those who sought refuge from the marauding tribes and the subsequent foreign invaders. The Incas, who dwelt in this region, had mastered the art of building suspension bridges over swollen rivers in the treacherous mountain gorges from lianas, the tough long-stemmed wooden vines from jungles, that served as cables for the bridges.
For centuries, the valley remained inaccessible to travelers until about a hundred years ago, when a road was opened up along the river by blasting it across the face of the precipice. With the construction of roads, bridges and recently, a rail track, the travel is a lot more comfortable. From the Ollanta rail station, one can board the Inca Rail Executive train for the 90-minute ride to Aguas Calientes. From there, one boards a bus for a half-hour harrowing ride up to the ancient citadel of Manchu Picchu, known as “The Lost City of the Incas.” A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it nestles high up on the cliffs, challenging to scale from the valleys below. Its construction on the mountain slope is an engineering feat and there are remnants of the Temple of the Sun, the House of the Priest, the Sacred Plaza and the intricately carved rock likely used as a sundial by the ancient Incas. Terraces were cut out on the slopes to facilitate cultivation of crops for the inhabitants. The uniqueness of this site is best described by Frank Chapman. “In the sublimity of its surroundings, the marvel of its site, the character and the mystery of its construction, the Western Hemisphere holds nothing comparable.”
Several aspects of this city remain a mystery to modern historians, particularly why it was abandoned without leaving a trace. Many historians believe the city was built circa 1450 and abandoned only 100 years later, though some believe it was built several centuries earlier and that the Inca rulers retreated from Cuzco to this outpost when they were threatened. This sanctuary, from where they worshipped the Sun, was lost for centuries because this ridge is in the most inaccessible corner of the most inaccessible section of the central Andes. The Spaniards never reached this site nor did any outsider. It was in 1911 when Hiram Bingham, a Yale University professor, uncovered the ruins buried deep under a thick forest undergrowth. He believes that the elite Inca womenfolk sought refuge here from the Spaniards who, by then, had seized Cuzco. Many perished here while the remaining few survivors quietly slipped away leaving the city abandoned. The actual turn of events might never be known.
On the road back to Cuzco along the Sacred Valley, one sights four capsules recently built atop a cliff on a steep mountain slope that takes hours to scale. Providing sleeping accommodation for about twenty visitors, the capsules are dome-shaped with a glass roof, through which the visitors get a magnificent view of the night skies above. The visitors descend the next morning by zip lining to the base.
The country has had a turbulent history, particularly after the conquistadors arrived. Financed by the Spanish rulers, primarily Queen Isabella the First and King Charles the Fifth, the leaders of the expeditions were required to turn over one-third of goods/materials collected to the Royal Treasury on their return. Accompanying the expeditions were missionaries from the Catholic church whose intent was to convert the locals. Also in their midst rode the “Soldiers of Fortune.” Between them, they plundered the countryside, destroyed the temples of worship and other revered monuments and gradually decimated the Inca rulers and their gentry. Setting up mines to extract precious metals that the region was endowed with, they accumulated so much gold that the churches and cathedrals that the missionaries built in the large cities had the statues, idols, and the facades plated with gold foil! The Colonial Cathedral in Cuzco and the La Compañia de Jesus Church in Quito (Ecuador), have their interiors gilded with more gold than even the Vatican!
Shipping back to Spain all the precious metals proved to be a challenge. The sea route around the south of the continent was stormy and treacherous, so they would arrange to ship it north along the Pacific to the Panamanian-Colombian border, have it transported on mules across the small strip of land to the Atlantic, and then have it shipped to Spain. It was not before long that pirates became aware of this arrangement and waited for them at strategic points in the seas. Very little of the cargo is reported to have reached the destination!
Our next stop was the capital Lima, a bustling city with a population of about 9.5 million. A port city that lies at the foothills of the Andes, it receives virtually no rainfall and depends on mountain streams for its supply of water. It has several magnificent Spanish colonial buildings and plazas.
On the lighter side, an interesting sight in Cuzco and other small towns in Peru is the number of semi-finished buildings, both residential and small commercial. The reason being given is that typically the head of the family starts construction of a multistoried building to accommodate him and the rest of his family. But he completes only the area that he needs, leaving the rest for the other family members to complete when they can afford to, which can take years. One advantage of this arrangement is that they pay a low property tax for the unfinished building. But the sight of a large number of such incomplete structures is not pretty!