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South America, Pt. 2: Human Skulls and Machu Picchu


Looking in some traditional Peruvian houses and checking out Machu Picchu


Today is the 4th of July, but we’re doing it a little differently this year. Last 4th of July we ate hotdogs in a biker bar before going to a party and watching the fireworks. This year we are spending it at home, sitting on the couch and watching TV, waiting to hear if Anna’s cousin, Emilie, has given birth yet. If it’s a boy and it’s born today, we are unsure if she’s required by law to name it ‘Lincoln’ or ‘George’ or something similar, but you never know.

Anyway, where were we?  Well, in Part 1 of this saga we had completed our totally unnecessary, yet incredible trek through the Andes and ended up at a hot spring. And by “completed”, I mean opted to finish a day early, but it turns out that 95% of all tour groups also opt for Option ‘B’.
I also mentioned that one of our guides, Marc Anthony, referred to me as ‘Sasquatch’ the entire trek. Well, when we got up today, look what was on TV:

This was met with much laughter from Anna, but admittedly the intro to the show was hilarious. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it on YouTube.

Now, back to the hot springs…

When we first arrived at the hot springs I got to use a real bathroom for the first time in several days, also allowing me to see the effects this trip had had on me in the mirror and it was at that moment I realised how badly sunburned the bridge of my nose was. It had been a little painful, but I had no idea quite how bad it was. It was strange, because I had been applying 100+ factor sunscreen in an almost OCD manor the entire time we were in the Andes, but I guess I had just missed the bridge of my nose.
Anna and myself wanted to make use of the springs on Saturday night, so I got into the tent, pulled out my towel, put on a pair of shorts and then spent about the next 20 minutes looking for my towel again. I had no idea where I had put it, I couldn’t find it anywhere so we just shared the same towel, Anna dealing with the wrabness. What is Wrabness? The Deeper Meaning of Liff describes it as follows:

WRABNESS (n). The feeling after having tried to dry oneself with a damp towel.

marc anthony

Marc Anthony and the Sasquatch

Sunday, June 19
We had breakfast and lunch at the hot springs and it was the last time we would see most of our staff, including Marc Anthony. We all pooled together some cash and tipped all of the helpers. We were then asked to put all of our luggage and bags on a mat on the ground so the helpers could load it all into the bus for us. Marc Anthony approached me with a plastic bag that looked reasonably familiar to both Anna and myself. “Don’t forget this one, Sasquatch.” It was my towel in a bag. The previous night I had searched everywhere for that thing, to the point that I thought I was losing my mind. I have no idea where he found it, but it would’ve been handy about 12 hours earlier! Anyway, they loaded in our bags, we said goodbye and then we jumped on the bus for our four-hour ride to Ollantaytambo.
The bus ride went pretty smoothly, considering it was a very windy, narrow road that was impossible for two vehicles to pass each other in most parts. Instead, our driver had to honk the horn while going around blind corners and come to a complete stop when he saw oncoming traffic. That was okay, though, beer and sleep helped ease the fear. We eventually made it to Ollantaytambo and it was a cool, albeit slightly freaky, place. Again, from wikipedia:

Ollantaytambo is a town and an Inca archaeological site in southern Peru some 60 kilometers northwest of the city of Cusco. It is located at an altitude of 2,792 meters (9,160 feet) above sea level in the district of Ollantaytambo, province of Urubamba, Cusco region. During the Inca Empire, Ollantaytambo was the royal estate of Emperor Pachacuti who conquered the region, built the town and a ceremonial center. At the time of the Spanish conquest of Peru it served as a stronghold for Manco Inca Yupanqui, leader of the Inca resistance. Nowadays it is an important tourist attraction on account of its Inca buildings and as one of the most common starting points for the four-day, three-night hike known as the Inca Trail.

Yup, you read that correctly. We had taken an extremely challenging two-day hike through the Andes to catch a bus to where most other people begin their hikes. I guess we can notch this one up to the ‘T’ Factor again. Oh well, it was still worth it, that’s for sure.

We spent the afternoon strolling around Ollantaytambo, first as part of a guided tour and then we were given a few hours to roam around by ourselves. We started by walking down the ancient, narrow streets, admiring the scenery on the surrounding hills, before entering the houses of traditional Peruvian families and that’s where things began to get a bit freaky.
The houses were just a single room and upon entering we were instantly hit with an awful stench, one that turned out to be coming from the guinea pigs and ducks they breed inside, generally for sale to restaurants. When looking around the room, things began to get even weirder — It is commonplace to keep the skulls of family members after their deaths and these were generally kept in an alcove, surrounded by animal sacrifices and phallic figures. But don’t take my word for it, see for yourself:

Before long it was time to leave Ollantaytambo and catch our train to Aguas Calientes, where we would spend the night before heading to Machu Picchu the following morning, the train we could’ve caught instead of hiking to nowhere in particular. Once we boarded the train we began chatting with some people sitting in the seats surrounding us, a bunch of six twenty-somethings who were in another group who had hiked the Lares Valley Trek, as well. They, however, were part of that crazy 5% who decide to do the full trek. Before long they made us privy to a couple of facts we didn’t initially know:

  1. We were placed in our tour group based on our age. Ours was the “Geriatric Group,” consisting of older people trying to do the trek, but would hold back a group of younger hikers. The reason there were several people younger than us in our group was because they were relatives of the older hikers.
  2. They referred to our group as the “Cheaters” because we had selected Option ‘B’. To put it in perspective, one of them had described their trek as a combination of hiking and a bizarre Japanese gameshow, saying that in order to help pull yourself up an exceptionally steep cliff-face on the mountain we chose to skip, the only thing to grab onto was a cactus. Another showed us a photo of herself sitting in the snow, crying.

I had never been so happy to be considered a cheater before in my life and we had a great time chatting to them, but before long we were at Aguas Calientes.
We checked into our hostel just in time to catch the last quarter of what is one of the biggest upsets in sporting history, as the Golden State Warriors were beaten like a red-headed step-child at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the 2015-16 NBA Championship. If you’re not a basketball fan, this was a huge upset for several reasons:

  • The Warriors had set the record for most wins in a single season, going 73-9 this season.
  • The Warriors’ Stephen Curry was the NBA’s first unanimous regular season NBA selection, yet barely showed up in the finals.
  • The Warriors were leading the best-of-seven series 3-1, a margin that no team had ever come back from in the Finals.
  • The whole Cleveland Curse thing.

I can’t stand LeBron James, I think he’s just an arrogant douche and this would make him more unbearable, but he played well and earned that ring. Fortunately, I would be able to ignore it all for the next few weeks, because all references to that series for me would be in Spanish or Portuguese. Anyway, this shouldn’t be a problem again next season now that Kevin Durant has decided to join Golden State! Now I just have to deal with a lifetime of debate over which team was better, the 2016 Golden State Warriors or the 1996 Chicago Bulls, incidentally my favourite team. The Warriors won one more regular season game than that Bulls team, but Chicago won one more game in the Finals, when it matters most.

I turned the TV off before the game even finished, had a shower and went to bed in shock, but I had to get some sleep. I had to get up at 5:30am again, because we had to meet in the town square 6:00.

Monday, June 20
We managed to get up again at 5:30am and made our way to the town centre. From there we walked down to where we would catch a bus up to Machu Picchu. Hiking was an option, but we were a little over that by this stage.
Once up the top, we were awestruck by the beauty of the place and how cool it was to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World, the first of two that we would visit on this trip. Initially, it was extremely cloudy when we got up there, with low visibility, but that eventually cleared. We were taken by Marco, our guide on our Andes trek, on a three-hour guided tour. We were provided with so much information and so many facts that it is impossible to recall, so it’s back to wiki again for some help:

Machu Picchu  is a 15th-century Inca citadel situated on a mountain ridge 2,430 metres (7,970 ft) above sea level. It is located in the Cusco Region, Urubamba Province, Machupicchu District in Peru, above the Sacred Valley, which is 80 kilometres (50 mi) northwest of Cuzco and through which the Urubamba River flows.

Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti (1438–1472). Often mistakenly referred to as the “Lost City of the Incas” (a title more accurately applied to Vilcabamba), it is the most familiar icon of Inca civilization. The Incas built the estate around 1450 but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known locally, it was not known to the Spanish during the colonial period and remained unknown to the outside world until American historian Hiram Bingham brought it to international attention in 1911.

Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows. Most of the outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of how they originally appeared. By 1976, thirty percent of Machu Picchu had been restored and restoration continues.

The site is roughly divided into an urban sector and an agricultural sector, and into an upper town and a lower town. The temples are in the upper town, the warehouses in the lower.

The architecture is adapted to the mountains. Approximately 200 buildings are arranged on wide parallel terraces around an east-west central square. The various compounds, called kanchas, are long and narrow in order to exploit the terrain. Sophisticated channeling systems provided irrigation for the fields. Stone stairways set in the walls allowed access to the different levels across the site. The eastern section of the city was probably residential. The western, separated by the square, was for religious and ceremonial purposes. This section contains the Torreón, the massive tower which may have been used as an observatory.

Located in the first zone are the primary archaeological treasures: the Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows. These were dedicated to Inti, their sun god and greatest deity.

The Popular District, or Residential District, is the place where the lower-class people lived. It includes storage buildings and simple houses.

The royalty area, a sector for the nobility, is a group of houses located in rows over a slope; the residence of the amautas (wise persons) was characterized by its reddish walls, and the zone of the ñustas (princesses) had trapezoid-shaped rooms. The Monumental Mausoleum is a carved statue with a vaulted interior and carved drawings. It was used for rites or sacrifices.

The Guardhouse is a three-sided building, with one of its long sides opening onto the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock. The three-sided style of Inca architecture is known as the wayrona style.

We spent a lot of time walking around and we took a ton of photos, here are the cream of the crop:

After we had finished walking around Machu Picchu, Anna filled me in on a minor detail I wasn’t really aware of; We had paid to climb Huayna Picchu. “No big deal,” I thought. “We’ve climbed some massive mountains over the last few days, this will probably be more of a hill.” Well, if you look at the captions on those photos, above, you’ll see that it is no hill, this thing was about another 360 metres (1,180 ft) higher than Machu Picchu! It was supposed to take one hour to get up and another hour to get down the extremely precarious path, but the views made it worthwhile. Some of the photos are pretty bad, but that’s because we were exhausted and staring directly at the sun.

Getting back down had it’s downfalls — The summit of the mountain was exceptionally crowded, despite the fact that they only let 400 people climb it per day. At one point, I was stuck standing in a position where I was almost doing the splits, with one foot on a boulder and one on the main part of the mountain, as I was trying to climb up. The reason for this was that there was a person spending eternity on narrow ledge trying to perfect that pinnacle of 21st century narcissism, the selfie. Selfies annoy me no end in general and this guy was taking forever, just posing, shooting, checking, deleting and then repeating. I had nowhere to move and I was blocking the way of an American tourist who began to get extremely angry at me because I was in his way, despite me explaining countless times what the problem was.
In the end I tried to let the guy past just to shut him up, but ended up losing my footing and dropping a couple of metres between the boulder and some rock, but managed to catch myself at the last moment. At first I thought I had just grazed and bruised my knees, but after a few minutes my left wrist started to ache and swell quite a lot. I guess I sprained or hyperextended it quite badly, because I couldn’t hold anything with it to climb down the mountain and I still can’t use it properly now, two weeks later. Anna’s ankle was still very swollen after she rolled while we were hiking through the Andes, too. To make matters worse, to get down the mountain we had to go through a tiny cave that I couldn’t really fit through. I thought I was going to have to be dragged out by my feet again like I was when I tried to enter the tunnels in Vietnam.

Eventually we made it back down after our biggest climb yet, the equivalent of 204 floors, and caught the train back to Cuzco where we would spend the night. Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu were an unbelievable experience, but I now hate selfies even more and I’ve given up on my dream of ever being a hand model.

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It’s all good, that finger was already busted.

Tune in for Part 3 when we get drunk in São Paulo, Brazil!

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About Dr. Tan's Travels (103 Articles)
My name's Tim. I'm a freelance writer and former ESL teacher from Melbourne, Australia, who taught in Daejeon, Korea for six months in 2007 and, until February 2015, had taught in Singapore for seven years. My wife, Anna, is an ophthalmologist. Between March 2015 and July 2016 we spent a month in Pondicherry, India, three months in Bonn, Germany, and 12 months in New York before returning to Singapore, all for training and work placements for her. The reason I wanted to keep this blog is because I suffer from epilepsy and have a terrible memory, therefore this would be a great way to help me remember our travels. I will do my best to keep it updated and even continue writing now that we're back in Singapore, but there is one problem; I have a pretty severe phobia of anything medical.

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