A MONTH IN PERU—Part III
By Mel Goldberg
Puno, Lake Titicaca, and Macchu Picchu
The street noise in the city of Puno was incredible. Almost everyone travels on motorcycles, even families of four. It is not unusual to see a man and a woman with two children between them on a 150cc bike.
We visited floating reed islands of the Uros people on Lake Titicaca. The people, who pre-date the Incas, build houses and boats of reed as well.
We traveled by reed boat to the floating islands of Isla Q’Ota Marka and Isla Flotante Khana Uru. At this altitude, 13,500 feet, the air is cold, so the Uros wear layers of clothing, mostly woolen, which also protects them from the wind and sun which can burn badly. Many women wear the distinctive derby type hat and full skirts.
The Uros primarily speak Aymara although most know Spanish. According to their legends, their ancestors fled to the lake to escape conflict when the Incas extended their empire. Their descendents now revolve much of the their lives around the reeds. The white bottom of a reed, called the chullo, has a tart bitter-sweet taste and functions similarly to coca leaf at this high altitude.
A stone and dirt island, Taquille, is inhabited by the Quechua-speaking descendants of the Incas. The only place to buy food was at the top at a small, open-air building called a restaurant, a hike of about 1,000 feet up a stone path.
To sail the lake, a Victorian steamship was built in England in 1862, delivered in pieces, hauled up the mountain by mule, and re-assembled. Today it has been restored.
From Puno we traveled to Aguas Calientes and the most famous Inca ruin, pre-Columbian Macchu Picchu, which means Old Mountain in Quechua. The site rests on the top of a mountain ridge above the Urubamba Valley at 2,430 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level. Built around 1400 with polished dry-stone walls, it was abandoned about 1572, the time of the Spanish conquest. Only 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Inca capitol of Cusco, the Spanish never visited the remote city. Consequently, it was not plundered and destroyed, as was the fate of many other Inca sites.
Most archaeologists believe that Machu Picchu was an estate of the Inca emperor, Pachacutec, selected because the sacred mountains were believed to be in alignment with key astronomical events important to the Incas. Connected by roads, all Inca settlements were communities, with Machu Picchu being the most magnificent.
A local guide explained the significance of several rooms, especially the Temple of the Sun, a room with rounded walls, making it very distinctive and showing the masonary skills of the Inca. Large polished granite blocks were rounded and fit perfectly with each other without the use of cement or mortar, an amazing feat five hundred years ago. The sun, of prime importance to the Inca, was part of the sacred myth of their origin. Our guide, who was Quechua (and of Inca descent), also told us the Incas never engaged in human sacrifice like the Aztecs.
Although awed by Machu Picchu, we were astonished by Huayna Picchu, which means Young Peak in Quechua. The mountain, almost 9,000 feet, towers above Machu Picchu, twelve hundred feet below it. We were excited when we were told it could be climbed via a trail built by the Incas, a series of huge stone steps.
Everyone attempting the climb was required to register, listing both name and age. The ages ranged from eighteen to twenty-five. At seventy, with my son at forty-four, we became the oldest pair that year. When a young climber asked if I really expected to do it, I explained I planned to try. If I failed, I would return without shame, having made the attempt. The average time for the climb was noted at three hours. It took me four and a half. This was not a climb for anyone out of shape or unaccustomed to high altitude. The view of Macchu Picchu from Huayna Picchu was remarkable. The climb back down was as difficult as the climb up.
We returned to the village of Aguas Calientes and then to Cusco to prepare to travel to the jungle along the Amazon and Mariñon Rivers. My experiences of fishing for piranhas and boating with pink river dolphins will be the subject for another time.