Saturday, May 30, 2009

Day Four Entry

Waking up on day four at Phuyupatamarka ( we found ourselves with an absolutely beautiful view of Salkantay, the second-highest mountain in Peru. One of our guides (Freddy) told us that typically it's too cloudy to see it, but it is truly a beauty to behold - make sure to check out the pictures.

I have to mention at this point that things were a little shaky politically back down in the towns and villages. David pulled us aside on the third night at Phuyupatamarka to tell us that several porters and guides were hearing news of a indigenous worker's strike set to begin the day we were returning to Cusco - and in fact, might prevent our return to town. The day before we arrived we just missed a farmer's strike, and there was a protest parade in the main plaza in Cusco the first day we got there (which we artfully avoided and stayed in the hotel). Peru has a lot of socioeconomic/ class warfare problems, which are certainly not helped by the fact that the current president Alan Garcia went into a self-imposed exile in the 1980's, waited until the statute of limitations expired for the crimes he committed, and returned recently to be re-elected to the presidency. The farmers, who were protesting over the improper use of rivers and other natural resources, are generally peaceful and simple people, but we err on the side of caution where mobs are concerned.

Anyways, the hike on day four was relatively easy. Starting at around 3200 m, we descended to the Intipata ruin site, and continued on to Winaywayna, which is essentially the last trail control point before Machupicchu. Winaywayna (the hiking stop) actually has some semblance of modernity, with electricicty, showers, and a bar. Winaywayna (the ruin site) also served as a checkpoint/ rest stop for Quechua messengers running throughout the empire. It also served as an agricultural production site that supported the priests and artisan classes living at Machupicchu.

Continuing from Winaywayna, the trail falls and rises a few more km's through sub-tropical rainforest until you reach the sharp, vertical climb to Intipunku, the Sun Gate and final Inca checkpoint. From here, you can see the amazing wonder that is Machupicchu. It should be noted that Intipunku also served an important astronomical purpose for the Incan calendar - during the winter solstice, the sun passes over Intipunku and through the middle window in the Temple of the Sun (in Machupicchu).

After about 45 minutes more of hiking and a few hundred meters descent, we arrived in Machupicchu! I know this seems a bit anticlimactic, but it's much better for everyone to view the picutres here than for us to write about it. It certainly is a breathtaking place and we have no words to do justice to this New World Wonder. We were lucky to have a private tour with David - who is a native Quechuan and has studied extensively the ancient culture and the entire Incan Sacred Valley - to offer significant insight into each individual structure at Machupicchu.

Here we have to revisit the conversation about the strike (please note that for the majority of the following events, we didn't take pictures because it could have really stirred things up). We had to cut out our next-day visit to Machupicchu short because the workers' strike was imminent. It essentially came down to the choice of 1) Being stuck in Aguas Calientes (the closest town to the archaeological site) for two extra days with more expensive lodging, fewer supplies, and much less safety, or 2) Leaving Aguas Calientes on the last train and hopefully getting back to Cusco and staying in the hotel. We opted for option 2 on the advice of David and Carlos. It became immediately clear that this was the best option after we arrived in Aguas Calientes - when we stepped off the bus we were greeted (literally) by Amazonian tribesmen who had apparently miscommunicated with the strike organizers and showed up a day early. These men, who were carrying spears and bows with their signs, were sitting on the train tracks stopping the trains from going out. This was strange, even for the locals, because Aguas Calientes is probably over 1000 miles from their home (there has been some suspicion that Hugo Chavez is behind their efforts, providing transportation and signs printed in english, despite the fact that most of the natives don't speak even Spanish as a first language, let alone read and write in another).

There was no violence, and many of the natives were friendly, so we calmly went about our business of eating our first restaurant meal in four days - Casey had lomo saltado (kind of like a beef and vegetable sautee), and Ashley ate a Peruvian-style hamburger (plain, of course), and both enjoyed a cold Fanta and a Cusquena. A table away our guides were eating, and we later found out that David had been in talks with the strike leader to see if he could get our group out of town - otherwise, we would need to hole up in the hotel and hope to stay out of the way. Aguas Calientes is a very small town - it literally has about a half-mile stretch of shops and hotels, all situated one way by the Urubamba river, and another by the railroad tracks. David was also negotiating to get us (himself included) train tickets out on the 9:10 PM train - no easy feat because the PeruRail tickets are usually booked up well in advance by hikers, and it was the last scheduled train for three days, thanks to the transportation workers also scheduled to strike. We finished dinner and strolled around town a bit, visited an internet cafe, and had some ice cream. Upon our return to the street, we found out that David and Carlos had gotten us onto the train, and David had talked the workers into leaving the tracks to let the train pass!

We went to the train station, where the National Police had also been called out to escort tourists onto the train and to keep things safe (if necessary). We ended up waiting for the train until about midnight, when it finally pulled into the station. We're not sure exactly what happened between nine and midnight, but we think the rail workers needed some convincing to keep working, and to make sure that it would be safe for them to operate the train, and that there would be no more strikers sitting on the track. We arrived by train in Ollantaytambo around 2 AM, and got on a bus for the hour and a half ride to Cusco. Getting out of town and onto the highway was no problem, but once we neared Cusco the bus got a police escort to get down into the valley where the city is situated - the road down to Cusco is very narrow, cuts through several rundown neighborhoods, and is poorly marked.

At 4 AM we got back to the hotel, where we took much-needed showers and finally slept in a bed! We didn't wake up until 1:00 in the afternoon, and spent the rest of the day packing up and walking through town. We found out later that protests in the morning at the Plaza de Armas had shut the city down.

To finish this up, we'll say the following: Although these protests were not reported by any mainstream media (the Peruvian government has broad censorship powers), we were there to see it and are glad that we did. It prevented us from having a second day at Machupicchu, but it also gave us some exposure to things that happen in the world that we would have otherwise not been aware of. Plus, we really got to spend some extra time with David and have some really great conversations about his work and things that he's passionate about. Politics aside (and with hopes that Chavez is not behind this, as he certainly has a selfish agenda), there are some horrible working conditions and horrible treatment of natives in Peru, and we don't wish that on anyone.

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