It's noon on a gray South American summer day, and some of the oddest rocks in the world are again playing to an awe-struck audience.
These stones weigh tons, yet they've been lugged up a mountain and fit snugly together with unearthly precision. They point as accurately as a compass needle and line up with the sun and moon. Rare orchids curl from their crevices. Jungle mists cling to their flanks. Llamas nibble at their fringes. And now someone with a crude flute is blowing that old Andean folk song "El Condor Pasa."
This is a remarkable scene, no question. But not just for the rocks. Those, after all, have been here for at least five centuries. The freshest marvel on this mountaintop, given Peru's more recent history, is the company standing among the stones.
Here is Augusta Barreda, Peruvian-born and once a regular visitor here, picking her way along these paths for the first time in this decade. After seven years of staying away and worrying about the terrorists of the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement, she has returned with two Venezuelan friends in tow.
Here is Despina Mallios of Albany, N.Y. For six years an old college classmate has been inviting her to visit, and for six years Mallios read U.S. State Department warnings and various headlines about bombs and rifles, and waited. Now she is in the third week of her exploration of Peru, a veteran of power outages in Lima and weak water pressure in Cuzco, but merry and unscathed.
Here is Marion Bentley, a grandmother from Muskego, Wis., accepting the hospitality of a Peruvian family friend despite her kids' misgivings about the security of the place.
"We haven't had any trouble so far in a week," she volunteers. "And we walk down those spooky streets in Cuzco at night by ourselves!"
After several years of rampant terrorism verging on civil war, Peru's reputation is under repair, and the archeological and natural wonders of Cuzco and Machu Picchu are again points of pilgrimage for adventurous travelers. Since the worst days of 1991, 1992 and 1993, when the entire nation of Peru averaged a paltry 2,500 foreign arrivals per month, the volume of international visitors has tripled. Once in the country, most of them fly to the ancient city of Cuzco and take a train to nearby Machu Picchu.
At the Machu Picchu ranger station, administrator Abel Martinez recalls a day in 1991 when the most famous architectural site in all of South America recorded just one visitor from sunrise to sundown. By last year, the ruins were averaging about 400 visitors a day, up 150 from the year before. This year, rangers say the figure may be closer to 600--about as many as were arriving daily when I first visited the ruins in 1987.
I went back last month to see what was changed and what wasn't.
On that first trip, having persuaded ourselves that all the trouble with terrorists was in other parts of the country, a friend and I spent two nearly flawless weeks in Peru, including several days in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, marveling at the natural landscape, the visible history, the exotic train ride through the jungle, the ruins. In our indestructible twentysomethinghood, we overlooked the fact that the year before, guerrillas had blown up the same train, killing seven and wounding at least 38.
But over the next few years, I read about Peru's runaway inflation; the 27,000 deaths and $25 billion in damage attributed to the Sendero; the bizarre ascendance of an unknown named Alberto Fujimori to the presidency in 1990; and then in April of 1992, Fujimori's widely condemned move to dissolve the Peruvian Congress and suspend constitutional rights in many parts of the country, all in the name of fighting terrorism and corruption.
Then a strange thing happened. In September, 1992, Peruvian authorities captured the Sendero Luminoso leader Abimael Guzman and jailed him for life. Incidents of terrorism fell off substantially. Top Sendero lieutenants were televised appealing from jail for peace talks and an end to violence.
Around the same time, the Peruvian economy stabilized. Riding those successes, Fujimori was a favorite for reelection this year even before the January eruption of a border confrontation with Ecuador boosted his popularity further. (The disputed Peru-Ecuadorean borderlands lie roughly 800 miles northwest of Machu Picchu and roughly 500 miles from Lima. No incidents outside the border region have been reported.)
The tourists started coming back last July. That month, the government tourism agency's figures show, more than 10,000 visitors found their way here from nations around the globe--the highest one-month figure in four years. Even through the traditionally slower months of the rainy South American summer, the accelerated pace has continued.
Peru is still no place for the delicate or the heedless. Lima, the capital that most travelers pass through to reach Cuzco, has chronic problems with infrastructure, pollution and crime. Cuzco has many pickpockets and muggers, whose activities (preying most often on lone travelers in the streets late at night and along the Inca Trail) are said to have increased as the flow of tourists has quickened. Machu Picchu is a steep mountaintop with narrow trails and precious few handrails. And the State Department is still dispensing this disquieting sentence to would-be travelers: "With the exception of certain tourist areas, which have been free of terrorist activity, terrorist bombings and shootings occur throughout Peru."
So what is it that persuades people to come?
Flying into Cuzco, you rise to 30,000 feet, pierce clouds, dart past sharp, snowy Andean peaks and mountainous jungle, and then suddenly are surrounded by red dirt hills, green stubbled slopes, stone-terraced farms and uncountable rows of potatoes and corn.
You land at the busy airport, step out of the plane, and are immediately short of breath: Though you're on the floor of a deep valley, you're 11,000 feet above sea level.
Cuzco may be the oldest continuously occupied town on the South American continent. The Incas made their capital here for generations, laid out the city in the shape of a puma, adorned the monuments lavishly with gold and silver. The Inca thatched roofs have long since been overtaken by Spanish-style red tiles. But its art and architecture are unique in the world--a shotgun marriage of the Incan and Spanish.
In country churches, Sunday Mass is celebrated in Quechua, the language of the Incas and Peru's enduring indigenous population. Near the altar in the cathedral on the Plaza de Armas hangs an oil painting of the Last Supper, executed by a Quechua artist under supervision of Spanish missionaries. The painting seems like a piece of standard 17th-Century European religious art until your eye reaches the meal on Christ's plate. It's a foot-long roasted guinea pig, legs inelegantly pointing heavenward.
Outdoors, the world is similarly jumbled. In a single block on Cuzco's narrow streets, a walker will often see a precisely fitted Inca wall, a bowler-hatted Quechua woman who will demand money if you take her picture, and an ornately carved second-story balcony that seems to have been imported straight from Moorish Spain. Beneath that balcony will sit a gaggle of backpackers from Europe. It's their first day in town, and they're comparing headaches.
Soroche is the Spanish word for altitude sickness. Newcomers are advised to take a nap upon arrival, sip some coca tea and go easy for a few hours. Back in 1987, I did that and was fine. Last month, as a 34-year-old, I did that, then swallowed many aspirin tablets, then swallowed some red and white pills that were supposed to be more powerful, and still nursed a headache for a day and a half. Clearly, the Andes are getting taller.
Most of the storefronts around the Plaza de Armas are now adventure outfitters, snack bars and souvenir stands. But if you read just a little history before you venture into the streets, any Cuzco block can quickly unfold as a source of wonderment.
Five hundred years ago, Cuzco stood as the seat of power in an Inca empire that included tens of millions of subjects. Inca territory ran 3,000 miles along the Andes, from what is now central Chile to southern Colombia.
Then came 1532, and the arrival of Francisco Pizarro. He had fewer than 200 men, but he also had horses (never before seen in this territory), some crude guns, great shrewdness and dumb luck. He had arrived in the middle of an Inca civil war.
Within two years, the Spaniards--still numbering around 200--had seized virtually everything of value, slaughtered thousands of Inca warriors and subjugated an empire of millions. The invaders took over Cuzco in 1533, and though some Inca stalwarts held out in a "lost city" in the jungle until 1572, their world had been set on its head.
Cuzco makes an impression. But a tour of the surrounding countryside's villages and ruins can overshadow it. Leaving behind the grid of streets, you rise into a stark world of Andean hills and Quechua nomenclature. In that world, even if you're not Shirley MacLaine, it's easy to imagine the 20th Century falling away and the power of the landscape gathering.
The village of Pisac, 20 miles northeast of Cuzco, fills every Sunday with a prosperous market that draws tourists by the busload. The glory of Pisac, though, is the series of ruins above the town--terraces topped by a temple. From the end of the nearest road, it takes an hour or two of hiking to reach the highest peaks, but once you do, the view is mesmerizing. Yet Pisac's ruins get fewer than one visitor for every 10 who reach Machu Picchu.
At Chincheros, 14 miles northwest of Cuzco, a weather-beaten Catholic church stands atop an old Inca temple site, and the small town gives way to descending terraces and a green valley below. A Sunday craft market is conducted in an open square.
At Ollantaytambo, site of a rare Inca victory over the Spanish in their early skirmishing, an old Inca temple and a granary cling to a hillside, along with a series of steep and well-preserved farming terraces. In the lively village below, about 30 miles northwest of Cuzco, families still reside in homes first raised by pre-Hispanic builders.
From Ollantaytambo, the railroad tracks run west through a narrowing and twisting valley. Twenty miles down the valley lies Machu Picchu.
When archeologist Hiram Bingham first came upon the place in 1911, writes author John Hemming, his opening glimpse was "a magnificent flight of stone terraces, a hundred of them, climbing for almost a thousand feet up the hillside." So they remain, the overgrowth trimmed away, the steps steadily trod by travelers. The ruins are open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, and are served by a fleet of 16 tourist buses, which never leave the neighborhood. All day long, they rumble up and down the harrowing switchback mountain road.
Most visitors are day-trippers. They arrive from Cuzco via train, file onto a bus for the 2,000-foot ascent, arrive at the ruins sometime after 10:30 a.m., take a guided tour, and eat a cafeteria lunch at the Turista Hotel. By 3:30 p.m., they've been carted away on a downhill bus.
Pity them. The ruins are not a compact collection of buildings but a small city, with no end of curious structures, stairways and viewpoints. Here, a steep path leads to the neighboring peak of Huayna Picchu. There, a path joins the climactic stretch of the 20-mile Inca Trail, magnet to backpackers the world over.
To explore the site reasonably--and with very few others around--a non-camping traveler can do one of two things. You can plan far ahead and reserve one of the 41 rooms at the Turista, a mediocre place that gets away with rates of $102 a night because it's the only lodging on the mountaintop. Or you can stay down the hill in the hamlet of Aguas Calientes, and earn the view by scorning the bus and hiking up the mountain early in the morning (one to two hours) before the buses start, and hiking (or taking the bus) back down the mountain in the late afternoon (about 45 minutes).
I gave myself two nights at the foot of Machu Picchu. On the first day I took the train in, took the standard Machu Picchu tour, tromped around on my own a little, then retreated down the hill to see if Aguas Calientes was still the way I remembered it.
Seven years ago, Aguas Calientes was little more than a row of restaurants along the railroad tracks, a tiny church and square, and some old hot springs (hence the town's name). We stayed at a cheap, rustic hostel called Gringo Bill's and drank too much rum at restaurants alongside the tracks into the wee hours. Returning this time, I found the town's population had tripled to about 1,500, and Gringo Bill's has more competition, including the handsome but overpriced Machu Picchu Pueblo, where I stayed this time. A bus route now connects the town directly to the ruins, and a new railroad station is under construction. It's still a wonderful place to sit by the tracks and sip something cold--as I did this time with Peruvian archeologist Moises Aragon, who has spent seven years digging around the ruins--but Aguas Calientes may not feel like a jungle outpost for much longer.
The next morning, amid drizzle, I marched away from the central ruins by following the old Inca Trail--carefully, since the path was three feet wide, the stones were slick and the fall to my left would be approximately 2,000 feet, possibly concluding with a splash into the roaring Vilcanota River.
After two twisting uphill miles, I was at Intipunktu, a ridge-top ruin with a staggering view of the jungle, the river and the ruins of the old city. Getting there, I passed only half-a-dozen other hikers. Arriving, I found one other man, who kept silently to his own end of the hilltop.
Fine by me. I settled in under my umbrella, watched the mists rise and fall, the ruins appear and disappear, fell asleep, and then had the strange sensation of waking to a landscape stranger than most dreams. This is why travelers consider the State Department's warnings, consider the long flight south, consider the cost of all this, and then resolve to come.
Eventually, though, the time arrived for the hike back. This time the trail was busier. Two Spanish speakers. Six English speakers. A couple of non-speakers. A red and black centipede. And four damp llamas. If this kind of traffic is what the re-rediscovery of Machu Picchu means, I'll take it.
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On the Road to Ruins of Machu Picchu
Getting there: American and United airlines each fly LAX-Miami-Lima; restricted round-trip fares begin about $700. Aeroperu flies Lima-Cuzco; round-trip fares start about $175.
Note: Lima-Cuzco air connections are often awkward, necessitating overnight stays in Lima--a ragged, sprawling capital that many travelers would rather avoid. To do so, but spend much more money, you can take American Airlines' daily LAX-Miami-La Paz, Bolivia flight (restricted round-trip tickets start about $1,200), then catch an Aeroperu flight from La Paz to Cuzco (restricted fares about $160 round-trip). In either case, working with a travel agent experienced in South America may be helpful.
Getting around: From Cuzco, the only way to Machu Picchu is by train. Most comfortable way is the "tourist train" (which is sometimes actually a bus ride from Cuzco to the town of Ollantaytambo, followed by a 25-mile train ride to the base of Machu Picchu). Total time: about three hours, followed by a 20-minute bus ride to the ruins atop the mountain, or a hike. Most travelers buy a package ticket (about $65) in advance that includes train and bus fares, one-day entry to the ruins, a guided tour and a mediocre buffet lunch at the Machu Picchu Turista Hotel. Tickets are sold by local travel agencies and at the station. Delays are frequent.
Several tour agencies run daylong "Sacred Valley" bus trips that include Pisac, Ollantaytambo, Chincheros, and lunch in the town of Urubamba. Tours are most common on Sundays, and cost about $15. Or hire a taxi for the day ($40-$50) and choose your own stops.
Where to stay: In Cuzco, the Libertador Hotel (Calle San Agustin 400; tel. 011-51-84-231-961, fax 011-51-84-233-152), with Inca stones in its foundation and a Spanish colonial design that dates to the conquistadors, is the dominant high-end lodging. Double rooms: $111 nightly; rates likely to rise in June or July. There are many more moderately priced properties (Royal Inca, San Agustin and Savoy are three) and even more budget lodgings (often noisy, often without water pressure in the evening), such as the nine-room Hostal El Peregrino (Calle del Medio 121; tel. 011-51-84-232-072), where a double room runs $20 nightly. At Machu Picchu, the thoroughly mediocre Turista Hotel is the only place to sleep atop the mountain. The other options are a mile away in the town of Aguas Calientes, where the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel (Km 110, Aguas Calientes; fax via Lima 011-51-14-455-598) has 26 handsome rooms, high prices ($105 nightly for a double) and a fancy restaurant but an underachieving staff. For the frugal, there's Gringo Bill's Q'oni Unu Hotel (Colla Raymi 104; tel. 011-51-84-211-046), 20 yards off the town square. Double room with private bath: about $17 nightly; one bed in a communal room, shared bath: $5 per person.
Safety: Though terrorism is down, the U.S. State Department still has in effect a "warning" that cites shootings and bombings in non-tourist parts of the country. Travelers in Cuzco and Lima should beware of pickpockets and backpack-slashers on crowded streets, and black-market money-changers trying to pass counterfeit U.S. currency.
For more information: Peruvian Consulate, Tourist Information, 3460 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1005, Los Angeles 90010; tel. (213) 383-9895. Also, "The South American Handbook" (edited by Ben Box; Passport Books; $39.95) is probably the foremost guidebook on South America generally, with a substantial section on Cuzco and environs.