The day I had dreamed about for much of my life – visiting the Lost City of the Incas – finally arrived. Twitching with excitement, I climbed out of bed and watched the cloud forest emerge from inky blackness, hoping for sunny skies. An hour later it was clear my wishes were not to be granted; the day dawned gray and rainy. Undaunted, I grabbed my umbrella and headed out to meet my private guide for the day, provided by the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel. Though I could have visited Machu Picchu on my own, for this once-in-a-lifetime experience I decided to splurge in order to learn as much as possible about one of the world’s most iconic archeological sites.
A 20-minute bus ride carried us up switchback dirt roads to the entrance, beyond which my guide turned left onto a stone staircase, bound for the top of Machu Picchu Peak. As we climbed ever higher, the famous mountaintop Citadel came into view; even shrouded in thick clouds it was a spectacular sight that took my breath away. At the top I stood next to the Guard House, the original entrance to Machu Picchu, gasping for breath in the 8,000 foot altitude and trying to grasp how and why this so called Lost City of the Incas was built. My first surprise came when I learned that Machu Picchu is not the fabled “Lost City.”
Though it was little known to the outside world prior to its rediscovery in 1911 by American historian Hiram Bingham, it has always been known to locals, most especially to the Quechua who are direct descendants of the Incas. Bingham had been searching for the city of Vilcabamba, the last Inca refuge during the Spanish conquest, when a Quechua family with whom he was staying told him about a nearby mountaintop ruin. Bingham paid the son, 11-year old Pablito Alvarez, about a dollar to lead him to the ruin we now know as Machu Picchu. Mistaking it for the Vilcabamba site for which he had been searching, Bingham dubbed it the Lost City of the Incas and the name stuck, even after the Vilcabamba ruins were recognized as the lost city and last refuge of the Incas. Eventually the government of Peru recognized the importance of Machu Picchu and took steps to protect it however, before they could actually create the sanctuary, they had to relocate indigenous Quechua living among the ruins. Years earlier, unaware that the ruins existed, the government had deeded the entire mountaintop to three local families.
From the top of Machu Picchu Peak I descended rain-slicked stone steps to the central ruins, marveling at monolithic granite stones so perfectly fitted together that not even a piece of paper will fit between them. My guide pointed out the difference in the masonry: painstakingly polished stones were used for religious structures, while rough-hewn stones signaled structures used by commoners. Though theories abound, most now believe that Machu Picchu was a religious center, occupied primarily by priests, members of the Royal family, and the commoners who served them. Three of the 140 structures found at the Citadel: the Sun Temple, The Temple of Three Windows, and the Temple of the Condor, seem to support this theory, but to me the most fascinating features of all were the monolithic stones carved to mimic the silhouette of the mountains on the opposite side of the valley and the Intihuatana, a behemoth rectangular rock with a sundial-like protrusion on top that is believed to have been designed as an astronomic clock or calendar.
At the Intihuatana, I watched visitors reach across guard ropes to “feel” the rock. My guide explained that many people believe the rock emanates a spiritual energy and that the Inca may have considered it a portal into other dimensions. I reached over the ropes and slowly scanned the rock until, at one specific point, I felt heat and a deep throbbing in the palm of my hand. “Do you feel something?” my guide asked, explaining that he had never been able to feel anything from the rock, despite his Quechua roots. I guided his hand to the spot where I had felt the energy and showed him how to scan back and forth until he found the “heat.” I watched the recognition dawn on his face. His eyebrows shot up and a surprised look told me he had finally tapped into the power. Read More
I crossed a footbridge over a small tributary of the Vilcanota River and pierced an invisible veil. Leaving behind the sad little town of Machu Picchu Pueblo, devoid of trees and littered with broken down hostels and pizza pubs, I stepped onto the exquisite grounds of Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, where brilliant hummingbirds flitted between orchids and intertwining old-growth trees enfolded the hotel’s whitewashed stone villas.
Soft light filtered through the cloud forest canopy as I followed the hotel’s representative along serpentine rock paths to my private casita. She threw open the rugged wooden door and stepped aside, revealing an enormous suite with luxury bath, fireplace, sitting area and private balcony. My gaze swept from the rustic wooden beams of the cathedral ceiling down to the king size bed. Salivating at the prospect of sinking into its mountain of pillows and 100% cotton sheets, I quickly thanked her and shut the door.
Barely had I unlaced my heavy boots and wriggled my toes when someone knocked at my door. “What now?” I wondered. “So sorry miss Barbara, but I thought you might like to see this.” She pointed to to the top of an old telephone next to my villa, where a gorgeous male Golden Olive Woodpecker rat-tat-tatted, determinedly searching for grub. “We don’t see them very often,” she explained, pointing out the female sitting on a nearby wire. It was the first of many kindnesses I experienced during my two days at this heavenly retreat.
I had learned about the Inkaterra when I received an invitation to a press conference in New York City, where Fodor’s would announce their Top 100 Hotel Awards for 2011. When I replied with regrets, explaining that I was currently traveling in South America, they responded with a list of the five South American properties included among the top 100 and inquired if I was planning to stay at any of them. Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel was among those five. It was too much of a coincidence to ignore.
Because Fodor’s has long been considered a trusted authority on travel, especially with regard to accommodations, I knew the Inkaterra would be a treat, but I could not possibly have anticipated just how exceptional the hotel would be. Already impressed by the attentiveness of the staff, I returned to my spectacular suite and discovered a second surprise: on a table in the far corner a plate of gourmet chocolates and dried fruits awaited. Settling into a chair on my patio, I gorged on chocolate as I looked out over terra cotta roofs topped with ceramic bulls said to bring good fortune and gardens that quivered and twittered with rainbow-colored birds. An hour later, driven by a sugar high, I abandoned any thoughts of a nap and set out to explore. Read More
I stepped out of my taxi and stood rooted to the ground in front of the train station. A tingle crawled from the bottom of my spine, goosebumps broke out on my arms and I blinked back the tears that threatened. Up to that point it hadn’t seemed real. Up to that point, it had been just a dream. But I was suddenly struck with the full force of reality: I was going to Machu Picchu. After all these years, this dream that had begun as a child was finally coming to fruition.
My mind was back in those childhood days as I walked across the glistening marble floors inside the station and peered at the bright blue train that awaited. I saw a young girl sitting cross-legged on the floor, leafing through the golden stacks of National Geographic Magazines, spellbound by photos of exotic cultures and distant lands. Little did I know that these images would be a driving force throughout my life, infecting me with a wanderlust for which the only cure was to go and see. And see I did. The elephants and lions of the Serengeti more than lived up to those images that had been seared into my brain, as did the wild horses of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. The Coliseum in Rome, Italy was every bit as exciting as I had imagined it would be.
The wail of the train’s whistle snapped me back to reality and once again I was overwhelmed with emotion. In less than 24 hours I would be gazing out over Machu Picchu, perhaps the most famous icon in the world for explorers. Would it also live up to my expectations? Given that I had arrived during the rainy season, would I even be able to see the view of the ruins made so famous by those National Geographic photos of yore? There was only one way to find out; I boarded the train and hoped for the best.
Gradually we descended from Cusco into the Sacred Valley, an ethereal landscape of jagged-toothed mountains heaved up around the latte-colored Urubamba River. Beyond Ollantaytambo we entered the magical realm of cloud forest, where eternal fog blankets the steep mountainsides and perpetual drizzle dampens everything. Rare spectacled bears roam the river banks and brilliantly hued tropical birds flit between orchid-strewn trees in this Shangri-la of eternal green. I hadn’t yet glimpsed Machu Picchu and already I was in awe. Read More
As my time in Ecuador grew to a close I vacillated over the best way to make the land border crossing between Ecuador and Peru. Although it was possible to take a bus directly south from Cuenca to Peru, the trip would have required an eight to ten-hours bus ride to Zumba, changing to a Chiva (open sided bus) for the ride to the border town of La Balsa, a stop at the immigration offices to get stamped out of Ecuador, and finally a 2.5 hour ride in a colectivo (local pick-up truck with bench seats) to the town of San Ignacio. At that point I would still be on the eastern side of Peru, far from my intended destination on the coast; that route simply did not make sense for me.
Instead I opted to do something I almost never do: I retraced my steps to Guayaquil, where my Ecuadorian journey had begun nearly two months earlier, in order to make the border crossing between Huaquillas, Ecuador and Tumbes, Peru. However, this much faster and more convenient route would also have its challenges; I had read repeated warnings about thugs and scam artists who prey on tourists who try to do the crossing on their own, such as this couple who got held up for $114 dollars by their “guides,” who threatened to leave them stranded midway into the journey. As a solo female traveler, I wasn’t willing to take that risk.
Fortunately, I had met Karina Gonzales, a lovely young schoolteacher from Lima, during my earlier visit to Guayaquil. We became instant friends and upon returning to Peru she sent me a suggested itinerary of the best places to visit in her country, as well as contact information for Maikol, the guide she uses to cross the border whenever she comes to Ecuador.
Maikol was wonderful! He met me in the Ecuadorian border town of Huaquillas and arranged for a taxi to take us to the Immigration office, where I got stamped out of Ecuador. Strangely, the Immigration office is three kilometers (1.8 miles) away from the border, so once I had been stamped out, he hailed a second taxi to carry us to the International Peace Bridge, which marks the border between Ecuador and Peru. We walked across the long bridge, weaving in and out of the heavy pedestrian traffic and fending off vendors hawking from booths that lined both sides of the long bridge. There was no doubt in my mind that pickpocket attempts and opportunistic crimes are common in this environment and I was doubly glad to have Maikol at my side.
At the end of the bridge I gratefully climbed into his car and we drove three kilometers to the Immigration office in Zarumilla, where I was stamped into Peru and got my 90-day visa on arrival. Again, I said a silent thanks for Maikol. Had I made the crossing alone, I would have been at the mercy of whomever I could find to drive me to Peruvian Immigration. With all the formalities completed. I hopped back into his car for the 27 kilometer (16 mile) trip to Tumbes.
As we drove south, Maikol explained how a government irrigation project had transformed the coastal plain from a giant sandbox into an agricultural Garden of Eden where fields of white and green asparagus stretched as far as the eye could see. Upon arriving in Tumbes, he helped me find an ATM where I could get Peruvian Soles, gave me a brief walking tour around the pretty central plaza, and then dropped me at the street corner where vans leave every 20 minutes for Máncora, my ultimate destination. For all this, he charged Read More
Gravel spit from beneath the van’s wheels as we climbed into mountains erupting with picture-postcard spring colors. Though I enjoyed my time in Cuenca, it had been difficult to connect with the local culture in a city of half a million people, so I had opted for a day tour to explore tiny towns in the surrounding countryside. We crested a hill and rolled down into a verdant valley, where terra-cotta roofed houses clustered around the stately white church. With its dilapidated homes and stray dogs, San Bartolomé would have been unremarkable except for the sculptures in the main plaza; rather than requisite religious statuary, giant guitars paraded across the plaza toward the church, hinting that something about this town was very different.
Many rural towns scattered across Ecuador still adhere to the “guild system” inherited from Spain, where each community specializes in a particular craft. My travels had taken me to towns where giant round loaves of bread were stacked in every storefront window; to villages that produced incense, soaps, and oils from the fragrant wood of Palo Santo trees; and to still others that specialized in pottery and leather goods, but the hills around Cuenca may be home to the most interesting artisan traditions in the country and San Bartolomé is the gem in the collection.
In the foothills just above the town’s main plaza, we climbed out of the van at the home of master craftsman Jose Uyaguari. The tools of his trade were spread across a rough wooden table set up in his front patio: two long silver wood planes, chisels, awls, and a giant tub of glue. Using exotic woods such as Capuli and African Ebony, Uyaguari fashions some of the world’s finest guitars without using a single nail, then adorns them with intricate inlays painstakingly pieced together from tiny bits of multi-colored wood shavings. His customers are said to include famous artists such as Freddy Fender and Judy Collins, and though he wouldn’t confirm this, Uyaguari did acknowledge that musicians come from all over the world to buy his instruments, which are priced from $75 to $1,000. Perhaps most astonishing, Uyaguari cannot play a note!
Next up was the town of Chordeleg, famous for its jewelry, where silversmith Jorge walked us through the art of crafting exquisite filigree earrings, rings, and necklaces. He fed a silver ingot into a rolling mill, allowing it to flatten and extrude with each repeated pass, until it took the shape of a rough wire. This was further rolled out by hand on an anvil until it became a delicate flexible strand. With awl and tweezers, Jorge deftly twisted the silver into a series intricate figure eights, which were dusted with silver powder and melded together with a soldering torch. Each piece is unique and is priced according to the difficulty of design and weight of the silver; I purchased a pair of silver dangle earrings for $15. Jorge’s affordable prices are undoubtedly due to low overhead (his shop is in his home and the silver is sourced from mines in the nearby hills that are still worked by independent miners), but later when we stopped for lunch in central Chordeleg I realized what a bargain I had gotten. Scores of jewelry stores lined the central plaza and not one offered a similar pair for less than $50. Read More
Once a year, during the Christmas holidays, I return to the United States to spend a month with my family. It’s a time when I struggle to answer difficult questions such as: Where do you live? Although my legal residency is in Florida, I no longer own a traditional “brick and mortar” home. When I explain that I am a travel writer and photographer who travels the world perpetually, some people want to know how to do what I do. Most, however, have a different reaction: “Aren’t you afraid?”
Strangely, the only place I ever hear about fear of travel is in the U.S. Granted, many of the places I travel are developing countries, where the local populace is not affluent enough to travel outside their own country, but even in Europe, Australia, or New Zealand, this question never arises. U.S. citizens seem to be the only ones who believe that travel is dangerous. I actually feel safer overseas than I do in many U.S. cities. My answer is always, “There is nothing to fear.”
Recently I received an email from LaVonne and John Kunkel, friends from the days when I was a real estate broker on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Though I never particularly enjoyed selling real estate, I was blessed to work with some wonderful clients who, like John and Vonnie, became treasured friends. I was unaware that Vonnie had been following my blog until she wrote in response to my story about receiving an uncommon and unexpected welcome in the town of Alausi, Ecuador:
“I agree completely! We have encountered the same everywhere we travel. Just last week, we were waiting for a bus in Puerto Rico.There was no one else in sight until a limping, ragged looking man approached the very-obviously-American touristos and asked, “Old Town?” When we nodded affirmatively, he pointed across the road at another bus stop and motioned for us to follow him. We thanked him and stopped at the other bus stop. He walked on further and turned again to motion frantically for us to follow, which we did. When we came to a third stop, he waved and walked on. The correct bus came soon after.
Late that evening on our return we got on one bus, but the driver later had us transfer to another bus going in the direction from which we had just come! It was filled with locals on their way home from a long day of hard work. When we got on, I turned and asked, “Does anyone speak English?” and I told them the address of our hotel. Everyone smiled. Read More