“Attention crew, attention crew, this is your Captain. Who wants to go to Machu Picchu?” Exuberant cheering is heard throughout the vessel.
We were docked outside of Lima, Peru on the Sea Shepherd vessel M/V John Paul DeJoria in the only space they had for a 110’ former Coast Guard cutter, at the seedy and pungent fishing harbor. This sturdy vessel and her volunteer crew proudly serve the ocean with the mission to expose, intercept and oppose illegal operations that damage and destroy marine wildlife and habitats. We were warmly welcomed by the fleet of local fishermen and women who supported our efforts in trying to prevent large, foreign vessels from illegally scouring the sea off Peru’s coast, deeply altering their sustainable practices.
Long hours, cramped quarters, no pay; the best job I’ve ever had! Sharing work with like-minded ocean advocates is incredibly rewarding and sometimes exhausting, so the chance at shore leave to visit Peru’s most iconic site was thrilling.
We rotated days off in small groups, mine was one of the first. We hastily assembled a puzzle of logistics and scored the holy grail of limited entry tickets to the site, which was the key to build around.
Day one: I savored my first view of the Andes on the flight to Cusco, which sits at 11,200 feet (3,400 meters), a charming town where we searched for local cuisine and beer!
My culinary preference is plant based, seeing cuy or Peruvian guinea pig on the menu was not in the least bit tempting, yet delightful menu choices were plentiful in this mountain town.
Day two: We met our Uber driver who took us to the bus that took us to the train. From our window seats on the scenic train ride, we saw porters across the Urubamba river, packing gear and leading hikers along the Inca trail. Given advance planning, that would have been my preferred transport – on foot! However, settling on the Inca Rail was a marvelous alternative for the time constrained.
We were served tea and pastries. One had the choice of coca tea, which is recommended to help with altitude adjustment, and perhaps attitude as well, yet nothing was required to enhance my already spectacular state of mind.
The rail tracks end at the funky outpost of Machu Picchu Pueblo, where we checked into Gringo Bill’s Boutique Hotel.
Delighted by this charming abode, clinging to the hillside, we climbed stone steps, haphazardly winding up to the rooms, each with their own eccentricity and some with a deck overlooking the fairy tale hamlet.
The primary purpose for the Pueblo is hosting travelers and housing locals working in tourism. The town keeps spilling up the hillsides as construction slowly evolves. Industrious locals build by hand, with supplies arriving by train. We were happy to have time to explore, look at local crafts, and acclimate, with the bonus of working up a thirst for a local brew, which was happily quenched at Mapacho Craft Beer Restaurant, perched right on the boisterous Vilcanota River.
Day Three: Our entry tickets were for the afternoon arrival, which allowed us time for a leisurely breakfast, watching the misty morning weather.
The rain continued on our bus ride, chugging up soggy switchbacks. The view of rising through the lush valley was distraction enough from any concern of the skill of the bus drivers who rounded the corners with a glee of entertainment for themselves and their human cargo
At the entrance gate, the elevation is about 7,700 feet (2,346 meters). My first view was breathtaking in more ways than just altitude. The moment we arrived, the sun broke through the shiny clouds and lit up the site like a cinematic scene.
A quite pleasant surprise was seeing more llamas than humans! The rain had caused many tourists to hastily retreat.
We chose to not hire a guide at the entrance, as I wanted to linger and be immersed in the spirituality of this sacred area.
Sometimes visiting renowned sites with little prior knowledge is exhilarating in its newness. From photos I had seen before, I was under the impression that the prominent peak, Huayna Mountain, 8,858 feet (2,700 meters), which towers above the site, was the tallest mountain around, however, I was awestruck upon observing how it is dwarfed by Machu Picchu Mountain, 10,007 feet (3,050 meters), and the surrounding Cordillera de Los Andes, with an average height of about 13,123 feet (4,000 meters). The dramatic location of the site in this tropical mountain forest looks like a precious gem, cradled in the palm of the Peruvian Andes and the Amazon basin.
Upon close inspection, the stonework and engineering was impeccable. The site is built on two fault lines. During an earthquake, the stones are said to dance around a bit and fall right back into place. The masonry technique is called ashlar, the stones are cut to fit together without mortar, so precisely that not even a knife blade can fit between the stones.
The placement of a ceremonial stone reflecting the two equinoxes, March 21 and September 21, displays the astronomical knowledge of the Incas.
I loved soaking in the atmosphere, breathing in the history and imagining life during the height of the Inca Empire, during the 15th and 16th centuries.
In 1981 Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historic Site, and in 1983 became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A no-fly zone exists above the area.
Hiram Bingham III was born in Honolulu in 1875, which was then in the Kingdom of Hawaii. He became an academic and historian of Latin American studies and while exploring in Peru, he was led by locals to the site of Machu Picchu in 1911. His writings brought the site to the world’s attention.
Speculations flourish as to what the site was used for: a royal estate, women’s retreat, sacred religious citadel, etc., and the mystery still has not been completely solved as to why this stunning location was abandoned by the Incas.
As I wandered, I was captivated by the current residents; the animals! This protected sanctuary, with its rich biodiversity in an array of microclimates and elevations, hosts an abundance of wildlife.
Llamas portray a cheeky and curious personality, which I adore! What is the difference between a llama and an alpaca you ask?
Llamas are tall, with a long neck, elongated face, small pointy ears and they have a thick coat of hair. Alpacas are smaller in stature, with a small face and large ears. Alpacas have soft hair in a range of colors that is commonly used for clothing. Llamas were very prevalent the day I visited, and due to the lack of people, they roamed freely. I was delighted to turn a corner and watch a peacefully grazing camelid.
Over 400 species of birds make the highlands their home, many of them aren’t found anywhere else. One avian beauty is nicknamed “Cock of the Rocks” for its bright magenta color and rooster like crown, and holds the majestic title of Peru’s national bird. The Andean condor is the largest vulture in the world with a wingspan over 10 feet (3 meters) wide. Of the many species of hummingbirds here, one, weighing in at a whopping 7/10ths of an ounce (20 grams), is the largest hummingbird in the world! With luck, one might spot an Andean bear, dwarf deer, Andean fox, toucan or a rarely seen capuchin monkey.
The aforementioned adorable, fluffy Peruvian guinea pigs are not known to scurry around the site, however they are raised commercially…for the dinner plate. I will choose to enjoy all animals in the wild, they are too precious for my plate.
Closing time was called, dusk was soon to settle in, yet there were still a few more buses to choose from, what was one to do? We discovered a posh hotel near the entrance, I hadn’t seen this in my hotel searches, likely due to it’s lofty price, but hey, they had a bar. We were cordially welcomed, as the amicable bartender recommended pisco sours, the national drink of Peru.
Such a surreal setting and unusual juxtaposition of an Ahwahnee type lodge in a Peruvian cloud forest. We were educated as to the hot-blooded debate between Peru and Chile over the origin of pisco sours, as we toasted a “Salud” and quaffed these citrusy, nectarous beverages, the perfect cap to a mystical and invigorating day.
We boarded the final employee shuttle, the only tourists on the bus, having stretched out the experience as much as possible. We trundled down the hill, reflecting on this spectacularly spontaneous trip.
All photos: Lynn Swycaffer Ringseis
Credits: Wikipedia.org, britannica.com, history.com, machupicchu.org, lonelyplanet.com, nationalgeographic.com, per-machu-picchu.com, alpacaexpeditions.com, tierrasvivas.com, peruhop.com, worldwildlife.org, factretriever.com, ourwholevillage.com, ramblearoundtheworld.com, incatrailmachu,com, livinginperu.com, earths-edge.com, machupicchutrek.net, seashepherd.org