Trip to Peru features Machu Picchu

Published 10:20 am Friday, June 13, 2008

More than 40 years ago, after I completed my two years in the Peace Corps in Venezuela, South America, I had a choice between visiting Machu Picchu in Peru or traveling home through Central America. I decided to take a bus by myself through most of the countries between Panama and Mexico during the summer of 1966. My Peace Corps co-worker went to Peru.

After hearing about my co-worker’s amazing trek to the Inca civilization ruins, I made up my mind to go there “someday.” Even though I am now of senior citizen designation and my friends would not define me as the outdoors type, I thought I could reap the benefits of my childhood Girl Scout experiences to aid me in the complicated adventure to finally arrive at my long-awaited destination.

During the last week in June 2008, I volunteered for Global Volunteers, a White Bear Lake-based international organization. I turned in all my hard-earned frequent-flier miles that were soon to expire and received a check sufficient to cover a round-trip to Lima, Peru. Global Volunteers placed me with my Spanish, in the largest orphanage in South America, with a dozen and a half other people from all over the USA.

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I spent the mornings in the orphanage’s toddler section helping a 14-mont-old learn how to walk on her own as she clung to my thumb. In the afternoons I played free-for-all soccer, similar to sports activities in my Denver, Colo., Peace Corps training, four-plus decades ago. I was amazed how a week of soccer with siblings, that don’t get much contact with each other in the orphanage where they both lived, helped them improve their self-esteem and connect with smiles for successful ball maneuvers.

In preparation at home in Albert Lea, I had upped my physical exercise a notch, knowing I’d be at a higher altitude for my trip to Cusco area Inca civilization center, an hour’s plane ride from my volunteer activities in Lima. Of the three women and one man in our group- ages 20, 26, 67, (that’s me) and mid-40s. I was the one feeling well enough to trek the ruins during the first afternoon exploring at around 12,000 feet altitude.

That evening my roommate became rather sick and throughout the entire night, we both drank sequential hot cups of the local coca tea, known for helping altitude sickness. At a reasonable hour the next morning, we left our safe hotel nest without eating much and took a bus to visit more ruins, where the excellent guides told us we had only three hundred steps to mount to reach the mountain top. We all found our hearts often beating rapidly, with absolutely no breath to spare. This gave us a chance to silence ourselves and really appreciate the brilliant ancient Inca civilization from our high perches. That evening we took a several hour switch back train ride in the dark to an Agua Calientes village hotel located only a half hour from our final goal. Before dawn the next morning a bus transported us to the base of Machu Picchu.

We made a wise choice going so early, because there were not many tourists at 6:30 a.m. The elevation was only around 8,000 feet, so we were not feeling so labored by the time we climbed the switchback stone steps and reached the famous bent arm-like mountain enclosing the Incan ruins village of over 700 dwellings. We chose the right pathway at the right time of day. As the morning sun soon broke over the eastern peak, suddenly the entire valley was in a fog, with only the sun identifiable. Then just as suddenly, the fog broke and the entire curved village area was subtly bathed by the sun’s natural spotlight in brilliant shades of grass green and stone grey.

Our group of four had six entire hours to savor the clean air and clear spaces as we lead ourselves upward without words, watching and wondering how could it be possible to create such a safe place with such precision and craftsmanship. We wandered, while in awe of rocks weighing tons transported from far away places, then finally nestled next to each other with an exacting smooth fit.

We trekked up one of the stone pathways of only two exits for the entire Machu Picchu village, and found ourselves in company of a half-a-dozen llamas in a jagged line, munching on green vegetation. The babies emitted a delightful sound unknown to my ears and mothers responded in still another language. The four of us found an open spot of solace surrounded by snow capped mountains to the west, the ancient ruins to our north and the other high mountain pass to the east, where the sun had sprung forth. As well as the llamas, songbirds presented an unforeseen surprise, not only with their visible nearness, but also with frequent spurts of background melodies.

We sat, we soaked it in. We listened, we looked and we closed our eyes. And we looked. When it was time to leave our high surroundings, the tone of the day changed. Tourists appeared and guides explained the history. We climbed back down to the Machu Picchu entrance and found our designated guide. We put our brains in gear and listened to the story of what we’d experienced. Who were these Incas? Why did they do it and how did they accomplish such a feat? The stories are readily available. We were glad we chose to hear it after our time with the mountains.

Some of the facts are sobering. Half of Peru’s income is now due to tourism. Over a half a million people visit Machu Picchu a year. It has been declared one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The government of Peru knows the area can’t take human contact much longer. We were told that there may be plans to build a cable car system for transporting people over the area instead of having people walk into it.

While we were there, I heard about the tribe discovered near Peru that the neighboring country’s government has known about for 20 years and has not told the world, so as to protect it. My Peace Corps friend related to me that he had spent the night sleeping on the mountainside of Machu Picchu in 1966, which would be impossible today. When I returned home, a friend of mine said she would never go to Machu Picchu because of the carbon footprint a visit leaves. She is content to see pictures.

Now the trip I took becomes a journey, instead of a goal. It is a reminder for me to stay more in touch with nature. I have gratitude for the experience. After sitting in the center of the ruins and sensing the brilliancy of a society devastated by colonists, it still gives me hope that humankind can survive in nature, with nature and with each other.

Sara Aeikens resides in Albert Lea and occasionally writes for the Albert Lea Tribune.