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First published in the Lafayette Journal & Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, April 3, 1977

POSTMARK: Peru

By COLLEEN and TOM MCGUIRE

Throughout our southbound journey, whenever we were asked where we were headed, we would reply “Peru.” “Ah,” would be the normal response, “you’re going to Machu Picchu.”

Machu Picchu, the prime tourist attraction in Peru, is an ancient Inca city situated 76 miles northwest of Cuzco and rests at an elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. These incredible ruins lay hidden from the modem world for nearly 500 years until Dr. Hiram Bingham of Yale University discovered this legendary lost city in 1911.

Most tourists take the five-hour train from Cuzco, spend several hours at the ruins, then retreat back to civilization in the evening. We decided to approach Machu Picchu in a quite unconventional manner — hiking for three days on the original Inca trail to reach our destination.

Our exciting odyssey commenced on a rather chaotic note. To arrive at the Inca trail we had to take the train from Cuzco to Kilometer 88 (Machu Picchu is at Kilometer 112) and departure time was 5 a.m. So an hour beforehand we staggered out of our beds and ambled over to the station where a horde of Indians were already waiting at the entrance gate.

When the man opened the gates, people began stampeding in the darkness for seats for themselves and all their cumbersome belongings. We pushed and shoved just like everyone else.

The train stopped just long enough to deposit the four of us in the middle of nowhere, so-called Kilometer 88. The only activity in sight consisted of several Indian women who were squatting near the tracks like colorful statues.

To reach our trail we first had to cross a crude manmade bridge spanning the turbulent Urubamba River. There was one hut on the other side and its apparent resident approached us. We chatted for awhile about our journey, gave him a cigarette, and in exchange he gave us brittle green leaves and an object that resembled a long slender stone.

The Indian demonstrated to us how to use his gift. Take a fistful of the leaves and wrap them around the small chunk of the stone which is actually concentrated ashes and breaks fairly easily. Put this wad in the side of your mouth and just chew it casually like tobacco. He explained that all natives participated in this age old custom and its effect is good for hiking in the high altitude.

Immediately we realized that he was giving us coca leaves, the stimulant that in its further state produces cocaine. We had seen many Indians chewing the cud that turns your saliva and teeth a fungus green and we knew that the ancient Indians also regularly indulged in the habit. And we figured that since we were doing the Inca trail, we should do it the native way.

The first half day of hiking we were all chomping away on the Indian present. It numbed the entire side of our mouths and made us feel extremely energetic. However, the sensation soon died away, leaving a rancid taste. We abandoned the coca leaves thinking aloud what poor Indians we would make.
The hike through the imposing Andes Mountains was breathtaking — literally. The vista of towering snow capped peaks in the distance was phenomenal.

The entire Inca trail is strewn with forgotten ruins which are appreciated only by those who undertake such an unorthodox approach to Machu Picchu. The second day we stumbled upon a petrified fortress called Sayacmarca (meaning elevated town in Quechua). This remote ruin is perched high atop a protruding cliff overlooking a stupendous abyss. The stonework at Sayacmarca is moss encrusted with age, and the grounds are smothered by unkempt jungle growth. Its desolation was haunting, perhaps because swarms of camera toting tourists haven’t yet scared off the ghosts of the eternal Inca spirit.

Our last night we camped at the ruins of Phuyupatamarca, the Inca baths. Crystal clear water still flows through narrow channels carved in the rocks. Here was one of the few places in Peru where we enjoyed the luxury of cold, uncontaminated water. Instead of sleeping in a nearby damp cave, we found a simple straw hut erected inside the ruins, a dwelling we were amazed, yet relieved, to find.

The next morning when the clouds lifted we got our first glimpse of Machu Picchu atop a mountain six hours away. We didn’t see the vacant city again until the last hour of our hike, as the remainder of our trek led us through a tropical rain forest.

Towards the end of the hike, we had to grope to relocate the obliterated path. Operating with complete disregard for nature and the priceless Inca stone trail, the Peruvian government is foolishly raping the land to construct a fancy hotel at Machu Picchu’s back door. The engineers detained us for an hour while they heedlessly dynamited their own beautiful wilderness.

Oblivious to the perpetual drizzle, we were ecstatic upon arriving at Machu Picchu. However, we were too weary to explore the ruins immediately, despite the inviting temptation they offered.

After a rejuvenating night’s sleep in a warm bed, we were ready for the ruins the next day. Machu Picchu stands as a fossilized testament to the ingenuity and cultural superiority of a long vanquished race of enigmatic Indians. It completely baffles us how this city in the clouds was constructed without the aid of modern technological devices. If you could see the astounding engineering and exquisite craftsmanship that went into making Machu Picchu a reality, then you could well understand our amazement and the many, many questions that flooded our minds.

After walking around the magical ruins, we realized that we were confronted with one of mankind’s oddities that must be seen — not written about — to fully absorb the staggering beauty of this fantasyland

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