March 14th: The Machu Picchu Excursion - Part 1
It’s a long slog to Machu Picchu! We left Manta, Ecuador’s shipping port, for the three-hour drive by bus to the closest international airport at Guayaquil. Ecuador is green, fertile and pretty. It is also relatively impoverished and has very bumpy roads. I was duly shaken, not stirred. Unfortunately, we missed out on seeing where panama hats are made (they’re made here, not in Panama). I cannot fathom how it can be the rainy season here in Ecuador, but the dry season barely 1000 kilometres further north in Costa Rica.
We arrived at Guayaquil where we discovered the immigration officers who cleared the Sea Princess into Ecuador that morning, hadn’t completed their paperwork. Consequently, as we weren’t officially there in the first place, the computers refused to allow us to leave the country. A lot of queuing ensued while officials solved the problem. This finally resulted in an official record of a 5 minute stay between our immigration into and exit from Ecuador.
One of the sadder events was the nasty norovirus claimed another victim while we waited. A woman succumbed, with distressingly messy and obvious symptoms, and had to be taken away. She clearly wasn’t going to make it to Machu Picchu which must have been devastating for her.
We arrived at our Hotel in Lima at 9.30 pm, by which time we’d been travelling for 12 hours and were all a bit shattered. The next day we left the hotel at 6.20am and caught the plan to Cusco.
I’m happy to report that altitude sickness didn’t claim me and Cavan, although I did have a last minute purchase of coca tablets and sweets while we waited in Lima’s airport. I took the two tablets recommended, and sucked two of the coca sweets during our descent to Cusco. As these products contain extremely high levels of coca and caffeine, I was zinging by the time we landed. Cusco is at an altitude of 13,500 feet, but the worst we suffered was a slight breathlessness.
Cusco is a lovely city. I only wish we could have spent 5 days or more there rather than a few hours. The three churches that make up the Basilica Cathedral alone would have repaid a full day’s visit. We weren’t allowed to take photographs, which was a shame, but I swear there’s more gold, gold-leaf and silver here than there is in the Vatican. The first church alone, the Templo de la Sagrada Famlia, was astounding. A massive floor to ceiling gold alter-piece is matched on either side by other enormous gold and gilded decorative pieces depicting the holy family. It is completely OTT, and visually staggering in its magnificence. Donald Trump’s style of home decor suddenly looks like restrained good taste.
The artworks alone are stunning although, as the guide pointed out, the three adjoining buildings, and contents belong to the Vatican although they form part of Peru’s cultural heritage. Of course, the indigenous people were robustly encouraged to embrace Catholicism, and many of the artists and artisans involved in the decoration of this basilica were conversos. It was fun and fascinating to find evidence of their subversion hidden in plain view. Thus, an enormous and very beautiful Last Supper painting showed a roast Guinea pig as the main course. The beautifully carved seats in the choir inexplicably show naked women, with fertility symbols on their bodies, formed into the arms of the chairs. I assume any clergy who noticed these irregularities elected to turn a blind eye!
The remains of Inca buildings are everywhere, frequently incorporated into the foundations of later buildings, and a trip up to the archaeological site known as ‘sexy woman’, or more accurately Sasqaywaman, was our first sight of just how vast a legacy the Inca left.
The superb hotel where we spent the evening was in the Sacred Valley, some two thousand feet lower down than Cusco. Tomorrow, Machu Picchu, which is another couple of thousand feet lower still. I’d always assumed Machu Picchu to be higher into the mountains than Cusco, but I was wrong.