In Peru, we longed to go back downLooking at pictures of Tambomachay, Puka Pukara, Kenco and Sacsahuaman makes me sick. Looking at pictures of Machu Picchu, Ollantaytambo and Tico also makes me sick, but in a different way. The first set of photos, architectural remains at Cuzco, the ancient Inca capital in Peru, might not ever go into my scrapbook of memories because I did not visit them. I feel a sense of loss.
The second set of photographs evokes more complex recollections: time with family, the warmth of the mestizo Indians and dizziness and nausea.
Earlier this month my family took a vacation to South America. The journey started with heightened anticipation. My brother would join us in Atlanta, where he attends Emory University, and then we would fly to Peru, a land that family and friends in the United States had described as possessing great enchantment. They were particularly touched by the warmth of the Indians.
After a 20-hour flight from Seoul to Atlanta, an overnight stay there, a 90-minute flight to Miami, an overnight delay there, a five-hour flight to Lima and then a 60-minute hop to Cuzco, we were still feeling well and ready to start our exploration of the Inca ruins.
Cuzco, which means “the navel of the earth” in Quechua, the native language of the Indians of Peru, is the gateway for sightseeing in the heart of this country. Our guidebook says an average of 2,400 tourists pass through the city by air and land every day. About 17,000 of the city’s 260,000 residents are employed as tour guides.
Cuzco is an attractive city. Archaeologists claim it is the oldest populated city in the Americas, and its age spots are quite evident. Our hotel, which we booked through a Korean travel agency, did not have central heating or hot running water. Kang Won-jung, the owner of Viva Latin, a Korean instant noodle restaurant here, said most of the houses do not have a central heating system since the daily average temperature was about 12 degrees centigrade (55 Fahrenheit) year round.
To my delight Tico was a familiar site in Cuzco. Tico is not an architectural ruin, but the Korean automobile manufactured by the old Daewoo Motors Corp. Ticos were swarming across this city.
Although the Spanish invaders, who arrived here in 1532, brutally sought to remove all traces of the Incas, their mysterious civilization fascinates tourists from all over the world, and brings into Peru approximately $1 billion a year. Our seven-day trip purchased from Viva Latin, a Korean agency, costs $740.
Cuzco was the official start of our trip and, unfortunately, the beginning of our problems. Eager tourists ascending the 3,500 meters (11,482 feet) are surprised that not too long after reaching the city they are not euphoric but rather very light-headed and dizzy. The stomach is churning. They gasp for air. These are the classic symptoms of high altitude sickness, which was our uninvited companion. Being in good physical condition does not help.
The only remedy is prescription drugs or descent. We did not have the medicine, and we did not come up the mountain to turn around and go down. So we endured.
We were teetering at Pisaq, a typical Peruvian town with mestizo and colonial architecture, located 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Cuzco. A traditional bartering market, which opens every Thursday and Sunday, is the best place to buy handicrafts, replicas of pre-Hispanic pottery, ponchos, sweaters and leather bags.
Barely able to move, we had to skip Sacsahuaman, Tambomachay, Puka Pukara and Kenco, all located within 10 kilometers of Cuzco. Sacsahuaman is described as having the shape of the head of a puma, which the Inca believed to be sacred. It is where they worshiped the sun.
Puka Pukara is an ancient observatory; Tambomachay is believed to have been a center for ritualistic water worship. The Inca held their religious ceremonies, which included, human sacrifice, at Qenqo.
Maria, our tour guide, diligently planned a trek that offered a comprehensive education. But our monotonous response to her enthusiasm was: “Just take us to our hotel, please.” It was devastating to miss seeing these sites, especially considering the distance we had come.
We also missed Coricancha, the famous temple of the sun, located in the heart of Cuzco, and architecture that blends Inca and colonial styles. Coricancha was once plated with gold, which the Spaniards removed to make gold walking canes, a Korean tour guide in Lima said.
The next day we found relief, descending to 2,350 meters above sea level, to Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu, the highlight of the entire tour, is the lost city of the Incas. Archaeological evidence suggests it was built in the 16th century, around the time of the destruction the Inca civilization.
Machu Picchu became known to the world when the U.S. archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, stumbled upon the ruins 1911. Bingham was convinced that Machu Picchu was Vilcabamba, the final stronghold of the Inca. Even now, speculation abounds as to when, why and how the city had been built and as to why and when the city was deserted. In Ollantaytambo, we boarded a train for Aguas Calientes that took us past the remains of terraced farms and homes. Ollantaytambo, 88 kilometers from Cuzco, is known for being the only place to have resisted attacks by the Spanish, following the siege of Cuzco in 1536. Machu Picchu remains safely hidden, even from the bus that carries tourists from Aguas Calientes up the steep, zigzagging road leading to it. Only the rear of Huayna Picchu, a mountain towering over Machu Picchu, and some terraced farms are visible.
Gladys, our guide at Machu Picchu, told us that the Inca did not provide any clues as to having an alphabet and that much of the knowledge of the city is based on research.
According to other theories, the city served as the Inca ruler’s summer house or a convent dedicated to the sun god, where the deity’s virgins resided. Gladys said that out of 175 sets of human remains found in the city, 150 were women.
Apparently, Bingham did not discover the hidden city. It seems grave robbers beat him there. No gold was found to the disappointment of most of Bingham’s contemporaries.
Bingham, however, enriched the world beyond what he could have imagined. Apart from being the center of a huge tourism industry, the lost city has become the symbol of Peru. Machu Picchu was the site of the inauguration in 2001 of Alejandro Toledo, the first Indian to become president of Peru.
Among the many wonders of this city are enormous stone blocks whose tightly-fit construction baffles engineers. There are hundreds of stairways and streets linking parts of the city. Waterways indicate how the farmers irrigated the terraced farms.
The city is divided into urban and agricultural areas. Notable architecture in the urban sector includes the temple of the sun, built on a solid rock. The Intiwatana is a stone located on a hill made of several terraces. It has a rectangular prism that points from northwest to southeast. The Intiwatana was a timepiece, used to measure the solstice and the equinox. The Temple of Three Windows gets its name from its three windows and two blind bays.
On the following day, we arrived at Puno after a seven-hour bus drive from Cuzco. Our tour of Lake Titicaca included visits to Los Uros island and Taquile island. Los Uros, known as “floating islands,” is constructed of totora reeds, each about 2 centimeters in diameter. The reeds are found in Lake Titicaca, where the water is about 2 meters deep. The residents of the floating islands use totora to construct the very island they live on, to build homes and boats, for food and for fuel. They live on the fish and birds that inhabit the lake. Legend has it that the Uros Indians had been forced to hide in Lake Titicaca to evade the pursuing Spanish invaders. We, however, were snared again by altitude sickness here, about 3,800 meters above sea level. My brother and mother abandoned the tour. My dad and I skipped a hike to Taquile island, feeling dizzy and sick. We did not recover until we reached Lima the following day.
Survival tips for Peru: brace for high altitude sickness and remain at one location if you do not have many vacation days.
By Koh Han-sun / Staff Writer
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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