Lima sits on the coast of Peru, putting it just above sea level. A short flight to Cusco dropped us in at 10,326 feet, a huge jump in elevation for one day. But after the dreary skies of Lima, the deep blue sky with white fluffy clouds was a welcomed change, even if the air lacked oxygen.
The first couple of nights were a challenge. In the middle of the night my traveling companion woke up to take a drink of water and grabbed her contact lens solution for an interesting swig. Then in the morning, she put on her hiking boots before trying to slip on her pants. Both of these experiences provided a moment of laughter.
But the more discomforting incidents came in the middle of the night as I struggled to breath. I would wake up short of breath, taking several deep breaths attempting to suck in more air in an effort to appease my oxygen-hungry lungs. Lying in bed awake at night, all manner of thoughts floating through my head, (mostly bad things), I prayed to fall back asleep and to wake up fine.
While adjusting to the altitude, I explored the city. Cusco was once the foremost city of the Inca Empire as well as South America's oldest continuously inhabited city. The Inca Empire, for all its greatness, existed barely a century. But in that span of time, which began in the 1430's, they left an impressive chapter in history. Massive Inca-built walls line the city streets and form the foundations of many buildings. Generally, the Inca-built sections of the buildings appeared better made than the modern additions, leaving one with a sense of admiration for such craftsmanship.
Time handled the altitude problem and soon we were off to explore the most famous archaeological site in South America, Machu Picchu.
Early in the morning, we boarded a bus that eventually left us at Ollantaytambo. From here we took a train called the backpacker, because it was cheaper than the regular train by $50. We had to wait an extra day for the train because it was sold out. This provided an opportunity for a much-needed afternoon of naps in a field next to the river.
The next evening, the train brought us to the village below Machu Picchu. We hopped off the train, only to be swamped by people attempting to sell us a room for the night. Eventually, we found a clean place suitable for our budget.
Finally, after years of hearing about the archaeological wonder, I was climbing up the gray rock steps that lead to a set of terraces overlooking Machu Picchu. Arriving before sunrise, we sat on the green grass and were treated to a spectacular experience as the sun’s first rays began to illuminate the magnificent ancient city.
For years, Machu Picchu was lost and forgotten. And because the Incas left no written record, much of what is said or written is theory or speculation. But from the exceptional high quality stonework and the abundance of ornamental work, it is easy to conclude that Machu Picchu must have once been an important ceremonial center. Sixty percent of the site still exists because thankfully, the Spanish never found it; if they had, it would have been destroyed in the name of wiping out paganism. Climbing the peak, Huayna Picchu, gave me a condor’s view of the city. As I sat on top, it was easy to envision a magic city filled with life. Machu Picchu is an altar for humanity that certainly must have brought a smile in the heavens.
During my exploration of Machu Picchu, I met Shaun, 22, from South Africa. Shaun was preparing to do a first run expedition of one of the rivers in Peru that would cover 1,116 miles or 1,800 kilometers in three months. I found myself wishing I were a part of his group as he shared about the adventure ahead of them. We chatted about travel and his home country. He said that he expected to see more Americans traveling, given the size of the country. His message to those back in the U.S., "go out and see the world, there's more than America."