A Tour of Nirvana

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Cuzco Region, Peru
By Lito Galvan

“Name three reasons for visiting Peru?” I was prompted to fill up the survey sheet by Peru’s tourist information agency among which, this question is posed. Without batting an eyelash, my unequivocal answers were – A. Colonial Cuzco, B. Inti Raymi, and C. Machu Picchu.

Urubamba River Rapids
Urubamba River Rapids
These three items in my list – two are destinations, one an event – are what makes up a strong collage of icons about Peru playing up in my mind. But I didn’t know there’s a “Buyer Beware” tag attached to them. Two were rude awakenings, colossal mistakes for reasons for coming to Peru, while one has a redeeming value.

As a rule, traveling is meant to be fun. It distinguishes a day from the ordinary, to experience a lifetime’s worth of discoveries and delightful memories.

But imitating life itself, it’s not a bed of roses. Its flipside paradox – horrors and hurdles inevitably spoil the experience. Expectation of something familiar, which one is accustomed to, is instead replaced with disappointing misgivings. Documenting these becomes vents for hints of selfish prejudice for some. Nevertheless, staying the course of observing and describing diversity and reality is a goal for everyone else.

This story actually has a happy-ending but it has to start this way.

The disappointment of being sent for an errand to store after store and finding out the shopping list is full of out-of-stock items is an abysmally distant understatement, none too close to this fuming all-time high experience of wasting all that money, hours, and energy to Peru. This country, being situated thousands of miles away from my point of embarkation, is much too heartbreaking.

Peru’s Spanish colonial heartland as well as Inca’s Motherland, the Sacred Valley of Cuzco, now befittingly ingrained in my brain as the Sour Valley of Regrets and where the city of Cuzco lies, the prima donna of the Andes could be worse than any place. Chances are I might eat my words for I have yet to cross more borders, salute flags of various colors, and have my passport stamped in different styles and designs.

Inti Raymi, the overrated Southern Hemisphere’s version of Pow-Wow Festival was a huge letdown. This pay-per-view open-air-show-in-disguise charges exorbitant ticket prices that rival Circ D’Soleil’s rates minus all these: the degree of difficulty tour-de-force performance, air-conditioned venue with carpeted floors, soft padded seats, and elegant toilets.

Deceptively featured in Globe Trekker without any warning labels, street revelries and ceremonies were depicted as freely and openly accessible. One would be disillusioned expecting a Macy’s or Tournament of the Roses-type of parade coming over in the comforts of a laid-back reclining sidewalk seat and a cup of coffee, it won’t happen. But there’s plenty of miserable time finding a free comfortable viewing spot for the three confined ceremonial segments meticulously barricaded to screen-off budget-conscious, non-paying spectators (among them a cardiac climb to one of the venues and a free-for-all near-stampede rugby match-type jostling for position between viewers catching a rare appearance of performers).

Rio’s Samba Carnival, not a free show either but deservingly so, every year there’s something hot and new. Thousands of man-hours and money are spent to bring in new numbers, not recycled. This one’s story line predictably doesn’t change. It’s like watching a presidential inauguration, year in and year out. It’s not an event that you would say, “It’ll be different, I shall return in a year or two.”, the same broken record played over, and over, again.

Not much the organizers can do, except to reign in tightly the blockades, or plug the peepholes to give a false air of enigma. Meanwhile, the best strategy is to build higher and thicker curtains, and disseminate gag orders on information of program, routes, or ceremonies.

While absolutely all the colonial churches of Cuzco and surrounding towns across the valley are inhospitable and off-limits, defiantly behaving like cranky, senile, and osteoporosis-stricken grandmas – either on an erratic opening schedule, under renovation, in the brink of collapse, or operating under strict viewing rules.

The local Cuzquenians contributed to this gamut of misery. They’re not playing the role of the pathetic exploited anymore, but the apathetic exploiting party nowadays – a role they have overcome and acquired adroitly from the Spanish conquistadors and encomienderos, reinforced from constant barrage of interaction with the more abusive and savvy lot of some nationals; both locals and expats alike, keeping up its own ante. Just like in the dog-eat-dog world of the wild wild plains of Serengeti, the predators are becoming smarter to match the prey’s improved capability to outsmart them – the downside effect manifested in a heavily touristy destination.

Regrettably, food and accommodation rates in Cuzco are nowhere else as highly expensive as its altitude and absolutely, all my interaction with the locals involved unrelenting ways to part me with my tourist dollar.

The great consolation in this whole itinerary is Machu Picchu. Seeing and believing its existence is an experience much likened to attaining the level of nirvana. The big kahuna of all Andean archeological attractions, it’s more awe-inspiring than all the ruins combined.

Before starting the trip, I crossed my fingers and even my toes hoping to make it successful. The looming workers’ strike hinted (or manufactured) by the tour operator was like a sword of Damocles. It’s the last of the three in my agenda, and I’m determined to get even! Swimmingly, the tour proceeded without any incident. It turned out I wasn’t forsaken.

The three-and-a-half hour concise tour plus the nine-hour multi-mode journey – twelve-and-a-half hours in all – from Cuzco and back on a single day was good enough for a tourist who wants to cover more sites on a limited time.

Machu Picchu is about 60 miles or almost 100 kilometers west of Cuzco. Tour guided or not, probably the only way for motorized travel to this site is using a set of various mode of transportation. From Cuzco, it’s a bus to Ollantaytambo, then train to Aguas Calientes, then switch to shuttle to the entrance of Machu Picchu.

Admittedly, I felt guilty foregoing the suggested desired tour of this destination, meaning undergoing into the trials and tribulations of a five-day, four-night hiking trek, tracing the Inca path. I missed the experience of feeling the pounding aches and pains of a pilgrimage described by other modern-day explorers before me, thereby forfeiting the privileges of armoring myself with bragging rights, just as anyone did in this storytelling website.

The least I can do is buy a certificate signed by the mayor of Machu Picchu, sold in the souvenir stall table by the mouth of the site’s entrance attesting that I have completed the journey to this fabled place.

I signed up to one of those Japanese-popularized arranged tours where one is picked up from the hotel and lead by a flagstaff-carrying guide. This quickie type of tour fitted to my present needs.

As it has always been, my travel path hinges on a sprint-marathon style in this Catch 22 fix. Either, I have free time but no cash or have cash but no free time.

Inca Express to Aguas Calientes
Inca Express to Aguas Calientes
The visual feast of watching the dry ash brown and later on luscious green mountains and peaks, and the revolting rapids of Urubamba River as the train from Ollantaytambo traces its curvaceous banks was riveting. It provoked oohs and aahs. And the thirteen ascending switchbacks from Aguas Calientes up the site contributed to the levitating and positively reinvigorating climactic memorable tour.

To all gazers, regardless of whether one arrives here by foot or by tourist coach – Machu Picchu’s welcoming presence is a perfect synthesis of Mother Nature’s synergy with her local son – the Inca Man.

Mother Nature provided the scenario, the Inca Man worked around it, and with astounding feats of engineering genius and extraordinary human perseverance, he was able to gain upper hand.

Geology pulled a playful sleight of hand forming breathtaking gorges verdantly upholstered with cloud forest, which are precisely what the Inca needed to establish a secluded impregnable castle yet fraught with unsustainable sustenance problems. Although in the end, its aesthetically harmonious and tranquil composition is what matters most to majority of us visitors.

The crowning glory, a settlement seemingly slouching in between the tall humps of a camel, provides voluminous body of knowledge to modern irrigation, agriculture, civil works and construction engineering.

Amazing feats of water sourcing and supply – diverting and distributing it into the settlement, and the mastery of stone construction – hauling and honing stones into fine works of masonry and transforming them into abodes, astronomical payloads, and agricultural terraces is immortally preserved to attest the Incan’s triumphant control over his environment.

It is a fitting grand tribute to nature’s splendor and man’s survival skills.

The added spin propelled by modern man’s inherent pursuits for mysticism and romanticism and the mundane gravitational pull of commercial enterprise and national pride graphically presented in an appetizing end-product of photographic poetry I saw in travel shops is now a real dream-come-true unfolded on my very startled eyes in panoramic Super I-Max-to-the-max format.

The serene ruin-mountain fortress scenery is a perfect treatment for frustrations, aches and pains, tensions and stresses.

Machu Picchu had a calming effect on my nerves after having uneasiness due to the new altitude/weather/man-induced uncomfortable environment of Cuzco. The breathtaking gorges culminating into baguette-shaped rocky formations comprising the peaks of Machu Picchu, Huayna Picchu, and Putukusi posing as sentries to the saddle-shaped, perched-up high abandoned city are very soothing.

I gazed down below – looking at a small thread of river gushing and intertwining around the steep mountains. I must’ve been overwhelmed like the Road Runner, skidding on the top edge of a deserted Arizona cliff, or a hawk parked on the ledge of a ritzy skyscraper over leafy Central Park, or even Leonardo D’Caprio mounted on the bowsprit of the Titanic. I felt being so much in control, which elicited me to shout those famous lines, “I’m king of the world!” in sensurround whisper. Then, following that with a thunderously silent cheer, a victorious conquering “Banzai!” with arms clenched and raised up in the air three times, acting discreetly for most of the tourists here are affluently sober.

In fact our tour was very formal. There was reserve composure in the air, no eye contacts and casual bantering between tourists seemed taboo. The Americans were not in their usual boisterous, take-charge high-octane mood while Americanized Latinos, unusually kept to themselves. I find it strange compared to the ecstatic tourists in Chichen Itza in Mexico, or the camaraderie spirit in Tikal in Guatemala, and especially Copan in Honduras. Is Peru’s coldness contagious to everyone? The wear and tear of climbing must have weighed down on us all tourists.

I also observed locals were not encountered very commonly. I can easily sort out a native Quechuan from the rest of the visitors and mostly school kids make up the bulk of patrons of any historical site, but it’s strange that all I saw were glitzy-ritzy Brazilians, Japanese and Koreans, and a big chunk of Europeans and Americans. I do not know if it’s just me, probably because the entrance fee is very steep, much like Inti Raymi’s astronomical ticket fees. Despite its universal appeal, somehow, it has a tinge of elitist streak.

The guide, I have forgotten his name, was informative and enabled me to change my perception – as long as every one of them maintain his well-versed command of the subject. A person more knowledgeable about the site is a welcome fixture, making the exploratory process more interactive and entertaining, aside from educational. Like other visits to sites and museums elsewhere, guides have fascinated me with their grasp of the big picture as well as the trivia they impart, and they were not a disappointment.

A trivia I gathered from this site is one I can’t forget. This is just one, so as not to preempt them and thus discouraging tourists to patronize their services, which will put them in jeopardy of being out-of-job.

Train Chain Rambling Through the Gorge of Putukusi
Train Chain Rambling Through the Gorge of Putukusi
“Have you observed that the houses in Machu Picchu have no toilets?”, the guide quizzed us. This European contraption was not a concept here.

The Incas being meticulous and scrupulous urban planners have designated sectors in their settlement not only allotted for agricultural, residential, or educational, etc. purposes, but also for a specific communal spot for disposal of human consumption. Whenever there’s a call, one takes a shovel to the designated site, formidable the distance may be to us modern city dwellers who suffer unscheduled bouts of diarrhea, but reasonably easy for them. They dig a hole and deposit it there, cover it back with soil and finish off the ritual. I guess there were not much ceremonial paraphernalia other than the shovel; no tissue paper, water, and soap but this waste disposal ritual has a sublime and noble calling – “Offering to Pachacamac (or Viracocha)”; or returning to Mother Nature whatever is taken, to once again fertilize the earth. The solution for toddlers, the aged, and the sick, who can’t discharge their duty is to have them sit on the corner of the house, the droppings covered in ash and finally buried in its designated area.

The guide’s stories are unbelievably reliable based on reading a bunch of materials before and crosschecking them after the trip, and confirming that his more common revelations have every iota of truth in them. Therefore, I believe in this one trivia.

I am relieved that somehow, Machu Picchu is the saving grace for all the reasons I came to Peru and now it’s time to relieve myself of this whole Cuzco affair and lay it to rest.





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