Betty on the Move
Machu Picchu Getaway
These days, vacations have become few and far between, so you want to choose a destination that’s truly special…
Everyone deserves an occasional “trip of a lifetime.” And that’s exactly what my visit to Peru turned out to be. I have always wanted to go to Machu Picchu, the abandoned city of the Incas, high in the Andes. Ever since studying history in high school, I have been intrigued by the mysterious Incas, a sophisticated civilization of millions who were conquered by a handful of Spaniard adventurers seeking gold and glory.
My traveling companions were two very smart young women, editors of bridal magazines. Definitely Bettys, one has a boyfriend in a rock band, and the other is going to be a bride herself in just a few weeks. Two guys were with us, and they wouldn’t mind my saying they were kind-of Bettys as well. The conversation between all the Bettys would constantly bounce between rating Manhattan bars and Brooklyn eateries, reminiscing about favorite episodes of Will and Grace and being awed by the glorious sights we were seeing.
We started our visit in Cusco, the city that was the capital of the vast Inca Empire. Cusco is at an altitude of over ten thousand feet, and I, for one, worried about altitude sickness, which can keep you in bed with headaches and nausea. But after a couple of cups of coca tea at the Inkaterra La Casona, the elegant 11-room boutique hotel, where we were staying, I felt fine. (Pisco Sours also turned out to be quite medicinal.) La Casona, in the center of town, is a centuries-old home, decorated with handwoven Inca tapestries and beautiful Spanish colonial antiques in every guest room. The bathrooms also had the largest, deepest bathtubs any of us had ever seen.
One of the must-sees of Cusco is the Temple of the Sun, which was one of the most important places of worship for the Incas. The Spaniards were determined to impose Catholicism on the natives, usually with the barrel of a musket. They used some of the stones from the temple to build a church on the site. There is still a Dominican monastery there today. Cusco is now full of churches, and the grandest is the impressive Cathedral, which dominates the main square.
I found the most interesting painting in its dark recesses a seventeenth-century version of the Last Supper painted by a native artist. He portrayed Judas looking exactly like a dark-skinned Francisco Pizarro, who had been Peru’s brutal conqueror. Pizarro is holding a bag of gold rather than the traditional twenty pieces of silver. Also in the painting is St. John, sitting next to Jesus, looking kind of girlish, wearing practically the same outfit that Mary Magdalene wears in a small side portrait. Did the painter know then what it took “The Da Vinci Code” centuries later to purportedly discover?
When it came to dining, our group definitely focused on the carbs. Peru produces over four thousand varieties of potato. So we tended to select either an appetizer or main course that highlighted the variety of their spuds. My favorite was the trout pate stuffed potatoes served at Inkaterra La Casona. Also special were the quinoa breakfast pancakes served at the Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel and the hearty quinoa soup served at the Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica, where we also stayed. Quinoa is an ancient, highly nutritious grain that was an staple of the Inca diet. And, yes, you can find it at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.
Of course, the highlight of this trip of lifetime was Machu Picchu itself But getting there, first by car and then by train through the area called the Sacred Valley, turned out to be awe-inspiring as well. After all, you are surrounded by breathtaking scenery, including huge circular agricultural terraces where the Incas once grew crops, plus small, neat well-preserved Inca and colonial villages, and looming over all, the majestic snow-topped peaks of the Andes. And, yes, there was time on the way for some retail therapy too. We loaded up on Andean music CDs, alpaca socks and sweaters, wall hangings, carvings, pottery and small paintings of the Madonna in pretty gilded frames at a sweet country market town called Pisac that has a fiesta every Sunday.
Now there are many that walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Such treks can take four, five or even seven days and include camping outdoors and lots and lots of strenuous hiking. That wasn’t for this group of Bettys. We toughed it out before our visit in Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo’s rustic but elegant casitas. After a meal in the hotel’s comfortable dining room filled with tourists from all over the world, excited about having been or about to visit one of the world’s greatest sites, we retired to cozy fires lit in our spacious rooms. Our beds also were warmed by old-fashioned cloth-covered rubber hot-water bottles that one snuggled against to ward off the night’s chill. But we were up by five a.m. We wanted to get there at sunrise, too, but without walking all night.
Nobody knows much about Machu Picchu. It was abandoned even before the Spaniards came and was never discovered by them. Archeologists now think it was most probably a retreat and citadel for the most powerful Inca ruler, nobles of his court, and important priests. It is a whole, undisturbed marvelous city with an area filled with temples for astronomical observations, sanctuaries, parks, store houses, and a residential section with more and less elaborate homes. And there are steps. Lots and lots and lots of stairs and steps. You climb up Machu Picchu and you climb down Machu Picchu. You stop to marvel at what you are seeing and stop as well to catch your breath while the sun burns the mist off the surrounding mountains.
I think what makes it so very special is everyone has their own experience of Machu Picchu. There is nothing passive about a visit there. You are so physically involved in what you see that you become exhilarated by the views and because you are able to cope with the challenge of Machu Picchu. Three of our party climbed an adjacent, even more formidable mountain called Huayna Picchu. They found it very tough going. The other young women and I climbed an easier but still very high and winding path to the Gate of the Sun, which is the entrance to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail. On the way up we kept meeting groups who had been walking for quite a while. One woman stopped to tell us she would never forgive her husband for making her take their very difficult before-dawn hike.
Close to the Gate of the Sun, I suddenly decided to stop. I felt I did not need to go any higher. I waited for my friend while she went on climbing an ever-narrowing and twisty road to the top. I sat for a half hour in the silence by a wall that had three openings, where on the days of the summer and winter solstice, the first rays of the sun appear. I looked down at Machu Picchu, up at the Andes, touching the stones of the sacred wall that been placed there centuries before. The sun was shining. It was beautiful, and I had seen what I had always wanted to see. I felt strong – and very happy.
The hotels I stayed in: Inkaterra La Casona, Inkaterra Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel, Inkaterra Reserva Amazonica. These hotels can prepare an entire itinerary for visitors. Telephone: 800-442-5042.