Jerry Last is an impressive guy. He’s got a Ph.D. degree in Biochemistry and does research on asthma and on health effects of air pollution on the lungs. He’s a professor at the University of California's Medical School at Davis. And, somehow, he still finds the time to write mystery novels. The first two books are set in places he’s lived and worked: Salta, in Argentina, and Montevideo, in Uruguay.
His latest, The Surreal Killer, takes place in the area around Machu Picchu.
And that’s the place that Jerry has chosen to give us a glimpse of today.
Leighton – Monday
The “lost and amazing city” of Machu Picchu was discovered by this guy, Hiram Bingham III.
Or so Bingham would have liked the world to believe.
But the fact of the matter is that Machu Picchu had never been lost. The locals had always known exactly where it was. And European explorers had visited the site long before Bingham arrived in 1911.
What Bingham actually did was to make it famous. He undertook three expeditions to the site. He wrote about it. He photographed it. And he looted it of some 40,000 artifacts, most of which he hauled back to Yale University where many still reside.
But Bingham was certainly right about one thing: Machu Picchu is amazing.
It isn’t just the engineering scope and scale, the artistry of the architecture and the remote and inaccessible location. It's the serenity and spirituality of the place. That's why Machu Picchu is at the top of most lists for international visits by New Age enthusiasts and affluent hippies.
Almost five hundred years after the conquest of the Incas, a visitor can still feel this religiosity emotionally and consciously, even though it is a different religion than that of 99.9% of the tourists who visit there.
Just standing on the mountaintop, silently looking at the ruins of the Temple of the Sun or the Temple of Three Windows makes it impossible not to be embraced by the spirituality of Machu Picchu.
Chile's greatest poet and writer Pablo Neruda said it all in his work, The Heights of Machu Picchu:
"Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to the eternal fusion with the cosmos, where we feel our fragility."
Perhaps the strongest statement made by tourists is the long silences as they look at the ancient Incan ruins and think their private thoughts.
Photos depict the place as being high in the Andes – and it is – but the path from the old Inca capital at Cuzco, two days walk away, actually leads downhill.
Cuzco’s heart is at about 3,400 m (11,200 feet) above sea level while Machu Picchu is “only” at 2,430 meters (7,970 feet).
Thus, while hiking the Inca Trail is authentic and romantic, it is also physically demanding. For most, this requires extra time to acclimate to the altitude before starting the 2-day trek. Generally this is an option restricted to the young and to people who are in good shape physically and have time to adjust to the altitude. For those who choose to take this hike, the rewards include seeing the entirety of the Sacred Valley of the Incas at a pace slow enough that one can begin to comprehend why the Incan and Roman empires are often compared for size, scope, and technological advancement. There's a lot to see in Cuzco and Machu Picchu, but these sights are things: cultural artifacts and religious shrines. Along the Inca Trail are also people, descendents of the Incas, many still living as they did hundreds of years ago. The common language of the altiplano, from Argentina to Colombia, is still Quechua, the ancient Incan language.
Incan construction techniques such as those used at Machu Picchu are fascinating. They used huge rocks, some dragged many miles up and down mountains at altitudes as high as 12,000 feet, using only human labor to move, grind, and polish boulders weighing tens of tons.
The Incas did not have cement, so the rocks were shaped to fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and held in place by gravity. They hadn't invented the wheel, so primitive rollers made from logs and fiber ropes were used to transport the rocks. The Peruvian altiplano is a major earthquake zone, but many of the walls have survived more or less intact for over 600 years.
Entrance to the site is now limited to 2,500 people per day and tourists need to purchase tickets in advance to be ensured entry. And, if you’re not going to walk, the other option is by bus, train and, again, bus to get you up to the site. All three are expensive, even by USA/European standards, so the long walk can be an attractive option for students and others on tight budgets.
One highlight of the final trip up the hill is the local entertainment. Native kids acclimated to the altitude keep the bus company as they take the short cut across the switchbacks and wave greetings to the bus passengers. Small tips are expected and appreciated by these kids.
Tours typically allow tourists about four hours at the ruins, plus the required eight hours of travel to and from Cuzco. There is only limited time at the ruins. For the wealthy, there is a nice luxury option of a 5-star hotel. Hotel guests get guaranteed admission to the site for 2 or more days, gourmet dining, the total experience of Machu Picchu by day and night, and something very special to tell everybody about when they get home. They also get the site almost to themselves before the first big crowd of tourists arrives from the train.
Words to the wise: The regions of the high Andes that are inhabitable by humans are called the Altiplano or, more colloquially, the Puna. The word Puna is also used regionally for altitude sickness.
Local cures for the Puna include mate de coca (coca tea), available ubiquitously (and legally) throughout the Altiplano from Chile to Colombia. The coca tea is illegal in the lowlands so boxes of teabags kept as souvenirs are frowned upon by customs and DEA agents.
The locals chew coca leaves during the working day as their variant on an "energy drink". Refined cocaine is not legal in the region, and is used almost exclusively by tourists.