December 22nd, 2010 – by: Mezmerized
Mate de Coca
The altitude thing was worrying me. Having spent much of the previous week in Quito with a pounding headache and dizziness, just as I was starting to feel a bit more acclimatised, I leave for a week in the Galapagos, back to sea level, doh!! I was worried about getting sick again going to Cusco, which at about 3,400 metres above sea level is significantly higher than Quito. Luckily I found a new friend, mate de coca, or tea made from the leaf that cocaine is extracted!!! Not as bad as it sounds, as you would possibly need to ingest kilos of the leaves to get any kind of cocaine-style effect, but tea brewed from the leaves is a traditional way in the Andes to combat the effects of altitude sickness, and it bloody works! This innocent looking leaf is notorious worldwide and surrounded in controversy.
Machu Picchu is there somewhere I am sure?
Completely illegal in most countries of the world yet extremely important to the indigenous people of the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes. Illegal because of the possibility of extracting cocaine yet culturally significant in this part of the world, even considered by some living in the very high altitude plains and cities of the Andes to be essential for well being.
It feels a bit strange at first to be offered coca tea as a welcome drink in the hostels and hotels but actually tastes OK and gives a very welcome energy boost. I am not sure if it was drinking the tea this time or that the acclimatisation from Quito had yet to wear off, possibly a bit of both, but I felt quite OK this time and raring to get out there and explore this fascinating part of the world. So here we are, in the Inca heartland of Peru, high up in the Andes.
With my llama friend
From Quito I had taken a flight to Cusco with a brief stop at Lima
. I then spent just one day in Cusco, just time for a quick walk around the central square, the Plaza de Armas, before catching the train through the sacred valley to Agues Calientes. This little strange tourist town is in a valley right behind the famous, the majestic, the lost Incan sanctuary of Machu Picchu. The train ride to get here itself was pretty through the beautiful valleys of the Incas, following the Urubamba river. I thought it a good idea to stay for one night in Agues Calientes then catch the early bus the next morning to the ruins to try and beat the crowd. My plan went perfectly.
Arriving to the site at 6.
30am, it was peaceful and special, even though completely covered in cloud! I am sure Machu Pichu must be here somewhere!! I took a walk to a bridge that the Incans had built to defend Machu Picchu from invaders. It is essentially a large gap in the trail to the site with a wooded bridge that can be pulled away to prevent unwanted visitors accessing the city. It seemed to do its job as Machu Picchu was not discovered by the early Spanish invaders. I returned to the ruins and watched as the sun became stronger and started to burn through the cloud. Very few other tourists, just a few llamas, were watching with me as the cloud gradually cleared to reveal mysterious Machu Picchu in its full glory. Once an important sanctuary for upper class and well-regarded Incans, little is really understood as to the fate of this city.
This mysterious ancient city gradually revealed itself to me I had just about an hour of peace and tranquillity to fully appreciate the scale, the history, the ingenuity of Incan skills and dedication, before the hordes of tourists started to descend on us. Thousands of people from all nationalities only interested in taking photos and not, it seemed, soaking up the atmosphere. People doing ‘jump shots’ and stupid poses, very annoying. It suddenly felt like I was in Disney land or something, it was amazing how quickly the feeling was lost. Anyway, Machu Picchu blew my mind, inspirational, my imagination was in overdrive. I returned back to Cusco on the train, during which we were ‘treated’ to a cabaret and a fashion show (lots of alpaca stuff of course). I was feeling pretty inspired.