By Marilyn Diggs
Although Marilyn’s article doesn’t directly relate to Brazil we thought it might be of interest to readers as it’s a short trip away.

Mysterious, mystical Machu Picchu. Incan religious center, vestal virgin hiding place, or Incan king’s retreat? No one knows. Perhaps that is part of its intrigue. Ever since I saw the poster of it in my Spanish professor’s office at college, I promised myself to go there someday. Twenty years later, I stepped out of the bus and into the world of wonder. Living in Brazil with its relatively close proximity to Peru made the trip a plausible reality.

In Cusco, our wake up call came at 4:30 a.m. and our small group was whisked off to nearby San Pedro Train Station. The rickety 112km train ride to Machu Picchu followed the course of the Sacred River of the Incas. The early morning horizon created a warm pale gray mist at the base of the mountains that gave way to dark, heavy rain clouds, abruptly interrupted by bright, golden, snow-covered mountains. The sun, peeking through a cobalt blue belt of sky, illuminated the peaks. We rattled on through the Sacred Valley of the Urubamba Indians, each turn a burst of new color. The over-cast day made the greens, greener; the earth reds, redder. Yellow-green potato fields, weeping willows, sage green eucalyptus trees, vegetable gardens, blue-green foliage and pink potato blossoms. The reddish brown adobe houses with thatched roofs or red tiles nestled in the black terraced farmland. Yellow flowering cacti, purplish-red rock, Spanish moss. Sheep grazed beside gray-brown rivers with silvery pink foxtail reeds. At each station we were met with round brown faces drowning in colorful wool hats, skirts and shawls with weathered hands holding up rugs, ponchos and choklos – Indian corn served piping hot in the husk with a slice of salty white cheese.

Smatterings of Incan ruins on terraced farmlands and mountainsides teased us as we chugged onward towards the real prize. As we climbed higher, a yellow-green blanket of velvet covered the rocks and marked the beginning of the rain forest. From the last station a mini-bus bounced and bumbled us up the last 8km of zigzag road that climbed 450 meters in a matter of minutes and stopped with a groan at Machu Picchu. At 10:15 a.m. we arrived at Hotel de Turistas Machu Picchu, the highly coveted, lone hotel on the pinnacle, located a few meters from the entrance of the park. We eagerly walked the path up to the park entrance (to me the door to the legendary El Dorado) for our first look.

This February day was still overcast, threatening rain. I’m not sure if it was the thin air or the sight of the majestic mountains surrounding the citadel, playing hide-and-go-seek with heavy clouds, that took my breath away. January through March is the rainy season, but it is also the flower season; orchids, begonias and lilacs hid among the semi-tropical vegetation. Surprisingly, the site was almost deserted except for a pocketful of tourists, mere colorful patches amidst all the gray stone. A few llamas meandered freely inside the 5 sq. meters of terraced terrain. A hidden musician played El Condor Pasa” on a flute – the perfect sound track for the mystic scenery. The travel pamphlet photos hadn’t exaggerated its beauty. It was everything I’d imagined and more. In several hours the park would close and the bus would leave Machu Picchu. I was relieved that I would remain to see the sunset and daybreak over the Lost City of the Incas.

Machu Picchu in the mist

Juan, the tour guide, began our orientation. “Machu Picchu, with an altitude of 2,450 meters above sea level, was (re) discovered in 1911 by Yale professor Hiram Bingham. Built on the inaccessible top of the Eastern Andean Mountains, the city constituted a natural fortress against the enemy. Amazingly, the Spaniards never found it and we don’t know why it was abandoned by the Incas. Machu Picchu means Old Mountain, which is actually the more sharp-pointed mountain facing the citadel and not the more rounded one behind it that usually appears in photographs, which is Huayna Picchu, or Young Peak. Tourists can climb that one.”

I promised myself I would.

The guide in his heavy Spanish accent went on, “Machu Picchu appears to have been a ceremonial center where some 1,500 Incas, mostly women, lived. The citadel was built during the 13th and 14th centuries. The Spanish invaded Peru in the 16th century and a bloody 40-year war with the Indians resulted. During that time the Indians never told the conquistadors about Machu Picchu, perhaps to keep their “special” women hidden.”

The walking (and stumbling) tour took us through the military section, the cylindrical Royal Temple, different class neighborhoods, the Temple of the Sun, alongside the elaborate water system with its aqueducts all through the city. The smiling guide delighted in telling us interesting tidbits like: high-ranking people showed their wealth by burning their clothes after use; soap and shampoos were stored in wall indentions; windows were scarce since Incas spent most of the day outside; and the bigger the door entrance, the more important the house owner.

It had been drizzling rain during the tour but our spirits weren’t dampened. We made it back to the hotel for lunch: goulash, curried chicken, potato salad (there are 250 types of potatoes grown in Peru), fruit, vegetable soup, and weak coffee. There was a pitcher of concentrated coffee “syrup” for those who wanted it stronger. The afternoon was free to explore the ruins. The rain had subsided.

Since Machu Picchu is an acclaimed retreat – a veritable cosmic Mecca – for mystics and New Agers, some of us went back to the Temple of the Sun on a high hill where the most energy is said to be concentrated and did yoga and deep breathing. The view was exhilarating. The temple side of the citadel overlooked a lush valley and river, which wound like a silver thread around deep, forested mountains. Then, we turned our focus to the “Young Mountain”. Quickly descending the temple ruin to the small green clearing at its foot we were anxious to begin the climb. A park guard in a small booth detained us – no one was permitted up after 3 pm. We were disappointed, but the next day found out why.

So instead, I went off to paint the Incan Bridge (Puente de los Incas) on the eastern side of the mountain. As required by the park services, I signed in with my name and the time. The way was muddy, and in some places covered by heavy, crawling vines and moss. The trail ended abruptly after a 30 – 40 minute walk, with two stone abutments constructed against the side of the cliff. Joining them was a bridge with a steep drop off down to the river. The “bridge” was actually three logs joining the narrow stone segments. I had thought of shimmying across, but the wormholes told me that the trunks were probably rotten. I hesitated, and then sat down on the skimpy path overlooking the dangerous abysm and pulled out my 6 x 6 inch sketchpad, tiny set of watercolor paints and my film container filled with water. There were a few sprinkles of rain but the sun came out and I was able to do a watercolor painting of the bridge. I imagined Incas on the same trail. They must have had tiny feet to stay on such a narrow path. The air was clean and cool. I heard an odd bird call. Could be a condor. I did another painting of the river valley as the light played with the heavy clouds. Glad I don’t have vertigo.

“Puente de los Incas,” watercolor by Marilyn Diggs

On my brisk walk back to the main ruins, about 5:45 pm, I ran into a friend who said it had poured on her side of the mountain. The rain had stopped now though, so I scurried to one more location, the “guardian’s house” ruin on a steep hill, and did another watercolor – an anvil-shaped, stone funeral table where Inca bodies rested (before mummification) for their one last look at Machu Picchu mountain. We all came together for the sunset at the highest ruin, the Temple, but it was overcast. A bit of a disappointment, I must say. It was time to leave the park, so with flashlights in hand we quietly wandered back to the hotel, each contemplating the experiences of the day.

After a rest we headed to the hotel restaurant. The waiters had folded napkins into condors, and llamas. We asked them to teach us, without any luck – another secret in Machu Picchu. Dinner was light: a mildly spicy tomato-based criollo soup and omelettes. Tired, yet anticipating the dawn, sleep came reluctantly.

I woke up at 5 am and looked out the window to a pink sky. So much for wake up calls. Panicking that I’d missed the sunrise I shook my roommate, frantically got dressed, grabbed my art supplies and ran to the park. We made it to the gate at 5:30 and though the park was not supposed to open until 7:00, the guard let us in. We dashed around to find just the right spot, but got lost in the labyrinth of ruins. Desperately, we followed some animals to find our way out. A couple of Alices in Wonderland. Two strange little critters with rabbit heads, short ears, long tails, and definitely guinea pig-related led us to an open field. Time was running out. We breathlessly rushed to the other side of the citadel, to Temple of the Sun, for that perfect view of the sunrise.

The foggy clouds rolled in and as the mists rose from the valley, fog began to form on top of the mountains. The sky was a peachy pink against the mountain silhouette, except for the bright gold beam that announced the sun’s arrival. It cast a golden light on chartreuse vegetation. Time is of the essence in such moments. With my heart racing, my eyes and paintbrush worked in simultaneous harmony. Plein ar painting, especially at sunrise and sunset, requires focus. I did a watercolor sketch of golden green Machu Picchu peak, then spun around and caught the purple and blue shadows disappearing into the sunshine on Huayna Picchu, the towering pink granite peak to the north. Got it!

“Sunrise on Machu Picchu Peak,” watercolor by Marilyn Diggs

Satisfied that I had captured the moment, I sauntered back, with the fresh, crisp morning air alive in my lungs, to the hotel for breakfast at 7:45 a.m., which was a blur. I was already thinking about climbing to the top of Huayna Picchu. This time the grounds seemed familiar and in no time I was at the foot of the giant. The journey up the trail was definitely not for the faint of heart. I met Rinehart from Vienna, a young architect, on the way. Great, someone to share the experience. The trail was straight up in some spots, steep steps and at times we used ropes. At one point we had to squeeze through a wet, muddy tunnel. The forest accompanied the mountain almost to the summit. Short trees and ferns lined the path. The peak’s top was rocky and ridden with wasps and butterflies, but the fantastic aerial views from 400 meters up, both of the citadel and the entire valley, were worth all the Incan gold. Machu Picchu looked like broken toy fragments strewn on an emerald green carpet. This is what I had come to Peru to see. The way down was not well marked and we took several wrong turns, which is why no one is allowed to climb after 3 pm, and also why signing-in is required.

“Sunrise on Huayana Picchu,” watercolor by Marilyn Diggs

We were late getting down and only had time to grab some fruit for lunch. The mini-bus whisked us back to the train station where I mailed some postcards and bought a replica of an ancient Incan sacrificial knife with a llama head. My group and I settled in the train seats. This time the colors were less intense because the sun was out.

The train rattled on, stopping here and there. There would be many more sights to see once back in Cusco, but for now tasty Indian corn was warm in my tummy and I was thrilled to have been a part of the sunrise in Machu Picchu and to have climbed the silent guard of the Lost City of the Incas.

Marilyn Diggs is an American living in Brazil for over twenty years. She is a freelance writer, artist, lecturer and author of nine books – two about Brazilian art history. As an art reporter and travel writer she has two monthly columns in Sunday News, Brazil’s English language newspaper that circulates in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. She has written for the Miami Herald and Museum International, a UNESCO publication. Marilyn has a degree in Latin American Studies and is often contracted by intercultural training services to give talks on expat challenges.

Previous articles by Marilyn:

Brazil: Happy Moonlit Trails To You
Brazil: Paradise Found – Fernando de Noronha

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