Monday, August 3, 2009

Machu Picchu - the Belly Button of the World

Amazing, magnificent, superb and brilliant don’t even come close to describing what I’ve seen this past week. Last Friday, we finished up the last day of our three-week class, and got ready for our “mini” vacation. Early Saturday morning, we boarded a plane from Lima to Cusco with lots of anticipation. After arriving that afternoon, we headed off to our hotel to rest for a bit. Here the altitude was around 11,000 – 12,000 feet, which was a huge change from sea level. Most people had headaches and occasional nausea, but nothing stopped us from enjoying every minute!!!

Cusco was the capital during the Inca Empire and is called “the belly button of the world” because it was in the center of Inca territory. Here you can see clear Inca and Spanish influences on every single street. Many building foundations still have actual Inca stones forming the foundations. The streets are also very narrow and cobblestoned as well. Cusco was a gorgeous city to explore and learn about. We stayed here for three days visiting many different ruins, Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley. Our tour guide, Gary, was very knowledgeable and explained everything to us in detail. I wish I could have recorded everything he said because it was so pertinent and interesting. After lunch on our first day, Gary took us to three or four different ruins, one gold-plated cathedral (literally I’ve never seen more gold in my life) and one working monastery.

On the second day, we woke up extremely early to catch a train to Aguas Calientes where we would take a bus up to Machu Picchu. It took us over 4 hours to reach the entrance of Machu Picchu; however, when we finally arrived it was well worth it. Machu Picchu sits at about 8,000 – 9,000 feet above sea level, which made hiking up to the ruins a bit easier. It is also part of the Peruvian jungle sitting near the Amazon basin, so as you can imagine how amazing the view was! After trekking up to the ruins, we were overwhelmed with the absolute beauty of Machu Picchu. Words cannot even explain what we felt or what we saw. The only thing I can say is that you have to go see it in person. Machu Picchu has truly earned its right as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. One of the surreal aspects of the ruins is that there is no Spanish influence here whatsoever. The conquistadores never discovered this sacred place, so it has remained untouched and perfectly preserved.

On the third day, we took it a little easier as we were all very sore after hiking around Machu Picchu. We took a bus around the Sacred Valley, where we were able to witness gorgeous views of snow-capped mountains, fertile valleys and unique little villages. This was a wonderful little excursion to be able to take in the beauty of nature. At the end of the day, we had to pack up our hotel room and get ready for a 9-hour bus ride from Cusco to Puno in the morning.

We took off for Puno very early in the morning in an effort to arrive by dinnertime. I can honestly say I’ve never been happier to get off a bus in my life after that trip! However, the bus was a really nice way to see the Peruvian countryside. While traveling on the Altiplano, we had some amazing views of the mountains. In this area we were at an altitude of 15,000 feet above sea level, so it felt like we could literally touch the clouds!

The next morning we all geared up for Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca is famous because it is the highest navigable lake in the world sitting at 12,500 feet above sea level. Our first stop on the lake was the famous floating reed islands. These islands are home to local indigenous groups. We had the amazing opportunity to actually go onto the islands and see how they live. I was shocked at how many uses the natural growing reed has in this culture. The reeds are used for everything from building boats and houses to the actual island itself. After touring the floating islands, we got to ride on one of the small reed boats. This was one of my favorite things because it was so calm and peaceful! Later on we got back on our boat and went out to the island of Taquile, where we hiked up to our lunch location that had a magnificent view of the lake. Following lunch, we hiked a bit more up to the main square where there was a festival being held. There were many local people dressed up in gorgeous clothing dancing around in a circle. It was really a sight to see!

After our mini vacation was over we got ready to fly back to Lima. Nobody wanted to leave! We all had a once in a lifetime experience that we will remember forever!

* Stephanie is participating in a study abroad program in Lima Peru, organized by Valdosta State University's International Programs and Modern and Classical Languages.

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