Journey to Machu Pichu

One of the many resident llamas is photographed at Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist destination in all of South America. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists trying to snap selfies with them, they wander about, occasionally stopping to take in the view between bites of lush Andean grass which they keep at a perfect length.

One of the many resident llamas is photographed at Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist destination in all of South America. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists trying to snap selfies with them, they wander about, occasionally stopping to take in the view between bites of lush Andean grass which they keep at a perfect length.

Nestled 7,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains and almost entirely circled by the Urubamba River is a mysterious Incan city that up until just over 100 years ago, was completely unknown to the west. The story goes that in 1911 a Yale archeologist, Hiram Bingham, was searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba–the last Incan stronghold to fall to the Spanish–when a local farmer told him about some ruins located at the top of a nearby mountain. Bingham was then led by an 11 year-old boy to the site that has astounded archeologists ever since and also ignited a custody dispute that went on for almost 100 years, catalyzed partly by the fact that Bingham took artifacts from the site back to Yale for further study. What was particularly remarkable about the site was that the Incans had managed to keep it a secret from the Spanish for over almost 500 years and as a result, it remained relatively intact–a true icon of Incan civilization, architecture and engineering.  Of course I’m referring to the now famous archeological site of Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist destination in all of South America.

During a visit to Peru last month, Machu Pichu was, unsurprisingly, on the top of our list of things to do. The journey to Machu Pichu itself is worth mentioning–the usual planes, trains and automobiles, then long snaking lines to buy tickets in the rain at the “Ministry of Culture” in the launching city of Cusco, more lines to buy bus and train tickets at a local tourist agency, another bus ride, a beautiful train ride through the Andes, a fairly intense but exquisite 2 hour hike up steep and mossy Andean steps from the town of Agua Calientes (for those who don’t want to hike, there are buses that take you directly to the entrance) and then the final ascent into the site itself which, at over 7,000ft with high altitude oxygen levels, is not made for the average couch potato. Or, for the really ambitious, one can hike the extraordinary 4-5-day Inca trail which passes through cloud forest, alpine tundra, tunnels and many Incan ruins.  Despite the intense journey and the enormous number of tourists exploring the site–most with selfie sticks extended in front of their faces–I, like Hiram Bingham, could not help but be astounded by my first glimpse of the sublime city. Shrouded in clouds, and punctuated by the intense green grass and vegetation of the wet Andes, the stone city seems to have been created with a unique aesthetic sensibility, functionality and awareness of the surrounding environment.  If, as archeologists now theorize, it served as a sort of retreat and ceremonial site for Incan rulers, it’s clear these men knew how to retreat and ceremonialize in profoundly thought-out style. In short, Machu Pichu is truly as beautiful and otherworldly as the guide books proclaim (albeit with way too many humans and selfie sticks).

Separated into three areas–urban, religious and agricultural, the structures are so perfectly matched with their surroundings.  While the agricultural areas, with their well-defined terraces and aqueducts, make use of the natural slopes and the urban areas–which housed farmers, servants, teachers and the like–are built in the lower regions, the religious areas are located at the top of the city, with soulful and inspiring views of the beautiful Urubamba Valley far below.  Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that even though many of the stone blocks that make up Machu Pichu are massive–perhaps 50 tons or more–they are precisely cut (or sculpted?) and fit together almost perfectly without cement or mortar. Also, I was amazed at being able to imagine so well what life must have been like in this high altitude world. For instance, the many houses have stone shelves for displaying objects, high windows to allow enough light to enter at sunset and sundown and notches next to open stone doorways so that residents could lock their doors!  There are baths and storage rooms, temples and of course the well-laid out terraces extensive enough to grow more than enough food for Machu Pichu’s residents. For a place that appears to be of another world, its details betray a city very much made for humans.

Of course there is so much more to be said about Machu Pichu’s intricacies–its Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows and the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock but perhaps these places are best left to be explored in person. These days, besides the overabundance of tourists (whose free-wheeling explorations of the stone structures have put the Machu Pichu on the endangered archeological site list), there are also, surprisingly  enough, a herd of free-range llamas whose heads occasionally pop up between the granite stones. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists trying to snap selfies with them, they wander about, occasionally stopping to take in the view between bites of lush Andean grass which they keep at a perfect length. They are, perhaps the only truly consistent and natural residents of the site and their peaceful presence and lovely dromedary-like faces amidst the beautiful ruins are what I held onto as we hiked back down the mountain.

 

Isolated in the Andean mountain range, the only way to get to Machu Pichu is by rail to Agua Calientes, the small touristy town at the base of Machu Pichu.  The train ride itself is wonderfullu scenic and the train's large windows on the sides make for a visually breathtaking experience.

Isolated in the Andean mountain range, the only way to get to Machu Pichu is by rail to Agua Calientes, the small touristy town at the base of Machu Pichu. The train ride itself is wonderfully scenic and the train’s large windows on the sides and ceilings make for a visually breathtaking experience.

To get to the site from Agua Calientes, one can either wait in long lines for the busses that snake up the mountain every 15 mins or one can hike up the steep Andean stairs for about two hours. The hike up was peaceful with some stunning views of the shrouded Andean mountains. We only ran into one other hiker--a Frenchman who appeared about to pass out.

To get to the site from Agua Calientes, one can either wait in long lines for the buses that snake up the mountain every 15 mins or one can hike up the steep Andean stairs for about two hours. The hike up was peaceful with some stunning views of the shrouded Andean mountains.

I, like Hiram Bingham, could not help but be astounded by my first glimpse of the sublime city. Shrouded in clouds, and punctuated by the intense green grass and vegetation of the wet Andes, the stone city is truly as otherwordly as the all the guidebooks proclaim.

I, like Hiram Bingham, could not help but be astounded by my first glimpse of the sublime city. Shrouded in clouds, and punctuated by the intense green grass and vegetation of the wet Andes, the stone city is truly as otherwordly as the the guidebooks proclaim.

 Tourists explore Machu Pichu's stone structure. The number of daily tourists who visit the site relatively unresricted has put the Machu Pichu on the endangered archeological site and the Peruvian government is considering tighter restrictions.


Visitors explore Machu Pichu’s stone structure. The number of daily tourists who visit the site relatively unresricted has put Machu Pichu on the list of endangered archeological sites and the Peruvian government is considering tighter restrictions.

Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that even though many of the stone blocks that make up Machu Pichu's structures are massive--perhaps 50 tons or more--they are precisely cut (or sculpted?) and fit together almost perfectly without cement or mortar.  These stones were of course cut long before the invention of machinery.

Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that even though many of the stone blocks that make up Machu Pichu’s structures are massive–perhaps 50 tons or more–they are precisely cut (or sculpted?) and fit together almost perfectly without cement or mortar. These stones were of course cut long before the invention of machinery.

A view of the sun temple from above. Apparently the sun temple was dedicated to the solar god and patron Incan deity, Inti. The temple was an important observatory in which the measurement of the solstices was undertaken. Underneath the Sun Temple is a cave-like room named the Royal Tomb in which the nobles and possible the Sapa Inca, ruler of the Cusco Empire and later the Inca Empire, were laid to rest in their mummified state.

A view of the sun temple from above. Apparently the sun temple was dedicated to the solar god and patron Incan deity, Inti. The temple was an important observatory in which the measurement of the solstices was undertaken. Underneath the Sun Temple is a cave-like room named the Royal Tomb in which the nobles and possible the Sapa Inca, ruler of the Cusco Empire and later the Inca Empire, were laid to rest in their mummified state.

Visitors explore the "urban" or residential areas of Machu Pichu which are built in the lower regions of the city and housed farmers, servants and teachers etc.

Visitors explore the “urban” or residential areas of Machu Pichu which are built in the lower regions of the city and housed farmers, servants and teachers etc.

Machu Pichu is surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River with cliffs dropping vertically almost 1,500 ft.  The Urubamba accounts for the morning mists which rise up from its waters.

Machu Pichu is surrounded on three sides by the Urubamba River with cliffs dropping vertically almost 1,500 ft. The Urubamba accounts for the morning mists which rise up from its waters.

A view of the Inca Bridge which is part of a trail that heads west out of Machu Pichu.  To prevent outsiders from entering Machu Pichu on this trail, a 20-foot gap was left in this section of the carved cliff edge over a sheer drop. Two tree trunks could be used the bridge the gap which was otherwise impassable.

A view of the Inca Bridge which is part of a trail that heads west out of Machu Pichu. To prevent outsiders from entering Machu Pichu on this trail, a 20-foot gap was left in this section of the carved cliff edge over a sheer drop. Two tree trunks could be used the bridge the gap which was otherwise impassable.

The Incans were known for their use of agricultural terracing and Machu Pichu's extensive stone terraces are a prime example of this practice. Because the sun's rays don't reach deep enough in the valley, the terraces allow use of the more intense and longer sunlight exposure during the day.  Terracing also prevented soil erosion, mudslides and flooding and allowed farmers to better control the amount of water that fed the crops.

The Incans were known for their use of agricultural terracing and Machu Pichu’s extensive stone terraces are a prime example of this practice. Terraces created larger areas for growing crops and allowed use of the more intense and longer sunlight exposure on the mountain sides during the day. Terracing also prevented soil erosion, mudslides and flooding and allowed farmers to better control the amount of water that fed the crops.

Visitors look ouf of Machu Pichu's trapezoidal windows at the breathtaking view of the Andes. Because Machu Pichu was built between two fault lines, the Incans took great pains to build it to withstand earthquakes. Trapezoidal doors and windows which tilt inward from bottom to top was one of the features used to make the buildings more earthquake-proof.

Visitors look ouf of Machu Pichu’s trapezoidal windows at the breathtaking view of the Andes. Because Machu Pichu was built between two fault lines, the Incans took great pains to build it to withstand earthquakes. Trapezoidal doors and windows which tilt inward from bottom to top was one of the features used to make the buildings more earthquake-proof.

A view of the shrouded Andean mountains surrounding Machu Pichu.

A view of the shrouded Andean mountains surrounding Machu Pichu.

This blog aims to be an interesting place of discovery–a place to share beautiful or disturbing photos, discover new places and people and lose oneself in this extraordinary medium. If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up directly on my blog site–Apertures and Anecdotes (in the right hand column)–or email me at julia@juliacumesphoto.com. Thank you!

ps. comments are closed due to an overabundance of spam but please feel free to respond to this blog post directly if you have any questions or comments.

a dog’s life–Peru

A Peruvian hairless dog stops to observe a train arriving in Agua Calientes, a town at the base of Machu Pichu. I saw many of these ancient Peruvian dogs walking around in Agua Calientes with specially-made t-shirts. Temperatures in this area are cool in the mornings and evenings. This was just one of many moments in my travels through Peru in which I noticed how much Peruvians embrace their canine residents.

As a dog-lover, I always notice dogs and their general well-being when I travel. In many countries, I’ve learned that dogs are seen less as family members than as security guards. Frequently, they’re kept on short chains or slinking around the shadows of the family’s back yard, nervous and ready to snap at the smallest infraction. Alternatively, they are street dogs riddled with ticks or infections, mangy or so thin one can count each rib from a distance. Often, in these same countries, dogs are perceived as dirty (which they usually are because of lack of care) and people balk at the idea of petting a dog or taking him into one’s home. I know that poverty plays a significant role in how cultures treat their dogs. When there isn’t enough food for humans, it’s understandable that dogs too will go hungry.

So happily, one of the first things I noticed in Peru was that dogs are ever-present, well-fed and Peruvians seem to love them! Every corner I turned–whether on the streets of Lima or the tiny towns of the Sacred Valley or Colca Canyon–I joyfully witnessed a new vignette of canine bliss. I saw dogs being scratched, cuddled, played with, fed with market scraps, or simply allowed to sleep peacefully, curled up close to human companions. While I noticed few collars and rarely a leash on these Peruvian dogs and they seemed to wander the streets peacefully with a traffic savviness my own pooches certainly will never attain, they did not seem to be strays or gather in packs as street dogs sometimes do. They simply looked like there were going about their days, exploring the usual nooks and crannies, visiting their doggy or human friends and then wandering home at the end of the day for a good meal.

Who knows why dogs are so integrated into Peruvian culture in a way they aren’t in so many other countries. I know that the Peruvian hairless dog breed dates back to pre-Incan times but whatever the reason, I was so inspired by this canine-loving culture that I thought I’d share some of my favorite Peruvian doggy moments.

A dog watches the goings-on from the doorway of his family's home in the small town of Pisac, Peru.

I watched this young boy play with his dog for a long time outside his family's store in Maca. I was struck by the affection and trust between them.

A young woman texts on her phone while waiting for customers at a tourist shop in Cuzco. I was touched by the little bed her dog slept on and the way in which she draped her arm around him as he slept.

Two traditionally-dressed Peruvian women chat on the streets of Chivay while a dog waits close by.

A dog snoozes peacefully in Lima's Plaza de Armas close to the Government Palace, seemingly unconcerned about the presence of riot police beside him.

A dog sleeps on the step of his family's home in Pisac. I saw dogs sleeping in so many spots like this.

Three young girls play with a puppy on the steps outside their family's restaurant in Agua Calientes--the town at the base of Machu Pichu.

A dog seemingly enjoys being in the midst of the action on a street corner in Pisac. While he was clearly blocking the sidewalk, I didn't see anyone chase him away.

A boy and his dog keep each other company in the entranceway of the family's convenience store in Pisac.

A little girl nonchalantly rests her foot on a dog's head as she hangs out with her friend in Chivay. I was surprised by how tolerant the dog was of the little girl's foot.

A dog crosses the street at the cross walk while another walks down the center of the street in the tiny town of Chivay.

A woman affectionately touches the nose of her dog while waiting for tourists to purchase her wares at the Incan historical site of Q'enqo just outside of Cuzco.

A classic Peruvian scene in the Colca Canyon town of Chivay.

If you or someone you know would like to receive new blog posts directly through your email, please sign up in the right hand column or email me at julia@juliacumesphoto.com. Thank you!

ps. comments are closed due to an overabundance of spam but please feel free to respond to this blog post directly if you have any questions or comments.

Into the Amazon…

I photographed this beautiful juvenile tree boa while on a night walk through the Amazon jungle in southeastern Peru.

The Amazon jungle has always inhabited a special place in my imagination. Mysterious, faraway, full of ominous and beautiful creatures, it seemed out of the range of possibility to actually experience it. Which is why it was all the more extraordinary to find myself motoring up the Tambopata River–a tributary of the Amazon river in southeastern Peru–on a small wooden boat heading into the Amazon basin for four days earlier this week.

The air engulfed me like a hot, wet blanket when I first walked out of the airport in the Amazonian town of Puerto Maldonado and I was surprised to see how sunny it was given that this time of year it can rain for days without stopping. My second surprise came a few hours into our boat ride when we came upon a small creature swimming across the river. At first I thought it was just another log like the many we’d passed close to shore and then I saw it had eyes, a mouth and a very determined expression. Our guide, Jair Mariche, excitedly exclaimed it was a three-toed sloth and told us that in all his years of guiding, he’d only seen a sloth once and certainly not one swimming. This was only the first of a series of extremely lucky sightings we had during our four days of exploring the Amazon.

The days that followed were full of extraordinary (and very muddy and sometimes wet) adventures during which we saw numerous snakes, spiders (including a family of tarantulas), wild pigs, giant river otters, monkeys, macaws, an electric eel, a wide variety of frogs, extraordinary selection of insects and birds and of course, vegetation that grows on a scale I struggled to wrap my mind around. At the end of each day, I was struck by how much my fantasy of the Amazon felt accurate. I couldn’t seem to get enough of the fact that the wildlife in the Amazon operates independently of human existence, that each creature seems to have found a unique niche to inhabit and thrive in and that all the Amazon’s creatures represent endless adaptations that have allowed them to survive in their complex and competitive world.

A rainstorm looms in the distance as we motor up the Tambopata River in a narrow wooden boat into the Amazon basin.

A three-toed sloth swims across the Tambopata River. Despite the fact that they move very slowly in trees, the three-toed sloths are surprisingly agile swimmers.

Trees in the Amazon compete for light and there are, as result, a lot of extremely tall trees. Some trees reach heights of over 420 feet!

An owl butterfly--known for the large eye-spot patterns on its wings that resemble owl eyes--rests on a tree.

Red and green macaws gather on a clay lick along the Tambopata river. There are numerous theories as to why the birds consume the clay on an almost daily basis in the Amazon. One theory is that some foods eaten by macaws in the wild contain toxic substances which the clay they eat neutralizes.

A pair of scarlet macaws fly off after visiting a clay lick. Macaws mate for life and are almost always seen flying with their mated pair.

A capybara, the largest rodent in the world, forages for food on the banks of the Tambopata River. The rodent, which is related to the guinea pig, hangs out in groups of 20 or more animals. While it isn't endangered, the capybara is hunted for its meat, its hide and also for a grease from its thick fatty skin which is used in the pharmaceutical industry.

I photographed this three hundred year-old giant strangler fig deep in the jungle surrounded by other very tall trees such as a 600 year-old kapok tree. The strangler fig has developed an adaptation that helps it survive by growing seedlings in the crevices of other trees. The roots of these seedlings then grow downward and envelop the host tree while also growing upward to reach into the sunlight zone above the canopy. The host tree dies over many years and becomes hollow (and as result one can sometimes climb up its center as you'll see in this photo if you look closely!).

A great egret lands on the banks of Condenado Lake.

An electric eels hunts for food in Condenado lake. Apparently this eel is capable of generating electric shocks of up to 860 volts! It uses this unusual adaptation for hunting, self-defense and for communicating with fellow eels. Despite its name, it is not actually an eel, but rather a knifefish.


A spectacled caiman, also called a “white caiman”, hunts for food after dark in the Tambopata
river. While other caimans such as black caimans are hunted for their skin, the white caiman
has bony deposits forming scales on their skin which means it is not desirable for leather
products such as bags, shoes etc.

An emerald frog clings to a tree, waiting for prey to come his way.


A juvenile “chicken spider” tarantula waits for prey outside its family’s den. This young tarantula,
which is about the size of my hand, is only a third of the size of its mother! Apparently the name
“chicken spider” comes from the fact that these creatures have been known to eat chickens!

%d bloggers like this: