I have to admit, before arriving in Peru seven days ago, I knew very little about this country. I have learnt a lot since. I now know that there was a war between Chile and Peru in the 1920s and Peru lost. This meant that they had to surrender key strategic coastal territory to Chile, which they have suffered for since. I have learnt that Peru is 60% jungle and contains 17 of the 23 known natural biological habitats (I hope I got that right). I also know that Peru has some of the world's richest fishing grounds and is the world's number 1 producer of copper. One thing that I did know about Peru before I arrived was that in the peaks of the majestic Andes mountain range is one of the ancient wonders of the world - the magical Inca citadel of Machu Picchu. I didn't know a lot about Machu Picchu but I did know that it was in Peru.
After four days and nights in Lima, we jetted off to Peru's premier tourist area: the Andes city of Cusco. Located more than 3,000 metres above sea level in terrain that is almost impossible to describe, Cusco attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year (including many Australians) primarily to experience Machu Picchu.
All of our pilgrims had their visit to MP on the final day before we fly out of Cusco on our way to Rio. All up, it is about a 31/2 hour journey to Machu Picchu National Park. Our bus ride from the hotel to the train station snakes its way through the higher suburbs of Cusco, past assemblies of street-side merchants, bustling vibrant markets and gatherings of local people going about their daily business. There is a strong presence of the traditionally dressed Indigenous Quechua people, but I suspect that they have not been the major beneficiaries of the ever-growing tourist dollar (in this region (Cosco is not alone in that outcome). The morning is bright and sunny although still a little cool.
As we get closer to the train station, the mountains become taller and more imperial. The train station is set in a very scheduled spot at the base of a sheer wall of rock many hundreds for metres high. This spot is a popular rock climbing venue, so popular that three climber rest pods have been built half-way up the cliff so intrepid climbers can stop off to rest and eat on their way to the summit (see below).
I have been on only a few scenic train rides around the world but surely this one must rate as one of the most beautiful. The small, elegant train follows the river course unhurriedly along the valley floor, and our vision is always up and up into the soaring mountain peaks. The further we travel the higher those peaks rise and the more thick the vegetation that covers them becomes. After a while, it is hard to know where to look - it is an imposing vision of command.
We get off the train at the village of Machu Picchu and once again board a bus that will take us up the final mountain road to the Inca citadel. It is a gorgeous little place full of life and colour, and of people either heading out to see the Inca ruins or back from seeing it.
We jump on another bus for the short final climb to the National Park. The narrow road winds it way up and ever up and as it does, it becomes impossible not to be overwhelmed by what we are able to see at every new vantage point . Sorry, I just don't have the required skill to be able to convey to you in words a sense of this mighty landscape.
The entrance to the park is crowded but we are quickly through and onto our guided tour. We continue to climb the centuries-old stone paths until at last we get to see what all the fuss is about.
We are now perched literally on the top of a mountain that rises about 2,000 from the valley floor. Carved into this peak are the remains of a stone fortress built by the Incas at the height of their power. There is no clear consensus of opinion as to the main function of this citadel - whether it was purely for religious worship, as a fortress against possible enemies or a homage to the Inca king, or maybe something of each.
It is just bewildering. As we climb and descend the original granite paths on our guided walk, I am sure that all of us are thinking the same thing - how was it possible to create this? Atop the mountain is a series of granite retaining walls that create small flat terraces, within which smaller granite buildings of various sizes have been constructed. As we walk and our very passionate and knowledgable guide tells about what we see, it is hard not to stop every couple of metres to take another photo, and another and another - not just of these incredible buildings but also of the view that is the backdrop to everything.
There are extraordinary buildings everywhere in the world - what makes this one so extraordinary is where is has been built and how it was able to be done at all - on the edge of a sheer cliff face. The Incas were master engineers!
We continue to take photos and look and wonder. At one point we are visited by an inquisitive llama who drops by to check us out. He even photobombs a couple of my snaps! Awesome!
The walk takes a couple of hours and is quite demanding. At the end of it, we come to larger flat section where each group is able to stop and rest and talk about what they had seen. It is also at this point that each group holds their own prayer and refection. In my group, Bus Group 1, this was beautifully led by Steve one of our Pilgrim Leaders who invited all of us to think back over the past week and, based on hat reflection, to finish the sentence: "I have seen the face of of God in ..."
The responses from the students in the group that I travelled with were profoundly moving. What I found most inspiring was that despite the natural beauty of everything that was present around them, so many of the students recalled the face of a resident from the Lima shanty towns as the image where they saw God most strikingly present - a smiling child, a mother grateful for the gift of a small trinket, the acknowledgement by the local foreman of the work done to help build a set of stairs for the local community, the image of a woman sweeping the verandah of her humble shack. The stunning natural backdrop certainly gave some power to what each student shared there on the mountaintop of Machu Picchu that afternoon - but it was not the source of it.
Our bus/train/bus journey back to Cosco took about three hours and we arrived home late and tired. A very late dinner, shower and bed followed in preparation for the journey to Rio De Janeiro the following day. We were all leaving at different times. It was going to be (another) very long day but at the end of it we would be in Rio for the start of a week that we know none of us will likely forget.