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Exploring a lost civilization in Peru

By Chris A Hale

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, July 20 2012 6:13 p.m. MDT

A breath-taking view from Machu Picchu.

Chris Hale

There is nothing quite as humbling as stepping off a plane and literally not being able to catch your breath.

My oldest daughter and I arrived in Cuzco, Peru, on our annual daddy-daughter trip and the altitude, which is more than 11,000 feet, quickly attacked my body. Friends warned me this would happen, but I believed that having grown up in Salt Lake City I'd be immune to the effects of elevation sickness.

So much for preconceived notions.

Fortunately, my body eventually acclimated and we were soon able to explore one of the most historical and amazing lands I've ever visited.

My daughter picked Peru for her trip because she wanted to see Machu Picchu, the famous Inca mountain citadel that graces the cover of so many anthropology text books.

To get to Machu Picchu, we took a four-hour train ride from Cuzco that winds through the Andes Mountain Range and along the raging Urubamba River.

The bus ride, which is not for the faint of heart, is on a switchback dirt road that seemed wide enough for only one bus. Nevertheless, we passed two buses that were on their way down.

Once on top, and after having kissed the ground in relief, we were rewarded with the most spectacular view of one of the new seven wonders of the world. We were literally at the top of the Andes, among wisps of passing clouds.

The surrounding dark green mountains reminded me of rooks and bishops towering above a chessboard with Machu Picchu right in the middle. The ancient stone structures sat on light green grass that was geometrically terraced to optimize the potential of the historic urban community. As we looked down from the ridge I almost pinched myself to make sure we were really there.

My daughter and I enjoyed walking through the ruins and seeing an ancient sundial and a structure designed to observe the heavens, much like an observatory of today. In addition to the unique architecture there were the stone buildings where the people lived and worked.

Our guide informed us that, even though it was constructed in the 15th century, the Spanish Conquistadors never located Machu Picchu and that the people who inhabited it had probably disappeared because of smallpox, leaving the ruins to be rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911.

Though Machu Picchu is the most famous of the Inca ruins, the entire area around Cuzco offers so much more. The city itself stands on the actual Inca capital that was built over by the Spanish.

In the city square, called Plaza de Armas, is a church full of gold and silver that was never taken back to Spain. Inside, security people watch guests carefully to make sure they are not counting paces between priceless treasures which could possibly be stolen by tunnel-digging thieves.

We also toured the sacred valley which included a stop at the Pisac traditional market and Ollantaytambo village where you can walk along the ruins of another Inca fortress.

Though not as picturesque as Machu Picchu, the area is historically more important and just as impressive. It was here that the Inca emperor Pachacuti built his estate and where the Incas had their greatest military victory against the Spanish.

Despite the elevation, the valley is fertile and green and bisected by a calmer section of the Urubamba River. This area produces much of the maize, fruits and vegetables for the city of Cuzco. At the market and at most stops along the valley, business-minded Peruvian natives offer everything from alpaca sweaters to photo opportunities with their llamas.

We were extremely impressed with the entire area. Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo were just two of the many Inca sights to explore with Cuzco beingcentral among them.

The people were friendly and helpful and once you acclimate to the elevation, the entire history of a civilization is waiting to be discovered.

Chris Hale is an aviation maintenance technician for a major airline who has traveled the world with his family. In his spare time he writes fictional novels inspired by places he has seen. Find out more about his novels at www.Chrisahale.com

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