By Jim Bishop.
As I mentioned in my January article, this past September I joined a plant expedition tour to Peru. It was a different type of tour for me. The focus was mostly on seeing cacti and bromeliads growing in their natural habitats as opposed to visiting private and botanic gardens like most tours I’ve been on. In the January article, I wrote about seeing the giant Puya raimondii that was one of the reasons I was on the trip, the other was to visit Machu Picchu.
I recall learning in high school world history class about the Inca empire and extensive civilization in the high Andes Mountains of central South America. I was fascinated by the tales of domesticated llamas and elaborate road systems that connected the empire in trade, war and culture. Machu Picchu was likely a royal estate of Inca rulers, however, it was abandoned about the time Spaniards invaded other parts of the empire. The reason for abandonment isn’t fully known, but it wouldn’t become well known until 1911 when American Hiram Bingham brought it to national attention. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage site and visited by over one and a half million tourists a year from all over the world.
Machu Picchu sits at 8,000 feet in elevation. By the time our tour arrived there, I’d already been in the Andes for a couple of weeks, often above 9000 feet and up to 15,000 feet, so the elevation didn't affect breathing or walking. We stayed in Ollantaytambo. From there we took a very early morning train to Aguas Calientes in the valley below Machu Picchu. From the train station, we stood in line in the early morning rain to board buses that drove us to the entrance of Machu Picchu. Scott Borden and I would spend the next 5 hours exploring the ruins. A bit of bad planning on our part, we didn’t realize that there was no food or bathrooms on the site and that once you exit you can’t return. So, we spent a lot of our visit being very hungry. When we finally exited, we grabbed a quick lunch outside the gates and decided to walk down the steep hillside back to the train station. The trail was mostly uncomfortably large steps and down 1200 feet to the Urubamba River.
Photos from left to right, (left) sign at the top of the trail down, (center) Scott Borden on some of the steps on the trail down from Machu Picchu, (right) Fuchsia boliviana in the forest below Machu Picchu.
We were told it would take about 45 minutes to get to the bottom, but what we didn’t allow for was the uphill hike from the river back to the train station in town . . . however with a quick pace we did manage to make it back in time for the return train.
Photos left to right, (left) Agua Caliente, (right) Looking down past orchids to the Urubamba River 1200 feet below Agua Caliente.
Most of the boulders are the size of houses. Luckily, when we arrived at Machu Picchu the rain had stopped, but it was very foggy, and we could only see a short distance.
Photos left to right; (left) Hundreds of bromeliads growing on a cliff face, (center) bromeliad hangs onto a tree branch over the steep cliff faces rising from the valley, and (right) mosses, lichen, and tillandsias on a rock face.
Earlier in the morning when we arrived at Machu Picchu the rain had stopped, but it was very foggy, and we could only see a short distance. As the morning progressed the clouds would lift a bit and roll back in. However, this added to the mystical effect of the visit.
The ruins consist of approximately 200 stone structures. Some of the ruins that cascade down the hillsides. Some are famous for the carefully fitted mortarless joinery which has held them in place for centuries.
The clouds and mist that are a regular part of the ecosystem here provide perfect conditions for mosses, ferns, orchids, bromeliads, tillandsias, and many other species.
Photos Left to right, (left) begonia takes root in the rock-work, (center) Scott Borden standing on steep steps above one of the organic lawn mowers, (right) Terraced Hillside.
The grass is kept in check by organic lawn mowers – llamas which roam the grounds. However, inside the ruins, most of the vegetation has been removed and it is mostly grass. Much of the surrounding land on top was terraced for agricultural production and to make entrance up the steep cliffs unlikely. An extensive irrigation system was used to water the crops. The Urubamba River surrounds the hillside on three sides and steep cliffs ascend from the river. Several larger peaks sit about the ruins.
The next day, back on the road to Cusco, we passed through agricultural areas and some great views of the high Andes.
Even without the ruins, the views of the clouds moving in and out of the steep hills would create a magical experience, but add in the buildings, the llamas and the plants and you have a thrilling and breathtaking experience.
Jim Bishop is the current Horticulturist of the Year for 2019 and a past San Diego Horticultural Society President.