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In the Amazon

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In the Amazon

it's all part of the adventure

They call it the cloudforest; a place where the Andes thrust to over 20,000 feet in the sky; where volcanos lie dormant under a year-round blanket of snow; where alpaca and llama graze next to carefully fitted stonework that’s hundreds of years old. The most careful listener will never hear the soft pad of the legendary puma as it weaves silently within a forest draped with lichens, bromeliads and orchids and surrounded by bamboo. But for those with imagination, the air will fill with the sound of wind rushing over the wings of a condor, soaring on mountain thermals almost 600 years ago over what’s been called the most remarkable civilization of all time – the Inca Empire.

At 8,000 feet, far below the tops of most mountains here, lies a hidden city, a place that conquest missed and time forgot – Machu Picchu. Here, standing on what’s considered today to be the finest stonework ever crafted, Jacquie Albright fulfilled a dream held since childhood – to walk in the magic places where the Quechua once walked. “It was absolutely incredible,” she said of her first-ever visit to Peru. “I cried when I saw the city.”

Albright, who owns Travel World in downtown Sandpoint, recently spent 14 days in Peru with her friend Nancy Dunnagan, “my travel companion extraordinaire.” There they traveled the Amazon by boat, walked the jungle at night, clambered in the canopy of the rainforest, and marveled over the nearly extinct Hoitzin. They learned to call monkeys and they fished for piranha. Nancy, married to local fisherman Bob Dunnagan, became the first in her family to catch one of these tiny fish with the gigantic teeth and an awesome reputation as killers. “Let’s get t-shirts made,” she laughed with Jacquie. “Real fishermen catch real fish.” With maybe a picture of the piranha on the front.

The pair flew from Seattle to Lima, Peru, a bustling coastal city with approximately eight million residents – almost a third of Peru’s entire population lives here in its capitol. From Lima, they met up with Jungle Experience and climbed aboard a restored Riverboat to travel the Amazon.

“I chose the Peru portion of the Amazon because I wanted to visit the Pacaya-Samiria Nature Reserve. It’s the largest wetlands in the world,” Jacquie explained. “We were eight days on a riverboat with 28 passengers, seven of them children. We would get onto skiffs, and go into the black waters – tributaries to the Amazon that are black because of all the tannin from decayed trees. The Amazon itself is very brown,” she added, “and there’s lots of debris.”

This is a land dominated by water; native families live in houses built on stilts because, when rainy season comes, the waters can rise 20 to 30 feet. “The whole Amazon basin becomes water,” Jacquie said. “They have rafts by the houses that they keep their pigs and chickens on when the water rises.”

Abundance is the only word to describe this area, said to be home to more species of animals, insects, plants, flowers and trees than the entire rest of the world. It's estimated that each known species of tree in the Amazon rainforest supports over 400 unique species of animal - and there are thousands of species of trees. 

Jacquie was most surprised by, “the rat that I thought was a pig. It was sitting on someone’s doorstep, and I asked Erik (the guide) about it. He laughed when I asked if it was a pig, and ran over and brought it to me. It was a rodent, a capybara, and it must have weighed 30 pounds! They keep them as pets, you know,” she added. “And they grow up to 140 pounds.”

The pink dolphins, however, are what left her totally entranced. “Their legends say the pink dolphins are shape-shifters,” she explained. “They’ll seduce your soul and carry you down to the encata – the bottom of the Amazon." She said she was open to it but, “nobody carried us off.”

For night trips into the jungle, the group donned gaiters for the snakes; long-sleeved shirts for the bugs; and head-coverings for the screw-worms. “I’m still not sure if the screw-worms are for real or not,” Jacquie laughed. “It might have been a bit like a snipe hunt. And we looked absolutely ridiculous, trooping into the jungle with all this stuff on, reeking of DEET and all of us carrying our little flashlights. I couldn’t stop laughing and they were threatening to leave me behind because I was scaring all the animals off.”
Animals like the monkeys, that their guides called down from the trees by kissing their fingers, or the caiman, a cousin to the crocodile, whose eyes shone in the light of the flashlights. “We heard some howler monkeys once, and even the guide looked scared,” Jacquie said. The guides were mostly nonchalant about the varied, and often venomous wildlife that fills the jungle, saving their greatest concern for the Azteca ants, which can paralyze you for days with their bite. Jacquie wasn’t at all concerned. “Why, that’s all part of the adventure, now isn’t it?” she laughed.

Jacquie came prepared for bartering in the jungle villages they visited; she packed her suitcases full of t-shirts, red nail polish and lipstick, sewing kits and fishing line and watches. “The watches really need to be waterproof,” she said. “I hadn’t thought of that.” The nail polish was the biggest hit, along with the fishing line. “They were so-so about the sewing kits and they loved the t-shirts, but they really wanted ones with something written on them.”

In one village, Jacquie spent time with the local schoolteacher, Daisy. “She had 47 kids of all ages,” she marveled. And the hit with Daisy turned out to be The River Journal Jacquie had packed along in her bag. “It was your Independence Day issue, and they were celebrating their own independence day when I was down there,” she explained. 

Peru, of course, was overrun by the Spanish, beginning with Francisco Pissaro back in 1533. It was almost 300 years before they would gain their independence again.

After traveling the Amazon, Jacquie extended her trip to visit Machu Picchu and the city of Qosqo (Cuzco). Qosqo is the oldest living city on the American continent, with continuous settlement for over 3,000 years. It’s been called a “living museum” which rests 11,700 feet high in the Andes. Altitude sickness is the most common tourist malady, and one which the people there are prepared for. “As soon as we arrived, they handed us cups of tea, which we desperately needed,” Jacquie said. Though English by birth, the need for tea lay in what it was brewed from – the coca leaf, parent plant of cocaine. “It’s amazing how well it helps with the altitude sickness,” Jacquie laughed. "And it's very good." She said the altitude sickness was "the very worst part of the trip. We went from sea level to 11,500 feet in just a few hours."

Qosco city is laid out in the shape of a puma, with the temple at its heart. "The people there were all very friendly and hard-working," Jacquie said. "They seemed to be very happy in what they did."

The Quechua (ka-ca-chew-ah) civilization, commonly known as the Inca Empire, stretched from Columbia to Argentina, and was connected by El Camino Real del Inca – the Inca Trail, which passes near Qosqo on its way to Machu Picchu. The Incas organized construction of their fabulous roads and cities through a system called La Mita, an obligation of the population to work a couple of weeks a year in state construction projects.

The Inca road system once covered 30,000 km and is considered to be a considerable feat of engineering, passing through jungle canyons, across deserts and over snowy passes. It included stairways, tunnels, buttresses and drainage channels and was so well-built that much of it survives to this day despite centuries of neglect.

The roads were said to have been constructed like a dramatic narrative, with a series of troughs, slow buildups and climaxes, each greater than the last, 'til at last you reach the finale, said to be the Quechua's greatest work of art - Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu can only be approached from two directions – along  the green and foamy Urabamba River or along the trail, which may explain how it missed the onslaught of the Spanish conquest, and the destruction the Catholic church wrecked on so much of the Quechua culture.

“Rediscovered” in 1911 by Yale professor Hiram Bingham, who was looking for the fabled treasuries of Inca gold and silver, Machu Picchu rests at a relatively low elevation – 8,000 ft. In the most recognizable of photographs, the great bulk of Huayna Picchu rises behind the city, stone terraces climbing its flanks. There are five square miles of terraced stonework in this city of the children of the sun, and it’s linked by 3000 steps. There are the remains of approximately 200 buildings.

Machu Picchu was not an isolated site, but was the center of an entire province. It was a region of elite settlements built in dramatic locations.

"There was no poverty in the Inca empire," Jacquie said. "It was considered to be a perfect society. Everybody worked, and everybody was educated. At Machu Picchu, they had enough food stored to feed everyone for five years," she marveled.

"They believed the rocks had souls," she added, and said that, "When you went around, you could feel the love that went into its construction." That construction is so enduring that, when earthquakes periodically rock Peru, it's the modern buildings that tumble down. The Quechua work still stands. Machu Picchu, in fact, rests between two tectonic plates and "when they move, the city stays suspended between them."
 Excavations at Machu Picchu have revealed that over 80% of its population was women. "Our guides told us it might have been an experimental station," but Machu Picchu's secrets are still just that - there is no mention of the city or its purpose in any historical literature. "I didn't expect to be so overwhelmed by it," Jacquie said. "It's just so impressive."
 So impressive, in fact, that 14 days was not nearly enough and Jacquie is ready for another trip to Peru - even if it's someone else making it. "There's a show on at the Panida this week (about Peru)," she said. "I can't wait to see it."
 If you'd like to see Peru yourself, or walk through the gate of the sun into the Hidden City itself, give Jacquie a call at Travel World at 208-263-5151. She'll be happy to help you plan your trip.

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Landon Otis

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travel, Jacquie Albright, Machu Picchu

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