As much as I would have loved to imagine I'm a time lapse camera and just watch the sun rise
and the clouds roll back and forth Machu Picchu mountain, there was so much ground to
cover that day quite literally. We had met an official guide, Luis, as we were standing in line
to get on the bus and decided to hire him to the tune of $50 (a group joined in mid-tour
which ended up lowering our share to $10/person).
For some reason, I had the misconception that Machu Picchu was ancient, but
the reality is it is believed that Machu Picchu was built around the middle of the
15th century. There really is no definitive as to why it existed and why it was later on
abandoned by the Incas shortly after the arrival of the Spaniards in Peru. Everything the
scholars and archeologists know today are mere theories. Some say that this was a winter
palace built under the regime of the Inca Emperor Pachacutec. (Sorry, folks, that aliens
built it just doesn't have legs.)
What is truly remarkable to me is its mountainous location and considering
the massive amount of rock needed to build this city high in the Andes, it was constructed
purely by hand without the use of the wheel or any iron tools. Given the sophistication
of the hydrology and engineering to earthquake-proof the structures, it will cause your
jaw to drop how this was all possible. I'm still scratching my head three weeks
later, watching all the documentaries I could find on online about Machu Picchu.
Machu Picchu was discovered by accident by Yale professor and explorer, Hiram Bingham, in
1911 - only 106 years ago. After the Incas abandoned Machu Picchu, it was undisturbed for the
most part for many centuries until its rediscovery by Hiram Bingham. He was led to the site in his
quest for another rumored Inca ruin, Vilcabamba, but he was led to Machu Picchu instead by a
local, Melchor Arteaga. He happened to have a camera on him (in 1911!) and we can get a
glimpse of the original state he found Machu Picchu in via National Geographic. There are
also some photos here.
Machu Picchu is said to have a maximum capacity of ~1,000 residents that would
include royalty, nobles, and priests, but also workers and servants. The Incas have
signature skill in masonry evident in buildings of importance such as temples
where the rocks are chiseled precisely to fit other adjoining rocks, without the use of
mortar. The terraces are built for agricultural reasons, as well as some sort of retaining
wall to prevent erosion. Underneath the visible elements are thoughtfully placed and
engineered layers to establish proper drainage and also to help with earthquake-proofing,
especially since Machu Picchu is purported to lie between two faults. What many
visitors also overlook is how impressive the Incas were at hydrology. They were
able to engineer a complex water system that brings water to the site and also
to facilitate the egress of water via proper drainage. To this day, water still flows
through a few fountains in Machu Pichhu with water coming from nearby springs.
Beginning July 1, 2017, the Peruvian Ministry of Tourism will start imposing that all
visitors to Machu Picchu need an official guide to enter. It will probably piss a lot of
people of, but I'm all for this one. It just seems a wasted opportunity to travel all the
way here just to take your Instagram-worthy photos and not learn about about the
history and significance of Machu Picchu. Without understanding the historical
context of this extraordinary and enchanting place, it is just a pile of rocks otherwise.
Exhibit B: La Roca Sagrada (The Sacred Rock). You would probably just walk by this massive
rock sculpture without taking notice, but once it is pointed out to you, do you notice
something similar between the mountain range in the background and the rock? Exactly.
The Incas revere the mountains (sometimes I suspect I may have been Inca in a previous
life) and Yanantin in the back is one of the mountains the Inca consider sacred.
Exhibit C: The Condor Temple. Do you know much about condors? Me either.
They are beautiful, powerful, and emblematic birds that could have wingspans
of up to eight feet. Sightings are rare. They could fly to an altitude of 15,000 feet
(no other bird could - that's like cruising altitude of some plane, people) and
because of this, the Incas hold them sacred. They believe that condors could reach
heaven and deliver messages to the gods.
For me, this is one of the most striking structures in Machu Picchu. Carved from
natural stone, it is a stunning reflection into how the Incas used nature to sculpt
places and objects of worship.
I thoroughly enjoyed this window to the remarkable Inca history and culture.
The classic image of Machu Picchu is everywhere, everyone recognizes it.
I had feared that because of that, it would be a meh experience (kind of like
Chichen Itza was - sorry!) I was surprised I was at how mesmerized I was once
there though. I was astonished at my astonishment. Perhaps it was the totality
of the three days of hiking with the happy ending right at Machu Picchu, but
I've never been more curious about the Inca and its Empire until that point.
Machu Picchu has been called a "Trip of a Lifetime" way too many times in way too many places.
I am always skeptical when people label places as such. What does that even mean? Now I know
a that at least as far as Machu Picchu is concerned, the only way to find out is to live it.
For more posts on Peru and the Salkantay Trek, go here.