You stand on Wayna Picchu, the shark fin shaped summit so famous from countless postcards that serves as a backdrop for Machu Picchu. It is raining constantly. The clouds have socked everything in. This is the wet season in the highland jungles of Peru. Will we ever get a glimpse? Fleecy drifts obscure everything. The climb has been very difficult, but a sizable crowd awaits a sneak peak at The Prize, as it coyly waits in obscurity well below us. The Royal City of Machu Picchu. “The Lost City of The Incas.” We wait. I count sit time of nearly an hour following my arrival. And wait some more. Maybe we won’t be so lucky today, and this devil of an ascent will have been for naught? Suddenly there is a commotion. Somebody in Russian, I think, shouts and points off to the windward side. There is a break in the clouds. About 75 cameras make ready, trigger fingers itching on the shutter. When the moment arrives, it is stunning. You almost hear Wagnerian opera to bookmark the moment. One of those “Oh My God!” crystalline memories. There it is, in all its reflective glory. Spread out like an elaborate feast for the eyes -- steep, elevated, verdant, mysterious, slightly aloof, defiantly proud, and a world apart. We get a peak for perhaps five seconds …
Many locals and several explorers “discovered” Machu Picchu as early as 1874. But it was not officially rediscovered for a discerning audience until American professor Hiram Bingham came to South America to research the military campaigns of Simon Bolivar. While traveling through The Sacred Valley, he met a local farmer who told him about some “ancient ruin” at the top of “the old mountain” – Machu Picchu. When Bingham arrived with the help of a ten year-old boy, he found only two Indian families farming the terraces on its steep slopes. Bingham examined and catalogued the site for scientific record keeping, and returned the following year with an expedition. It included specialists in osteology (bones), natural sciences, excavation, and surveying. Yale University and The National Geographic Society co-sponsored the work. Later, the Peruvian government assumed responsibility for the site’s conservation. In 1983, this ancient wonder was declared a “Cultural and Natural Patrimony of Humankind” for its preservation of Imperial Incan Culture and architectural genius.
The Incas started construction on the site approximately 1430. It was chosen as a royal retreat for its isolation, its water sources, and its special stone. The natural geography here consists almost totally of white granite, a very workable building material that lends itself to Inca talent with masonry. This particular granite has a high magnetic content, which lends itself to Machu Picchu’s reputation as a “world energy vortex.” We know the Inca had copper and bronze tools by the 15th century. There is ample evidence of chisel marks on remaining stone at the site, particularly the quarry near the top of the settlement. What remains a mystery is how they cut the stone (and so precisely), and how they moved the most massive of the numerous blocks over such steep and rocky terrain. The patience demonstrated here, and particularly in the erection of endless terraces descending hundreds of feet (nearly to the Urubamba River) without apparent reason simply boggles the mind. We also know the Inca used a combination of precision cuts, mortar, and mud adhesion to hold the stones together. In places, there is evidence of a type of local concrete – especially in high traffic and sensitive areas. Within 100 years, upon rumors of the approach of the Spanish Conquistadores, the site was voluntarily abandoned. The Spanish looked for, but never found Machu Picchu. The jungle reclaimed it once more.
Our tour proceeds slowly. This is most welcome, for there is perhaps too much to see and appreciate in the 100 acres making up the site. Chances are this will be the only visit here for most of us. It begins with a 25 minute bus ride up switchbacked dirt roads to the modern entrance gate. Here you meet your guide. Next is the Inca entry gate and a restored thatch roofed storage complex. The gate consists of a hexagonal stone arch, rather like a man with drawn in shoulders and spread legs. For stability. Next are the eastern agricultural terraces. They are engineered the same as at Ollantaytambo, but are more numerous. Llamas graze on the various levels with impunity today. These terraces take up perhaps one-quarter of the total site. Adjacent in its vertical run is the spring fed watercourse; very elaborate, with channels of alternating carved and dressed stone. A parallel drainage system quite a bit ahead of its time is to be found everywhere. It still works very well today, without muddy residue. Further on, is the Temple of the Condor – made up of natural rock and Inca Stone masonry augmentation to create the shape of the largest South American bird. This bird was revered by the Inca, and represents the means of conveyance of the soul to heaven. Nearby, is the mysterious Royal Mausoleum. The recessed area of the tomb which is tucked inside an asymmetrical stone visor (visitors not allowed) faintly resembles the reputed burial tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. A number of residential complexes (only 185 homes are at the site, to support a guesstimated population of about 500) are visited next. Most of them have adequate space for a family, especially compared to the small habitable spaces on Easter Island, with solid stone walls and thatched roofs supported by pole trusses bound with vine and llama rope for their rigidity. There is no evidence of fireplaces. Many of the homes have windows with views of nearby scenic spots – such as the temples at the site, the river, or Wayna Picchu. They also have hexagonal or rectangular niches. We learn shortly, that these are for the mummified remains of deceased nobility from Machu Picchu.
Further uphill (it seems as if you are always walking uphill at Machu Picchu) is the Temple of the Sun. Unremarkable really, except for the incorporation of natural stone, with crafted stone added by the Incas to complete the design. As buildings go for the complex, it is relatively small. More residences – including that of the Inca King – are laid out in neatly aligned rows adjacent to the terraces as one climbs further uphill. At the top (no easy feat given the altitude and the steepness of the numerous staircases) is the natural quarry, from which most of the building materials for the entire site were excavated. Natural fissures in the granite suggest the shape and size of the stone to be released from its raw form. A right hand turn, leads to the primary temple area. It appears in the rough shape of a pyramid. Here we find larger temples, all impressively engineered, and supporting large thatched roofs once more. Included are the Temple of the Three Windows (which overlooks Wayna Picchu above, and the main square, directly below) and most importantly, Intiwatana. This is the astronomical observatory for Machu Picchu. Its most important element is the uncovered Sundial Stone (my name for it), which would help divine the correct time for planting and other seasonal activities by the precise and well marked directional angles it cast from shadows of the sun.
From here, you descend to the Main Square. It reminds me of the massive grass jai alai courts at the Mayan complex at Chitzanitsa on the Yucutan Peninsula in Mexico. Beyond is the site Ceremonial Rock (carved to emulate nearby mountains) with its two shelter houses reconstructed to look as they would have in Inca times. And just beyond, is the modern day gatehouse to Wayna Picchu. This famous shark fin shaped peak, prevalent in any postcard of Machu Picchu as the background relief, is about 1200 foot higher than the settlement. Only 400 of the average 4000 daily visitors to Machu Picchu are allowed to climb it. Each morning therefore, from the overnight stay and bus starting point at Aguas Calientes, there is a minor scramble of sorts to make sure you are close enough to the front of the line to get one of these coveted spots. First bus leaves at 5:30 AM. It is suggested you be there by 5 AM. This turns out to be a misleading joke. The first in line start arriving in reality about 3 AM. I headed out at 4 AM, and am among the first 150. Those arriving at the suggested time, never get their voucher to climb Wayna Picchu (meaning “young mountain”). The climb itself is very difficult. Over 1400 stone steps take you to the top in an average time of just over an hour. The steps are small. They are often rounded. They are uneven. They are smooth and slick. They are VERY, VERY steep. They often downslope. At times, I use as a hand support, steps that are only two niches above me. Occasional cables offer minimal support. Often they can be wiggled loose from their pegged moorings. Psychological support at best. In wet conditions, or if one is winded and not paying attention, or careless -- the steps are deadly. Over 23 people have died ascending Wayna Picchu in recent years. This statistic alone, makes the mountain a minor Mt. Everest. Many more have been maimed but lived to tell their tale. Finally however, after a oxygen deprived struggle and much careful maneuvering, you arrive at the summit. The entire reason for this climb is the territorial view of Machu Picchu spread out below you. In brief moments of clarity, it is breathtaking (in more ways than one). If only it would last !
Upon my return to Machu Picchu, I head directly for The Guardhouse. It is the highest point in The Lost City. A solitary building topping the eastern terraces, it served to control traffic coming in on obscure trails from the Sun Gate, and a trail leading to the Inca Bridge and Urubamba river further to the south. The river surrounds Machu Picchu on three sides. It is from this vantage, that the most recognizable photos of Machu Picchu are taken. The view incorporates a downslope angled panorama of the entire settlement, with Wayna Picchu serving as wallpaper in the background. When it is visible, that is. Beyond, in what is described as “only three minutes” (Inca version of the Irish Mile) is the Inca Bridge. Turns out to be a fairly long walk. This structure is comprised of two well constructed stone towers and their approach ramps, with three flimsy and sagging logs strung between them to form the “bridge.” The entire body-width trail, with its 2000 foot dropoff away from the mountain side, can be defended against an army by one warrior if necessary. We are not allowed to cross it any more in the present. What makes the site truly interesting, is that it doesn’t really lead anywhere. Either that or the Inca were masters of disguise in addition to being masters of stone. Some organized steps ascend on the opposite side, but then disappear into a blank face estimated at over 4000 foot tall. It is nearly equivalent to the mile long vertical face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park (California, USA). I find myself speculating if perhaps this was The Spot … the stepping off place that the Inca took their condemned for one final walk. “The Longest Walk.” Or, the spot from which the elderly voluntarily and quietly took a solo journey in harsher times, so as to no longer be a burden to their community (like the custom of Plains Indians in the American west).
The day’s outing concludes with a return bus trip over the dirt switchbacks to the river. It is now massively swollen with runoff from constant rain throughout the day. Quite the sight. Standing waves of ten feet are not uncommon, and occasional surges from the massive amounts of water fighting downhill through a too narrow passage result in 15 foot geysers … as if an onrushing tide has hit an airpocket and explodes like a breaching whale. Finally, soaked but not particularly cold (this is summer, and this is the jungle), a number of us work our way up to the hot springs that give Aguas Calientes its name. A perfect respite, to compare observations on the day’s wonders, and to accommodate exhausted legs from the wondrous verticality of Machu Picchu and Wayna Picchu. I conclude that, as much as I enjoyed Easter Island the week prior, I love this place more. It has signs of intention. Fewer questions abound at the end of the visit. It has proof of lives successfully conducted. No ecological disaster here. No enigmatic pursuits leading to self-destruction. It has a plan. There is a conduct to the settlement, if you will. Less mystery. Stunning architecture. More natural wonder. And ultimately, Machu Picchu is evidence of why the Incas had at one time, the greatest civilization in the Western Hemisphere.
Next: Quito, Peru