It was June 28, 2008 that my husband, son and I visited Machu Picchu as part of a 14-day trip to Peru with the program Overseas Adventure Travel. Machu Picchu was at the top of my “bucket” list for travel destinations. It was an experience I will never forget.
I highly recommend OAT to any adult who is physically fit and has the desire to see their travel destinations a little differently – most days are jam-packed but everything is interesting and worthwhile.
For Flashback Friday this week, I am reposting Machu Picchu Day 1, Part 1.
June 28, 2008 (Continuation of journal, with additions from Internet later)
The great Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, described Machu Picchu this way:
“Machu Picchu es un viaje a la serenidad del alma, a la eterna fusión con el cosmos, allí sentimos nuestra fragilidad. Es una de las maravillas más grandes de Sudamérica. Un reposar de mariposas en el epicentro del gran círculo de la vida. Otro milagro más.”
(“Machu Picchu is a trip to the serenity of the soul, to eternal fusion with the cosmos, there we feel our own fragility. It is one of the greatest marvels of South America. A resting place of butterflies at the epicenter of the great circle of life. Another miracle.”)
The town of Aguas Calientes, sometimes referred to as the town of Machu Picchu because its existence is totally dependent on and justified by tourism to this “Lost City”, is the end of the line for the train ride. From there, we were to take a bus up to the ruins. But first we walked to our three-star hotel, Hanaqpacha Machu Picchu Hotel, where we were to check in and leave our overnight bags in our rooms before being served lunch in the hotel dining room.
I was feeling weak as we got off the train, so either Dale or Jayme carried my bag for me. I don’t know which one it was but was only grateful for having what seemed like a heavy burden taken from me. I trudged along behind the others as we descended the main street and crossed a bridge over a wide aqueduct. Boris had said the hotel was about a ½ mile walk, but I don’t think it was that long – perhaps ½ a kilometer.
I had already decided that, in order to fortify myself for the trip to the ruins, which I was determined not to miss, I would skip lunch and take a nap. After all, the snack on the train had been substantial enough that I was really not hungry now. Sleep was more important. My cold was now developing into its next phase – sinus congestion. I dug in my toiletries case to search for Advil Cold and Sinus, and took one before lying down for a 45-minute nap in our quiet room, which really helped.
When Dale came up to get me, I got up quickly and readied myself for the bus ride up to the ruins. I had my bag, my walking stick, hat and two water bottles. Finally, I was to see the place I had dreamed of visiting since I first saw pictures of it decades ago!!
We walked to the bus station, where there were lots of buses waiting for tourists to fill them, and of course lots of Peruvians trying to sell us things: “Lady” or “My friend” they would begin, holding out the trinket they were selling, murmuring something of the merits of their wares in broken English and ending with, “only two (or ten or whatever) soles, my friend.”
If I’d harbored any illusions of an exclusive bus for us to take up to the ruins and the possibility of sitting near the front, it soon vanished when we boarded the ¾ full Number 21 bus. Instead of debating which side would be best to sit on to get the best view, I took an empty seat about halfway back next to a young Asian-American tourist who spent the majority of her time snapping pictures out the window with her small digital camera. I resolved not to be disappointed that I couldn’t take pictures on the way up – pictures from moving buses rarely came out well anyway – and was content with just enjoying the view.
I had to admire these bus drivers, deftly negotiating a narrow road that climbed by means of switchbacks up the side of a mountain through a jungle landscape – Machu Picchu is situated in a cloud forest – and knowing when to pull over for passing buses or to be the one passing. I imagined doing this job all day every day. I wondered how many times they actually made the round trip each day. This bus was Number 21, but there were many more than that – passing ours I saw numbers from eleven to thirty-four.
Out the window, the scenery was often a tangle of vines and trees typical of the cloud forest, but there were frequent glimpses both of the Urubamba River and valley below as well as high mountains above. I kept searching for a glimpse of Machu Picchu high above us, and was incredulous of how remote this place actually was – hidden away so completely in these mountains, no wonder it wasn’t “found” for 400 years! Although I knew that there were some local people who did know of its existence during that time, it was abandoned and uninhabited surely due to its isolation. That, it seemed, was the intention when the site was first selected by the Inca ruler, Pachacutec, who allegedly was responsible for orchestrating the building of this place.
Finally I spied the shapes of stone buildings above on a high plateau – my first glimpse of Machu Picchu! I glanced at my watch: it was 1:15 pm on June 28, 2008.
By the time we actually arrived at the Control gate, showed our entrance passes and stamped our passports with the official Machu Picchu stamp (for tourists, they have a stamp you have the option of using in your passport as a memory of your visit), it was close to two o’clock.
This afternoon, we were to have a tour given by Boris to orient us and show us the highlights of this spectacular place, the crown jewel of Inca ruins. Tomorrow morning we would have the opportunity to return to explore on our own with a local guide, Ronaldo, who was introduced to us now. He was to accompany us on our tour today as well, as Boris’s assistant. He was friendly, but mostly stayed in the background during the tour, listening to Boris’s account and chatting casually with members of our group.
Just inside the entrance, as we walked along the path leading to the main ruins, I was awed by breathtaking views all around me. Mountains surrounded us on all sides, their tips covered by a blanket of low clouds. To the east, I could see below us the winding river, its course shaped by and itself shaping the forest-covered peak whose name I don’t know. This mountain hugged by the Urubamba River, and the layers of towering peaks around and beyond it, became to me the most memorable and beautiful landscape at Machu Picchu. To get here, ancient people had to cross these mountains and ford the river, before making the steep climb up to this plateau. Looking at this scene in front of me made me realize the importance and the sanctity of this place to the people who built it. How they must have searched to find just this spot and yet it was intricately connected astronomically to other sites built by the Incas, including Cusco.
The first part of the ancient city reached via the path trod by most tourists who enter through the Control area above the bus stop is the Agricultural Sector. Machu Picchu is divided into two basic sectors, based on their functionality. The Agricultural Sector primarily consists of terraces linked by a stone stairway which runs along a series of storage buildings or granaries. Here the Incas would store their surpluses of crops to distribute among the people living here in time of need. The Inca king would also reserve a portion of it for himself, the common method of tribute among the people conquered by the Incas. These granaries have thatched roofs, a reconstruction done to show what they would have looked like during Machu Picchu’s heyday. Of course, the thatch did not survive the centuries, and the rest of the ruins are not covered. It should be noted, however, that some buildings probably did not have roofs and that the Incas, like their descendents today, spent most of their time outdoors. Thus everyday buildings such as houses and storage buildings tend to be quite small – one small room usually – except for the residences of the royal families.
We descended a portion of the stairway and passed through the storage area to walk along a path which crosses the terraces to the Urban Sector. Boris pointed to a lone building high above us, the Watchman’s hut or guard house, from which you get beautiful, panoramic views of the entire site, and the mountains and valleys surrounding it – if you are willing to climb the steep path to reach it from where we were standing.
I was quite content to take in the view that unfolded in front of me: to the north, the precise stonework of dwellings and temples flanked two plazas, a small one and a much larger one, the Main Plaza.
The most sacred sites were built on hills above the rest, and the imposing and famous mountain, Huayna Picchu (meaning “new peak” in Quechua), marked the far northern end of the site. Machu Picchu (“old peak”) was built on a high plateau, with steep slopes delineating its borders on east and west, on which were constructed more terraces for growing crops. There was so much to explore that to see everything could take a week. I was glad for the slower pace today, as the combination of altitude and my cold would have made it impossible for a vigorous and ambitious exploration of the entire Urban Sector.
A dry moat separates the Agricultural and Urban sectors. We followed a path leading to the southeast corner, a zone containing the houses of the nobility in which the Incas’ masterful stone masonry can be seen. Entrances are marked by trapezoidal doorways constructed with beveled rectangular stones and single stone lintels above them. There were short sections of wall with openings between them. These sections were topped by the three-tiered construction reminiscent of the Andean cross, representing the lower, middle, and upper worlds. Other walls contained trapezoidal windows or niches, which Boris said were used for placing idols and other items.
The first temple we visited was the Temple of the Condor. This was truly spectacular. Two enormous pieces of natural rock, streaked with shades of black, gray and brown, were carved just enough to be set to resemble open bird wings. Each rose up diagonally above a smaller center section which perhaps was to represent the bird’s tail. On the ground in front of us were laid three pieces of rock, one carved to resemble the condor’s body with its head and beak, and the other two the ruff on its neck. Boris pointed out that the shape of rock forming the condor’s body also resembled the continent of South America.
“But how would they know this?” I asked. Could the Incas have been aware that their empire occupied only a small portion of a much larger landmass whose contours had not, as far as I knew, ever been completely delineated? Boris thought that they did – the Incas had trading partners all over the continent and probably had received word about other lands and cultures that they never could have had time to discover. Some of the peoples they had subjugated lived along the west coast of South America, while others knew about the east coast.
It’s an interesting theory and the Incas’ knowledge quite astonishing if true, but I remain skeptical. Even if they were aware of these other areas, how could they have figured out how to put it all together? I liked to think, as I looked at the stone, that they really did know the shape of this continent long before white people ever arrived, but it was probably a coincidence.
What really impressed me about the Temple of the Condor was that, looking up at the right wing, there were other structures built right on top of the slant of the wing. It looked like a small chamber of some kind, built with round edged rectangular stones, not the perfectly fitted and beveled stones of sacred sites, purposefully balanced upon the sloped rock.
Later, doing research on Machu Picchu (but I also could have missed or forgotten Boris’s explanation), I found out that this chamber above the condor was a prison or jail, where people may have been tortured or sacrificed. On the web site “Rediscover Machu Picchu” it says the following:
The Temple of the Condor, according to some specialists might actually be a torture chamber. Tourists are told by guides that it’s a “temple”.
Between the “wings of the condor”, there is a chamber with grooves, that’s the place where prisoners were tortured (or could have been tortured), there’s also a pit that was created to drain the blood of the victim.
To the Incas, the condor was a symbol of cruel justice.
It was a bit horrifying to read this, as I thought the Temple of the Condor was one of the most beautiful and spiritual places at Machu Picchu, but I do know that the Incas practiced ritual sacrifice. This, however, does not fit the idea given to us of ritual sacrifice in which it was considered an honor to be sacrificed. Prison and torture are hardly the same thing, and certainly not honorable. I didn’t know, for instance, that prisoners were even a part of Machu Picchu life. I suppose some “whitewashing” of the true nature of some Inca practices is to be expected when you’re given the tourists’ version of all of this, but it has only piqued my curiosity to find out more about what life under Inca rule was really like.
However, I still cannot help but admire the artistry and beauty of the Incas’ architecture, and how they fused the natural with man made creation in all constructions, demonstrating their honor and awe for the natural formations of the earth and placing themselves respectfully within that natural world.
Our next stop was a structure within which there are two mortars with water in them, which had a dual purpose. Placed as they were on the ground, they were used as mirrors, but also this site is allegedly a sacred vortex, or a spot in which the forces of natural energy unite. By placing one’s hand above one of the mirrors, a sensitive person can feel the energy emanating from it, which enters and courses through the body. Of course we all tried it, and although I didn’t feel anything unusual, some members of our group claimed they did feel a surge of energy when they did this.
There was lots more to explore on the eastern side of the citadel, but to hit all the highlights, we followed a path between the small plaza and the main plaza over to the western side, to the zone where many of the temples are located. We passed the quarry, full of rocks with sharp points jutting out of the ground. Some were embedded there in their natural state, where others had obviously already been worked on and were left for later transport to their proper position in a wall, window or doorway. Having this quarry on site must have been a great convenience for the construction of a citadel with the grandeur and magnitude of Machu Picchu, but it seemed impossible that all of the stones used in the surrounding buildings could have come from here.
In the temple zone you can see some of the finest examples of Inca stonework. For the temples, they reserved the most skillful of their techniques, showing their reverence for the gods they worshipped. The Main Temple was where they worshipped their main god, Viracocha, the creator of all things. The walls of this temple are a reddish color, which Boris said was the residue of the original bright red paint the Incas had used. The walls are constructed using beveled rectangular stones which fit together perfectly without mortar. You cannot even insert a fine knife blade between these stones. Boris told us that this type of construction has withstood not only erosion but also earthquakes – when the buildings of the Spanish crumbled during an earthquake, the Inca walls stood strong. We would see more examples of this in Cusco.
However, there was a section of wall of the Main Temple that looked as if it was falling: the stones had separated and were tilted downward on one side. Boris said that this was not due to earthquakes or natural forces. He told us that Hiram Bingham, the Yale professor who discovered Machu Picchu in 1911, employed a lot of native people to accompany him in his exploration and excavation of Machu Picchu. These people were mostly poor farmers who were ambitious and had good knowledge of the area. Bingham was anxious to find as many artifacts as possible, whether for study to understand more about this place or for less altruistic purposes, such as greed and fame, I don’t know – probably both – but anyway, he offered his workers one sol (a substantial sum in 1911) for each artifact they found. The workers scrambled to find bits of gold (they hoped) or shards of pottery to claim their reward, and one of the places they dug was the foundation of the Main Temple, surely a place of many riches. By digging there, they weakened the foundation of the construction, which was what ultimately caused the wall to slip. However, it is now secure and no longer falling, and has been left in its current state.
Hiram Bingham, by the way, took all the artifacts he collected back to the United States and gave them to Yale University, where they are now displayed. This has been a bone of contention for Peru, who would like to have these artifacts returned, and I believe justifiably so.
The Temple of the Three Windows is next to the Main Temple. This temple has only three walls and seems to be of less importance than the Main Temple. The construction of these windows using polygonal stonework is quite impressive. Each has a long rectangular shaped lintel on top, while at the base of the middle window there is a stone with ten VISIBLE sides (I’m wracking my brain to figure out the total number of sides or angles of this stone, but have never been particularly mathematically inclined)! Boris pointed out certain features, such as a tall rectangular rock in front, perhaps representing male fertility, and a stone carved with the three tiers representing the lower, middle and upper worlds, a very common theme in Andean art and religion. Off to the side there is a large flat rock, already carved, but which apparently never reached its intended destination.
Note the massive rock on the left side of this wall – beside the niche carved into it, there are at least 10 visible sides!
It was in transit to the highest and most sacred point of the ruins where the Intihuatana is located that we stopped to admire the western view with its steep slopes and terraces, and someone pointed out some birds soaring, circling over the valley far below. First believing they were falcons, we realized, after watching them for a few moments, that they were condors! This was a special and rare occurrence – most people never have the chance to see a condor here, Boris said with amazement. Those with better telephoto lenses than mine took pictures, including Dale. We all stood there, awed, watching these majestic birds swoop and soar silently over the western terraces of Machu Picchu. Knowing their importance in Andean religion and worldview made this rare sighting all the more spiritually wondrous.
When the condors disappeared behind from sight as they honed in on their prey far below, we continued on our way up to the Intihuatana, stopping first to examine a carved rock that Boris was showing us, carved in the shape of the site of Machu Picchu itself – a sort of diorama in rock. It seemed too coincidental to have been an accident: perhaps an Inca stonemason saw this rock and fancied it looked a bit like the place on which he was standing, so he shaped it just enough to show the prominence of Huayna Picchu and the river carving the gorge below with its meandering through the surrounding peaks.