Mysterious Machu Picchu

IMG_0724It is the most famous ancient ruin in the western hemisphere and a World Heritage site but very little is known about it. It is assumed that it was built by the Incas, but we don’t know when, why, how, or what it was used for. We do know where it is and that it is truly incredible. It contains 140 stone structures, more than 100 flights of stairs and what seem to be temples, sanctuaries, parks, residences and terraced fields. Machu Picchu sits on a mountain ridge at the 2430 meter level (7970 feet) of the rugged and barely accessible Andes in Peru. Altitude sickness is a major concern here.

It was never found by the Spanish conquistadors and was “discovered” by an American historian and self styled explorer in 1911. Hiram Bingham heard about it and paid a local farmer’s son one dollar to lead him to it. When he arrived at the site he found three farm families living there and the name of someone before them scrawled on rock. Bingham was not an archeologist and failed to realize what he had found. Years later he said that it was the capital city of the Incas and had been used as an estate, a religious site, a fortress, a citadel and a convent for royal princesses. But no one knows for sure.

It was probably built by the amazing Incas who erected other amazing structures, but since they had no written language, there are no records of what they did or how they did it. They did not possess the wheel and no one knows how they transported massive stones from quarries miles away, lifted them into place and fitted them together without mortar so well that they are still in place centuries later.

Getting to Machu Picchu was never easy and the same is true today. One has the choice of taking the Inca trail, a brutal and dangerous four or five day trek on foot, or a modern train from Cusco or the station at Ollantaytambo.  The train travels on a single track beside the raging Urubamba river and takes you to Aguas Calientes where a 20 minute bus ride will take you to Machu Picchu itself.

We took the train to Machu Picchu and were lucky to get there. The tracks had been covered by landslides and no trains had been able to get through for several days. Some people had been stranded for 24 hours on a train that was hemmed in by slides. We managed to get on the first train to get through and arrived in the dripping dismal town of Aguas Calientes late in the afternoon. There are relatively few hotels and ours was rather rustic and had no heat. The rain had stopped by the next morning and we rushed to line up for the bus. However the beauty of the site made everything worthwhile.

Machu Pichuu is not for the frail or disabled. The steps were numerous, steep and slick but the views were fantastic. It was easy to see why Bingham imagined royal and religious purposes for the place. Admittance to the site is carefully controlled and while there were crowds we were stuck by their silence and respectful demeanor. Only 30 percent of the site has been restored but row after row of houses stand as they were centuries ago lacking only their thatched roofs. One cannot help but imagine plazas and temples full of people and the carefully terraced fields filled with produce. But it is anyone’s guess as to why it was built, how or what it was used for.

The trip back to Ollantaytambo was an unexpected treat as we found ourselves in a very modern observation car and when we pulled off onto a siding to let another train pass, we were entertained by the train staff who modelled alpaca clothing accompanied by a colourful witch doctor in full regalia. Outside the train on one side a local woman and her family sold flowers and fruits while on the other side the raging river tore along like nothing we had ever seen.

We were glad to have been able to visit Machu Picchu but came away a little worried about it. In 1983 UNESCO declared Machu Picchu an absolute masterpiece of architecture and a unique testimony to the Inca civilization but because it has attracted so many tourists the World Monuments Fund placed Machu Picchu on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world because of environmental degradation.

Back in Cusco we took more anti-altitude medication (Cusco is even higher than Machu Picchu at 3,400 meters or 11,200 feet), and checked into a lovely modern hotel which was complete with hot water, heat and oxygen masks everywhere. The next day we visited the most amazing cathedral we have seen anywhere in the world. Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire in the 13th century and when Francisco Pizzarro and his Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1534 they made it the center for Spanish colonization and the spread of Christianity. Not to outdone by the Incas, the Spanish built a massive ornate cathedral on the ruins of an Inca palace and covered it lavishly with looted gold and silver. You can look, but not touch and no photographs of any kind are allowed.

A few miles from Cusco is another fantastic Inca site at an even higher elevation. Sacsayhuaman stands at 3,700 meters and covers several acres. Once again no one is sure when it was constructed, how it was made or how it was used. But this doesn’t prevent it from taking your breath away. The remains stand 2 to 3 stories high and are made from thousands of huge granite blocks fitted together without mortar and so tightly put together that you cannot insert even a piece of paper between them. Some of the blocks are as large as 27 feet high, 14 feet wide, 12 feet thick and weigh in excess of 200 tons. How the Incas managed to cut, transport and build with these stones remains a mystery.

Archeologists estimate that it took 20,000 workers 80 years to build the complex and that it was built by volunteer labour. The large plaza area, capable of holding thousands of people, was designed for ceremonial activities and many of the large structures at the site may also have been used during rituals. Early accounts about the site indicate that the complex held a great number of storage rooms. Pedro Pizarro (Francisco’s cousin) described storage rooms within the complex which were filled with food stores and military equipment. After the Spaniard captured Cusco they began to use Sacsayhuaman as a source of stones for Spanish buildings. Within a few years a great part of the complex was demolished and was used to construct new government and religious buildings and the houses of the wealthiest Spaniards. Only the stones that were too large to be easily moved remain at the site but this in no way diminishes its impact.

After wandering about Sacsayhuaman with the other tourists, we returned to the city stopping off at a large craft shop that specialized in alpaca and vicuña clothing. It was lovely, soft, warm and pricey. We looked on in wonder as several of our fellow tourists all but melted down their credit cards. I`m not sure whether it was accidental or carefully staged, but on the hillside outside the shop we encountered several alpacas and a charming young Peruvian girl tending the animals and her baby.

Our trip to Machu Pichuu and Cusco was part of a 28 tour of South America during which we visited Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru with a group of 20 other Canadians. Normally we travel on our own, but for our first time in South America the opportunity to have someone else take care of the hotels, sightseeing, transportation and luggage had a certain appeal. It was a wise decision as our travel alone involved 11 flights, several   boats, trains, buses and a cable car. We covered a huge area of the continent, got a good impression of it and arrived home exhausted but glad that we had gone. We’ll plan our own itinerary when we return.





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