The feeling was surreal.
If you tell someone you’re going to Peru, they will say “oh, so you’re going to Machu Picchu?” I admit, when my wife and I first discussed the trip Machu Picchu was the driving motive. But after touring for several days, Peru’s other attractions tempered its singular significance. We had more historical context and knew more about other impressive sites, it was no longer the end all and be all for the journey.
Still, on the Day of the Visit, once we boarded the train and made our way up the Sacred Valley towards the site, the “are we actually doing this?” feeling set in. Right up to the time we got to the ruins it didn’t seem real.
Machu Picchu is one of those places you see a picture of while growing up, and it looks so exotic, so far-flung, so inaccessible the idea of being there seems impossible. But yet here we were, on the cusp.
We started the day in Urubamba, then bused to Ollantaytambo to catch a train. That train ride is worthy in its own right.
Riding through the Sacred Valley, cliffs tower on both sides. Some sections are flat enough to allow farming, we saw the corn was off to a good start.
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As we traveled further, the cliffs closed in and we paralleled the Urubamba River.
Urubamba. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? Without context, I hear drums beating in Africa, not the center of an Inca universe. The Inca called the Urubamba River “Willkamayu” (Quechua for “sacred river”) and believed it mirrored the Milky Way, which they considered a celestial river. This ties into their cosmology, calendar, and religion, and gives rise to the name “Sacred Valley.” This sacred river flows to the base of Machu Picchu, one of the reasons the Inca selected the site.
The valley narrowed and the cliffs soared, taking on a level of verdant vegetation we hadn’t yet seen in Peru. Machu Picchu crosses the border into the Amazon region; jungle in the Inca roads leading in and cloud forest higher up.
|On the train from Ollantaytambo||Busing from Aguas Calientes to M.P.|
Once the train ride ended we were in “hot water”. Specifically, Aguas Calientes, a little town at the base of the mountain whose existence centers on the Machu Picchu tourist trade. My guess is, some guy came into town stinking of four days hike on the Inca Trail and after hearing of a hot bath exclaimed, “Agua Caliente!”
From Aguas Calientes we bused to Machu Picchu, snaking up the mountain, peering over the occasional cliff dropping off, and hoping to not meet a bus coming the other way on the single lane. After 20 minutes we arrived at the bus terminus, cycled through the gate, and walked up a zigzag path from surreal to reality.
Gathering up the group like a mother hen, our guide leads us to an iconic overlook, one of many.
The main body of the city laid before us, with the Huayna Picchu mountain in the background. Huayna means young or young man, Picchu means pyramid shaped mountain or peak, ergo, young peak. You can climb it, but only 400 people per day are permitted, in two shifts. With its peak 1,180 feet above the city, you best be in shape and not fearful of heights. We had neither permit nor time to attempt even a portion of it.
The city divides into three sections: the upper section on the west had religious, royal, and administrative buildings; the lower section to the east was manufacturing, storage, and residential; the two sections separated by a central plaza. Terraces surround the entire complex providing reinforcement and drainage for the slope walls, as well as flat space for farming and decorative plantings.
Machu Picchu was commissioned around 1450 by the 9th Inca king, Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui. He’s the same fellow who kickstarted expanding the Inca from yet another mountain tribe into an empire. It’s not known if he ever lived there, construction was not completed in his lifetime and was continued by his son, Topa Inca Yupanqui. Evidence suggests it was never completed, and what we see today reflects restoration work done since its rediscovery.
The ruins lie in a saddle between Huayna Picchu and a peak on an opposing ridge; our guide tells us this peak is the actual Machu Picchu (Old Peak), the city is simply Picchu.
Like many of the Inca ruins, while all the stonework is detailed and precise, the more massive blocks and polished stonework is found in the temple areas.
This highly refined stonework – no mortar, fitted so well not even paper can fit in the cracks – is famous for its longevity and resistance to earthquakes. But in this temple area, a fault line shows its effects. Our guide suggests that some of the offending earthquakes may be from the pitter-patter of thousands of tourist’s feet. The official limit is 2,500 visitors a day; who knows what the unofficial number is.
The central plaza was used for large public ceremonies. It also illustrates the level of work required to build Machu Picchu: you didn’t think the mountain came with all these flattened areas built in, did you? The Inca (and probably some of the pre-Inca mountain tribes) were masters of converting slopes into terraces.
The city had lofty views of nearby valleys.
Stairs were everywhere. Elevation at the plaza is around 8,000 feet, getting around requires fitness.
The cliffs/terraces on the west side were steep – a lousy place to lose your balance. The Urubamba River passes below.
Our guided tour lasted about three hours, and we had about 45 minutes more of free time before heading to the buses for the trip down the mountain. We used the extra time to climb higher on the Machu Picchu peak side – a substantial push given the time limit. Maybe too much of a push, but that’s grist for another story.
Our time came to an end, much like the Inca. The rise and fall of Machu Picchu mirrored that of the Inca empire, and for much the same reasons. But the Inca kept Machu Picchu a secret from the Spanish, they abandoned it and said nothing of it. For 400 years the secret remained, only the local farmers knew it. Then in 1911 Hiram Bingham stumbled onto it while looking for Vilcabamba, the last hold out of the rebellious Inca rulers, and was led to it by a farm boy.
Although we made it to Machu Picchu, clambered around the undeniable reality of its stonework, visually soaked in its grand vistas, endured its climbs and descents, and marveled that something so amazing could be kept secret for 400 years, the fact we’ve done it still seems surreal.