Part 3: Machu Picchu

And then we made it to Machu Picchu. It’s an impressive archeological site.

But I really understand why the Spaniards never found it. It’s a real haul to get there even in this day and age. (Well, the locals blocking the roads also played a role) First you have to go to Cusco. Then it’s a three-hour train ride through the countryside, mountains, and a tropical forest to Aguas Calientes, the small town at the foot of the site. When you get there, you take a twenty-minute bus ride zig zagging up a mountain without a guard rails. The bus ride is actually a bit terrifying. And you really have to have tickets in advance. You can’t buy them at the gate of Machu Picchu. Plus you must have your passport to go there. But the whole experience is worth it.

Classic shot of Machu Picchu

Classic shot of Machu Picchu

It’s a city of stone surrounded by forest-covered mountains. It is methodically laid out to harness astronomical events Terraced land for food production goes from the top of the mountain down to the river at the bottom. This is really impressive when you realize how steep the mountain is. 95% of the 20 minute bus ride is really just going up the mountain. The terraced land is situated to get the first sun in the morning. You can also hike up too but it looks like a substantial hike to get there.

There are numerous temples for astronomical bodies like the sun and the moon. For instance, there are two shallow basins filled with water in the Room of Water Mirrors. They reflect the light of the sun and the sky in general. They are placed so that the light of the sun directly falls on them on important days the solstice and/or equinox. Scholars theorize that the room did not have a roof so it could maximize astronomical research.

Temple of Water Mirrors

Temple of Water Mirrors

There another temple called the Temple of the Three Windows. True to its name, it has three with three windows. Our guide explained that Hiriam Bingham, the archeologist who discovered the ruins for the international community, was not terribly creative with names. The windows are situated so that the sun’s rays would shine through them at important days of the year, like the solstice and equinox.

Another really nifty thing about Machu Picchu was the fountain district. Before modern understanding of disease, the Incans knew that standing water in the forest was probably a bad idea because of the mosquitoes. So they had numerous fountains for fresh water. Very neat.

Another nifty building was the Temple of the Condor. It was shaped like a giant condor taking off. There is a stone carving of a condor on the floor as well. I believe priests would leave offerings for the condors. When the condors feasted and then flew off, it would seem like the Temple created the condors. The condor was really important in Incan mythology. It was one of the three symbols of the Incan world. The condor was the messenger to the sky. The other two are the snake, representative of the underworld, and the puma, embodiment of the living world.

Temple of the Condor

Temple of the Condor

Condor statue, Temple of the Condor

Condor statue, Temple of the Condor

And as a lovely bonus, there were several llamas wandering around the site. There are about 12-15 llamas or so that live there. I met a llama named Liz. It was meant to be. We did watch them try to corral the llamas into their safety house for the night. (Otherwise, ] predators would eat them.) There were these two 3-5 month old llamas who did not want to go. After encouragement from their keeper, they finally hopped into the landing in front of their house. So cute!

There was also a rodent called a “vizcacha” that was like a cross of a rabbit and squirrel. 

Llama at Machu Picchu

Llama at Machu Picchu

There are still a lot of unknowns with respect to Machu Picchu. Scholars have theorized that it was a sacred city given its strategic layout for astronomy. There was even a road connecting it to Cusco. But scholars are still trying to figure it out. Not a lot of objects remain at the site due to looting.

There are several theories as to why the city was abandoned. Some say disease killed off the natives. The story I prefer is that the Incans who lived there heard about the Spanish conquest. When they heard that Spanish were destroying their ancestors (burning the mummies etc), they decided to seal off the city to protect it and then left.

I strongly recommend going to Machu Picchu to watch the sunrise. One thing to note is that this is a fairly popular practice. We left the hotel to catch the bus at 6:18am to see the sunrise at 7:10am. We ended up waiting about 30-35 minutes to get there. We made it with minutes to spare. It was one of those unforgettable experiences. We stood on one of the terraced shelves with the view of the darkened ruins. It was actually a bit cold up there. Plants around me were covered in dew.

Then the sun peeked over the mountains. The terraced fields felt the rays of the sun from the top down. Then all of sudden the main heart of the city was suddenly covered in light. I was cold no longer. It was absolutely thrilling.

Machu Picchu at sunrise

Machu Picchu at sunrise

After watching the sunrise, we climbed up the ruins to get to one of the nearby hiking trails. We chose the Incan bridge since it was shorter, about 30 minutes. You can also hike to the Sun Gate but it was 2.5 hours roundtrip. Again, it was one of those hikes to get to the hike. As usual, it was totally worth it.

When you finally get to the start of the trail, you have to sign out with a guard. The path is fairly level, which is a nice after the giant stone steps to get there. The path hugs the side of the mountain with trees and flowers decorating the path. You get these incredible views of the river below and the snow capped mountains above. But it can be a little scary since there are no barriers between you and the steep drop to the valley below. The bridge is tiny and a little precarious. You can’t actually go on the bridge but I’m not sure you really want to. I’m glad that we did it.

Incan Bridge, outside of Machu Picchu

Incan Bridge, outside of Machu Picchu

One word of caution. It’s really not an accessible archeological site. I’m glad I brought my hiking boots. You have to climb a lot of rocks and step on unsteady ground. When I was wandering around the town, I saw a woman being carried on a stretcher to the train. She was clearly in tremendous pain. Later, I talked to a fellow tourist who told me that she watched a woman break her ankle earlier that day. So be careful.

I plan to come back someday and do much more hiking.

That’s all for now!

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