Machu Picchu survived the Spanish conquestadores by mere virtue of being inaccessible and hidden amongst a cloud and mountain pass deep in the Andes. Peruvians would call modern day grave robbers “American” since it was an American, Bingham, who discovered Machu Picchu and started excavating it over a period of 30 years from 1911 onwards thanks to the financial support of Yale! Now the locals are bleating for their 124 mummies and myriads of artefacts to be returned…….it’s a tough debate with an outcome looming in the near future with Yale promising the complete return of artefacts by the year end!?!
There are no roads that lead into this mountainous region. The closest town is Ollataytambo, about 50km from Machu; itself 80 km from Cusco. From here you can only either walk the Inca trail or take a train to the Machu Picchu town ( called Aqua Callientes for tourists because of the disgustingly filthy and crowded hot water springs located nearby). From here it’s a 20 minute bus trip up the side of the mountain where ONLY registered tour buses can go!
My point; by the time you get here, anyhow, you deserve it!
The Inca trail; Machu Picchu is not a major city or town. It’s considered to be a religious/ceremonial site where only royals or nobility used to come on special occasions. It is linked to the outer world by 7 Inca trails coming to the town from various directions; the sea for fish trade, the amazon for fish/fresh produce trade, Cusco for administrative detail etc. The famous Inca trail that people walk used to be the traditional route that nobles used from Cusco to the Ancient religious city of Machu Picchu.
2500m above sea level, covered in cloud and rain during summer and open to the cold heavens in winter, this Ancient world clings to the mountainside of Mount Machu Picchu. Giant terraces hold back the slopes from landslides and double as contoured agricultural plots. Finely carved rock buildings represent shrines or temples to the Sun and Pachamama or Mother Earth; more simple rock-built structures house nobles, warriors, grain or common workers. Large, open, flat green areas represent common ground for ceremonies or gatherings. Building techniques vary according to the nature of the occupants; the more royal, the more intricate the stonework. No mortar is used for most of the construction. Rocks are carefully cut to fit into each other either at 90 degree angles or strangely angled obtuse planes. The blocks have a roughly trapezoid shape cleverly designed to resist the occasional earth tremor! Some of the walls have large foundation stones surrounded by smaller stones – so when Pacahamama (mother earth) shakes, the foundations can cope with the movement!!! Remember, they are still here 500 years later!
The terraces; not all the terraces were simply for crop planting. According to their location on the mountainside they were used as a type of herbarium/experimentation region for growing seed from different regions or hybrid plants!! Due to the relatively high rainfall, the drainage systems built under the buildings and terraces are designed to not only drain the water off the mountain, but can regulate the rate of flow of water off the mountain. An intricate system of above- and below ground aqueducts facilitate this incredible feat. Furthermore, with appropriate drainage, the stone foundations are kept dry thereby preventing sinking and wrotting!
Machu Picchu is overlooked by the nearby Hyanu Picchu mountain, seen in all the classic pics of Machu. On top of Hyanu is a fortress or watch-tower that overlooks Machu Picchu and used to serve as look-out and message relay point. Only 400 visitors are allowed up here each day versus the 3000/day to Machu Picchu. We were lucky enough to get tickets to this peak the day before. It’s a pretty vertical climb up the face of the peak to the viewpoint where Machu Picchu lies splayed below one in its condor-shape!
We walked down the other side to the Temple of the Moon, a small cave with several niches intricately carved out of the natural rock, and then had to ascend around the base back to Machu – 3 and a half hours later we had yet to start our trip into Machu proper 🙂
It’s vital to take a guide (R600). We were lucky with Olga; her English was excellent, enthusiasm right up there, and explanations more real than any book 🙂
Prior to all this, our day started with a 4:30am wake up to get to the highest terrace of Machu Picchu and see the sunrise over the ruins. Why walk when you can bus, took the easy bus ride to the entrance 🙂 where we were horrified to see all the Inca trail hikers waiting to enter the ruins. I am sorry, but that really sucks, you have slogged 4 days and now you have to wait with hundreds of others to get into Machu Picchu?
Total time amongst the ruins – 10 hours 🙂 foot sore and filled with lovelly facts and history we made our way back to Aqua Callientes for a second night to rest the tired limbs!
Machu Picchu not only represented a wonderful indulgence into a centuries old culture, but it is also the most Northerly point of our journey. From here on, every revolution of the wheel is a step closer to home as we start the return journey through Bolivia and Northern Argentina.