Magical, Misty Machu Picchu
Trip Start May 08, 2011
8Trip End May 16, 2011
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For the best experience at Machu Picchu, we awoke before dawn to catch the 6 a.m. bus to the top. We saw no private automobiles in Aguascalientes--it can only be reached on foot or by train. From the town, you catch a shuttle bus to the entrance of the Machu Picchu Archaeological Park. I am not usually afraid of heights but there are a few spots where buses pass each other on these narrow switchbacks where I had to avoid looking over the edge! The mostly unpaved road is named after Hiram Bingham, the Yale historian who rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911.
When we arrived the sun was just rising and the mountains were covered in fog. We climbed slowly up the 200 stone steps to the viewpoint. It's about 8000 ft. here and really we were just sitting in the clouds. A few people looked glum, thinking we would never get to see anything. I was used to the morning fog in Oregon, so I figured Machu Picchu was about to emerge from the gloom. It took a while but gradually the sun shone through and the mist began to dissolve.
No matter how many National Geographic Specials you've seen, there's nothing quite like being in this magical place. I don't have any idea HOW the Incas built something so amazing in this remote place, but I can certainly imagine WHY they chose it. If the site itself weren't gorgeous enough, the surroundings are even more incredible. Machu Picchu is the name of the mountain we are standing on. The smaller one ahead of us, framing the elaborate terraces and temples, is called Huayna Picchu. We are surrounded by other peaks, some as tall as 20,000 ft.
Because the Spanish Conquistadores never discovered it, Machu Picchu is amazingly intact, although there are concerns that we will love it to death before long. The number of visitors per day is severely restricted. Scholars believe it is mostly a religious site, although it is so huge that there were clearly many people living and working here. So besides the religious aspects there are also residential, agricultural, and industrial sectors. There are some great examples of the Inca Terraces we have been seeing all over Peru. The terraces provide flat land for farming, but they are also used to prevent erosion of the mountains. Many of them have complex internal structures with layers of sand and gravel so the heavy rains will drain through instead of rushing down the hillside.
It's amazing how many creatures can survive at this altitude. We saw a garden of native plants as well as birds and llamas living on the site.
The main buildings at Machu Picchu are the Sun Temple and the Room of Three Windows. The Sun Temple is designed for predicting the solstices, with windows where the sun shines in precisely on the right day. There is also a sundial and a stone that represents the Southern Cross or the four cardinal directions. Cesar borrowed a compass from one of our travelers to demonstrate how the points of the stone line up with north, south, east and west.
Only one wing of the Condor Temple is still intact but you can see enough of the other one to realize what it represents. The condor is part of what is called the Inca Trinity--the snake, puma, and condor. Depending on who you talk to or where you read about it, the Trinity represents the three stages of life: childhood (crawling like a snake), adulthood (standing upright) and death or afterlife (heaven). Or it may represent hell, earth, and heaven. These three animals are very common motifs in Peruvian pre-Columbian art.
The stonework is even more complex here than we saw at Ollantaytambo. One stone had over twenty corners perfectly matched to adjacent stones. The niches you see in many walls are for flexibility, which may explain why Machu Picchu is still standing despite frequent earthquakes.
Machu Picchu has been on my "bucket list" for many years, and if it weren't for the altitude exhaustion, I probably could have stayed for days. Wherever you look there is something wonderful, and even when you've decided to head for the exit, you can't help stopping to take one more photograph. Part of our group made the extra trek up to an Inca bridge, an all-uphill hike that I would love to have done if my lungs were cooperating. I can't wait to see Pat Lemmon's photos of this excursion. Instead most of us said goodby to Machu Picchu and boarded the bus back to Aguascalientes.
I must say the ride downhill was even scarier than the uphill climb! Back in the town, we were determined to find a cafe serving the Peruvian specialty called cuy (guinea pig!). Ours was quickly roasted in the wood-fired oven and served with potatoes and vegetables. Yes, it does taste a little like chicken, but the texture is very different. We sat in the second floor cafe for an hour, resting up from the climb to Machu Picchu and watching the people go by in the town square. After lunch we caught the train back to Ollantaytambo and the Hotel Hacienda del Valle.