The Lost City

Trip Start Sep 16, 2002
Trip End May 31, 2004

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Flag of Peru  ,
Saturday, November 1, 2003

"Something hidden! Go and find it! Go and look beyond the ranges - something lost behind the ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!" - Rudyard Kipling

I wonder what it must have been like when Hiram Bingham first set eyes on the ruins of Machu Picchu. I think there is this idea of him tirelessly hacking through jungle, stumbling across rivers while clues from Quichua Indians lead him gradually closer towards the lost city. However truth and fiction have a habit of swapping places when history is being written. I have been reading his book "Lost City of the Incas" which he wrote nearly 40 years after first visiting the site. It is interesting to see how he romanticises the discovery. Although he clearly was interested in finding the ruins he was actually led to the site by some Quichui indians and on arrival spent only a couple hours there before heading back down into the valley, more interested in īsome bonesī he discovered. So you could say he didnīt really discover it - more like rediscovered it and publicised it. Was he an intrepid explorer searching for lost cities for scientific reasons or another treasure hunter in search of "El Dorado"? While I was sitting in a park in Cusco reading the book an old man sat next to me and asked me what I was reading. After telling him "Hiram Bingham" he simply replied "Ladron" ...... "Thief".

To start the pilgrimage to Macchu Pichu you need to arrive in Cusco. This was the Inca capital from which the Incas ruled their vast empire. Inca actually means "Emperor" and refers to the ruling aristocracy. However it is mistakenly used to refer to all the people in the empire. The empire was in fact made up of different races which the Incas conquered. Cusco with its cobbled streets, red cathedrals, red hills and red roofs offers many distractions to make you forget why you arrived here in the first place i.e. it has lots of bars and discotecs. Everywhere you walk you are asked to buy something, eat something here and if you donīt respond the inevitable question "Where are you from?" is used to entice you into buying something. This is the down side of commercialising a culture. You wonder whether the people actually see their heritage as something to be proud of rather than just a business. While wandering around a persistent young seller tried to sell me postcards. As I walked away we engaged in the following conversation:

"Where are you from friend?"
"Ah....London, The Queen, Mr Tony Blair .......Diamond Geezer"

Imagine if it had been England which colonised South America rather than Spain. It would be so much better ..... instead of plazas there would be high streets, "Muchas Gracias" would be "Cheers Mate!", "Bangers and Mash" would be the local dish and pubs would shut at 11pm. Life for the conquered masses would have been so much more bearable.

After 3 days of Cusco I decided to start the famous Inca Trail through the sacred valley. During our 3 day jaunt we wandered over Inca stone paths, ascended into clouds up Inca stairs, through orchid growing cloud forests and skirted along steep precipices which overlooked the lush green valley. And far below the main Amazon tributary, the Urubamba river, rumbled below while winding its way between green mountains like a silver snake. This is a land for giants, huge mountains towering up into clouds, the Inca terraces on which they farmed the original potato (brought back to Europe by the Spanish) looking more like giant stairs which will lead you up to the mountain gods. Apparently they believed the closer they lived to the summits, where the gods took residence, the safer they would be. And the stone pathways lead you to lofty hidden fortresses which the messenger runners (called Chasquis) would run between and pass on any interesting news like the arrival of any unwelcome guests into the empire e.g. conquistadors.
However although the communication within the kingdom was efficient and extensive (30,000km of stone pathways) it didnīt seem to prevent Francisco Pizarro and co. from conquering them. Luckily for him, when he arrived the Inca Empire was being torn apart by a civil war. Due to a power struggle between two Inca brothers (one the natural heir, the other the bastard son) the Spanish conquistador didnīt have much to do. It was more like the Inca Empire was self destructing and he happened to be in the right place at the right time. It is still quite amazing though, how he and 200 men sailed half way around the world and were able to conquer an empire spanning from southern Ecuador all the way down to central Argentina and Chile. There must have been thousands of warriors to defeat along the way.

Finally on the morning of the fourth day we arrived at the Sun Gate. It is from here that you get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu. First impression - what a location. Sitting precariously on the shoulder of Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) it looks like it will slide off at any moment. And the impressive Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain) in the background certainly looks like a place where a God once lived. As we got closer the size became more impressive. It was bigger than I thought. After wandering over the ruins you marvel at the vision and the engineering genius these people must have possessed. And some of the stonework in the walls, boulders precisely cut to fit like pieces in a puzzle and without mortar. These walls would withstand earthquakes.
My favourite relic of the past was the Intihuatana or "Hitching Post of the Sun".
The theory goes as follows: in the winter as the hours of sun got less and less, the Andean people feared it was leaving them. Therefore they decided to construct a post to which the sun could be tired. A perfectly natural solution. It seems the sun was revered like a God in the high plains. And just to make sure the sun didnīt go AWOL they would sacrifice virgins and llamas to appease it.

Its amazing to think though that although the Incas were expert farmers, stonemasons and weavers and organised and ruled nearly half a continent.......they never developed writing. Kind of strange if you ask me. After Machu Picchu I headed back to Cusco and now I am back in Arequipa for some more teaching ...... and perhaps at some point in time I will get back on my bike and finish the journey .....
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