Machu Picchu - The destination, not the journey

Trip Start Dec 21, 2009
Trip End Jul 17, 2010

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Flag of Peru  , Cusco,
Monday, May 10, 2010

Four days of hard work and the view was worth every step. We could have taken the train up in the morning but of course I'm going to say that it’s more special making the pilgrimage on foot like the old Incas did. I mean no disrespect to those who did train it up there because Machu Picchu is so cool that it doesn’t matter how you get there, just that you go.

Up for debate is what Machu Picchu was actually used for. For so long, Machu Picchu was hidden until it was found by Hiram Bingham early last century. The Spanish didn’t know about it and it is safe to say that many Inca descendents also didn’t know about it (if they did then the Spanish would have been there in a flash). So its secrecy made it hard to pass on stories about what took place there. For the most part, many opinions are that Machu Picchu was used as a religious and ceremonial site. Let’s just settle on that for the purposes of this blog.

The best spot to start exploring Machu Picchu is from the farming terraces. Climb a little higher on the terraces and you’re at the spot that all the postcard pictures of Machu Picchu are taken, called the Watchman’s Hut. The ruins on top of a mountain in the foreground, the steep Wayna Picchu mountain in the background and a big sky filling in the blanks. As you head towards the rest of the complex (in the direction of Wayna Picchu) you cross over the aquaducts that were used to keep the water flowing to the terraces and the housing areas. The main aquaduct separates the agricultural sector from the housing sector. Water ran constantly from the top of the mountain and would still be running today if the water wasn’t diverted away for preservation purposes. Throughout Machu Picchu, the provision of water and the drainage of excess water was carefully considered and followed a master plan for the entire city.

There is so much stone here and the terrain is so steep that it’s a wonder how they moved everything around. If you thought they used the wheel then you would be wrong. Apparently they knew about it but just used manpower instead. Yep, a couple of hundred guys pushing stone around. Apparently the pack animals in these parts weren’t strong enough to drag the stones if wheels were used so humans were used instead.

One of the highlights of Machu Picchu is the Temple of the Sun. This is one of the finest examples of Inca stonework. The more important the building, the straighter and more uniform the stones were cut and placed. The Temple of the Sun was used for astronomy and houses a massive stone slab called Intihuatana. During both the equinoxes every year, at midday, the sun would be directly over this rock and cast absolutely no shadow. "As he faced the sun he cast no shadow..." (10 points to anyone who can name the band and the song that that line comes from. Should be a slam dunk for all of our British friends) Everything here is precise like that. All done for a reason and it all still works to this day. In a world where everything that comes out has caveats and quick fixes (think Google’s Gmail and how many years that was in Beta or the iphone 4 and reception issues) it’s refreshing to see something that was carefully designed, tested and delivered that has the durability to still be around to this day.

Our guide told us that a few years ago, part of Intihuatana was damaged. Was it lightning, freak natural occurrence you say? Nope. They were filming a beer ad and a crane dropped something onto the stone and broke off a small chunk. I guess all it takes is one idiot to ruin it for everyone.

It is often wondered how the Incas split the large rocks and stones that they used. They would draw a line where they wanted to spit the rock and proceed to pound a few holes along that line, each hole about a foot deep. They would then insert wooden stakes into the foot deep holes and proceed to pour water onto the stakes. The stakes expand at the same time and the expansion causes the rock to split into two. Now that is pretty cool.

There are so many significant rooms and buildings in the Machu Picchu complex that I could write a few thousand words more about them. I will sum things up by sayIng, "JUST GO". Go there and experience it for yourself, you really won’t be sorry.

It was half way through our tour that we got to the entrance to Wayna Picchu. Wayna Picchu is the ominous mountain that sits behind Machu Picchu in all of the postcard pictures that we see. The amazing thing is there’s a complex at the very top of the mountain, if you’re willing to make the trek. They only let 500 people up there every day (and no one after 1.00pm) so the places go very quickly. It was at this entrance that Smithy, asked us if anyone wanted to go up it. I was the only one keen to make the trek (fair enough though, we had all been trekking for four days already) so I put my hand up. He told me that the trek normally took 1.5 to 2 hours but his fastest was 17 minutes when he did it in a race with some other guides. He guessed that the fastest I could do it in was 35 minutes. Consider the gauntlet well and truly thrown down.

I signed in at person number 384 and I didn’t have 2 hours to climb up there. We still had plenty of Machu Picchu left to explore. I gave Nic a kiss and bade her farewell, she would be following the rest of the group on the tour and rehashing it for me when I had finished. I started the trek by breaking into a run up the mountain. The Incas did their best to build a good track up there but it was still extremely steep and quite rough going. The lungs were short on oxygen (remember we’re still at altitude here), the legs were on fire but the stopwatch was going. I overtook plenty of people and got to the top in 20m 11seconds. It may have been a little faster if it wasn’t for a fat guy who wouldn’t let me pass him near the end. At the top I was catching my breath when a young family was ascending up and one of the children couldn’t get up the last step. I bent down, reached for the kid, helped him up and proceeded to rip a massive hole in my trousers. I started this trip with only two pairs of trousers and in one fell swoop, that number was effectively halved. At least I don’t embarrass easily. People say that I should believe in Karma and all of that. That some good deed will be done onto me for helping that kid. I tend to think that it was payback for something nasty I probably did. Like smashing a sixpack of beer on the ground when I hoisted a carton onto my shoulder and didn't know that the back of the box was already open.

When you get to the top of Wayna Picchu, you’re greeted with one of the craziest sights you’ve ever seen. You’re at the very top of a very steep mountain and the Incas constructed buildings, terraces and steps here. You look over your shoulder and you can see the whole of Machu Picchu perched delicately on its mountain peak. I had to take some time to drink in the sight. That lasted the best part of 5 minutes before people spotted me there with the big camera and I quickly became the, can-you-take-a-photograph-of-us guy. 3 groups later and I had to turn my back and walk away from the fourth group saying “Sorry, no speak English”. I explored the complex and admired all of the things that I loved about the Incas. That no doubting the fact that they were great builders, but there are plenty of great builders from many great civilisations. For me what sets them apart is not just what they built or how long it has lasted, but where they built. One could credit true belief in purpose, teamwork and execution as the other tools that complemented their sheer hard work and determination. If you’re ever at Machu Picchu, do yourself a favour and head up Wayna Picchu mountain. If you can make it up there from the entrance to the peak in less than 20 minutes, then you can collect $100 bucks in cold hard cash from me. By the way, that’s not indexed to inflation, so if my kids read this one day and achieve that feat, they’ll get a pat on the back and the money. Even if all it will buy them is a packet of M & Ms and a can of Coke. I’m sure Coke will still be around forever. It’s like the T-1000 in Terminator 2. Aesthetically pleasing and housed in aluminium on the outside, liquid and chemically on the inside.

So there it is. Another one of the new 7 Modern Wonders of the World done. We’re only down to two left on that list. The Great Wall in China and Petra in Jordan. It’s been a bumper trip, we’ve knocked off 3 of the 7 in this trip alone.

No trip to Machu Picchu is complete without a mention of Cusco. You can see Inca stonework right next to the Spanish stonework and they don't really compare. The locals like to say that it's comparing the Incas to the Incapables. In ancient times, Cusco was the centre of the world to the Incas, in modern times, it’s the bread in a Machu Picchu sandwich. Tourists start and end their Inca adventure here. Overall, a great city with a beautiful centre square and lots of nightlife if you’re up for that after 4 days of hiking. Most of our group had planned to hit the town after Machu Picchu but all of us fell asleep on the trip back. Unfortunately, due to the mud slides earlier this year the train services were still disrupted, so even though we left Machu Picchu at a reasonable hour for the ride back to Cusco, it was well past midnight by the time we arrived. Considering we had woken up at 3am and most restaurants were closed, the best we could muster was a late night foray into the square from our hotel for some McDonalds. A decision I would regret in the wee hours of the morning as the rich processed burgers hit my stomach for six. Hello Inca plumbing.

That’s the end of a lengthy 3 part series of blogs about Machu Picchu and the Inca trail. In our next blog, we check out an endangered species living in some beautiful canyons and visit the white city of Arequipa where I revert back to being a toddler and wear a bib. Don’t miss it!
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tedchaplin on

Wouldn't be Oasis by any chance? If only I could think of the song title......

I like the way you omitted the $100 challenge of Wayna Picchu when you saw me at the bottom - I'd have ditched Grace and cashed in!

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