Machu Picchu – The Hidden Jewel of the Sacred Valley

Much like the run up to the Sloth Sanctuary visit in Costa Rica, anticipation built as the day of the Machu Picchu trip approached. I found it hard to sleep the night before our visit.

Machu Picchu is near Cusco, but in this case, near means that a three hour journey, using three different modes of conveyance, is required to get there. Our day started at about 0445, anticipating a 0540 pickup by tour operator Urban Adventures.

I can’t say enough good things about Urban Adventures. They are not the least expensive operator of Machu Picchu tours, but they are exceedingly professional. The night before our tour, we were visited at our flat by an agent of Urban Adventures, who briefed us three times on the schedule. She went over our various tickets and gave them all to us. She told us exactly what to bring to the site and what to expect at each stage of the day. She even reminded us to check the memory on our cameras and to charge the batteries. It was VIP service.

Unlike the miserable, befuddled Conde Tours in Cusco, who devised three different ways to screw up the service delivery of our previous day’s aborted tour to the Sacred Valley (aborted because Conde failed inexplicably to appear at the appointed place), the Urban Adventures driver appeared to pick us up in front of our flat at precisely the minute that we had been told he would do so.

This particular tour included only our group: Becci, Wendy, Nick, and me. The four of us thus set out together, filled with excitement, toward Machu Picchu. Our journey required separate travel segments via van, train, and bus.

It would have probably been awesome if I hadn’t been sick once again. Frankly, I haven’t felt quite right since I’ve been in Peru. It’s a combination of the food, the water, the altitude, and all my attempts to fix medically these issues (some of the fixes have been worse than the problem). Fifteen minutes into the van ride I was racked with stomach cramps and was literally seeing spots. You hear about that a lot, but when it actually happens it is sorta scary. For anything short of Machu Picchu, I probably would’ve bailed out (somehow). I decided to gut it out…literally, in this case.

So the van ride sucked. I may have mentioned before that the roads in Peru are curvy and feature frequent, sudden changes in direction in all three dimensions. It’s not unlike a vast, long, unregulated amusement park ride, only this one involves some legitimate danger.

We were driven to the train station and boarded the train. I got to see Bex carve up the queue, something I’ve never seen her do before. She just brushed by everybody and cut the line. There was no way she was missing that train. The rest of us followed.

The train was a somewhat luxurious affair by any measure, and shockingly so by Peruvian standards. Becci and I, having for a month been in Peru, slogging through muddy roads and avoiding sketchy overhead “overflow pipes” while walking down sidewalks (I finally got hit a couple of days ago: gross), were very surprised by how nice that train ride was. The train route follows the Urubamba River, and we saw beautiful river and mountain scenes for about 90 minutes. Nick, Wendy, and Becci chatted, while I dozed in and out and continued to deal with relentless stomach cramping. The rest of our train compartment was filled with a large Japanese group, who took photos of the natural beauty right out the window, as well as each other and the many snacks that they had brought.

IMG_2406.JPGThe Urubamba River runs along the train route between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Following the train ride, a short and winding road was traversed by bus to our destination. This would have been a terrifying mountainside bus ride for us had we both not become numb to this sort of white-knuckle experience over the last eight weeks in Costa Rica and in Peru. I think Wendy and Nick were a little more concerned, but they suffered silently.

We disembarked, met up with our Urban Adventures-provided guide Beto, showed our tickets and our passports at Admissions, went past the $1000 a night on-site lodge, and walked down a short path.

And then we were here.

IMG_2407.JPGLooking down on part of the city from one of the terraces.

If you know anything about Machu Picchu, then you know that it is always described as mythically beautiful, and my experience agrees. There is a lot of hype around this place, but it lives up to it. I got choked up and tears welled up in my eyes when I first looked over and down at the rediscovered city.

About this time, the rain began to pick up from Suggestive Drizzle, through Is Somebody Squirting Me With a Garden Hose?, and right on into Now I’m Taking a Cold Shower. Bex and I fished our raincoats out of Angus before it got too ugly. Nick and Wendy had decided not to purchase the slickers offered by many, many vendors outside the venue. I began to wonder if they were regretting that decision, but by then there was nothing to be done.

Tour guide Beto looked cool in his golf hat, raincoat and umbrella. He was a gentlemen and shared the umbrella with Wendy.

IMG_2411.JPGWet tourists traversing some of the many, many stairs of Machu Picchu. They all wore the inexpensive, sold-right-outside-for-tourists rain slickers that Nick and Wendy forsook.

The Incas didn’t write, so all of the information that we have about their society and depends on what was written either by the Spanish conquerors, by native people at a later time (having been passed own orally); and of course, by more modern investigative researchers. A lot of what we “know” about Machu Picchu is somewhat speculative. For example, Machu Picchu is just a name that was assigned once the place was re-discovered in the early twentieth century. We don’t know what this city was called by the Incas.

Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the brief Inca Empire. The construction of Machu Picchu appears to date from the period of the two great Incas, Pachacutec Inca Yupanqui (1438–71) and Tupac Inca Yupanqui (1472–93). It was abandoned just over 100 years later, in 1572, almost certainly as a result of the Spanish Conquest. It is possible that its inhabitants died from smallpox introduced by travelers before the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the area. The Spanish had notes of a place called Piccho, although it is believed that they never visited the city. The types of sacred rocks defaced by the conquistadors in other locations are untouched at Machu Picchu.

Hiram Bingham, re-discoverer of Machu Picchu, theorized that the city was the traditional birthplace of the Incan “Virgins of the Suns”. More recent research by scholars such as John Howland Rowe and Richard Burger has convinced most archaeologists that Machu Picchu was an estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti. In addition, Johan Reinhard presented evidence that the site was selected because of its position relative to sacred landscape features such as its mountains that are purported to be in alignment with key astronomical events important to the Incas.

Johan Reinhard believes Machu Picchu to be a sacred religious site. This theory stands mainly because of where Machu Picchu is located. Reinhard calls it “sacred geography” because the site is built on and around mountains that hold high religious importance in the Inca culture and in the previous culture that occupied the land. At the highest point of the mountain which Machu Picchu was named after, there are artificial platforms and these had a religious function. These platforms also are found in other Incan religious sites.

Beto led the four of us through the site, through the rain, and filled our heads with facts and theories. It’s way too much information to lay on you wholesale, but I’ll include a few highlights of what we learned. Forgive me / skip to the pix if you get bored with all of this. I find this stuff incredibly interesting.

The most impressive thing to me about all of the Incan sites has been the stonework. There are two amazing things about the stonework at Machu Picchu.

1. There are many stones, and they are cut to fit together perfectly. As in…there is no space between them whatsoever. They are perfectly contoured to fit together on all sides. Furthermore, these stones are not flat on their interior edges. The stones at Machu Picchu have slight undulating curves on their interior faces, to create an inter-locking effect between adjacent stones. This can be seen in some stones where gaps have appeared due to seismic activity. There is evidence that the Incas only used handtools for stone carving. And this is super-hard granite folks. It thus seems extraordinarily difficult (to the point of practical impossibility) that these stones could be carved using Incan technology. And yet these structures exist.

2. These are huge stones. How did they get them into place? There are inclined plane theories that answer such questions for amazing ancient construction such as the pyramids of Egypt. But there is nowhere near enough space for a sufficiently-long inclined plane at all the locations of Machu Picchu. And yet these structures exist.

It’s worth mentioning that the Incas didn’t use this level of stonework badassery for everything. The most important places received the inter-locking, matching megablock treatment. It’s one of the ways that researchers distinguish the buildings: the interlocking megablock buildings were in general either temples or the dwelling places of very important social or religious leaders.

The next best level of construction was a stacked stone construction that used some cut and some naturally occurring stone. Stone was stacked carefully for stability and aesthetics, but it was not cut to fit perfectly. These first two grades of stone construction were believed not to have used any sort of joining material, although it is possible that they used some sort of thin glue that has since decayed or eroded.

Lastly, the bulk of the building construction (the homes of the farmers and soldiers) was built of stacked stone with mortar. This construction closely resembles stone and concrete walls that we might build today for outdoor applications such as residential retaining walls.

IMG_2417.JPGSome of these stones have been moved apart by seismic activity since their original placement almost 600 years ago. You can still see how they were cut to fit and interlock. Note also the two different styles of stonework here. On the bottom, there is the precise, intricate, locking stonework, the execution of which still puzzles researchers today. Toward the top, the stonework is simpler, using appropriate but not precisely cut stones. Neither style uses any mortar.

IMG_2426.JPGAn example of the intricate, specific stonework that the Incans used in what are sometimes called “megablock” structures. Medium and large stone blocks are cut to fit precisely with one another.

Speaking of the houses, they were in almost all cases relatively simple by today’s standards. The Incas had an affinity for the outdoors, and preferred to spend the majority of their time working or playing in nature. Houses were areas to sleep, places to store their few material possessions (generally, clothing and spiritual artifacts), and an area to take shelter from the rain.

In addition to the incredible stonework, the Incas were very aware of and loved to orient their architecture around the solar calendar, in particular the summer and winter solstices. At Machu Picchu, Saqsaywamán, and other sites that we plan to visit in the Sacred Valley, there are buildings, windows, fountains, and other architectural elements that show specific things only on either the summer or winter solstice. This knowledge of and adherence to the solar calendar is another indication of how important agriculture was to Incan culture.

Incan spiritual beliefs strongly correlate to their societal investment in agriculture. It isn’t clear whether they had a flat pantheon of gods, or whether there was a supreme being with dominion over the others. What we do know is that these deities largely represented the major forces of nature that would have influence over the growth of crops: the sun, the water, the earth. Every time a chicha beer was consumed by Incans, a small amount was poured on the ground in tribute to Pachamama (the earth). There was also a creator god and a god of death. Several animals were also considered to have spiritual significance. The condor, for example, was considered sacred and was the link between life and death.

Incas engaged in animal and occasional human sacrifices in order to appease their gods. When people were offered, it was considered to be a great honor to be chosen. The Incas believed in reincarnation, and it was believed that the offered person would be reunited with her family in a future life. These human sacrifices were performed humanely, with the candidate being first drugged into a euphoric state, and then quickly dispatched by a fast-acting lethal drug administered by a shaman following an offering ritual.

IMG_2428.JPGThree-dimensional Inca Cross.

In the interest of keeping this post at less than three thousand words, I’m going to leave it up to you to research the Inca cross if you care to do so. It is packed full of symbolism, and I decided to introduce it because it demonstrates the Incan affinity for threes. Trinities of all sorts appear throughout Inca spirituality, philosophy, and daily life. Beto told us that the Incas had a match-cover philosophy / Three Commandments that consisted of:

1. Don’t Be Lazy.
2. Don’t Lie.
3. Don’t Steal.

That’s good stuff; that’s rock solid. I’m putting that right up next to what is by far Christianity’s single most powerful idea: Whatever you want men to do to you, do unto them. [Matthew 7:12, aka The Golden Rule] I’m trying to keep up with all of the best bits!

We continued to learn as we continued to trudge up and down flooding stone stairs while water teemed down from the sky. Between 500 and 1000 people were the normal population of Machu Picchu, although the city may have held many more when it hosted royal vacationing parties from Cusco. Toilets and kitchens were communal for all but the very wealthy. Human waste from the latrines was used as fertilizer. The Incas invented hot air balloons and skydiving.

That last bit isn’t true; I just made it up to see if anyone is still reading this thing.

Once the tour wrapped up, we had a lot of free time to go where we liked on the site. It finally stopped raining. Nick and Wendy went to explore a high trail that overlooked the city. And to dry off. Becci and I wandered back and took photos of many tour locations that we had not photographed previously for rain-related reasons.

IMG_2408.JPGThe Sun gate. The rectangular-looking item near the awning above the gate is actually a large stone ring, used for closing and securing this gate.

IMG_2409.JPGTrapezoidal Incan window. Incan architecture commonly uses the trapezoid and lintel. I haven’t seen any Incan architecture using an arch.

IMG_2416.JPGSome of the hundreds of maybe thousands of stepped terraces at Machu Picchu. These were relatively small in surface area. The Incan culture was primarily agricultural, and the Incas grew different sorts of crops at different elevations. Machu Picchu would have been best suited for potatoes or corn.

IMG_2424.JPGThis area is located directly under the Temple of the Sun. Important leaders’ mummified bodies were buried here. Note the integration of construction with the natural rock that sits atop it.

Ultimately, I was left just to sit and contemplate the place. That’s my favorite thing to do when I visit this type of site, and other than the fact that it is crawling with tourists, this is sort of the ultimate place to sit and marvel. Apart from the Grand Canyon and the Statue of Liberty I can’t think of anything else that has awed and moved me in this way.

Machu Picchu is of course spectacular in its setting: it sits high atop a steep mountain, surrounded by other, similar mountains. Vast, severe, drops separate these blunted, conical stone giants. The city sits in the clouds amongst them. Beyond that, this city is possibly the lone Incan location that was not defiled by European conquerors. It contains features observed nowhere else on Earth.

Machu Picchu is a true wonder. I feel fortunate to have been able to see it firsthand. I hope someday you can too.

IMG_2414.JPGA llama contemplates the beauty of this re-discovered city.

IMG_2410.JPGThe stone quarry that sits atop one of Machu Picchu’s hills. Unlike some Incan sites, the stones used here were quarried on site. These stones are granite.

IMG_2412.JPGAfter the rain. Enjoying the view and contemplating the place.

IMG_2413.JPGCheck the eyelashes on this guy. There are a few llamas and alpacas buzzing around up there. They seem to have unrestricted access.

IMG_2420.JPGA look at some of the city and adjacent Waynapicchu (young peak).


IMG_2418.JPGSome of the dwellings. All of the original stonework remains relatively intact. Stone was used for all parts of the construction process except for roofs, which were made of thatch affixed atop a wooden frame.

IMG_2421.JPGA look down onto the Urubamba River.


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