Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Peru: Machu Picchu, the Inca's Mountain Getaway?

This famous view, from the caretaker's hut (also called the guardhouse), requires climbing
stone steps near the entrance to Machu Picchu. The largest green area is called the principal
plaza. The mountain in the background is Huayna Picchu (also spelled Waynapicchu).
About halfway up and on the other side of Huayna Picchu is the Moon Temple. A number of
visitors climb to the top of Huayna Picchu as part of their Machu Picchu visit. We paid for
this extra activity but then gave up before we made it down from Machu Picchu and without
even reaching the base of the other other mountain. If we had pressed on, we would have
found the trail to the Moon Temple closed and would have been caught on the mountain
in a heavy rain.  Sometimes wimping out is the smart thing to do.

Machu Picchu wasn't exactly an afterthought on our fall 2014 trip to Peru, but it wasn't the focus, either.  Jane and I started out looking for an Amazon River cruise, which is described in an earlier post, and then looked at what else we could do in Peru.  To get to Machu Picchu, we flew from Lima to Cusco, where we went straight from the airport to Ollantaytambo, which is about as close to Machu Picchu as you can get by road.  From there it's  a train to Aguas Calientes, the town at the foot of the mountain. Many tourists take a train from Cusco all the way to Aguas Calientes and "do" Machu Picchu as a day trip out of Cusco.  From Aguas Calientes, one can take a shuttle bus to the park (Machu Picchu is a national park) entrance or spend 90 minutes or more walking up extremely steep stairs and trails. 
Aboard the train from
Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes.
     After a couple of days exploring Ollantaytamo and its own spectacular Inca-era ruins, we took the train (a little over two hours) to Aguas Calientes, spent the night, and the next morning took the bus up the mountain. 
    I was surprised to learn that much of what we see at Machu Picchu is restored. Using the original stones, workers are gradually rebuilding this mysterious city, which was revealed to the world only in 1911 when area residents showed it to Hiram Bingham, the Yale archaeologist who was the model for the Indiana Jones movie character. What he saw was covered in jungle vegetation and much more in ruins than what we see today.  It is, however, easy to tell what is original (no visible mortar) stonework and what has been restored (visible mortar).  While no one knows for sure what this city was originally called or what its purpose was, the common assumption is that it was a winter getaway for the Inca (emperor), whose capital was Cusco, about 70 miles to the southeast and at a higher (3,400 meters) elevation than Machu Picchu (about 2,400 meters).  Machu Picchu is in a rainforest jungle. Cusco is in a desert, so winters are much milder at Machu Picchu. 
      Although the Spanish fought the Inca's forces in this area -- Ollantaytambo was the site of the last victory over the Spanish -- it seems that they never knew of it. Perhaps because it wasn't a military base, nor is its location strategic.  It overlooks the rocky and shallow Urubamba River (the river of the Sacred Valley), but the river can't accommodate even the smallest of boats. However it happened, this city died with the Inca Empire and was taken over by the jungle until Bingham came. 
      Most of what is known or thought about Machu Picchu, its buildings and their functions, is based on what archaeologists have found elsewhere, Spanish accounts of Inca-era culture, and conjecture. There's no guesswork involved, however, in appreciating the majesty of the city's location, the beauty of its structures and its harmony between nature and man.  Although there are many wonderful images of Machu Picchu, I haven't seen any that truly capture the magnificence of the place. I hope, though, that my photos provide an idea of what a visit there is like.
When the train arrives in Aguas Calientes, it puts you right in the
middle of the small mountain village.

Below: A restaurant-lined street in car-free Aguas Calientes.
The rainbow flag is the flag of Cusco. 

Machu Picchu is in Cusco province. .

This is the view upon entering Machu Picchu. 
This is called "the temple of the three windows."  Whatever
 it was meant to be, it was never completed. There are stones
 still marked and waiting to be cut for it.
This is the so-called Sacred Plaza.  The collapsing wall of the
temple is not typical of Machu Picchu. Most stone walls
have very strong and deep foundations.
Machu Picchu is extremely vertical. Anyone who hopes see much
 of the site has to go up and down a lot of steps, many of them not
in good repair. Note the collapsing wall. This one and the Sacred Plaza
wall were the only ones we noticed in such bad shape.
No one knows the meaning or purpose of this carefully carved
 stone, which occupies one of the highest points at Machu Picchu.
 Hiram Bingham gave it the name "Intihuatana," which means "place to
 which the sun was tied" in Quechua, the Inca language that
 is still one of Peru's official languages.
This is the Sacred Rock, 25 feet long, and one of the few stones
 here that visitors aren't allowed to touch.  Until a few years
 ago, however, hundreds of visitors each day would spread their
 arms on the rock "to feel its energy." Again, no one knows
 for sure what meaning it had for the people
 who built Machu Picchu.
The trail from Machu Picchu to Huayna Picchu. Stone steps make
the steep climb a good bit easier, but it's still a steep climb.
These stone houses, thought to have been used by agricultural workers, appear
 to have been restored. Mortar can be seen between some of the stones.

This is said to have been a royal tomb. It's
beneath the Temple of the Sun and has what
appear to be niches for mummys. Visitors are
not allowed to get closer than this to the tomb.

Many Pre-Columbian sites in Peru have fountains like this that still work.
Note the drainage channel carved into the floor.

Visitors cannot enter the Temple of the Sun. Almost every Inca site in the
Sacred Valley has a sun temple, all with features oriented to the December
 and June solstices.  This one has one window that lines up with the sunrise at the
 Sun Gate at the December solstice and another oriented to the June solstice.
 Note how the walls lean in slightly, strengthening the building's
 stability in this earthquake-prone region. In the upper left portion of
the photo you can see the Urubamba River far below. The cascading

terraces were originally used for agriculture.  
Llamas such as this probably have a pretty soft life posing
for photos near the caretaker's hut at Machu Picchu. Finding
the gentle animals there was a surprise but clearly they're
stationed there to amuse tourists. Worked for us! This was
my last Machu Picchu photo.  After spending about five
hours clambering around the site and making our abortive
attempt to climb Huayna Picchu, we headed back to the
shuttle bus, arriving just as it started to rain. Heavily.
 Though we had to stand in the rain for maybe a half hour
 before getting on a bus, we were glad we weren't at the top
 of stone stairway or trying to navigate a steep rocky trail. 

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