Andean Explorations – 21: Machu Picchu

This post is part of my Peru travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery

The conqueror, looking at his conquest 🙂 Machu Picchu as viewed from Huyana Picchu looks like the Andean Condor.

Q: Why did I go to Peru?
A: To see Machu Picchu.

History: Machu Picchu (माचू पीचू meaning “Old mountain”) was constructed around 1460 AD, at the height of the Inca Empire glory. It was abandoned less than 100 years later as the Inca empire fell to the Spanish. Although the site is only 80km from Cusco the Inca capital, it was hidden from the Spanish and the outside world until 1911. Consequently this site, unlike others, was not destroyed and plundered by the colonizers. It’s an entire self-sustaining city and how the Incas built such mammoth structures on top of an inaccessible mountain is a mystery.

I went on the very first bus (5:30 am) from the base town Aguas Calientes, and you need to jostle with hordes of other people who also want to get on that same bus – but no point doing it other than for symbolic reasons. 🙂 Why? After racing there before sunrise we found that the whole place was covered by a thick fog that did not clear until 10 am or so, haha. But that’s okay, there is so much to see.

Actually I was overwhelmed. And confused – too many things to do – Charlie in the chocolate factory!

Apart from the main Machu Pichu site, there are several interesting things that an enthusiast can do. Walk to the Sun Gate far away on one side of the site, hike to the top of Mount Machu Picchu, hike to Huyana Picchu (which is the only thing I did from this list), explore Huyana Picchu mountain and the Moon temple. The main MP site itself is extremely extremely intriguing.

Llamas graze on the mountains and keep the grass trimmed. Natural grass cutters 🙂 I walked through the sacred temples and the priests’ quarters trying to imagine how the site would be at its prime glory. I circled around their astronomical clock and wandered on the paths in the city of commons. I think its essential to read as much as you can about the place so that when you go there, everything will start making sense. OR, hire a guide 😉

Something at this site is strikingly noticeable even at a cursory glance: eveything is well organized. The streets, housing districts for different classes of people, storage areas, water supply, drainage etc. Making such a planned city on the top of a mountain is indeed commendable. But then, the Incas were wise planners.

Location: The location of the city was a military secret and its deep precipices and mountains provide excellent natural defenses. From atop the cliff of Machu Picchu, there is a vertical rock face of 600 meters rising from the Urubamba River at the foot of the cliff. The city sits in a saddle between two mountains, with a commanding view down two valleys and a nearly impassable mountain at its back. It has a water supply from springs that cannot be blocked easily, and enough land to grow food for about four times as many people as ever lived there. The hillsides leading to it have been terraced, not only to provide more farmland to grow crops, but to steepen the slopes which invaders would have to ascend. There are two high-altitude routes from Machu Picchu across the mountains back to Cuzco, one through the sun gate, and the other across the Inca bridge. Both easily could be blocked if invaders should approach along them. Regardless of its original purpose, it is strategically located and readily defended.

Machu Picchu, viewed from Huayna Picchu. It is supposed to look like a brid (the Condor)

Huayna Picchu or Wayna Picchu (वायना पीचू meaning “Young Peak” in Quechuan) rises over Machu Picchu (it is 360m higher, an hour long steep hike.) According to local guides, the top of the mountain was the residence for the high priest and the local virgins (?). Every morning before sunrise, the high priest with a small group would walk to Machu Picchu to signal the coming of the new day. The Temple of the Moon, one of the three major temples in the Machu Picchu area is located on this mountain – I didn’t go there because its too far away. Only 400 visitors are allowed to hike this mountain every day, so hurry, go there first. By the time you return, Machu Picchu will be free of fog and waiting for your exploration. However by that time the morning train arrives and with it loads and loads of tourist groups 😉 Huyana Picchu offers some breathtaking views of the surroundings.

Pondering over the ruins

Machu Picchu is not a huge site (one end to opposite is just a 30 minute walk) but honestly, for someone who likes to dive down to every detail, even 9 hours are grossly insufficient to explore that place. Every stone has a story, every room has a feel.

Architecture: I’m a fan of planning and architecture but I will try to make this sound less geeky. ^_^

Most of the construction in Machu Picchu uses the classical Inca architectural style of polished dry-stone walls of regular shape. The Incas were among the best stone masons the world has seen, and many junctions in the central city are so perfect that not even a knife blade fits between the stones. Peru is a highly seismic land, and mortar-free construction was more earthquake-resistant than using mortar. The stones of the dry-stone walls built by the Incas can move slightly and resettle without the walls collapsing. Inca walls show numerous subtle design details that also help protect them from collapsing in an earthquake. The lack of strong draft animals as well as terrain and dense vegetation issues may have rendered wheels impractical. How they moved and placed enormous blocks of stones remains a mystery, although the general belief is that they used hundreds of men to push the stones up inclined planes.

The space is composed of 140 structures or features including temples, sanctuaries, parks, and residences that include houses with thatched roofs. There are more than one hundred flights of stone steps–often completely carved from a single block of granite–and a great number of water fountains that are interconnected by channels and water-drains perforated in the rock that were designed for the original irrigation system. According to archaeologists, the urban sector of Machu Picchu was divided into three great districts: (1) the Sacred District, (2) the Popular District to the south, and (3) the District of the Priests and the Nobility.

Ok, I will stop here! 🙂

Picture perfect photograph of Machu Picchu. Huyana Picchu is the tall mountain right in the front.

I thought that my trip to Peru appropriately climaxed at this juncture and I liked my route – it built up the Inca and Peruvian story bit by bit. Had I landed in Machu Picchu first, it would have been confusing. Do let me know what you think about this post and there are many more pictures in the photo gallery 🙂

This post is part of my Peru travel series: Travel stories | Photo gallery