Nestled 7,000 feet above sea level in the Andes Mountains and almost entirely circled by the Urubamba River is a mysterious Incan city that up until just over 100 years ago, was completely unknown to the west. The story goes that in 1911 a Yale archeologist, Hiram Bingham, was searching for the lost city of Vilcabamba–the last Incan stronghold to fall to the Spanish–when a local farmer told him about some ruins located at the top of a nearby mountain. Bingham was then led by an 11 year-old boy to the site that has astounded archeologists ever since and also ignited a custody dispute that went on for almost 100 years, catalyzed partly by the fact that Bingham took artifacts from the site back to Yale for further study. What was particularly remarkable about the site was that the Incans had managed to keep it a secret from the Spanish for over almost 500 years and as a result, it remained relatively intact–a true icon of Incan civilization, architecture and engineering. Of course I’m referring to the now famous archeological site of Machu Pichu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most visited tourist destination in all of South America.
During a visit to Peru last month, Machu Pichu was, unsurprisingly, on the top of our list of things to do. The journey to Machu Pichu itself is worth mentioning–the usual planes, trains and automobiles, then long snaking lines to buy tickets in the rain at the “Ministry of Culture” in the launching city of Cusco, more lines to buy bus and train tickets at a local tourist agency, another bus ride, a beautiful train ride through the Andes, a fairly intense but exquisite 2 hour hike up steep and mossy Andean steps from the town of Agua Calientes (for those who don’t want to hike, there are buses that take you directly to the entrance) and then the final ascent into the site itself which, at over 7,000ft with high altitude oxygen levels, is not made for the average couch potato. Or, for the really ambitious, one can hike the extraordinary 4-5-day Inca trail which passes through cloud forest, alpine tundra, tunnels and many Incan ruins. Despite the intense journey and the enormous number of tourists exploring the site–most with selfie sticks extended in front of their faces–I, like Hiram Bingham, could not help but be astounded by my first glimpse of the sublime city. Shrouded in clouds, and punctuated by the intense green grass and vegetation of the wet Andes, the stone city seems to have been created with a unique aesthetic sensibility, functionality and awareness of the surrounding environment. If, as archeologists now theorize, it served as a sort of retreat and ceremonial site for Incan rulers, it’s clear these men knew how to retreat and ceremonialize in profoundly thought-out style. In short, Machu Pichu is truly as beautiful and otherworldly as the guide books proclaim (albeit with way too many humans and selfie sticks).
Separated into three areas–urban, religious and agricultural, the structures are so perfectly matched with their surroundings. While the agricultural areas, with their well-defined terraces and aqueducts, make use of the natural slopes and the urban areas–which housed farmers, servants, teachers and the like–are built in the lower regions, the religious areas are located at the top of the city, with soulful and inspiring views of the beautiful Urubamba Valley far below. Perhaps one of the things that surprised me most was the fact that even though many of the stone blocks that make up Machu Pichu are massive–perhaps 50 tons or more–they are precisely cut (or sculpted?) and fit together almost perfectly without cement or mortar. Also, I was amazed at being able to imagine so well what life must have been like in this high altitude world. For instance, the many houses have stone shelves for displaying objects, high windows to allow enough light to enter at sunset and sundown and notches next to open stone doorways so that residents could lock their doors! There are baths and storage rooms, temples and of course the well-laid out terraces extensive enough to grow more than enough food for Machu Pichu’s residents. For a place that appears to be of another world, its details betray a city very much made for humans.
Of course there is so much more to be said about Machu Pichu’s intricacies–its Inti Watana, the Temple of the Sun, the Room of the Three Windows and the Terrace of the Ceremonial Rock but perhaps these places are best left to be explored in person. These days, besides the overabundance of tourists (whose free-wheeling explorations of the stone structures have put the Machu Pichu on the endangered archeological site list), there are also, surprisingly enough, a herd of free-range llamas whose heads occasionally pop up between the granite stones. Seemingly oblivious to the tourists trying to snap selfies with them, they wander about, occasionally stopping to take in the view between bites of lush Andean grass which they keep at a perfect length. They are, perhaps the only truly consistent and natural residents of the site and their peaceful presence and lovely dromedary-like faces amidst the beautiful ruins are what I held onto as we hiked back down the mountain.
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