RTW Post #16: Machu Picchu - A World Apart

10/10/13: Machu Picchu, Peru

I was broken when we reached Aguas Calientes. My knees revolted as I limped my way up the long stretch of road that led to our hostel, Kernos. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was taking a step every second; that’s how slow I was moving. That may sound fast in theory, but try it out. Stand up, look at a clock, and take a step for every second that ticks by and see if you don’t feel like a zombie would beat you in a foot race.

Machu Picchu

Katie was sore, as well, from the day’s exertions, so we hobbled up the hill together looking forward to a hot shower and warm bed. I knew that Machu Picchu peered down at us from above, invisible to our eyes but watching all the same. Tomorrow we’d finally achieve our goal and step through its gate for the first time. I feel ashamed to admit this, but the Salkantay Trek had taken such a toll, emotionally and physically, that I was nearly past the point of caring. All I wanted to do was collapse but stubbornness wasn’t about to let that happen. We’d come too far to give up now. There was no way in the world we weren’t going to see Machu Picchu, I just hoped it lived up to the hype and was worthy of our pain and suffering…

I’ll just cut to the chase: It was.

Remember as a child coming across a magical little slice of nature hidden in a forest? A stump becomes a throne. A tree becomes a tower. A tiny pond becomes a vast ocean to sail your ship of leaves upon. That’s what Machu Picchu is – a child’s dream come alive. No matter how many people stand beside you when you first gaze upon it, you feel as though it’s just been discovered. Filled with awe, your eyes devour every detail with wonder, reverence, affection, and greed. You want to be part of it, and the best part of all is you can be.

Rising high above the valley floor, Machu Picchu rests on the shoulders of giants: Mount Machu Picchu to the south and Mount Huayna Picchu to the north. On most mornings a thick mist covers the ruins like a blanket and, as the sun rises, the moisture breaks apart like a tattered veil and reveals every detail therein. That’s what we witnessed when we first came around the bend to drink in the ancient city. We were a world apart, transported back in time to a land of clouds and condors. As I stared, all I could think of was how. How is this possible? How can this be? How did this mystical place come to pass?

Becoming A Part Of Machu Picchu

Edwin, our Salkantay trek guide, was there with us during our first few hours at Machu Picchu answering some of these questions and more. Before traveling to South America my knowledge of the Inca empire was basically nil; it wasn’t a topic we spent a lot of time on in grade school. I found myself surprised and fascinated by their story. Learning about the Incas enriched my experience, allowing me to better understand and appreciate the ruins and cities we visited while in Peru. In light of this, I thought sharing some of what I learned in brief would add to your enjoyment as well (or so I hope). (Just skip ahead if you hate history.)

The Misty Veil

The Incas arose from the highlands of Peru in the early 13th century, and around 1438 began to expand their territory through conquests and peaceful assimilation. Under the rule of their greatest leader, Pachacutec, they experienced 100 years of expansion. A vast empire rose up, stretching as far north as southern Colombia and as far south as central Chile. In 1526 Francisco Pizarro first set foot on Inca land and was impressed with their architecture and wealth. So, in 1532, he returned with his brothers and a royal charter allowing Pizarro to conquer and rule over all that he seized. Unfortunately for the Incas, smallpox had ravaged their people and a brutal civil war had recently come to an end, depleting their strength. Pizarro took advantage of the situation, quickly allying himself with those who wished to break free of Inca rule. This allowed him to conquer quickly in spite of only having a handful of Spanish soldiers – less than 200 conquistadors. They did, however, have horses, guns, and were trained in tactics the Incas had never encountered. All of these factors contributed to a Spanish victory. I firmly believe that history books would read very differently if the Inca empire hadn’t been devastated by disease and infighting just before the Spaniards arrived. I guess we’ll never know.

Machu Picchu had been a shining point in the Incan sphere of power, not as a city, but as a spiritual retreat. The Inca rulers used it as a sanctuary, and no more than 300 people lived here on a daily basis. Water was supplied from a mountaintop spring and food was grown on agricultural terraces. Terraces are actually one of the keys to Machu Picchu’s prolonged existence. Not only were they needed for farming purposes, they were also critical in keeping Machu Picchu standing year after year. By layering stones, gravel, sand, and topsoil, the Incas effectively created an erosion-resistant landscape. The terraces supplied drainage, allowing rainwater to funnel through the city, along the gutters, and pour off the side of the mountain.

Beyond The Ruins

The Incas were master stonemasons and the structures of Machu Picchu exemplify that. The stones used to build Machu Picchu hadn’t been hauled up the mountainside, as I’d first assumed, but were mined from the mountaintop itself. Logs were laid under the massive rocks like wheels, allowing each stone to roll into place. No mortar was used in their constructions. Instead, each stone was fit into place like a giant puzzle piece. The way that they cut the stones was imaginative and impressive. After hand-drilling holes along fissures they’d place wet wood into the holes. When the sticks dried they’d expand, splitting the rock through natural force. Then the stones were shaped and positioned together so snugly not even a sliver of light would shine through. The trapezoidal angle of the walls and mortar-less construction allowed a certain amount of “wiggle room” in each structure; the area was known for seismic activity, and this Inca architecture is one reason why Machu Picchu has stayed largely intact for centuries. To see these structures up close you’d think they were built yesterday, not 500 years ago. The Incas were truly engineering geniuses.

Main gate to Machu Picchu - Check out that stonework!

As I walked along the stone pathways I couldn’t help but marvel at the craftsmanship, the design, and the enormity of labor put into building Machu Picchu. It was an unimaginable endeavor that they somehow managed to bring to life. Then Edwin surprised me further by explaining that Machu Picchu wasn’t built by slaves from their newly acquired empire, but by citizens. The Incas created a social system called Mita, which literally means “turn.” Everyone had a certain number of days they had to work on community-driven projects such as building roads and temples. While they took their “turn” helping, their families were taken care of by the government. This is one of the reasons the Inca Empire was able to expand so rapidly. By building roads running through their extensive territories they successfully connected each corner of their realm. Impressed yet? Well, you should be.

While following along and listening to Edwin, everyone was surprised and delighted by an unusual sight that had nothing to do with history, architecture, or engineering. We saw an owl! He (or she) was resting on a small nook only a foot above our heads. According to one onlooker it was a “Machu Picchu owl,” but I’m not sure if that was its official classification. He was around 6 inches tall and was one of the sweetest sights these eyes had ever seen. I have no doubt we were disturbing his slumber, because his eyes were open. He remained motionless, though, as we murmured around him, adoring his tiny form and fluffy feathers. Katie was quite taken with him, as was I. I’d never been this close to an owl, and I probably never will again, that’s probably why I didn’t want to leave. But, alas, our tour had to continue…

Temple Of The Condor

We visited the temple of the sun, the temple of the three windows, and my personal favorite, the temple of the condor. The condor was a revered animal for the Incas. They believed it carried your soul into the afterlife. When we saw the temple I wasn’t sure what exactly I was looking at. The structure looked so odd compared to the others. Unlike previous buildings, this edifice looked unpolished and angular, with raw rocks jutting out from the ground. When Edwin pointed out the wings and the head I finally saw it; the architects had used natural rock formations to create the body of an enormous condor. Below the condor was a cave where offerings for the dead would’ve been left. Above it, mummified remains were placed. They’d designed it so that the deceased could “ride” on the back of the condor into the afterlife. Just like the Egyptians, Incas mummified their leaders, but instead of laying them flat on their backs they kept them in fetal positions so they could be reborn in the hereafter. Incas worshiped these remains, believing that even in death their leaders could supply guidance to their people.

Once our two hours with Edwin were up, we all split apart. It was an unexpectedly bittersweet farewell. We wouldn’t be seeing Edwin again, and after having him lead us on the Salkantay trek over the last 5 days it was sad to say goodbye. The rest of the group knew we’d be seeing each other again that evening, but it was still odd to part ways. We’d become a close-knit group during our long trek to Machu Picchu.

Huayna Picchu

That said, being able to explore Machu Picchu at our leisure was a sweet slice of heaven. Katie and I wandered around the roofless homes, the smooth walls, and stared down the surrounding chasms with a spring in our step. Once again, we were kids in a candy store, savoring every stone and crevice. Machu Picchu has a way of breathing new life into you. You can’t help but feel immensely happy while being there.

We slowly made our way to the northern end where Huayna Picchu stood. We had an appointment with that little mountain. Actually, I shouldn’t say little. It’s far from little, I can attest to that. Many months ago, when we booked our Salkantay trek, we had to choose any extras we wanted to include in our visit to Machu Picchu. There’s a limited number of visitors each day (thank God for that) and a limited number of people they’ll allow up Mount Huayna Picchu and Mount Machu Picchu. We, of course, had no prior knowledge of the physical pain that awaited us in the Andes, so chose to climb this Huayna Picchu without a second thought. Now, with my legs buckling and Katie’s body aching, we were hesitant to push ourselves up a mountain. We’d already spent the $40 to climb it, however, so we thought “what the hell?” and headed on up!

Our plan was to hike very slowly with our only goal being a decent view of Machu Picchu. From afar, we couldn’t even see the path leading up Huayna Picchu, but once on the trail we found large stone steps switch-backing their way up the slope. These “stairs” weren’t for the faint of heart. Large steps, small steps, angled steps, slick steps – anything allowing us to heft our bodies up was a “step.” I was grateful for the occasional handrail. Before we knew it, our slow and steady pace had gotten us all the way to the top. We didn’t anticipate getting there, but once we arrived we were reluctant to ever leave!

The ruins atop Huayna Picchu

The top of Huayna Picchu is covered in old ruins. Somehow the Incas had managed to build stone structures into the mountaintop, sometimes at perilous angels. With careful feet, we climbed smooth steps that were so narrow you had to walk on them sideways. They say the Incas were small people – I think the size of these steps proves it! We crawled (literally) through a small tunnel and made our way to the summit. Once there we were gifted a 360 degree view of the valley below, the surrounding mountaintops, and the majestic city of Machu Picchu. I was filled with an amazing sense of pride and accomplishment. It was like standing on top of the world. We sat and ate lunch, breathing in the fresh mountain air and looking down at the world below. In the distance we could make out Llactapata. It was just a tiny dot, but just yesterday we’d been there enjoying the view. Machu Picchu had looked so far away then. Now we were sitting above it.

The view from the top of Huayna Picchu

I dreaded descending Huayna Picchu. My knees hadn’t been very friendly to me during our tour, making me cringe with every step. They were kind enough going up the mountain, as ascending seems to be their “thing,” but our brief truce was about to come to an end. I took each step down gingerly, doing what I could do minimize the pain and impact. Everything started out well, and then it shockingly stayed that way. It was a miracle! My legs were actually functioning normally (more or less). I couldn’t believe it. My mind couldn’t help but turn to the spiritual energy said to be pulsing out of Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu. I’m not one to put faith in such things, but as we lowered ourselves down the mountain I thanked them for healing me, if only for a brief period.

Uneven steps to Huayna Picchu

And it was brief, indeed. For by the time we reached the other end of Machu Picchu I was back to my old rickety self. I have to give my legs credit, though. They did keep me upright. We passed the guardhouse and headed beyond the ruins up toward the Inca Bridge. This was one of the pathways leading into Machu Picchu. Cut into a dangerous cliff side, I imagine death would taunt you at every step. We were able to walk all the way out to this portion of the trail, but no further, as it had been partitioned off to keep people away. I can’t say the section before felt much safer; a long walkway along the side of a mountain with nothing separating you from eternity. Needless to say, we held on tight to the rope.

My body was back to its normal state of pain by the time we exited the Inca Bridge. Llamas, believe it or not, were walking by as we made our way back to the entrance. Yes, they allow llamas to live on Machu Picchu. I imagine it’s for saps like us who eat up the quintessential Peruvian picture the creatures provide. Llamas and Machu Picchu, together? You can’t be that. I wonder if the tourism board pays them for their time?

I was sad to leave Machu Picchu. I stood and stared during my final minutes in its presence. It was hard to walk away. I imagined what it would’ve been like for the Incas who lived here, crying as they left for the last time, knowing it was the only way they could save it from the Spaniards. Abandoning it must’ve been incredibly difficult, but I’m eternally grateful they saved it. It’s one of the most astounding places I’ve ever been. 

Quintessential Peru

When we finally boarded our bus it was after 3pm. We’d been hiking around Machu Picchu for nine hours. I couldn’t believe it. Yesterday I was ready to throw in the towel and give up Machu Picchu for a stretcher, and today we were hiking around the ruins for hours on end. It was worth every aching step.

We ate pizza in Aguas Calientes and then tottered back to the hostel to grab our stuff and head to the train station. We reconnected with our group on the train and then all squeezed into a van at Ollaytaytambo. Forty-five minutes on the train and two hours in the van found us back in Cusco at 10:15pm. A long day, but well worth the effort. Thankfully, we returned to the same hostel we’d stayed in before our trek, El Labrador. Our host, Estella, had prepped the room. Our stored luggage awaited us and fresh towels hung on the racks. It was like coming home. I slept soundly that night, reveling in the knowledge that tomorrow’s agenda held absolutely, positively no hiking! Let the healing begin!