Though we’re not exactly old, we nevertheless wanted to visit this Wonder of the New World long before we’d involuntarily poop our pants when we saw it. Additionally, we were disinclined to view the place from inside an oxygen tent, so we took full advantage of the many non-hiking alternatives that were available to us.
To wit, we caught the PeruRail “Vistadome” train from Ollantaytambo to the Aguas Calientes at 8am, somewhat bleary-eyed. Over the next ninety minutes, we rode in comfort right alongside the Urubamba River at the foot of the Valley. We effortlessly swept past all three Inca Trail start points in extreme comfort and without even a tinge of regret. The train pulled into Aguas Calientes without drama at 9:30am, allowing us plenty of time to drop our bags at the Inkaterra Hotel and grab the next bus to Machu Picchu.
The ride up was a seemingly endless series of switchbacks ascending the additional 2,000 feet up the mountain’s face. But in no time, we could see the famous peak of Huayna Picchu (8,900 ft) peeking through the foliage covering the mountain. And shortly after that, Machu Picchu itself.
Despite being almost equatorial, the air temperature at Machu Picchu was only around 50-degrees because of the altitude. So we traipsed around in winter coats even though it was the summer dry season. When the Sun god was happy, the weather was darn nice, but when he shunned us by blowing a cloud overhead, it got frigid fast. Though after a few alpaca sacrifices, we were again good to go.
Perilously located almost eight thousand feet in the thin air, the lost Inca city, “Machu Picchu” (or “Old Peak”), was built around the 1400s by the native Quechua people who were clearly out of their damn minds. The famed “City in the Sky” remained unnoticed (and more importantly, untouched) by the modern man for over 400 years after being abandoned by its original inhabitants likely around the time they mysteriously died off, and forgotten by successive generations.
Machu Picchu was finally discovered in 1911 by the historian, Hiram Bingham, who was the first explorer ever to bring a camera along, so he could return with actual photographs instead of stories. And it’s a good thing, too, as no sane person would’ve believed him otherwise. (“Sure, Hiram, a ‘City in the sky’…yeah, riiiigghhhtt. Better lay off the coca-leaves, mate.”)
The images he brought back of this archeological wonder excited the 20th Century World more than the infamous naked photos of Amelia Earhart, and it’s easy to see why: Machu Picchu was, after all, built entirely on the top of a freaking mountain!
Yet what made this remote city on top of a freaking mountain even more intriguing was the fact that there was a perfectly good (i.e., flat) valley RIGHT below it! The Quechua could’ve built their amazing city FAR more easily there — think of the savings in insurance costs alone! But noooooooooo, these whack-jobs decided to dig massive boulders out of one mountainside, schlep them down the mountain and then somehow get them back up the other side! After all that, they still had to carve the darn things.
Sure, the mountain top was, for religious reasons, ideally located between two north/south mountain peaks. And sure, that vantage allowed them to create Sun God temples which got sunlight on the solstice every year. And sure, there was a constant supply of fresh glacier water running through springs all over the place. Oh, and there was the rich soil and plenty of sunlight for an almost entirely self-sufficient ecosystem…but still, building an entire city at 9,000 feet? I mean, come on!
Thanks to glaciers even higher than Machu Picchu, the city had running water back in the 1400s. Water from eternal springs was channeled using flat stone aqueducts past the Inca (or king) first, then through a narrower stone channel (cleverly created to increase water pressure) into the homes of average citizens before finally terminating in a vertical fountain near the city center (much like the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas only with pan flute music instead of crappy Celine Dion songs.)
But Machu Picchu’s omnipresent water was both a blessing and a curse. Special soil engineering was required to prevent disastrous flooding from frequent and heavy seasonal rains. So the Incas constructed stone and grass terraces built up from successive layers of large stones, followed by slightly smaller rocks, gravel, soil and finally grass. This layering technique prevented the soil from being washed away down the mountainside every time the Rain God had a hissy fit which, in this part of Peru, was often.
Visiting this place you really get the impression that the Incas just liked showing off, or were clinically insane. These guys had to take an extremely hard rock (granite), smash it smooth with a slightly harder rock (biotite), and then somehow hoist it on top of another rock repeatedly until they formed a temple — all without passing out from a lack of oxygen and falling to an untimely death. No small task, we can attest, as after climbing about fifteen steps, we were wheezing like an ’83 Geo Metro driving the hills of San Francisco.
Not surprisingly, Machu Picchu attracted the best and brightest from the Inca Empire’s four states, including farmers, architects, stone masons, carvers, and presumably, wizards. So when it came to building stuff out of rocks, they didn’t take shortcuts. They didn’t bang one rock with another harder rock until it was “pretty smooth” or “kinda smooth” — they banged it until it was smooth, period.
As a result of this fanaticism, there’s not enough space between temple stones to slide a llama’s eyelash (see photo). The Incas clearly considered using mortar the moral equivalent of raping a llama — it just wasn’t done. Ever. (FULL DISCLOSURE: I have no actual evidence that llama rape was ever a crime in Peru.)
Well, not in the temples, anyway. For other less important structures, the Quechua people’s building standards dropped off a 9,000 foot cliff. Everything that wasn’t a temple seemed hastily assembled by comparison: slapdash buildings of small rocks thrown together with mortar and a coat of plaster thick enough to hide their awful shame (essentially, their construction was treated like modern condos are built today).
Not a lot is known about the Quechua people, an empire that ruled a sizable chunk of South America starting in 1200 AD. They built staggering granite temples, advanced aqueducts, and expanded their empire through non-violent assimilation without slavery or social classes. They appeared to use a barter system instead of a monetary one, eliminating the conflict typical between the haves and have-nots.
But not a lot is known mostly because the Quechua created their cultural and religious art and sculptures out of solid gold and silver (which had no value for Incas other than decoration). After learning that the Incas were up to their loincloths in precious metals, the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Pizarro led a merry band of 400 Catholi—er, I mean, Spaniards to invade Peru in 1532, literally melting down nearly every remnant of the Inca culture and shipping it back home in ingots.
I say nearly, because Pizarro, for all his troops’ overwhelming military Huaynu Picchu in the background.superiority, never found the crown jewel of the Quechua civilization, Machu Picchu. Possibly, because the roads to it were destroyed by the Quechua’s themselves. Possibly because it was long forgotten by its own people. Or possibly because it was located 12,000 freaking feet up in the freaking Andes where no sane person would ever freaking look! Regardless, Pizarro stopped searching for his imagined “City Of Gold” when his former friend’s son assassinated him. (Good for him.)
Machu Picchu is the kind of place you can barely believe even exists. At first blush, it’s no more comprehensible than the floating cities in “Avatar” (or the countless other sources that movie stole from). Likewise, when you see Machu Picchu in person, the mind struggles (and in our case, fails) to make sense of it — Machu Picchu simply shouldn’t be.
And that’s what makes the site timeless and significant. The sheer audacity of its construction puts modern attempts at “pseudo-spiritual” architecture like St. Peter’s Basilica and the ill-fated Crystal Cathedral pale in comparison. When you visit a place as jaw-droppingly incredible as Machu Picchu, you kinda start thinking there might actually be something to this whole Sun God religion thing (it’s certainly no less silly than the modern world’s religions.)
Even though we’re in fairly good shape for people our age — and, frankly, great shape for average Americans our age — we nevertheless had to stop with embarrassing frequency, eliciting eye-rolling and inaudible groans of “Seriously?” from our annoyingly agile and goat-like guide. Every ten steps or so, my heart was beating like DubStep and my extremities tingled from lack of blood flow. Still, we soldiered on, knees aching, lungs burning and minds fully blown.
Despite minor bleeding from our eyes and lungs, our guide assured us that we could certainly hike Huayna Picchu, the ginormous mountain peak typically seen in the background of every photo ever taken of Machu Picchu, — no trouble at all, she said. We believed her flattering assessment of our abilities until other people told us about the many white crosses along the hike marking fatalities where the cause of death was “gravity.”
So instead, we considered simply hiking to the Sun Gate or the Inca Bridge but ultimately decided against both since we were beat and still had the next week to spend in Quito, Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands where we wouldn’t want to be snorkeling in a full body cast.