The ancient ruins known as Machu Picchu aren't hard to find—just look on any map. The problem is getting to them, as they're waaaaay up high in the Andes Mountains. Recently, we decided to visit this “new wonder of the world” now. You know, while we were still young and vital enough not to involuntarily poop our pants when we saw the place.
Getting to Machu Picchu usually involves a lengthy and arduous hike.
In addition to the whole pooping thing, we were equally disinclined to view Machu Picchu from inside an oxygen tent. So we took full advantage of the many non-hiking modes of transportation that were available to us. To wit, we took the PeruRail “Vistadome” train from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes. We arrived at the station around 8am, somewhat bleary-eyed and very hungover.
For the next ninety minutes, we rode in breezy comfort with panoramic views of the spectacular Urubamba Valley. We nibbled on complementary Quinoa Chips as we effortlessly blew past all three Inca Trail start points. All without the slightest tinge of regret or pulled muscle.
Around 9:30am, the Vistadome smoothly pulled into Aguas Calientes station, located at the base of the mountain. After disembarking, we still had plenty of time to check in at the Inkaterra Hotel and drop off our bags. Our next leg of the journey was grabbing the bus up to Machu Picchu. We half expected the train itself to take us to the actual site. But then we remembered that trains can't fly.
The road to Machu Picchu is paved with twisted asphalt.
Our bus to Machu Picchu drove a seemingly endless series of switchbacks. It slowly carried us up the further 2,000 feet in elevation to the mountain's top. In short order, we could see the famous peak of Huayna Picchu (8,900 ft) peeking through the foliage surrounding the mountain. And, shortly after that, Machu Picchu (7,970 ft) revealed itself, because…uh, the two peaks are pretty close to each other.
The air was brisk when we got off the bus at our final stop. Despite being nearly equatorial, the temperature up at Machu Picchu was only around 50-degrees due to the high altitude. So we wore winter coats even though it was Peru's summer season. Be sure and check that before you pack.
Comfort-wise, walking around Machu Picchu was fairly agreeable. When the Inca Sun God was happy, the weather was very comfortable, even when working up a sweat hiking those hills. But when the Sun God was unhappy, clouds appeared overhead, and it got frigid effing fast. Fortunately, a few quick llama sacrifices cheered him up, and we were once again good to go.
The native people must've been full-on wackos.
“Machu Picchu” was designed and constructed by the native Quechua people. Not much is known about the Quechua, except that they were clearly out of their g@ddamn minds. I mean, who builds a place almost eight thousand feet up in the thin Peruvian air? Crazy people, that's who.
After opening for business in 1420, the site was sadly closed down 100 years later due to a Conquistador infestation. After that, the famed “City in the Sky” was abandoned by its creators and eventually forgotten by successive generations. The site remained unnoticed by modern man—and, more importantly, untouched—for the next almost four centuries.
They found the “Lost City of the Incas.” Again, I mean.
In 1911, an American academic, explorer, and politician named
Crucially, Bingham was the first explorer—ever!—to bring a camera with him on an expedition. He returned with actual photographs of the place, instead of just a bunch of vague claims, descriptions, and hand gestures. And it's a good thing he took photos, because no sane person would've believed him otherwise. (“Okay, suuuure, Hiram. A ‘City in the sky'…yeah, riiiigghhhtt. Better lay off the coca-leaves, buddy.”)
The images he brought back of this archeological wonder thrilled the 20th Century world. Far more, in fact, than Amelia Earhart's scandalous “naked selfies” which forced her to disappear from society. And, when you visit Machu Picchu, it's easy to see why.
The Quechua people weren't right in the head.
This remote “city on top of a freaking mountain” is truly unbelievable. But what's even more unbelievable is that there's a perfectly good valley right below it! Yeah! The valley has nice, flat sections of easily buildable land. Better yet, a river runs through it for easy access to drinking water! What more could an Inca developer ask?
The Quechua could've built their city far more easily down there. Think of the savings in insurance premiums alone! But noooooooooo. These whack-jobs thought it was better to dig massive boulders out of one mountainside. Then schlep them down to the valley floor. Then somehow drag them back up the other side of the mountain. And finally, carve the damn things into building blocks.
Sucking up to the Sun God.
The Quechua chose their insane site location for Machu Picchu for mostly religious reasons. Between the site's two mountain peaks, they created Sun God temples, which got sunlight on the solstice every year. I mean, I guess that would be cool looking. But there were other considerations for the location, too.
Nearby glaciers at even higher elevations provided Machu Picchu with a constant supply of fresh water running through springs. Water from these eternal springs was channeled using flat stone aqueducts.
First, it flowed to the King's palace before traveling on into the homes of lesser citizens. Then the water ran through a narrower stone channel, which cleverly increased the water pressure. The faster water terminated near the city center at a vertical fountain. The effect was much like the Fountains of Bellagio in Las Vegas. Only with pan-flute music instead of grating Celine Dion songs.)
Inca builders solved some big engineering problems.
Omnipresent water, for the Incas, was both a blessing and a curse. In addition to glacier springs, Machu Picchu received frequent and sudden torrential rains, too. Special soil engineering was required to prevent disastrous flooding from the area's heavy seasonal rainstorms.
So the Incas constructed stone and grass terraces. They built them from successive layers of stones. Large stones on the bottom, smaller stones on top of those, then rocks, gravel, soil, and finally grass. This layering technique prevented soil from being washed down the mountainside every time the Rain God had a hissy fit. Which, in this part of Peru, was pretty damn often.
Machu Picchu wasn't built by the backup squad.
When visiting this place, you really get the impression that the Incas were just showing off. These guys had to take an extremely hard rock (granite), smash it smooth with a slightly harder rock (biotite). Then they had to hoist that rock on top of another rock, and repeat the procedure ad infinitum until they had enough homes, temples, and outhouses.
Yet perhaps their biggest flex was that they did it all without passing out from a lack of oxygen. Or falling down the mountain to an untimely death. Because doing heavy construction work at that height is no easy task. After climbing fifteen steps at that altitude, we were wheezing like an '89 Geo Metro on the hills of San Francisco.
The Incas may have been the world's greatest real estate developers.
Not surprisingly, Machu Picchu attracted the best and brightest from the Inca Empire's four states. Including farmers, architects, stonemasons, carvers, and presumably, effing wizards. Because, when it came to building stuff out of rocks, the Inca 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 smoooooooooth smooth.
Heck, between many of the stacked temple stones, there isn't enough space to slide an alpaca's eyelash (see photo). Obviously, the Incas considered using mortar the moral equivalent of raping an alpaca—in other words, it just wasn't done.* Well, not when working on temples, anyway. For other less important structures, the Quechua building standards dropped off a steep 9,000-foot cliff.
By comparison, everything that wasn't a temple seemed slapdash. Many buildings looked hastily assembled. Thrown together with carelessly stacked stones, mortar and a coat of plaster thick enough to cover their awful shame. In other words, the Inca had the same construction standards that modern condo developers still use today.
The Quechua people were quite an enigma.
The Quechua ruled a sizable chunk of South America, starting around 1200 AD. They built staggering granite temples, advanced aqueducts, and expanded their empire through non-violent assimilation. They never resorted to slavery, nor established a social hierarchy of social classes. We could've learned a few things from them.
Yet, the reason we don't know more about the Quechua people is because they created their cultural and religious artifacts out of solid gold and silver. And, while those two shiny metals had no value to the Quechua, they did have value to other people. #foreshadowing
The Spaniards, it seems, liked gold. A lot.
Upon learning that the Incas were up to their loincloths in precious metals, the Spanish explorer, soldier, and all-around asshole, Francisco Pizarro led a merry band of a couple hundred Catholi—er, I mean… Spaniards to Peru. Arriving in 1532, Pizarro and his men—helped by indigenous sell-outs—began heisting and melting down nearly every remnant of Inca art and culture to ship back to Spain.
I say nearly, because Pizarro—despite his troops' military superiority—never found the crown jewel of the Quechua civilization. Historians have developed three possible theories to explain why Pizarro failed to find Machu Picchu.
The first theorizes that the roads to the site were destroyed by the Quechua's themselves. The second theory supposes that the site was just forgotten by the time he arrived. And the third theory—which I subscribe to—speculates that the site was located 9,000 feet up in the freaking Andes where no sane person would ever look!
The road to the Inca “City Of Gold” is closed.
Regardless, Pizarro's quest for his imagined “City Of Gold” came to its ultimate end in 1541. Having conquered Peru with his co-Conquistador, Diego de Almagro, Pizarro settled into his new job of ruling Lima. The two men later had a family feud over the limits of their jurisdiction. And that feud led to Almagro getting executed by Pizarro's brother.
Not surprisingly, Pizarro one day got a visit from Almagro's son and his friends. The son had sworn to avenge his father's death, as was customary at the time. So the group stormed Pizarro's palace in a coup d'état.
Pizarro killed a couple of the initial attackers, but, quickly, the tide turned. He incurred multiple knife injuries to his head and neck. And numerous defensive wounds on his hands and arms. But victory became assured when Pizarro was fatally stabbed in the throat. Peruvian PD ruled the incident “an accident,” insisting that Pizarro slipped and fell on the sword.
Climbing Machu Picchu is no walk in the park.
Even though we're in fairly good shape for people our age—and great shape for Americans our age—we nevertheless had to take beaks with embarrassing frequency. They elicited 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 continually blown.
Despite seeing the bleeding from our eyes and ears, our guide assured us that we could easily hike Huayna Picchu. That's the ginormous mountain peak typically seen in the background of every photo ever taken of Machu Picchu.
“No trouble at all,” she lied. And we believed her flattering assessment of our abilities. That is, until other people told us about the many white crosses along the hike. They mark human fatalities where the cause of death was “gravity.”
So instead, we considered simply hiking to the Sun Gate or the Inca Bridge. But we decided against both since we were already beat. Besides, we had to rest up for Quito, Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. We figured snorkeling would be a lot less fun in a full-body cast.
Wrapping it up.
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 even the countless other sources that movie stole from. When you see Machu Picchu in person, the mind struggles to make sense of it and, in our case, fails utterly. Machu Picchu simply shouldn't be.
And that's what makes the site timeless and significant. The sheer audacity of its construction makes modern attempts at “pseudo-spiritual” architecture like St. Peter's Basilica and the hilariously 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 thing. Heck, it's no less silly than today's religions.
*FULL DISCLOSURE: I have no evidence that alpaca rape was ever a thing in Peru or anywhere else, and frankly, I don't ever want to see any.