It was a brisk October morning in 2009 when I arrived in Cusco, Peru, to begin my second visit to the Lost City of the Incas. Once an Incan capital, Cusco today presents an outstanding example of pre-Columbian, colonial, and modern culture. Cusco is sometimes called the archeological capital of South America because many original Incan walls remain and are ripe for exploration and analysis. The Spanish buildings that were constructed later on top of these have long ago crumbled, providing keen insight into abilities of the ancient Incan engineers. A quick walk through the city along its cobblestone streets affords the opportunity to see the influence of different periods of its history without intervening changes. Incan ruins, such as the Temple of the Sun, contrast sharply with Spanish churches and missions, as well as modern-day additions of stores and shops. All of these influences perfectly document Cusco’s various phases of evolution.
Cusco sits at an altitude of 11,150 feet, and I began to feel the effects of the altitude despite the medicine I had begun taking before even leaving the USA. I experienced several hours of dizziness, headaches, chills, and nausea. Altitude sickness begins to be an issue at around 8,000 feet above sea level. I can tell you it is real and in no way should it be minimized by a traveler here. Like many of life’s challenges, the passage of time works its magic and my body made the necessary adjustments. After about six hours or so, the symptoms began to dissipate and I was able to enjoy the wonderful sights and sounds of this Peruvian city nestled high in the Andes, where my son, Michael, and I had decided to spend some time before heading to the Lost City.
Cusco’s unique mix of the Amerindian and mestizo cultures has been sustained, even though Cusco is the starting point for all travelers to Machu Picchu, except, of course, for those who brave the hike through the Sacred Valley. Perhaps the best example for the ancient Incan culture is Inti Raymi, an Incan tradition that celebrates the winter solstice according to the ancient Incan sundial. This festival is very popular among the locals and the tourists as well. This day-long event symbolizes how Cusco has joined its indigenous history with its recent tourist boom.
The train ride to Aguas Clientes – the gateway to Machu Picchu – is about three hours. The journey was very bumpy but picturesque as it passes through the sections of the Sacred Valley. About an hour out of Cusco, I saw the spot that marks the starting point for a four-day hike to Machu Picchu. I saw younger, more energetic travelers gearing up for this long journey. These folks each held one of only about 200 permits issued each day for this trek though the Sacred Valley which ends, ostensibly, with the opportunity to witness a sunrise over the ruins of the Lost City. I found myself a bit envious of their youth and physical fitness and of their opportunity to see sights that I would never be able to witness.
Soon the train arrived at Aguas Clientes (Spanish for “hot water” or “hot springs”), which is now officially called Machu Picchu Pueblo. It is a small town at the bottom of the valley next to Machu Picchu and is the principal access point to the Lost City. The bus ride from here to the ruins takes about 20 minutes. The distance is minimal, but there are some fourteen switchbacks that force the bus to travel at a very slow speed. This road is known as Hiram Bingham Highway (named for an American academic, explorer, treasure hunter, and politician who died in 1956) and is 9 kilometers in length, but the 9 kilometers includes the switchbacks. If they could be straightened out, the distance to Machu Picchu would be just over a kilometer! This mountainous road contains very steep sections without marked center lines on a road so narrow that there is barely enough room for two cars to pass. It has no guardrails.
The Incas never built their cities in easy-to-access places, and Machu Picchu is certainly no exception. Machu Picchu is situated at almost 8,000 feet above sea level on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains. The Incas possessed not only the impressive engineering skills that were necessary to build Machu Picchu high up in the Andes, but they had to accomplish this feat without having steel, wheels, domesticated animals, and even iron, which required a level of pyro-technology to produce that they did not possess. The Incas did produce and use sophisticated copper alloys to make the tools necessary for construction.
Machu Picchu is easily the most recognizable and iconic symbol of the Incan Empire. It was built around 1450 AD and sits above the Sacred Valley, which is 50 miles northwest of Cusco and through which the Urubamba River flows. It has been suggested that Machu Picchu was originally built either as a ceremonial center or as a military stronghold. The site consists of more than 150 buildings ranging from houses to temples, sanctuaries and communal baths. The compound contains over 100 separate flights of stairs. Most of the individual staircases were carved from one slab of stone.
Most of these outlying buildings have been reconstructed in order to give tourists a better idea of how they may have looked originally. Almost 40 percent of Machu Picchu had been restored to date.
This Incan Citadel is the most visited tourist attraction in all of Peru. The site was named among the New Seven Wonders of the World and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It was once home to the sun-worshiping Incan civilization, but was brought to its knees by gold-hungry Europeans centuries ago. During this colonial period, the Spanish ravaged and destroyed much of the Incan civilization.
Many, if not most, archaeologists conclude that Machu Picchu was originally built as an estate for the Incan emperor Pachacuti (1438-1472). The Incas, however, abandoned the site in the 16th century at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Although known to many locals, Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish during the colonial period, which accounts for its well-preserved status compared to other Incan ruins which the marauding Spaniards often defaced. It was Hiram Bingham who introduced Machu Picchu onto the world stage in 1911. Tourists frequently refer to it as the “Lost City of the Incas” because it was unknown to the outside world for so many centuries.
My heart was racing when the bus deposited us only a few meters from the turn-styles which would admit us to the Lost City. Upon first entering the site I witnessed a breathing-taking view that allowed me to appreciate the size of the place. There before my eyes were magnificent ruins stretching out in a truly dramatic setting. The view was made even more mystical and mysterious by the mist and traces of fog that hung like a veil over the trademark mountain peak.
Built in the classical style of the Incas, Machu Picchu is constructed of polished dry-stone walls. Its three primary structures are the Intihuatana (literally “Hitching Post of the Sun”), the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.
The Intihuatana was a sacred ritual stone used by the Incas as a kind of calendar. It was designed to “hitch” the sun at the two equinoxes so that at midday on March 21 and on September 21, the sun would hover directly over the pillar of stone. Peruvian Shamans still maintain that if a person touches his/her forehead to the stone it will open their vision into the spirit world.
Few ordinary people had access to the Temple of the Sun because this place was the center for performing certain religious practices by the priests related to their principal God, the Sun. The temple is semi-circular in design and is built on top of a rock base. The location for the Temple was chosen so as to situate it at the highest altitude possible for a clear view of the heavens which, they believed, afforded them a better position for their religious rituals.
The Room of the Three Windows represents the three levels of Incan civilization in the Andean world: the sky (spirituality), the earth’s surface (the mundane), and subsoil (inner life). Consisting of only three walls on a rectangular base, these walls were constructed from large blocks of solid rock in a polygonal shape forming a conglomerate of perfectly-matched stones. The original building left space for five windows, although today only three remain. They indicate the exact location of the sunrise, a central event in the everyday life of the Incan people.
It has now been nine years since I joined the more than 1.2 million tourists who visit Machu Picchu annually. I came away from this architectural “wonder” perched above the Sacred Valley with a new appreciation for the ingenuity of these ancient Incan builders and the rituals that sustained them.
Next time: “The Coliseum of Rome”