I can’t believe it took me so long to get around to writing about Machu Pichu, especially since it was really the highlight of the whole trip and the reason I wanted to go at all.
The appeal of Machu Pichu, besides its scenic beauty (), is the unique window into the past that it provides. I didn’t learn hardly anything about pre-Columbian native civilizations in school. Almost everything was Western European oriented. I learned a little about the course of the evolution of civilizations and why those in North America were disadvantaged by reading Jared Diamond’s great book Guns, Germs and Steel, but I never really knew that much about the Incas (or the Aztecs or Mayans for that matter). So I was intrigued by the complete ‘alien’ feel of native South American culture.
Another appealing aspect of Machu Pichu is its remoteness. First you have to get to Peru. Then you fly across the Andean mountains to Cuzco, the imperial city of the Incas (which was pretty much completely taken over by Spanish architecture and tradition). Then you usually take a car ride into the Sacred Valley and see some of the historical sites along the way (like Pisaq and Ollantaytambo). Then you train it to a town at the foot of Macchu Picchu called Aguas Calientes.
When you get to this town you are directly under Macchu Pichu, but you can’t see it. It’s completely hidden from view, more than a thousand feet straight up, resting on a plateau at the top of one of the ridiculously steep and high mountains. Finally, after taking a twenty minute bus ride up the windy-est, steepest road you are ever likely to drive on, do you arrive at Macchu Pichu.
No wonder the entire city stayed hidden for almost four hundred years.
Because the Incas had no written language, and the city was not known to the Spanish, it has stayed remarkably intact and largely a mystery. Some accounts say it was a retreat for nobility, some say it was a holy place for education and training in the mystical naturalist ways of the Incas. No one knows. All you can say for sure is that when walking over its many stone staircases and terraces and through its many passages and temples, the place is amazing.
The sheer architectectural accomplishment of building a city completely out of stone, on the top of a steep mountain, and supplying it with water from a nearby spring on another mountain, is mind-boggling. We learned that the Incas did not have the necessary tools to cut the hard granite into blocks, so they had to polish large pieces of stone down until they were the right shape and size, an act which required thousands of man-hours of work. Truly amazing.
Walking around Machu Pichu is as close to being among an alien culture as one could ever hope to be. It’s different from walking around the ruins of ancient Greek or Roman towns, which hold less mystery and are mor familiar to us. You walk around Machu Pichu and think to yourself, “I know that this must have been an amazing place to be even to the Incas, but what were they like?” What did they do there? Why did they build it, and why did they abandon it?
My favorite thing about Machu Pichu is that it is surrounded by huge mountain peaks. When looking around the place, there is no direction that you can turn your eye that will not give you an immense sense of both the huge scale of nature, and give you vertigo at the same time. That anyone would climb to the top of this particular mountain, look around, and then make the decision to build a town there, is just insane. That they accomplished just that (and made a beautiful town to boot), is truly amazing.
Machu Pichu is one of the wonders of the world, and you should see it once in your life if you are able. I’ll never forget my trip there, with the heavy breathing to get up the stairs, Ann holding her stomach from the terrible cramps she had the first day (she actually went to Machu Pichu, found a nice patch of grass in the shade, and laid down and took a nap instead of taking the walking tour because her stomach hurt so much, poor thing).
We’ve got some fantastic pictures (luckily we had sun the first day), and I have to thank Ann so much for having the ambition to put this trip together. It really was one of the most amazing things I’ve seen in my life, thank you.