You know how, sometimes, you hear so much about something that when you actually see or experience it, there’s no way it can possibly live up to the hype? Well, Machu Picchu isn’t one of those things. It’s every bit as spectacular as you’d expect it to be.
There are several ways to reach Machu Picchu, and none of them are easy. The hardest way is a 4 day (3 night) hike on the Inca Trail. My friend Jill and I opted for the easiest (and shortest) method, which meant a van picked us up from our hotel around 6:30 AM. That took us to a bus, which took us to another bus, which took us to a train, which took us to a final bus. And that’s just one way. We finally arrived around noon, and the conditions were perfect.
Our guide, Jonathan, led us up some stairs, pausing periodically to educate us about Machu Picchu and the Inca as we caught our breath. It wasn’t a challenging climb, but the altitude made us all get winded more easily than normal. We learned that the civilization wasn’t actually called the Inca – there was only one Inca at a time (the ruler) and everyone else was Quechua. Almost nothing is known about the first Incas since they didn’t write their history, but we know a fair amount about the later rulers thanks to the Spanish who chronicled the culture.
Upon reaching the top of the stairs we were immediately rewarded with this spectacular view. Our guide was extremely patient while we snapped photos to our hearts content. I might have snapped a selfie or two (ok, there are like 50 on my phone).
We learned that you can tell where the highest ranking people lived because the construction of those homes are superior. The rocks are cut and shaped together perfectly without the need for mortar. We saw this in the Inca’s dwelling, the temple, and also where the priest lived. All the homes, even the Inca’s, are very small since they only used it for sleeping. The other, less holy areas are still beautifully built but the stones are less perfect and there is mortar between them.
They chose the location for Machu Picchu for multiple reasons. First, the elevation was appealing because it put them close to the gods. It also provided some protection, since enemies would have to scale the surrounding mountains. It would be easy to spot them as they did so. However, it is situated between two major fault lines so it’s prone to earthquakes. It’s also in an area with heavy rainfall much of the year.
It’s incredible how smart the Quechua were. Their architecture and astronomy were particularly impressive. They utilized the large boulders in the landscape to stabilize the buildings and protect against tremors. And they build in a system of aqueducts, channels, and fountains to deal with the heavy rains. As you can see in the picture below, the roofs of each home were built at 65 degrees so that the rain would pour off easily. The terraced areas you see were used for agriculture. They have several layers of dirt, sand, gravel, and larger rocks underneath to deal with the rain so that floods were nonexistent, even in the heaviest downpours.
If you’re in touch with South American news, you might know that there are strikes and protests going on throughout Peru right now. The notoriously corrupt government recently canceled plans to build a new airport in Cusco and the citizens are displeased about it. On top of that, the teachers are fighting for higher wages. In case the protests spread, police were sent to Machu Picchu with riot shields and machine guns. I think they were just as psyched to be there as we were.
In addition to being pretty darn funny, this picture is also a good example of the first construction style I mentioned with “pillow” shaped rocks that are cut so perfectly they don’t even need mortar. Compare that with the picture above and you can really appreciate the difference. However it’s important to keep in mind that all of the 700 people who lived there were considered high society, so there are no areas inside Machu Picchu where the lower castes lived.
The place is huge; we spent almost three hours there and honestly it felt a bit rushed because we had to make our train. I could have spent at least another hour or two exploring, petting the alpacas, et cetera.
Guess I’ll just have to go back! It’s a little expensive (I paid about $380 USD for admission, all transportation, and the tour guide), and it’s a very long day (about 15.5 hours), but it’s absolutely worth it. I am still reeling in awe, and I don’t think it’s wearing off any time soon!