Finally, the day has arrived. The day to visit Machu Picchu. And an early day at that. We were ready and in the lobby to meet Henry by 5:30am since the gates open at 6am. A twenty minute bus ride up the mountain and through the gates we enter the mystical land of Machu Picchu.
My ‘up since 4:30am’ look
Once believed to be used only as a temple or spiritual site, the truth is that Machu Picchu is simply a better preserved (and much better geopgraphically located in terms of views) version of Pisaq and other similar Inca towns scattered around the countryside. As mentioned in a previous post, Cusco was the navel of the Inca empire. And if Cusco was the hub, it had many spokes of Inca trails which extended out into the empire punctuated every 15km by a strategic village and every 30km by a major town.
One thing I love about Incan architecture is how the incorporate nature into their buildings. Here they have built on top of a huge irregular rock.
Machu Picchu was one such town, located about 90km from Cusco. Built in the latter years of the Inca Empire, this town of about 1000 inhabitants served as a holiday residence of the Inca nobility of the time, who would sojourn to the town for about three months or so after major festivals in Cusco. As with other major towns of its time, it had a temple, residences for the nobility, general population and servants. It also had graineries and extensive terracing and a great wall that surrounded the city to protect it from invaders.
There are a couple of things that make Machu Picchu special. First, the entire town is really well preserved. When the Spanish conquered the Inca Empire they destroyed many of the towns around Cusco. Specifically they destroyed the temple in each town, building a Catholic Church on the previous sacred ground, stole building materials (stone) to build their own houses and churches, and gold and valuables to send back to Spain. The Spanish never went to Machu Picchu, however, and therefore it wasn’t destroyed. In fact, it has one of the only intact original Incan temples known within Peru. When the Incan Empire fell to the Spanish the town was abandonned. In fact there are a few walls and terraces that were left undone, with many of the stone building materials left onsite cut but left unfinished. Over the next 400 years (Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911 by an American) the city was overgrown by trees and thick vegetation. As opposed to destroying the site, the overgrowth actually helped preserve the site, offering protection from erosion and other elements.
The second reason Machu Picchu is so impressive is simply where it is located. It is perched atop a mountain surrounded on all sides by beautiful steep and towering mountain ranges both covered in green and exposed rock cliffs. As the sun rises over the horizon, the city itself glows in the morning light. And as the clouds and fog roll acorss the adjacent mountain tops in the early afternoon the place takes on a mystical quality. It’s not hard to imagine why early explorers and anthropologists thought this place to be a sacred city. It is magical and mystical indeed.
After touring the city and the various neighbourhoods and houses (nobility, concubine/wives, general population, workers, temples and servants) we headed up an adjacent mountain on the original Inca trail to the sun gate. It was about an hour walk up and worth every effort, as every step brought with it a new view of the city below. After coming back down Henry took us to the Inca bridge. Another twenty minutes up in another direction, the trail took us to the scariest looking log bridge linking an even scarier looking mountain trail to the city. Luckily the bridge is closed off to the public, as I’m sure many would be tempted to try it. As you can see, the bridge is easily dismantled to prevent enemies from approaching the city from this angle. I think walking along the trail itself would be enough of a deterrent to enemies, what with its being narrow and having a perilous drop at its edge in many areas. Yikes.
By 1:30pm we had had a full day of Machu Picchu so headed back to town for a long lunch before catching our train back at 4:30pm. We will arrive back in Ollantaytambo around 6pm (I’m typing this on the train), and will take a two hour taxi transfer back to Cusco for two nights. Tomorrow we have a ‘free’ day, and I think we are both looking forward to sleeping in a comfortable warm bed and not having to set an alarm! Good night:)