Machu Picchu has been on my life bucket list for as long as I can remember. I recall sitting in my grandmother’s basement, flipping through back issues of Nat Geo, dreaming of being a National Geographic photographer, trekking around the world after amazing animals and incredible people, exploring the natural wonders of this amazing world in which we live. There were a few issues that got dog-eared with my persistent perusal: one of them was about Machu Picchu.
In many ways Machu Picchu, in real life, met my expectations… a tough thing to do, given how it had been built up in my mind over many years. It was truly a spectacular site and far larger in person than it seems from its photos.
We were absolutely shocked by the number of people who visit it daily: the numbers of “passengers,” as they like to call tourists in Peru, are LIMITED each day to 2,500 people (or so we had read)! This was so NOT what we had been expecting! I honestly had no idea that THAT many people even came to Peru at one time to vacation, trek and sightsee, let alone descend on one archaeological site on a given day. So any preconceived notion that I had of seeing and experiencing it off the beaten path, even with doing a trek to get there, were dashed out the window when our guide gave us a briefing the night before.
Karol said that the Peruvian government had just opened numbers up to allow more than the usual 2,500 people a day in to see the site, and that as a general practice, they don’t turn away visitors that have come this far. What this meant was that we had to get up exceptionally early to line up to take a bus up or line up to hike up a set of 2,000 stairs (Everest trekking style with no room to pass, like leaf cutter ants heading back to their underground nest, head to tail, head to tail) to beat the crowds up. Either way, a lineup and a horrifically early, 3:30am start, were in the cards for us.
We opted for the bus because my aging body was seriously hurting, and stoically agreed to get to the line-up at 3:30am. Even doing THAT, getting up at that DERANGED time, we made it onto the second bus. Not the first. And this wasn’t the height of the tourist season there.
There’s no doubt about it. Getting up at 3:15am to line up for 2 hours in the dark to get a place in line on the SECOND bus up the mountain to see Machu Picchu in the soft glow of the sunrise light was an insane way to begin the day. Seriously. But it was beautiful, majestic and stunning. It truly was.
There is such mystery surrounding Machu Picchu. No one knows what its purpose was. No one knows why it was abandoned. No one knows why it contained zero artifacts, and yet has no record of being pillaged and looted over time. And no one even knows what it was called (Machu Picchu is simply the name we give it now). And yet it is imposing and majestic and, despite its size, grandeur and colossal scope, it is a relative newcomer on the archaeological scene, only having been “discovered” (which the locals all roll their eyes and scoff at) in 1911. Perhaps it is better to say that it was “brought to the world’s attention” late in the game by Hiram Bingham, the inspiration for Indiana Jones, from 1911-1915.
The building in the low centre of the photo above was one of the Temples that was the last to be constructed on this site. And as such, it was never finished (the whole site of Machu Picchu was perhaps abandoned due to infighting between two would-be ruling Inca brothers, causing a civil war, plus the arrival of the Spanish plus the decimation of small pox throughout the kingdom… though no one truly knows why it was abandoned). Because it was not completed, this building is slowly pulling apart, thanks to earthquakes and, our guide was adamant, the weight of tourists on the site.
Some buildings were simply houses for people, some were qolqa storehouses for food, some were classrooms, and others surrounded gathering places and were temples of worship. In many places, the natural rock of the mountain protruded, and was then incorporated into the man-made structures… you can see that well in this photo. Some had been re-thatched with Andean grasses to give you a sense of what they would have been like with roofs on them.
It is estimated that somewhere between 300 and 1,000 people lived here, though theories abound about what this site’s purpose could have been. Some say it was a pleasure palace and a vacation place of sorts for the Inca Kings, their nobles and their families, but this theory was scoffed at by EVERY guide we spoke with on our trip.
What many put forward as a more believable theory was that this was a university place of sorts: it was a site of higher learning where the Inca nobility came to train to be rulers, priests and kings, where they came to learn the ways of agricultural production, the science of astronomy, the ins and outs of economics, the politics of ruling and where they came to experience the beauty and expression of creative arts to become truly well-rounded and exceptionally well-educated rulers.
The structural terraces were all about the movement of water through Machu Picchu. In a rainforest , water comes fast and furious and unpredictably at times and can be combined with landslides to create challenging building sites, and wreak havoc on the populations that choose to settle there. Erosive forces were curtailed with excellent engineering techniques, knowledge and skill, and the terraces still continue to work to this day, thanks to the expertise of the Incas: the bottoms of the terraces are filled with large boulders; they are topped with smaller rocks and then gravel; and the last layer to be added was the soil from the Andes Mountains mixed with clay to make it the best possible soil for growing plants.
There were three types of terraces, and it would really be something to see them ALL planted up and in use: there were the structural terraces that supported the site; there were the agricultural terraces that grew crops like corn, quinoa, potatoes and squash that fed the people (here and afar in the photo above); and there were ornamental terraces that grew medicinal herbs and beautiful flowers (they had one demonstration garden to show what this would be like).
The condor is still revered, to this day, by the mountain people of the Andes range. In fact, when we began our trek, our guide pointed out a condor soaring overhead and said it was a very good omen for our adventure. The condor is a very impressive bird with a wingspan of eight feet!
Our hope was that we’d be able to see that condor shape of Machu Picchu from high above. We just could not make it out from even a high view point on the site itself. The entire trail up was a series of steps like this. Those Incas really loved their stairs!
We passed quite a few people on the way up who were coming down, not having achieved the summit. They do not warn you about the intensely gruelling nature of this slog! And to imagine that the Incas ran up this to send signals and pass messages throughout the realm. Wow!
All told, we spent seven hours on this site and only scratched the surface of what there was to see. We had our guide from the Salkantay Trek for the first two hours to show us some not-to-be-missed sights, and then we were on our own with our guide books, left to explore. Yet despite spending the better part of a day there, there were places we did not see, landscape features that have yet to work their way into my heart, and heights to which we did not climb. And so, this will remain as a place full of promise and mystery in my mind. It did not disappoint.
One parting thought… despite cherishing the Nat Geo magazine portrayals of Machu Picchu in my grandmother’s basement, I was clearly captivated more by the photos than by the information they contained. I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought of the Incas as amazing because they were like the Egyptians: building incredible structures in BCE times. But the Incas reached their prominence in the 1400s.
What amazes me to this day, even after travelling to Peru and learning much more of its history, is that these massive cities and structures were built without the influence of medieval European castle builders. Without the influence of Italian stone masons (in taste, design or skill). Without the guidance of Roman road or aqueduct builders. Without the influence of Great Wall of China military gurus.
The Incas seemed to revere science, and the experimental method. And this entered their experimentation with both the engineering of massive sites (be they agricultural areas or temples), and the pursuit of agricultural innovation. They loved to improve… farming methods, building techniques, weaving artistry, gold and silver work, etc. And they worked hard to achieve their goals.
This comes through loud and clear in the size and scope of the projects in which they invested. And no one… no one, has been able to figure out how they got their massive stones to fit together as they did, without iron or steel tools, so that you cannot get a knife blade or a sheet of paper between them, even after many earthquakes and the passage of centuries. No one.
If you are thinking about going there yourself, check out my Trip Advisor Review. It has more of the nitty gritty details and tips about what & how to do things there.