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October 14th 2018
Published: October 14th 2018
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Getting up at 4 AM is not my idea of fun but with the prospect of finally seeing Machu Picchu, I was up, dressed, packed and ready for breakfast in a heartbeat. Dave however began grumbling that there was water on the floor in the bathroom. Then as he grabbed his hat from the closet he found it was wet! Not a good find when you are half asleep. I thought we would be one of the first to arrive for breakfast but it turned out we were nearly last. In my haste I didn’t realize that our alarm was late so in reality I had gotten ready to go in ten minutes! Planning the night before really paid off. There were plenty of protein options, teas, fruit and goldenberry and elderberry jams for toast at our at Inti Punku Hotel breakfast giving us the energy we would need for the day.

After stowing our bags at the hotel, a last minute bano stop, and watering up we began our walk in the dark back down to the part of town where we had lunch, to get in the 5 AM line for the 5:30 AM bus up to Machu Picchu. I stamped my feet in the chilly damp morning air watching store owners as they began to open their shops for the day. Several busses came and went. Franco handed out our bus tickets while Elias told us we needed to wait so we could all get on the same bus.

I never had any trepidations about the train to Aguas Calientes but I did have reservations about the bus to Machu Picchu. I had anticipated a rickety old bus, much like those I rode in Guatemala, to take us up the steep and narrow switchback road to the ruins, so I was pleasantly surprised to get on a shiny, comfortable bus far more modern than I had anticipated. Still, the road. Feeling more confident that this bus had brakes, I chose a window seat to get the most out of the jaw-dropping views ahead. And they were. Jaw-dropping. As daylight began to lighten the sky we made our bumpy way up the precariously winding brick paved roads, every so often trying to squeeze a returning bus past us on this, really, one way road. More often than not, trees blocked our view but when there was an opening it was something else. We were immediately aware of being in a mountainous jungle with deep ravines below us and near vertical, soaring mountain tops jutting towards the sky. From my bus window I caught site of the very narrow stone steps of the Inca Trail snaking upwards from the road.

The bus stopped in front of Machu Picchu Lodge, an elegant and pricy (and the only) hotel and restaurant at Machu Picchu, reminding us that although we were high in elevation, on this journey we were not in the elevated level of travel society. Franco and Elias divided us into two groups, then reminded us that this was the last stop for banos for the next 5-6 hours. No further discussion needed. Franco was to be our tour guide for 10 of us through these ruins while Elias took the younger and more energetic group.

After months of anticipation, we were finally ready to begin our exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu. The main entrance was already crowded with tourists when we handed in our tickets and proceeded through the gates. Even though we were “only” at 8,000’ we soon found breathing and climbing was still not easy for old flatlanders like Dave and me, but we slowly progressed up the ancient stone steps, stopping every so often to look both up and back down at the ghostly ruins of the mighty Incas surrounding us. There are only two entrance points to the Lost City of the Incas, the main entrance by the hotel and the Gate of the Sun, also known as the Sungate. We followed Franco passing signs pointing to my originals goals, the Guardhouse and Sungate, both noted for the best views of the entire lost city of Machu Picchu but after struggling to climb the steps at the very beginning, I soon realized I was 20 years too late to make it to the summit of the Sungate.

Franco guided us up the winding stoney paths past a thatch roofed granary and finally passing the Guardhouse to a grassy embankment with less tourists and a better view of Huayna Picchu towering in the mist above the ruins of Machu Picchu. We settled in on the damp ground for an hour long lecture about Machu Picchu. Perched high above this ancient city, we learned about the towering, ghostly monolith, Huayna Picchu, or Young Peak from the Quechua, that hangs (protectively or ominously?) 1,000’ over the lost city. For the really adventurous, 400 hikers are admitted per day leaving at 8 AM and 10 AM and tickets must be purchased 4 months in advance to climb to the top of this peak. The stairs up to Huayna Picchu, sometimes referred to the Stairs of Death, are said to be treacherous, curling around abysses of hundreds of feet, especially dangerous in the rainy season. Franco pointed to the top where already we could see hikers standing proudly atop their accomplishments. None in our group were remotely interested, preferring to enjoy the view from our lower elevation.

Machu Picchu, believed to have been built by Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui, the ninth ruler of the Inca, in the mid-1400s, was a religious sanctuary and sacred place for the Incas as well as a royal retreat. Tucked between Machu Picchu Mountain and Huayna Picchu with the Urubamba River hundreds of feet below, it is safe to say this was a difficult place to get to, thereby easily protected. With guards at the Guardhouse we just passed and the Sungate at the other end, people could feel fairly safe from enemy intrusions. In fact the Conquistadors, in their attempt to find this perceived golden treasure, were lead away from Machu Picchu, and much of the trail that lead here was intentionally destroyed. This is the reason the city is still relatively intact today. Machu Picchu, a city of up to 1,000 people, was supported mainly by agriculture, as seen by the terraces and grain houses that stored mainly corn and potatoes. Water was important for bathing and drinking but in the tropical rainstorms it could be a problem. The Incas found a brilliant method of supplying and then draining water for crops grown on the terraces as well as protecting the stone constructions. Llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs and fish supplemented their diet. There were also locations here that functioned as a celestial observatory from which the Incas were able to observe and interpret the heavens.

With our heads filled with information, Franco lead us down from our heavenly perch to the Main Gate to the city proper. As usual, I had to wait several minutes for crowds to clear enough for me to get Dave in the doorway, and then me on the other side to adequately photograph this important entrance. As I stood there, I looked back up to the Guardhouse, now high above me, with clouds and mist revealing the peak of Machu Picchu Mountain behind. It was both a haunting and mystical scene.

There is so much to take in at Machu Picchu, it is easy to be overwhelmed. We started in the houses and the royal compounds. Consistent with other Inca settlements we had seen, Machu Picchu was built with dry-stone walls, the most important structures had polished stones. All the houses had steep thatched roofs designed to shed water from the tropical seasonal downpours. Emperor Pachacuti’s rooms, were located near the Temple of the Sun for he was believed to have been a deity of the sun. His rooms had similar protection from the elements evidenced by the stone roof supports. But as a king should, he had a “king size bed” to share with his wife and many concubines. He had his own garden and a private bath with ready sources of water nearby. Water represented fertility, and therefore, life. (I guess that fertility reference accounts for the hundreds of children sired with his many concubines.) When the Spanish arrived, the chroniclers wrote that they were surprised by the cleanliness and neatness of the Inca nobles and of the daily baths that they took. Franco pointed out the king’s toilet, the only private toilet on the site. The rest of the population used the bushes for their toilets. Some of us were considering this option…

The Temple of the Sun, built on top of a large and important rock next to the Royal Palace, is the only construction of its kind in Machu Picchu. It has a unique semicircular outer wall called a Torreon, a rarity in Inca construction, through which only priests and higher nobles were permitted to enter. The Torreon marks one of the city’s highest altitudes, being appropriately closest to the sun. Each year on the winter solstice (the twenty first of June in the southern hemisphere) a beam of light streams through a window, forming a mysterious shape on top of a granite stone. The royal tomb is believed to be below and a rock carved with three steps (the symbol of the Pachamama) is united with the great rock that supports the temple, symbolizing the world below. I pride myself on finding heart shapes wherever I go but this time Kathy beat me to it. She found a heart shaped rock slanted above the stairs to nowhere. Quite amazing!

We wound our way over towards the Sacred Plaza where we found the Temple of the Three Windows. This structure has only three walls with its three windows aligned to the sunrise, but it is thought there were originally five windows. It is here, in front of the three windows that half of the famous Inca Cross or Chakana, or four sided cross, peeks out from the floor. The Inca Cross has many different symbols but here these visible levels represent the under world (the lowest level), the here and now (middle level) and the top level, heaven. When the sun hits the stone it casts a shadow completing the part that represents the non-material world.

Adjacent to the Temple of the Three Windows is the Principal Temple (sometimes known as the Main Temple). Lacking a fourth wall, it seems to unfold into the a larger open space sacred space. By the time we arrived here it was very crowded with tourists. I was unable to photograph this sacred area with so many people but fortunately I had taken an earlier shot from above that gave me a much better perspective of the temple and where it sat. Franco took us into a smaller room, away from the madding crowd, to talk to us about Inca construction. We learned how the stones were carefully placed to provide maximum stabilization in case of an earthquake. A fault runs through most of Peru and we were told the Peruvians are quite used to frequent small tremors. Franco pointed to one of the walls intentionally built at a 13 degree slant to better withstand unforeseen movements of the earth.

We climbed up 70 steps to see the famous Intihuatana or Inti Watana, “Hitching Post of the Sun” or “the stone to tie the sun”. Located above a pyramid constructed in the highest part of the urban sector, this massive carved ritual stone, the best preserved and possibly only one of its kind left from the many Inca ruins, was used as both an altar and a place to predict important astronomical events, such as the equinox and the solstice, when no shadow would be cast from this stone. According to legend, this is the place where you can touch the stone and feel energy course through your body giving you the stamina to continue your exploration of Machu Picchu. Trouble is, there were so many people filing through, and guards surrounding it, no one could get near the stone. Franco told us that in 2000 a beer company was making a commercial and one of their cranes hit the top of this iconic stone, breaking off a tip of the rock. Hence the guards.

We descended many stone stairs that wrapped around buildings and eventually passed into the large, spacious, flat grassed urban sector, part of Acllahuasi, (the sun virgin's house, a sort of convent for women) on the way to the hefty Sacred Rock which marks the northern most point inside Machu Picchu. This is also the beginning point of the dangerous trek up Huayna Picchu.

Toward the end of our tour of Machu Picchu Franco settled us in a small stone room to give us a more historical background about how the Conquistadors changed the once proud and productive Inca people. He was passionate about his Inca heritage in all of his historical discussions with us but when we were in Machu Picchu Franco began to tell us about the treatment of the Inca people after the Spaniards took control. The greatest asset of the Incas had been their enormous skill in organization, both in politics and administration. They had thrived under a clearly demarcated system of provincial government and a sophisticated system of taxation. It was an utterly methodical society, and the invasion by Spanish conquistadors is considered one of the greatest wrongs by mankind in pre-Columbian America. Franco explained the hierarchy of the Conquistador’s imposed “new social class” with the Inca at the very bottom. The Spanish made sure that food was meager for the Inca people resulting over time in a physically changed people. Although the Inca did not have math as we know it, these natural born engineers, builders and planners whose constructions are still standing hundreds of years later, were repeatedly told they were stupid and incapable of learning or being productive citizens in this new world. These people who had built a remarkable empire were, to the Spanish, a worthless burden on society. How many times have we seen conquerors doing this to those who they conquered. Soon, with inadequate food, these formerly great people became less developed physically, and emotionally stunted. Even now the Inca people or Quechua people are struggling for respect and an opportunity to regain their former status under yet another foreign regime, the Japanese.

As we were leaving Machu Picchu, I looked up in awe and with renewed respect of this once great nation. Seeing the genius of the high altitude terraces used for producing large quantities of potatoes and corn to feed over 1,000 people is an amazing testament to the ingenuity of the Inca. These people who were not educated in the western sense, and yet had created a system expertly engineered to drain off the torrential tropical rains without damaging the crops that were needed to feed a growing community. We watched the llamas, the groundskeepers at work, as they quietly “mowed” and groomed the grassy beds. Roof peaks of granaries and storage houses that were visible at the edge of the terrace rows, were perfectly designed to keep the precious crops dry in the wet, humid weather. I would venture to say the European educated Spanish were incapable of such grand achievements.

With my head full of wonder I walked silently out of the Inca city in the clouds, joining the rest of our travel weary group to line up for the bus that would wind back down below through the jungle clouds to Aguas Calientes. I was glad of the quiet, a time to reflect of all that I learned, all that I experienced, in this day to remember for a lifetime. We had spent six whole hours climbing up and down the ruins in this magical, mystical city.

We were soon back to reality in Aguas Calientes and conveniently the bus dropped us near the Hot Springs Restaurant 2, next door to the Hot Springs Restaurant 1, where we had had a late lunch upon arriving in Aguas Calientes the day before. Several of us settled in for a late afternoon meal. Barbara and Re enjoyed Pisco Sours while I chose to replicate the amazing orange and pineapple smoothie I had at the market in Puno. (The Puno Market smoothie is still the best I ever had.) I think I overestimated my hunger for I ordered a cheese, mushroom and anchovy personal sized pizza and was unable to finish it. I am a picky pizza eater wanting my crust very thin. This pizza got high marks for thin crust but again, altitude. As we enjoyed our reviews of the amazing day over lunch, another musician serenaded us with his melodic Zampoña Peruvian flute. Exactly the soothing music I needed after this amazing adventure. This time I bought a CD.

After lunch we all trudged back up to collect our overnight gear, to prepare to leave Aguas Calientes, Machu Picchu Town. Of course I made a quick stop at the Inca craft market on the way before lining up to board the Peru Rail Expedition Train for a 4 hour ride back to Cusco. Exhausted as I was, I enjoyed the changing landscape, the snow capped mountain peaks, the brooding clouds, the stone ruins and rushing Urubamba River passing by our train window. It was dark by the time we arrived in the outskirts of Cusco where we were met by a bus to drive us another half hour to our hotel.

As I walked into the lobby of the Polo Cusco Hotel, as promised, the woman who sold me my beautiful silver Pachamama earrings and necklace the day before, was there to be paid. I had been rushed to the bus for our train the day before and she had been very accommodating telling me to keep the jewelry saying she could be paid upon my return! I admit I am guilty of encouraging Kathy to buy some jewelry before picking up my clean and folded laundry (14 Soles) and heading up to change for dinner.

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