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Published: September 10th 2013
May Full Moon The remains of Machu Picchu, the "Lost City of the Incas" are perched on the ridge separating Machu Picchu (Old Mountain) and Huayna Picchu (Young Mountain). Its stone agricultural terraces flow down the flanks and climb up the semi-tropical, cloud-forested mountains. Like so many other Incan ruins I'd visited, Machu Picchu fit organically in its site with temples growing out of the bedrock and connecting them with Pachamama, Mother Earth. I timed my visit with the full moon in May, near Buddha's birthday, and my time in Machu Picchu and my journey there were magical. Cusco is bursting with travel agencies offering a variety of fabulous, adventurous, though excruciatingly expensive, ways to reach the site. I took the road less traveled, and as Robert Frost said, that made all the difference.
The Road Less Traveled Rather than the hundreds of dollars others spent, I opted for local transport and spent $12. I'd been in Cusco and the Sacred Valley for a couple of months studying Incan culture through museums and visiting lots of other archaeological sites when I hopped a bus from Cusco heading to Quillabamba. Amazing views
accompanied us for five hours as we switchbacked up from the high Andean altiplano grasslands, passing tiny adobe outposts with grazing llamas and alpacas. Once we summited the pass, we switchbacked down into semi-tropical, banana-leafed communities along the swift Urubamba River. Along with a couple from Argentina, I got off in dusty Santa Maria, and with others, crammed into a ancient taxi for an hour-long, massively bumpy but scenic ride past waterfalls and up another mountain. We arrived at little Santa Teresa, hanging on a cliff above the Vilcanota River and backed by snow-capped mountains. I dropped my pack in a cheap hotel and hiked a dusty half hour down the cliff and along the river to amazing hot springs that had been cut into the rock. I soaked and paddled for hours, watching the almost full moon rise over the mountains. Perfection!
Jungle Trek The next day, I again crammed into a taxi for another wild, scenic ride to a hydroelectric plant. From there, I entered what felt like a lost world--a 12 km/7.5 mile jungle trail in the narrow Urubamba River gorge that circled the mountain upon which Machu Picchu sits,
with tantalizing views of the ruins far above. All along the way, there were tiny, wild orchids, big begonias, exotic tropical flowers and insects and the constant music of the Urubamba River cascading over huge boulders. On the little-used train tracks that also followed the river, a train would occasionally appear, seeming huge and other-worldly like the big cruise ship in Fellinin's Amarcord. It was a hint of the surreal town that would shock me a few hours later when I emerged from the jungle.
Aguas Calientes, Tourist Trap Aguas Calientes is in a magnificent setting nestled among lush mountains and at the confluence of two rivers. Unfortunately, it is a pitiful, half-under-construction tourist trap with look-alike hotels and restaurants that would be expensive in the high season. Fortunately, in the low season, I was offered a private room with bath, tv and mountain view for $7 a night. Woo-hoo, I stayed three nights. The next day I explored the surrounding canyons, finding waterfalls that I had all to myself, but passing on the town's crowded, cemented hot springs. Then, at the market for the town's workers, I got picnic supplies and spent a
watchman's hut overlooking the river below
I'd seen the hut high on the mountain as I hiked the river in
peaceful evening by the river watching the full moon rise and move across the gorge.
Climate Change and Unexpected Clouds The next day, I awakened early, planning to see the sun rise over the ruins. However, thanks to climate change, the normally-clear morning in this dry season was fogged in, so I drifted back to sleep. I finally roused myself and joined the herds waiting in line for a bus that would switchback us up to the site, arriving at about 7:30, still very early for me. Like ants in a line, we marched up the stone steps to the Watchman's Hut for the iconic view of the ruins. However, a view was not to be had as the ruins were socked in by low clouds. I joined a couple of new friends to hike an hour and a half up to the Sun Gate to wait for the clouds to lift.
The hike took our breath away--partly from the altitude (300 mts/900 feet above the 2453 mts/8,000 ft of the main site) and partly from the magnificence of the setting: verdant mountains stretched
Sun Gate, Llamas and the Inca Bridge
in all directions. The Sun Gate is where the Inca Trail enters, and it's from here on the winter solstice that the sun beams through an arch and then passes to an opening on the Sun Temple below. By the time we arrived, we had an impressive view of the main ruins far below, sitting along the saddle between the two peaks. Descending from the Sun Gate, I headed to the Inca Bridge but was stopped by a small herd of curious llamas and alpacas who roam the terraces grazing on and trimming the grass and entertaining tourists. I then followed a wonderfully-narrow, vertigo-inducing ledge that had been cut into the side of the mountain and buttressed with a stone wall. The Inca Bridge was an ingeniously placed set of logs across an opening on the trail that could be withdrawn when/if attackers tried to pass. Those Incan architects were so clever!
Master Builders Clever doesn't even come close to describing the incredible stone work and construction techniques of the Inca. Their masonry is legendary--perfectly cut and fitted, mortarless stonework that is highly resistant to earthquakes. Imperial Style stones for temples and palaces are cut in
precise rectangles, and the abundance of these at Machu Picchu indicates that this was a ceremonial and perhaps administrative city, not a military one. Machu Picchu also had plenty of examples of my favorite style, the Cyclopean--large, irregular polygons fitted together like jigsaw pieces, each snuggled seamlessly with its neighbors, and which seemed to exemplify unity from diversity. Then again, the workers' houses and lesser building were of field stones or adobe with mud mortar. The irrigated agricultural terraces are also a marvel of engineering, intact even after 500 years of being buried under jungle growth. Some say they grew food items here for the city--corn, potatoes, quinoa, and coca, while others say Machu Picchu was a such a sacred site that they only grew corn for the ritual chicha, corn beer, for ceremonies. So many mysteries still.
Sacred and Secular Spaces When I returned from the Inca Bridge, the clouds had lifted to the mountain tops, and I entered the sacred city through its impressive, former principle gate which perfectly framed Huayna Picchu Mountain and led to a broad, flagstoned avenue lined with tall stone houses. Surely, ancient visitors must have been
Santa Teresa Hot Springs
carved out of the rocks next to the river
as awed as I. I set out to explore some of the site's 200 buildings. The western side of the citadel contained the sacred temples and homes for the nobility while the eastern side was covered primarily by workers' houses, workshops and warehouses. Between the two was a vast, grassy plaza. Passing the city's quarry of igneous granite, I headed to the Sacred Plaza where temples rise organically out of a huge rock outcropping. The square has several temples, some with lintels weighing over three tons, one with a stone carved with 32 sides, the famous Temple of the Three Windows and a large outcrop sculpted with various angles and protuberances found in most Incan sacred sites. It's called the Intihuatana, the "Hitching Post to the Sun," and is thought to symbolically return the sun to its orbit after a solstice. I crossed the plaza, visited a towering sacred stone and the Temple of the Condor and wandered the maze of worker's houses that had the same grand views through their trapezoidal windows as did those of the palaces. As the masses of tourists were leaving to catch their trains, I returned to the sacred
side again, to visit another extensive ceremonial area.
Full Moon Energy The Temple of the Sun, the royal palace and the first of sixteen fountains were constructed with the same wondrous Imperial Style masonry as the temples in the Sacred Plaza. The Temple of the Sun was built in the shape of a D with windows where the sun entered at the solstices and which enclosed the highly carved summit of the bedrock upon which the temple was built. I found my special, full moon place in an opening under the Temple of the Sun. A natural cave had been enhanced with geometric carvings and sculpted with niches and alters. Hirum Bingham, the Yale historian who "discovered" Machu Picchu in 1911 and brought it to widespread attention, considered this space a royal tomb where a mummy may have been kept in one of the niches (as they often were in temples). Now, guides were telling people that it was the Temple of Pachamama, Mother Earth, as a feminine balance to the Temple of the Sun, but I'm sure this is modern nonsense. However, it is where I felt both energized, spacious and
serene and so spent my last hour here meditating before catching the last bus down the mountain. All over Machu Picchu, one can see how the Incas integrated natural elements in their constructions, marrying the carved rock and the natural rock, being one with nature. The following day, I was headed back to spend another week in tiny Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley of the Incas. I splurged and took the train for a fantastic passage through the towering canyon of the Urubamba River past waterfalls and dozens of Incan ruins, bridges and terraces. A fine ending to a great adventure!
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