Yesterday I visited a site that seemed so distant and impossible in my imagination. Like traveling to Nepal or Burma to a Buddhist temple or floating down the Amazon in a dugout canoe. Things that we, as relatively affluent people throughout today’s world, can now make actually make a reality yet still seem impossible in some way until we just empower ourselves. Here I was at Machu Picchu. Surreal ruins that only appeared in National Geographic pages in my youth. It was exciting to begin my travels from Cusco through Ollantaytambo and on to the jungle environs which are home to this place. Yet, Machu Picchu was not an important city in Incan times. The city that Yale historian Hiram Bingham re-discovered in 1911 held at most 1000 people because of its limited water capacity and was never totally completed. It was not the last city of the Incans that Bingham had been searching for. However, because of its impossible location, its great beauty and that it had not been plundered because of its late discovery, it has become the symbol of Incan society to most of the world. It is also the largest driver of the Peruvian tourist economy. Cusco and all of the cities of the Sacred Valley now thrive on the presence of this historical site. It is THE tourist attraction in Peru. The crassness of Aqua Calientes where one stays when visiting this area is in stark contrast to the beauty of the natural setting and amazing accomplishments of the Incan engineering and fortitude in creating a society on this steep rock faced jungle setting. We arrived in Agua Calientes on Wednesday evening after a full day touring in the Sacred Valley. It is a loud, in your face, pushy little tourist trap which actually feels like an insult to its setting. The valley is lush at this point and the surrounding mountains rise spectacularly straight up to the sky. I find myself in this little hostel with the rest of my troupe – four beds in the room with three roommates and a schedule that says get up at 430 and head down the block for a bus ride to the site. We are warned to buy a little something to munch on and water as the expense of lunch is quite high at Machu Picchu’s restaurant. It was also high in Agua Calientes. We are told that it is not allowed to bring in lunch so just grab some bars and be happy. With two snorers in the room I am awake from 2 am on and get up at 430 to walk down to the bus line. The line at 5 is already several blocks long but once the buses start to arrive we don’t wait long for our switchback narrow roadway up to the site. It takes about 25 minutes and requires some faith that the driver is wide awake at that hour. I just don’t bother to look down. Bike Dreams has purchased two separate tickets for us. One allows us to hike up Waynapicchu which is the sharply rising jungle covered peak you see just behind Machu Picchu in the most famous view of the area. They only allow 200 people into that climb twice a day. We feel lucky and are first in line for the opening at seven. It is a climb most middle aged people would struggle with and anyone with a fear of heights should definitely avoid. The trail is rock stepped all the way – when it gets too steep is accompanied by a steel cable to grab on the upper side. The views are of course fantastic. As you climb higher you start to get views of Machu Picchu on the side of the mountain facing you. It took about an hour of brisk hiking to find the very top. We stop for photos often and take some of each others cameras to find ourselves in the foreground. I find the view from this side (Waynapicchu means “new mountain” ) lends a great perspective in seeing Machu Picchu in its entirety. From the site itself it is very hard to take it all in. I talked a little in my previous post about the great engineering accomplishments of Incan society – Machu Picchu is a great example of these because of the difficulties in creating anything of any permanence in such a steeply pitched jungle that must experience a torrential rains at times. Some of the terraces are agricultural but many are created just to control the erosion that would bury the city if left to natural consequences. Even at the top of Waynapicchu you find the terraces throughout to protect the city below. There is an amazingly accurate sundial at Machu Picchu which was important in Incan society as the basis for planning agricultural plantings and harvestings. The Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Three windows were both very functional pieces of the scientific communal planning in the society. This city was created around 1450 and became uninhabited just over 100 years later. There was not evidence that the Spaniards ever found or captured Machu Picchu. There is no evidence of any big battles here. It seems most likely that smallpox ended society here and was never re-established. I am still a little in awe, after our guided tour yesterday, by this South American society we know as the Incas. I am also still processing all that I learned. I’ll try to get some photos posted and may dive back into the topic later on. Tomorrow I get back on the bicycle for some long days on the altiplano. We will soon be in Bolivia. It will be cold as the average altitude will be between 12 and 13 thousand feet ( I translated that from the meters we use) but there won’t be the big climbs that we have been cycling in Ecuador and Peru so far.
3 thoughts on “Machu Picchu- a big cog in Peruvian economy”
Wish I were with you…but without the biking I think. We were wondering if the Inca raised any animals for food or just hunted?
Hey Robi – wish you could be here too! The Incas domesticated llamas and alpacas. I don’t know much beyond that. The wild versions were the vicunas and guanacos.
We appreciate your writing and the vicarious thrill of your travels Buck. Oh, and get some ear plugs! Hahaha!