Ever since the first time I saw a photo of Machu Picchu, the image has burned to my memory. The mythical place far up in the Peruvian mountains, with the mystic history and beautiful surroundings.
I had always told myself (and others) that when I go to Machu Picchu, I will do it the hard way, hiking the Inca trail. But, when I got the chance to go to Peru on short notice, I just could not resist. Unfortunately, two weeks notice was not enough time to pre-book the hike, so I had to settle for another option; hiking from Aquas Calientes to Machu Picchu and then to the top of Huayna Picchu. In all honesty, I do not think I would be fit enough to do the Inca trail at that moment anyway.
I decided to walk up from Aquas Calientes, to at least have a little physical challenge. Starting in drizzle that turned to heavy rain while taking a break after a leg of steep stairs, made me regret being so stubborn. To look at the bright side, I went through with it. As I wanted to give up, seeing the people behind the damp windows of the buses passing me, made me so envious. They were morning tired, but not exhausted.
Standing in front of the gate, gave me new energy. I rushed through the misty ruins of Machu Picchu, for my second challenge; hiking to Huayna Picchu. To preserve the area, only 400 persons are allowed to hike to the top every day, 200 in each of the two time slots. As I had already overcome my first obstacle and was warmed up, this hike felt much easier.
Revealing the mystery
Every time I stopped to catch my breath, I looked back to see if the grey mist had left the sacred ruins. The mist was gone, but it was covered by clouds instead. It was not until after I had crawled through the narrow cave hole towards the light at the other end, I finally got to see the whole area more or less uncovered. While sitting down for a short moment having a rest, the wind swiped the gentle mist away, before a new cloudy carpet shortly took over.
I continued to the top of Huayna Picchu, passing terraces clinging to the steep mountainside. Impressive buildings made of heavy rocks. I cannot even imagine how hard it must have been to build them. Yet another amazing detail making it even more extraordinary.
While catching my breath at the top, it happens again. The cloudy carpet is swept away, revealing the stunning views of the mythical town.
Time to get back down to explore the city up close. A new wave of pouring rain wash over us, so we seek shelter and take the opportunity to have lunch before reentering the area. As by a stroke of magic, the rainy clouds disappear. (The emerald green grass at the numerous terraces and the remains of the stone buildings are in strong contrast to the bright blue sky. )
We found a guide to take us around the area, telling us a bit more about this spiritual place. Machu Picchu is believed to have been built in the 1400s. Newer calculations say it took 85-90 years to build the site, but it was never completed. The Incas had no written language, so there are no records to prove exactly why they built it, and what it was used for. The theories are many though. Some stating it was the royal estate, others claim it was the sacred center of the Inca Empire, where political, religious and economic matters were discussed. Yet others believe it was a city for the upper class. These are just a few examples of the many hypotheses.
One thing is sure though; the Spanish never found Machu Picchu after they concurred Cuzco in 1532 and went looking for other cities. Still Machu Picchu was abandoned some years later, and the population moved further into the jungle to Vilcabamba.
In 1911, history professor Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu while he was actually looking for Vilcabamba. Altogether, they found 110 mummies in the ruins, including one in a cave under the Temple of Sun, believed to be the remains of a former Inca king.
The Temple of Sun also goes under the name Temple of Pacha Mama (mother earth). On 21 June and 21 December, the sun goes exactly through one each of the windows in the temple. There is also a sundial at the complex, next to a flat stone that apparently looks like a guinea pig. On 21 June, the stone shadow the head of the guinea pig. On December 21, the second corner. Then they also knew what season it was and what they could plant where. The leveled terraces had different microclimates, allowing perfect conditions for various plants. One area of the terraces were used as a laboratory field to find these perfect fits.
Water was understandably also very important, and 16 water fountains were found in the abandoned city. Besides the obvious use of water, it was also important for astronomical research. Two stones were carved and filled with water; one reflecting the sun, the other the moon. Other places also had larger pools for reflecting the stars. To learn more about that, definitely visit the Qorikancha ruins in Cuzco. It was amazing how much they could calculate without modern tools!
Continuing to The Temple of the Condor, probably used for sacrificing, as many animal remains were found there. In front there is a stone shaped as the head of a condor on the ground, and the natural stones behind are the wings.
Impressive building techniques
Our guide took us from place to place, telling about the building technique of the different types of houses. The rough stones were used for regular buildings, the polished and perfectly fitted were for royalty and temples. The stones were cut so accurate that there was no need for any binding material, and the Inca walls are leaning in 10-15% to be safer during earthquakes. Wood was never used except for roofing, yet another reason the buildings are quite well preserved.
The fast messengers
The community also had a woman school teaching how to make clothes and other domestic tasks, and a boys school teaching quipu. Quipu was a system of threads with knots in different shapes and colours, a numeric method used to keep record of different things. The quipus were transferred throughout the Inca Empire by Chasqui runners delivering the knots together with oral messages. Apart from being extremely fit and fast, the Chasqui runners also had to have a good memory to pass on the information to the next runner waiting at a station to take it further. Almost like a relay. To give an impression how fast they were; it took about 3-4 hours to get a message from the start of the Inca Trail all the way to Machu Picchu….
Climbing up to the Guard House, the whole city lies before me. My eyes look at the iconic image I have seen so many times before. Only this time it is for real!
I find a spot a little away from the hordes of people capturing the moment (yes, I was one of them just minutes before…), to reflect on what I am experiencing. It is hard to describe, but it felt like stepping into a photo, suddenly feeling the majestic mysterious atmosphere surrounding the area.
Some questions were answered, but so many new came to mind. Excavations are still carried out during the dry season, so maybe one day we will find new answers. Or maybe only more questions….
Before you go:
Book tickets to enter Machu Picchu in advance, especially if you want to hike to the top of Huayna Picchu. Only 400 persons are allowed to do the hike per day, and 2500 persons are allowed to enter Machu Picchu.
It is wise to book the train ticket with Peru Rail ahead to get the departure you want. I strongly recommend to get a private driver from Cuzco to Ollantaytambo to stop at the many sights along the way, and then take the train from Ollantaytambo to Aquas Calientes.
If you want to do the Inca Trail, it is said you should book around 6 months ahead.
Where to stay:
There are plenty of places to stay in Aquas Calientes. We booked a room at Panorama B&B, a nice place situated by the river. They also offer lunch packages to take with you.
What to bring:
Arriving by train, you are only allowed to carry a limited sized luggage, so do not take along more than you have to. Make sure to bring a small backpack for the day Machu Picchu. Weather can change from cold mist to burning sun in a heartbeat.
I was very surprised that there were almost no shops selling sports equipment in Aquas Calientes, so make sure you bring what you need from Cuzco (or wherever you arrive from). In Cuzco the sport shops are plentiful though.
MOSQUITO SPRAY! Sorry to “yell” at you, but you really do not want to forget it. The moment we stepped out of the train, they attacked. And they were HUGE!
Experienced November 2015