It was early morning, when Pedro and I boarded the local bus for the 25-minute ride from Aguas Calientes to the top of the nearby mountain. Pedro would be my tour guide for the next several hours introducing me to one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world – Machu Picchu, which means “Old Mountain or Old Peak” in the native Quechuan language. The air was cool and damp – a light drizzle for the last hour had wet the ground – not enough to entice me to put on the poncho I had just bought for 5 Soles. Being one of the last to board the bus, there were just a few seats left towards the back. I slid across to the window and Pedro sat next to me. I heard from a number of people the bus ride to the top was somewhat scary because it ascended the mountain via a dirt road constantly switching back from one direction to the next precariously on the edge all the time. I was wondering how the dirt road would hold up on a wet morning.
After driving for about 10 minutes on the local paved road, we turned left onto the dirt road and proceeded to the first switchback. Pedro and I chatted casually as I tried without much success to look out the window. With a packed bus on a damp morning, the windows were steamy. I couldn’t see much except for the dirt road every time we did a 180 to turn onto the next switchback. Pedro indicated that he had worked as a history professor at the local university in Cusco. Being a tour guide here, I thought, must work out well for a local history professor. The drive didn’t seem too bad; although, I wouldn’t have even known if we had come close to the edge.
I was excited thinking about catching the first glimpse of the ruins. I love seeing such ancient sites. I grew up in Southern California where historical locations are not very old. I wondered how this site would compare to the ones that I saw in Petra, Jordan and Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which I felt were spectacular.
It was about 7 am when we got off the bus. There wasn’t much of a line at the entrance. My ticket that I purchased when I was at the hotel in Cusco, and passport was all that was needed. After a brief examination, the person at the gate returned both back to me and I was through. I was waiting for Pedro who went to get a couple of maps outside of the entrance. The anticipation was building. I couldn’t see the ruins from here. However, the nearby mountains were picturesque amid the clouds that were wrapped around them. For what seemed to be a long time, which in actuality was probably five minutes, Pedro caught up with me and we headed off.
Within a few minutes, we rounded the corner of the mountain. There, laid out before me, was one of the most incredible sites I had ever seen - the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu. I thought of the post that Kyle put on our Facebook page “It’s better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times”. In this case, I felt seeing this place, with my own eyes, was so much more impactful than all of the photos I had seen. Isn’t that usually true?
The ruins were fully visible. Behind them, Huayna Picchu (“Young Mountain”) was shrouded in clouds only partially visible in the background. The surrounding mountains were pointed – each one seemingly unique. Clouds hugged the peaks creating one of the most photographic scenes I had ever witnessed. I stood there in awe trying to absorb it all. It was exciting and yet, at the same time, so very peaceful. Every few minutes, there was a different scene to photograph due to the flowing cloud movements. Pedro said he wished he had remembered his camera. I told him that he must have hundreds of photos of this place. He said he did; however, when the clouds are low and hugging the mountains like this, every photo is different. It’s not like the ruins against a blue-sky background. I thought briefly back to earlier this morning when I was concerned about the weather. Now, as I stood here, I was glad for how it turned out.
Where we were standing provided a commanding view of the site. It was nice, with the first glimpse, to be able to take in so much of the ruins. Even with the number of buses I saw leave ahead of us, there didn’t seem to be many people. I felt like we had much of the place to ourselves.
I had three cameras with me – a Canon DSLR, a small Nikon point and shoot and my iPhone – and I was using all three. I’m sure Pedro is not surprised with tourists and all their cameras. He seemed very patient. He gave me the time to absorb my initial look at the ruins and then take what seemed like a million photos before he started the tour of the site. For the next two and a half hours, he told me the story of each section that we walked through.
Machu Picchu overview
Built in the mid-15th century, historians aren’t really sure the real purpose of Machu Picchu. Was it a royal estate for its emperors and nobles? Or was it a religious site? No one knows for sure. It was abandoned about a 100 years after its construction – around the time of the Spanish conquest. However, there’s no proof that the Spanish ever found the mountain citadel. Some suggest that the desertion was due to a smallpox epidemic. In 1911, in search of Vilcabamba, the last Inca stronghold to fall to the Spanish, Hiram Bingham, with the aid of a local farmer, stumbled upon Machu Picchu. He displayed his discoveries in a book titled “The Lost City of the Incas”. In 1983, Machu Picchu was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Its use is not known for sure; however, inside this cave-like area is a series of steps, representing the three levels of existence in the world of the Inca. The first step, symbolized by the snake, represents the underworld or death. The second step represents the present, human life, and is symbolized by the jaguar. The highest step represents the celestial/spiritual plane of the gods, and is symbolized by the condor.
Researchers believe this was built as an astronomic clock or calendar due to its positioning in relation to the sun. Some believe it also had a religious significance and was used as an altar for ceremonies, sacrifices and rituals.
The Room with Three Windows
Pedro indicated that many things in the Inca world were built in threes such as three steps, or three doors or in this case three windows. It’s believed that the three windows represent the spirituality of the sky, the earth’s surface (or the mundane) and under the soil (or inner life).
The Central Plaza is a grassy field in the middle that separates the Sacred District from the residential area located on the far side of the complex
Water mirrors imbedded into the floor for stargazing?
It is believed that round stones, imbedded into the floor, when filled with water, acted as mirrors to track the constellations in the sky
The Temple of the Condor
The condor held special significance in the Inca world. One of the most interesting areas that we visited was the Temple of the Condor. A natural rock formation was shaped by the Incas into the outspread wings of a condor in flight. The head and neck of the condor have been carved into a rock on the floor of the temple.
The residential area is very well preserved and separated from the sacred areas.
The interior wall that formed a side of some of the important rooms was built with extreme precision. No mortar was used to hold the wall together. The stones were cut to precise dimensions and fit together like a glove using a concave and convex approach. One stone was rounded outward while the next one rounded inward. Many times, one stone would have a male extension, which was connected to the female section of the next stone. This design and construction has allowed the Inca walls to withstand numerous earthquakes over the years.
Pedro concluded our tour about 9:40 in the morning. We had been touring the site for about two and a half hours. I walked with him to the entrance/exit, thanked him for his time and insight, paid him 145 Soles for his services (about 50 USD) and bade him farewell. I had purchased the admission ticket with the Machu Picchu Montana (Mountain) hike as an optional extra. One restriction is that you must pass a check-in kiosk at the base of the mountain by 11 am in order to proceed with the hike. I really wanted to go to the restroom (located outside the main entrance) before starting the hike; however, the line to get back in was pretty long by this time. I probably had enough time in order to get to the kiosk by 11. I decided against it, turned around and headed up the mountain to find the kiosk.
The trail to Machu Picchu Montana takes off from the upper part of the ruins. Right away, you start climbing on stone steps of different sizes and heights. I’ll tell you one thing – my size 13 Nikes didn’t fit on many of those steps. It took about 20 minutes to get to the kiosk. I was pretty winded due to the higher altitude, which is almost 8,000 feet at the start of the hike. It would only get higher and harder to breathe as I continued my ascent. There’s an attendant at the kiosk who, literally, checks you in. You sign a logbook with your name, note the time of day and then provide your signature. The lady indicated they close the top of the mountain at 12:30. It was five past ten at this point so I had almost two and a half hours. I asked how long it takes to get to the top from the kiosk. She said it takes about an hour and a half. Now, I’m really glad that I didn’t stop for the bathroom break.
To be continued……………… check out my next blog to see if I made it to the top of Machu Picchu Montana.