I have wanted to see the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu for decades (map).
When my friend Christian, who had grown up in Lima Peru and I work with at
REI told me he was going, I jumped at the opportunity to join him.
We flew into Lima, arriving late. Christian’s generous friend Danny
picked us up, took us out on the town, let us crash at his house, and
ferried us out to the airport the next morning for our flight to Cuzco.
The effects of altitude in Cuzco (roughly the same as Mt. Hood's summit)
were readily apparent, with breathlessness, slight headache, and tingling
hands. We took a couple of days enjoying Cuzco’s array of meandering
alleyways, beautiful plazas, charming museums, Spanish colonial churches,
parades, and eclectic eateries to acclimate both literally and culturally.
Unfortunately Christian came down with the flu, which laid him low on the
day we had planned a city tour of Cuzco, so I went solo. The tour
guide gave me a much better understanding of the
Sacsayhuamán, Q’enqo, Puka Pukara, and Tambomachay ruins.
The following morning we packed our gear in preparation for a couple days
of sightseeing in the heart of the Sacred Valley. Christian
mustered enough energy to leave the hotel, knowing this was our sole
opportunity to see Machu Picchu. After leaving Cuzco, the Sacred
Valley descends. I found this strange because the photos I’d seen of
Machu Picchu were mountainous; I’d assumed that the Urubamba River Gorge
of the Sacred Valley wound its way upwards towards headwaters in the
Andes, instead of down to the Amazon River. We made our way down the
picturesque valley to the ruins of
with its agricultural terraces, fortress-like structures, and stunning
views over the Urubamba River. The town also had a market, but by
now the allure of trinkets had lost their appeal. The vendors were
mostly women and small children who lived in abject poverty, and seeing
people with so few opportunities in life made me think of the history of
Peru’s Inca were
conquered by the Spanish under the leadership of General Francisco
Pizarro in the early 1500s. While I don’t hold any illusions about
the Inca’s totalitarian rule, use of slave labor, and human sacrifice, the
brutality of General Pizarro in his conquest of the Inca Empire seems
excessive. Pizarro assassinated Inca leaders and religious figures,
tore down their temples and built churches in their place, burned people
at the stake for not converting to Christianity, and melted down gold and
silver religious symbols, sending the ingots back to Spain. One
example of his brutality (and greed) happened in July 1532 when he took
the Inca ruler Atahualpa hostage. As ransom for his release,
Atahualpa offered the Spaniards enough gold to fill the room in which he
was imprisoned, and twice that amount of silver. The Inca fulfilled
this ransom, but Pizarro double-crossed them, refusing to release Atahualpa
and eventually executing him (more
at this link).
Another example of Pizarro’s brutality (and greed) was ordering natives to
be literally worked to death mining for gold in Potosí, with laborers
generally lasting one-two years before dying from malnutrition and fatigue.
Pizarro made all of this happen with just one cannon, 169 men, 27 horses,
and an ability to manipulate different factions of native people against
each other. The Spanish horsemen, fully armored, were
technologically superior to the Inca forces; but new germs brought over
from the Old World, especially smallpox, probably had more of a
devastating effect on the Incas, who had no immunity (see
Gun, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond). Pizarro destroyed the
Inca civilization solely to extract its riches, with no regard to the
anthropological consequences. What little is known of the Inca --
culture, customs, and rituals at the time of conquest -- was documented by
Spanish Catholic missionaries, who by all accounts had a skewed lens in
which to tell the Inca's story (being sent to the New World to convert the
'heathen' natives from their 'satanic' beliefs, and/or burn them alive on
a stake if they chose not to convert).
The government system the Spanish set up in Peru was solely for the
benefit of themselves and the wealthy elite at home; the native Inca
people were subjugated and given no opportunities. This policy
basically continued with Peruvian independence and is the fundamental
reason behind the lack of opportunities (educational, economic and
otherwise) for the native Inca to this day.
As all of these thoughts were swirling in my head, we hopped on a bus
leaving Pisac and headed further down the Sacred Valley, coming across the
Ollantaytambo, where once again the Inca built agricultural terraces
and fortress-like structures on the side of a hill overlooking a strategic
valley intersection. Christian was running on fumes, and couldn’t
muster the energy to explore the site, so he found a nice grassy courtyard
to take a nap at the base while I climbed up to explore. Our time
ran tight as we made our way from the Ollantaytambo ruins to the train
station, where we got a ride to Aguas Calientes (the town at the base of
The train ride was a window into luxury travel, with air conditioning,
picture windows, airplane-like attendants, and well-heeled travelers. The
tracks followed the raging Urubamba River down the ever-narrowing gorge.
As we got closer to Machu Picchu the landscape changed from arid grassland
to cloud forest; first in small patches along the river bank, then ever
higher on the valley walls until the landscape had changed completely in
the course of ten miles. It was quite beautiful and reminded me of Central
American forests I’ve visited, only at a much higher altitude.
By the time we arrived in Aguas Calientes it was completely dark.
The train station had a border crossing feel, with touts tussling with
each other and tugging at tourists trying to drum up restaurant, hotel,
and guide business. I came to the realization, as we made our way
thorough the touts, that I had caught Christian’s flu. By the time
we walked to our hotel and checked in, chills had enveloped me.
Although it was only 7 p.m., I curled up in a ball, skipped dinner, and
tried to get some sleep. As the symptoms set in, this proved to be
next to impossible, with fever, chills, throbbing headache, phlegm spewing
coughs and all-over body ache . . . no fun.
We were up early the next morning because we had been told that the first
400 people who entered Machu Picchu were given tickets enabling them to
hike Wayna Picchu (the cliffed-out peak behind the ruins in the “classic”
Machu Picchu photos); and that these tickets were a hot commodity forcing
ever earlier arrival times at the entrance gate. The ruins opened at
6am, and the only way to get to the entrance gate is a 2 hour 2,000
vertical foot hike, or a bus ride. With both Christian and I feeling
like death itself, the hike was out of the question (getting up Wayna
Picchu would be challenging enough). Waking up early to stand in
line for the bus was our only option. So we checked out of the hotel
at 3 a.m., walked down to the bus station, and curled up in fetal
positions on the sidewalk behind the already-forming line. Time
drifted by (in an “I feel shitty” kind of way) and before we knew it, we
were shuttled up to the entrance, received our coveted Wayna Picchu
stamps, and were gazing upon the surreal ruins of Machu Picchu.
The site sits on a ridge saddle of sorts with Wayna Picchu jutting out
into the Urubamba River gorge, the river bending 270 degrees around it.
The surprisingly small ruin is built in the saddle with a larger ridge
rising in the background. Cliffs descend two thousand feet on
both sides of the saddle down into the Urubamba River, and the surrounding
snow clad mountains jutting vertically out of the cloud forest makes for
the best example I’ve ever seen of architecture integrating with the
landscape. It was awe inspiring!
Beyond the spectacular setting, Machu Picchu is a rare example of an Inca
ruin unmolested by the Spanish. The site wasn’t 'discovered' by the
western world until a professor named Hiram Bingham (the inspiration for
the Indiana Jones character) stumbled across it in 1911. Most other
Inca sites were damaged during the conquest, as the Spanish projected
their power as both rulers and religious zealots. Artifacts like the
Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu would have been one of the first
objects destroyed at more accessible sites. Because the entire ruin
was left to the jungle and not torn apart, one gets a better sense of what
it would have been like in its prime. One can imagine farming on the
terraces, climbing the stairs, living in the residential areas, and
walking down the alleys. Pretty amazing!
Although I had read extensively about Machu Picchu before the trip, I got
a much better understanding of the ruin on our early morning guided tour.
Afterwards Christian and I hiked up Wayna Picchu. (A better description
might be slogged or gasped our way up, as our flu and lack of sleep didn’t
help our endurance. It was one of those moments in which you have to
remind yourself that this is a rare opportunity, and that succumbing to
illness isn’t an option). We had to watch our step as we
switchbacked up the side of Wayna Picchu’s cliffs (a miscue would have
lead to a 2,000 ft fall). The precision craftsmanship was pretty
remarkable, with the trail taking us through a rock-face tunnel at one
point. Not surprisingly the views from the top were breathtaking,
with the vertical valley walls and glaciated mountain views even more
spectacular than from down below.
We staggered off Wayna Picchu and headed back to Aguas Calientes where we
had a good meal and caught our train back to Cuzco. The next couple
of days were a blur as we made our way back home while trying to recover
from what I unaffectionately call the bubonic plague. Christian
(flying standby on Continental) was bumped from the Lima-Houston flight
for four consecutive days. Although my journey home wasn’t nearly as
epic, upon my arrival I curled up into bed and didn’t get out for 24
hours! It took me a couple of days to recover, and luckily no one
else in the family caught my cold.
That’s the trip in a nutshell. My trip to Machu Picchu was fun,
educational, and awe inspiring! I can’t wait to take Elaine, Sierra
and Cooper to Peru in a couple of years (so that Sierra and Cooper can get
more out of it than they might now), maybe adding some trekking in the
Cordillera Huayhuash to the trip. I’m already looking forward to it!
Photos from the
Click here for the gallery view, or
here for a slideshow view.