On July 24th, 1911, an American explorer by the name of Hiram Bingham was hiking over the Andes through uncharted territory when he came upon ruins of a city that no doubt was from the Inca period. He called it Machu Picchu, meaning old mountain.
Still living in these ruins were two families of native farmer peasants. They were living in Inca houses and farming on Inca terraces. It was all still there. Its walls were ensnared with vines, its yards full of trees. But the city was still there.
Bingham was looking for Vilcabamba, the lost capital of Manco, the Inca’s last leader. But he found something a lot more whole. The truth is, if he had found Vilcabamba, it would have been almost destroyed, ruined by the Spanish so many years ago. The lucky thing was, the Spanish didn’t find Machu Picchu. How lucky Machu Picchu is today, still 80% original, its terraces, huts, and temples still very much intact. If the Spanish had found it, the legacy of the Incas would not be as it is today. So much would be different. We would not be able to see it.
Bingham had to cut through hours of brush and trees at a high elevation to reach the hidden city. It was covered in vegetation. I couldn’t possibly imagine being a Spanish Conquistador hundreds of years before, having to clear so much green just to walk ten feet. Lucky for us, there was a beautiful stone hiking path that led up to the top of the mountain. It was a lot of hiking up a steep mountainside. But as I looked away from the peak I was summiting, I got a view of vaulting green and grey mountains, each complete with their own peaks and steep cliffs. And between each of them wound the Urubamba river, snaking its way over smooth stones under the clear blue sky. It was a beautiful day.
The climb was exhausting, amazing, and inspiring. I just climbed, one foot in front of the other, over stones, under branches, and past many species of birds and rodents. I didn’t really care if the top was near. Time ceased to move. I just jogged, ran, and then walked, jogged, ran, and walked. One foot over the other. My mind was all over what I was seeing, though not exactly consciously. And before I knew it, the top was in sight. A feeling of acomplishment but wanting to do it again rushed through me.
But there was no time to do that. At the top waited Amie and Poppy, who had taken the bus up, and once we had all finished the trek and amazingly had hiked up to Machu Picchu, we met our guide and got the tour underway. At the beginning of the tour, we first passed terraces where the talented Inca farmers grew corn, sweet potato, bean, yuca, and chili plants and then arrived at the viewpoints that all the postcard pictures were taken from.
Wayna Picchu, the big mountain across from Macchu Picchu, loomed in front of me. A couple days ago in Cusco a street vendor selling art had come up to us with these amazing paintings he had painted himself. One of the pictures starred Machu Picchu with the mountains in the background. But in the painting he made the mountains look like a face. Wayna Picchu was the nose, then it dropped down into two lips and finished with a mountain as the chin. It was so visible.
Ever since Janet had told us about these plans in Bali, I had been dying to go. And I was finally there, looking out over the site that so many people around the world love to come and see. I share that admiration.
Our guide, Jose, told us that there are many theories on the purpose of Machu Picchu. But it was most likely nothing too fancy. Just an Inca town, not a home only to royalty or any special personages. It was built like a border town, a boundary of the Inca civiliation and the wild jungled and mountains deeper into the continent. I love the idea of a little frontier town, sitting on the perimeter of the known and the unknown. That, I think, is one of the things that made it most special.
It was built with that purpose somewhere around 1430-1470. It took them 100 years to build it, after which it was inhabited for 100 years as well. There were approximately 140 houses in all, with a maximum population of 600 people. But astonishingly they were still adding and building to Machu Picchu as citizens lived there, so the worker count numbered 3 to 5 thousand.
But one day, all those people had to leave. Machu Picchu was abandoned because of the Spanish and the introduction of smallpox to the Incas. The Spanish were deliberately hunting the Incas out of their own land. They had to retreat to Vilcabamba, the city that the Spanish did find. I thought about Spanish soldiers cutting through thick underbrush next to the Urubamba river below as the people of Machu Picchu left behind most of their belongings to flee. There are still marks in stones that the Incas weren’t able to finish cutting because of the Spanish on their trail. From 1536-1540 it was being deserted, all the people moving away.
As we walked through the ruins, we passed temples that marked the seasons, solstices, and equinoxes. There was a building where they would sacrifice animals, usually the black llama, to the gods. In Machu Picchu, humans were rarely sacrificed, only after great catastrophes such as earthquakes or floods. And if they did sacrifice humans, they would be children, because our hearts are supposedly pure.
A great aqueduct system would carry drainage from the terraces to a main aqueduct, ultimately leading to the Urubamba river below, splitting Machu Picchu into two distinct halves: the farming sector, and the urban sector. There was even a quarry on the mountain where Machu Picchu got its stones from, now infested with lots of chinchillas. Machu Picchu had it all. What a treasure.
I was puzzled as how some of the buildings we passed had mortar. But I thought the Incas didn’t have mortar? It turns out that only the important buildings such as fortresses, temples, and mansions had the privilege of being made without mortar. All the still incredible buildings that have mortar are “sloppy Inca architecture,” relative to the great palaces that they built.
Machu Picchu was something I had been looking forward to for so long. But it seemed to pass in a flash. We hiked down the mountain in the dark, and along the road to Aguas Calientes, where I slept and dreamed about the city Machu Picchu once was.
Below: Macchu Picchu
Below: Hiking up
Below: Hiking down at dusk and night