By Bob the globe trotter

For any tourists to Peru or in a broader sense to South America a visit to the “Lost City of the Incas”, Machu Picchu is the sweet cherry on the top of their trip. Perched high above a sinuous bend in the Urubamba River, Machu Picchu has lured explorers, poets, tourists, and pilgrims to its mist wreathed ridge top since its “discovery” in July 1911. I was lucky enough to visit this place in 2011 when it was celebrating its 100th year of discovery.

The city was virtually forgotten until American historian; Hiram Bingham stumbled upon it in 1911 while being guided around by locals. An account of this “discovery” can be read in his book “Inca Land: Explorations in the Highlands of Peru”. The Machu Picchu site was initially grown with thick vegetation forcing Bingham’s team to be content only with a rough mapping of the site. Bingham returned next year to carry out the difficult task of clearing the thick forests. Later Peruvian archeologists, Louis Valcarcel (1934) and Paul Fejus (1940) undertook further studies of the place.

Despite scores of recent studies, knowledge of Machu Picchu is still not clear. Even today archeologists are forced to rely on speculations and calculated guesswork as to its function. A more recent theory suggests that Machu Picchu was built as an estate for the Inca Emperor Pachacuti (1438 – 1472). Exceptional high qualities of the stonework make obvious that Machu Picchu once must have been vitally important as a ceremonial center. With its spectacular location high up on an isolated mountain in the Andes makes it the best known archeological site of the continent. It is located at 2340mts. (7970 ft) on a mountain ridge above the Urubamba valley which is 80 km northwest of Cusco city. The “lost city” sits on a saddle between the two mountains Machu Picchu (old peak) and Huayna Picchu (a new peak) with a commanding view down the valley and a nearly impassable mountain at its back.

The Incas started building the “estate” around AD 1400 but abandoned it a century later at the time of the Spanish conquest. It is possible that most of the inhabitants died from Small Pox introduced by travelers before the Spanish arrived. The Inca Empire flourished on the west coast of South America from the 13th century. They conquered the region after a series of wars against Indian tribes. The Incas first came to the Peruvian scene somewhere around 1300 AD. They were just a small group. During their first 200 years, they were competitors of small tribes. At the time of Emperor, Pachacuti, Incas became the most powerful nation and continued to remain so for another 100 years. After his death, his son Topa Inca continued to conquest both in the north and south directions. Under his reign, the Inca Empire had spread into Central Chile and Ecuador. The next emperor Huayna Copac got hold of the remaining Andes. He even spread his conquest up to Bolivia. During his regime, he separated his reign into two parts to be ruled by his two sons Huascar and Atahualpa. Tragically, after his death, there was a great civil war between the two brothers. At 1532, Atahualpa killed his brother and became the new Emperor of the Incas. In the same year, the Spanish invaded the Inca Empire. This ancient city of Machu Picchu however was never revealed to the conquering Spaniards. This statement stands true as no reference to this city is cited in any of the Chronicles of the Spanish conquerors.

Machu Picchu is scenically the most attractive mountainous territory of the Peruvian Andes. It is one of the most important ancient cultural sites in Latin America. The stonework of the site remains as an outstanding architecture which is totally appropriate to the surroundings. The adjacent valleys have been cultivated continuously for many years providing one of the greatest examples of productive man-land relationships.

To reach the “lost city” of Machu Picchu at present there are two options either by trekking or by a combination of train and bus journey. We had taken the second option. The “Inca Trail to Machu Picchu” consists of three overlapping trails: Mollepata, Classic, and One Day. Classic is the longest of the three trails and is the famous one. It is a four days trail covering 33 km. and this ancient trail laid by the Incas starts from the sacred valley of Urubamba near the village of Chilka (aka km. 82) corresponding to the Peru Rail. The trail winds its way up around the mountains snaking over three high Andean passes en route. This route requires an ascent beyond (3660 pts.) or (12010 ft.) above sea level and one needs to be very careful about the problem of altitude sickness. The views of the snowy peaks, rural hamlets where llamas graze and cloud forests flushing with orchids are stupendous. Settlements, tunnels, and many Incan ruins are located along the trail before ending at the Sun Gate on Machu Picchu Mountain. Peruvian Government is now very strict about the regulations of the trek to prevent overcrowding. Trail hikers now must go with a licensed guide. Only 200 hikers are allowed per day. UNESCO is considering putting Machu Picchu on its list of “World Heritage in Danger”.

We landed in Cusco (ancient Capital city of the Incas) from Peruvian capital city of Lima. We were all aware of the necessary precautions for acclimatization as we had gained a height of 11500 ft. from sea level directly by flight. From the airport itself, we moved in slow pace. I know about some tourists who required hospitalization in Cusco due to this sudden change in altitude. Warnings and precautionary measures were all hung around. Coca tea was in continuous supply in our hotel lobby and I always kept myself well hydrated by drinking adequate water.

We left our hotel in Cusco at around 4 am. The train for Machu Picchu normally leaves from Cusco itself but due to recent heavy landslides (which are very common in this area), Peru Rail suspended its service in this section. At present, the train leaves from Ollantaytambo, which is a small town in the Sacred Valley of the Incas and is about two and a half hour’s drive from Cusco. It was pitch dark outside at the time of leaving our hotel. When we reached Ollantaytambo it was already seven in the morning and the train for Machu Picchu was about to leave in a short time. We had our seats reserved and I was lucky enough to get a window seat. The train was very special indeed designed exclusively for the tourists. It was called the Vistadome. The roof of the coach was made of special glass and the windows were large enough to get almost panoramic views outside. So each coach of the train offered ample opportunities to enjoy the splendid views outside and capture amazing photos. The train left Ollantaytambo dot on time. As the train leaves Ollantaytambo, on the right side we saw the temple complex, known as The Fortress, once dedicated to the memories of the Inca Emperors. It’s situated just above the earthwork ramp which was once used to drag the monolithic blocks above from the floor valley. The railway track follows the course of River Urubamba along the gorge keeping it on the left side while going up. At Coriwaynachina station, known simply as KM. 88 to the generations of the hikers who have begun The Inca Trail, a fine staircase carved into the rock leads to a series of ruined buildings where once the Inca artisans took advantage of the constant wind that rises from the valley floor to smelt gold. Surrounded by rocky outcrops hung with different kinds of orchids the train passes KM. 104 at Chachabamba, from where, begins the one day trek to Machu Picchu via the magnificent Winaywayna ruins. Finally, our train arrived at Aguas Calientes, the final station to Machu Picchu where we disembarked. This small town of Aguas Calientes is surrounded by high green mountains and is famous for the thermal baths scattered around. As it cradles the famous Lost City of Machu Picchu, this town is presently blooming into a popular overnight destination for travelers like us from Cusco.

Now from here to reach the magical and mystical ruins of the Incas we have to take a bus from the bus station which was about seven minutes’ walk from the railway station after crossing a narrow bridge over river Urubamba. Series of Mercedes buses were in the queue and taking the tourists up the mountain to the main gateway of Machu Picchu. I was very inquisitive to know how these buses were transported to this point when there are no existing roads.

The short bus journey to the top was very exciting. The buses climb in zigzag fashion over a dusty nonmetallic road. It was about half-past ten when we reached the summit. I came to know that all tourists have to buy their entry ticket at Aguas Calientes only and passport details are mandatory. At the gate, we had to undergo thorough security formalities. The very first glimpse of Machu Picchu mesmerized us. The grand location of the City between the two peaks of mountain Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu surrounded deep below by the Urubamba River is unique. To understand the layout of this lost city we have to know the following points.

Machu Picchu had two sectors namely an agricultural sector and an urban sector. The former comprised of agricultural terraces equipped with watering aqueducts. Water supply was adequate from springs hence the adjacent land terraces yielded four times enough food for the people living around. The hillsides were terraced not only to grow crops but to steepen the slopes which invaders would find difficult to ascend. The terrace formation reduced soil erosion and protected against landslides. The agricultural terraces had 120 steps. The upper part had 40 while the lower part comprised 80 steps. The height of the terraces varies. The terraces have been constructed mainly on the mountainsides than on the top.

The urban sector is the bigger part of Machu Picchu and is the richest attraction. It is “U” shaped and has two immense architectural groups with streets and stairwells that consist of 3000 steps as well as a network of water canals suitable for domestic and irrigation use interspersed with small squares and courtyards. The location of the houses and their designs differed according to the class of the Incas. The nobles, priests and royals stayed in separate zones from the common people. The Incas shaped the stones of the buildings so accurately that to this day one cannot fit even a thin knife between the stones. The workmanship was extraordinary. No mortars were used. The homes were shaped like a pentagonal prism but some were rectangular. The doors of most of the houses were trapezoid as were the niches in the walls where idols and other objects were placed, a typical feature of the Incas architecture.  I think before touring Machu Picchu one should know about the attractions of both the agricultural and urban sectors as follows.

In Agricultural Sector: A) Agricultural terraces B) Watchman’s hut; this is the most prominent construction located in a strategic place on high ground from where the Incas could observe the Urban sector and large part of the agricultural sector. The panoramic view of the city from this point is splendid. We climbed to this point capturing amazing photos of the City. C) Funeral rock; it is right near the watchman’s hut. Human remains were found near it proving that the burials were made in proximity. Some stones found nearby contain grooves which could mean that they were used in sacrifices.

In Urban Sector: A) The main temple; the walls are inclined and have niches in them where the Incas used to keep sacred objects. The temple has three walls built with rectangular stones. This building lacks the fourth wall. There is a small room located behind this main temple which is called the chamber of ornaments. It has a stone bench. B) The temple of three windows: this building has three windows trapezoidal in shape. C) The sacred plaza; is located on top of a natural hill. In this same hill on its summit is situated the famous Intihuatana Stone. Here probably the high Incas held their religious affairs. Part of the hill has rocks standing out naturally and there are several terraces on the sides. D) Intihuatana Stone; it is a vertical stone column based on an irregular pyramid. It must have been some sort of an astronomical object. It is also called the sundial. Some specialists believe that is was used for determining the solstices by tracking the sun rays. Some tourists believe the rock has special powers and will fill them with energy so we found many of them putting hands on it. Unfortunately, it was partly damaged not by the invading Spaniards but by falling off a crane while filming a beer commercial in 2008. D) The Sun Temple; is a semicircular building located on the lower part of the hill near the Ritual Fountains. The temple could have been an astronomical observatory. The walls are characteristically rounded hence easily recognizable. From here through the intelligently placed windows, one can view the Intihuatana Stone and the Sun Gate (it is the entry point to the City for the hikers of Inca Trail). E) The Ritual Fountains; freshwater from the nearby springs came from these fountains. The water flows down in a cascading fashion across several stone constructions. F) The Condor Temple; to the Incas condor was the symbol of cruel justice. According to the specialists, this temple was a torture chamber. Between the stone-carved “wings of the condor” there are carved grooves that are believed to drive the flowing blood of the victims to the pit. Of course, some specialists say this Temple was used for animal sacrifices.

The song sequence “Kilimanjaro” of the recent Rajanikant’s film Endhiran (Robot) was filmed here in this grand exotic location of Machu Picchu. Very few films have been shot here. Secrets of the Incas, The Motor Cycles Diary are some of the movies which got permission to shoot in this historical sanctuary. Sources said Indian High Commission helped the director of Endhiran in getting permission from the Peruvian Government for filming the song in this protected heritage site of Peru. We explored the different areas of the ruins and finally felt hungry and it was lunchtime. We returned to the entry/exit point. We had our lunch at the restaurant in the new hotel just outside the gate. Post lunch I found there was some time to explore the site once more. Some of us took reentry completing the formalities while the rest of our group members stayed back. The same ticket was valid. In the ruins, we came across many local animals namely the llamas grazing all around. We saw the long-tailed weasel camaflouged in between the stone structures and viewed a couple of Andean cocks. Some condors were soaring high above in the sky. Considering the floras the guide showed us namely the coca plants, rhododendrons many wild orchids, ferns, and shrubs. We saw how the Urubamba River encompassed the valley down below. There was also a non-functioning power plant and the extended portion of the railway tracks was well viewed. The buses bringing up the tourists from Aguas Calientes along the winding paths of the mountains looked like moving ants. We met many tourists from different parts of the globe and shared our views during our resting period on the lush green lawns of the City simultaneously enjoying the breathtaking views all around. We stayed there till 4 p.m. and returned to the bus stand which drove us back to the terminal rail station of Mach Picchu i.e. Aguas Calientes. Our Vistadome train left the station as per schedule. Inside the compartment, Peru Rail served snacks and provided some entertainment by organizing some themes of Peruvian culture. Our train gradually moved towards Ollantaytambo. The train followed the course of the Urubamba River grudging along the deep gorges and zooming past numerous tunnels and paddy fields of the adjacent villages. The surrounding snow-capped peaks of the Andes was an added attraction. Our bus was waiting at Ollantaytambo for driving us back to our hotel in Cusco.

I was inspired and humbled by witnessing this majestic creation of the Incas. I consider this vast scale of creation on the backdrop of such a natural dramatic beauty to be one of the planet’s most creative and harmonious work of art. The aesthetic genius of its layout and architecture coupled with the durability of its brilliant planning and engineering have given us the finest of the jewels among the UNESCO world heritage site.

Late back in 2007, one fine morning I read in the newspaper that Machu Picchu is voted to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Did I wonder at that time why Machu Picchu?

Now I got my answer.

Written by
Dr. Sanjay Kumar Das

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