Machu Picchu is one of the most famous lost cities of the world. A masterpiece of the Incas, it was inhabited by them for about 100 years around the 15th century until they abandoned and successfully hid it from the invading Spanish. It remained lost to the rest of the world for almost 400 years.
It wasn’t until 1911 that it was rediscovered by Hiram Bingham, a lecturer at Yale who was on a conquest to find a different Incan city. The story goes that Mr. Bingham was walking through the forest when he encountered a young Quechua boy who led him to the ruins for a small tip. Because the Spanish didn’t know about it and thus never had the opportunity to loot it, Machu Picchu had stayed mostly intact.
In the century since Mr. Bingham’s fateful trip, the ruins of this enchanting city have been recognized as one of the top wonders of the world and one of the world’s most visited tourist destinations.
Trekking the Inca Trail had been an unreal experience, and I would have been fine if we turned right back around the way we came to relive the hike in reverse. Getting to visit Machu Picchu was just the icing on the cake of an already unbelievably amazing trip.
It was still the middle of the night when we breakfasted and left camp to stand in line at a checkpoint to get on the trail for our last few miles to Machu Picchu. We vegged sitting on the ground in the dark, and I waited for the coffee and coca tea I chugged at breakfast to take effect. Finally, the sunlight penetrated the thick foliage around the trail, the line started moving, and we were off!
The trail was mostly flat but treacherous. It was narrow and slippery and sheerly dropped off on one side into a jungle abyss. I was enjoying the easy walk and having a grand old time talking to Noah when all of a sudden he disappeared over the edge of the trail.
Um, yes, he had stepped on a crumbling part of the trail and plunged into a jumble of leaves and trees that went a looooong way down.
Luckily, his fall was stopped by a dense layer of jungle vegetation. Extremely traumatized, I watched as Eddy pulled him back up to stable land. Phew. A slightly more exciting than anticipated start to the morning.
On through the jungle we trekked, being more careful about the abrupt trail edge. After a few hours, we reached a flight of exceptionally steep Incan stairs. Clambering up the almost vertical steps like a ladder, we made it to the top one by one. We had arrived at Intipunku, the famed Sun Gate.
Through an opening in the stacked stones, we looked out at the mountain landscape in front of us. There was Machu Picchu!
It was cool, but it was pretty far away and wasn’t mind-blowing like I expected. But as we kept walking towards it and it got closer and closer, it got more and more impressive. And without me even realizing it, my mind was blown away.
Upon our arrival into the ancient city of ruins, we strolled down into the agricultural sector, sprawling out on one of the terrace crops while Eddy told us about the city. It was 9am, but we’d been up for more than five hours, and I struggled to keep my eyes open and concentrate on our history lesson.
The true purpose of Machu Picchu remains a mystery. Some believe it was a vacation retreat for the emperor and other members of Incan royalty. Others believe it was a full-fledged city, a center of politics, religion, and trading.
Most don’t deny that Machu Picchu must have been an important religious place because of its location, the extraordinary quality of its stonework, and the existence of various sacred objects and symbols.
The Incas revered mountains as gods, and exactly due north, due south, due east, and due west from Machu Picchu are mountains. The site of Machu Picchu in what the Incas would have viewed as a sacred location was undoubtedly not an accident.
Incan stonemasons took great care to construct the walls of religious and other revered buildings using big, smooth stones that fit perfectly together. A large portion of the structures in Machu Picchu are made of stone walls with this flawless workmanship, indicating that they were buildings of religious importance.
Many of the buildings in the ancient city have three or seven windows, both recognized as sacred numbers by the Incas. There are also many carvings of the puma and condor throughout the city, the animals that represent the Current World and the Upper World in Incan mythology.
After our introduction on the background of the ruins, we began our tour of the city, traipsing up and down stairs bordered by irrigation canals, peeking into a tomb where mummies were purportedly kept, squeezing into a cozy two-story house with alcoves for ritual objects, passing through a trapezoidal door into a mansion with a bedroom, kitchen, dining room, royal bathroom, and mountain views out of its trapezoidal windows.
The Incas were masters in architecture, shaping their doors and windows into trapezoids and inverting all of their walls at a thirteen degree angle so their buildings would better withstand earthquakes. As a result, the Incas’ buildings have survived two devastating earthquakes since the fall of the Incan empire, temblors that knocked down a majority of the Spanish buildings.
We continued through the ruins, me trying to imagine what it would have been like to be an Incan princess walking along the stone streets of my city. Past a rock quarry, where Eddy showed us an unfinished puma rock carving, we ended in the Sacred Plaza.
The Incas’ skill in monitoring celestial activity is apparent all over the city. Knobs on the corners of walls and windows were placed to create shadows that told the time of day. The Sun Gate, the entrance to Machu Picchu from the Inca Trail, got its name because on the summer solstice, the sun shines directly through the gate and onto a sort of sundial at a shrine near the Sacred Plaza.
In the Sacred Plaza is the Temple of the Three Windows, where on the solstice the sun reflects through the three windows onto a spot where underground copper creates the shape of the chakana, an important symbol in Incan mythology. On the same day in the same plaza, a rock forms a shadow in the shape of the Southern Cross.
Musing about the Incas’ brilliance, I was jolted from my reverie to Eddy announcing that our tour of the city was over, and we were free to check it out on our own.
It was time to garner up some energy. Huayna Picchu is the formidable mountain towering over Machu Picchu in most pictures of the ancient city. Despite what it looks like from afar, it is actually climable if you buy a ticket in advance. Andrew and Gregg, the bros from Melbourne, and I had reserved tickets, so our afternoon was to be spent surmounting this menacing-looking mountain.
It was relatively short but quite arduous hike. Steep stairs zigzagged on the side of the mountain, getting steeper and narrower the closer they got to the top. When I thought we were as high as we could get, the trail took us over boulders poised next to the cliffside, on our hands and knees through a claustrophobic tunnel, and onto a minuscule stair landing with no ledge. This hike was not good for my fear of cliff edges!
But then, all the scariness was forgotten as we scaled the last set of stairs and Machu Picchu again appeared before us, sheltered among the green peaks of the Andes, high on the hill above the Sacred River snaking through the valley so far below.
An impossibly built building teeters on the side of Huayna Picchu. It was absolutely mind-boggling to me how the Incas even got the rocks up the mountain, let alone constructed them into the shape of a building.
Our time taking in the astounding views and exploring the cliffside ruins was short because we had to rush down to catch a bus to Aguas Calientes, the nearest town to Machu Picchu where we would be eating lunch with the rest of the Pachamama group.
I was sad to leave Machu Picchu. I could have stayed there for days. Actually, I could have moved into one of the roofless buildings and been perfectly content for years.
Giddy with a total adrenaline high and a slight Cusqueña Beer buzz, I was in great spirits after lunch. Noah and I went to the hot springs that gave the tiny town of Aguas Calientes its name. I am not a huge fan of hot springs because they usually seem like a dirty, unclorinated version of a normal pool, but it was nice to soak my exhausted muscles in hot water for a while.
After our hot springs excursion, Noah ran to catch the train back to Cusco while I trudged upstairs to my hostel room for a nap, fully intending to wake up in a few hours to eat dinner with the other members of Pachamama group that stayed in Aguas Calientes. Instead, I completely conked out until the next morning. That Inca Trail wore me out!
There is more fun to be had. Now I’m going to Puerto Maldonado to explore the Amazon jungle!