Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Day 68: The Magic and Mystery of Machu Picchu

A lot has been written about Machu Picchu since Hiram Bingham III brought the place to the world's attention in 1913. A myriad of resources can easily be accessed about Machu Picchu, so we will not attempt to rehash the history here. Here are a few tidbits that WE found interesting:

1. Machu Picchu is actually the name of one of the mountains surrounding the ruins. It means "old mountain."
2. Incas were experts at agriculture, creating terraces that acted as microclimates whereby corn, potatoes, quinoa, and other crops could be tested and bred to maximize the growing capacity. They needed reliable growing methods of foods to sustain the large Incan population that lived in many differing climates.
3. Incans hauled fertile soil and white granite rocks from the valley 1000 feet below, up to Machu Picchu.
3. Machu Picchu may have been a place for military, spiritual, and political leaders from Cusco (the capital) to meet and discuss affairs of state in a secluded and secure place.
4. Hiram Bingham was NOT the first person to discover Machu Picchu.
5. 3 people explored it in 1901; an engineer spotted it from a distance; 2 englishmen climbed up to the ruins in 1906; and a German businessman may have discovered and plundered the site in 1867.
6. Locals knew about Machu Picchu. 2 native farmers were using the terraces for farming when Bingham came upon them during his "discovery."
7. No one really knows why Machu Picchu was abandoned for sure, but in the 1500s, officials and dignitaries decided to leave in fear of execution depending upon who won the Incan civil war, which corresponded with the fatal diseases brought over by the Spaniards, which corresponded with the Spanish conquest.
8. Incans were NOT the first people to habitate Machu Picchu. There is evidence that the first constructions date back 4000 years, or longer, by the Uran Pacha and Hanan Pacha cultures.
9. The precision of masonry, square and refined stones with smooth surfaces are most likely Uran Pacha construction; while the roughly assembled, smaller size, quarried rocks, and field stones are Incan construction.
10. We were surprised at how accessible the ruins were. Except for just a few roped off areas, the entire place and mountains can be accessed. Very cool...and dangerous. Many stairways and paths lead to nowhere but off a cliff. The uneven stone walkways and stairs can be slippery. We can imagine people slipping and falling to their deaths, but who knows - there are really no published reports on deaths in Machu Picchu that we could find.

However, the most interesting aspect about Machu Picchu is its mystery. Despite its popularity and continued archeological research, there's very little known facts about this place. Much of the published details and information provided by tour guides are speculation only.

No matter, whether you know lots about Machu Picchu, or nothing at all, you may find yourself in awe and overcome by emotion by this truly mysterious and magical place. That's how we felt after going through the ticketing gate and walking up a path to a sudden opening, overlooking the terraces and the city ruins. Our initial thought? "Wow, we can't believe we're actually here! It looks just like the postcards, except real!". We are guessing that the hikers on the Inca Trail may have an even more emotional response when, after 4-days, they make their last turn to a full view of Machu Picchu for the first time from a higher point.

The trip to Machu Picchu is a long one, regardless of whether you choose to hike the Inca Trail or take the train/bus. Plus, they limit the entry tickets to 2500/day, so advance planning is necessary. Therefore, this was one of our few planned parts of our sabbatical. Should you wish to climb the famous mountain, Huayna Picchu, pictured all of the postcards, tickets are limited to 400/day for good reason. It is a vertical and dangerous climb, but people say the torture is totally worth it for the view.

The usual route is for people to fly into Lima, spend a night, fly to Cuzco, spend a night, take a train from Poroy (20 min. from Cuzco) to Machu Picchu Pueblo. Some spend the night in the town, then go to the ruins the next day. Some try to travel to Machu Picchu, explore the ruins, and leave...all on the same day. We thought our plan of spending 3 days in Cuzco to acclimate to the altitude helped us with the 5 hours of hiking around Machu Picchu without any problems, although we understand not every has that kind of time.

In total (not counting an international flight to Lima), we spent $168/pp on round trip StarPeru flights; $152/pp on round trip PeruRail train ride; $17/pp on round trip bus ride to the ruins; $50/pp admission into Machu Picchu; plus food and lodging for about 7 days ranging from low-budget to luxury. There are a couple very luxurious accommodations at $800/night! We were right at around $150/day for lodging and food. Not exactly a cheap trip, but totally worth it.

Many go to Machu Picchu before dawn to view the sunrise, so the buses start running around 5:30 am. Tickets can be purchased in advance or day of. Plenty of buses run all day long so we had no problems getting a seat, quickly. Or, to save yourself $17, you can hike (more like climb) the 1000 feet vertical face of the mountain that takes approximately 1.5 to 2 hours.

[Caption: note the zig-zag dirt road for the buses in the distance.] After a crazy 20 minute bus ride up a narrow, dirt road with switch backs - where we literally came within 10 feet of a head-on collision with another bus coming down - we arrived at the ticketing gate around 8 am. [See our YouTube video of the bus ride.] To enter, we had to show our passports with our tickets at the gate. The attendant welcomed Akiko in Japanese. :). There were many private tour guides eager to show us around, but we opted to go solo and save the $80 - $150/pp. We probably missed some details, but enjoyed the freedom to go wherever we wanted to. We heard a lot of tour guides rushing their clients through the sites, while we had plenty of time to take side excursions, relax, enjoy the view, and meditate.

For $4.99, we actually downloaded a book to our Kindle, published in 2012 titled, "Machu Picchu: Virtual Guide and Secrets Revealed" by Brien Foerster. Not only did this book give us a history of the Incas, it gave us a nice self-guided walking tour of the sites, as well as recommended treks outside of the ruins, such as the hikes to the Sun Gate and Inca Bridge. With this book, we learned enough about the sites to make it interesting.

And now, the part you were waiting for. Here are just a few of our photos we took.

[Below: map of Machu Picchu.]

[Below: we entered onto the terraces from the buildings on the far side to a full view of the terraces and ruins. The Incans mastered the construction of terraces, which can be found on mountainsides all over their former empire.]

[Below: llamas and alpacas grazing on the terraces - a natural lawn mower, and friendly, too!]

[Below: our first main goal was to hike up many many stairs to the former guardhouse at the top of these terraces for one of the best views of the entire place.]

[Below: view of guardhouse. Also, where the Inca Trail ends.]

[Below: Mike walking the last 20 meters or so, of the Inca Trail.]

[Below: called a funerary rock, possibly a place for meditation, carved out of solid granite.]

[Below: postcard perfect! View our YouTube video of panorama here.]

[Below: a panoramic view.]

[Below: traffic jam of Japanese tour group trying to get through the main gate used by the Incas to go into town.]

[Below: Mike said his new house would be a lot better if Akiko brought over a bottle of wine as a housewarming gift.]

[Below: Akiko claimed this house for herself, but the doorway is rather small. Incans were short statured and thin.]

[Below: a series of windows.]

[Below: Temple of the Three Windows.]

[Below: Akiko hugging the stones of the Principal Temple in the Sacred Plaza.]

[Below: Intihuatana or "Hitching Post of the Sun". As an astronomical observatory,
at midday on March 21st and September 21st (the equinoxes),the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all. At this precise moment the sun "sits with all his might upon the pillar" and is for a moment "tied" to the rock. Also, each of the 4 corners points directly towards the 4 regions of the Inca Empire, as well as the 4 mountains surrounding this plateau. The mystery is that each of the peaks of the 4 mountains also has an Intihuatana, speculating that this was more than just a device to identify the equinox. It is said that the northern corner (where everyone has their hands up), has a magnetic pull.]

[Below: Funny sign. Really? The path goes off the cliff? Thanks for the "sturdy" handrail, since literally, it is a 1000 foot drop on the other side.]

[Below: Temple of the Condor. Rock shaped into a condor, and Mike walking through the narrow temple fissure.]

[Below: carefully constructed aqueduct system through town so they had constant running water. Quite modern, don't you think?]

[Below: Temple of the Sun and the Royal Tomb below the temple.]

[Below: last views on our exit out. Terraces in the background. View of the eastern side of Machu Picchu.]

[Below: we also hiked to the Inca Bridge. It's not just a bridge! You'll see how fascinating this is.]

[Below: the trail, although relatively flat, was only about 2 feet wide and no barrier in parts to prevent you from plummeting down. Here, some pics close to the edge.]

[Below: there's the Inca Bridge in the background! On the side of a granite wall, the Incas built a stone foundation and pillars, then used wooden boards as a draw bridge to prevent people from accessing Machu Picchu. This was only 1 of 2 entry points into this sacred place. The last part of the trail gets even narrower and a rope is provided to hang onto.]

View all photos at Peru - Machu Picchu Photo Album.

Well, that's all folks! All this exploring took about 5-hours, and there were so many more hikes we could've done, but we will leave that for the next time. :)