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Travel Talk – Machu Picchu in breathtaking mystery (Jan. 14, 2015 issue)

By Mary Beth Shults
This week is a continuation of last week’s article about getting to Machu Picchu, the ancient Incan city, in Peru. Last week, I discussed the train and trek options for making your way through the mountains to the ancient city. While the most well-known option is the 4-day Inca Trail which takes you directly to the site, most tourists stay a night in Aguas Calientes before going to Machu Picchu. Aguas Calientes is the closest town and is where you can catch a train to Cusco to either continue your vacation or come home. This week, I will try to give you an idea of what to expect during your journey.
To begin to understand what makes Machu Picchu important, one must learn some of its history, though part of its beauty comes from the mystery that still surrounds the site. No one really knows why the Incas built the city. It was originally thought to be a convent for girls dedicated to the sun god, but many scholars now think it was an estate of the Incan emperor. It was built between two mountain peaks, Machu Picchu Mountain (or “Old Mountain”) and Huayna Pichu (“Young Mountain”), and is situated along the Urubamba River which was a sacred river to the Incas. Mountain peaks were also sacred sites for the Incas, so the two peaks add to Machu Picchu’s significance. Furthermore, many cities were constructed to appear like important animals, and Machu Picchu forms the image of a condor, the most sacred animal to the Incas. There was a road that connected it to Cusco, the capital of the Inca Empire, but the Spanish never found Machu Picchu because the Incas destroyed many of their roads to protect the cities. Machu Picchu was brought to international attention when Hiram Bingham rediscovered the ruins in 1911 and brought (some say “stole”) many of the artifacts home to Yale with him.
Since that time, the site has been a source of mystery and wonderment which has turned it into a tourist destination. Some people find this disappointing because it is no longer a deserted haven but is filled with international visitors. In fact, you will probably have to wait in a line to get into the site. However, once you get past the crowd, you will come around the corner and get your first glimpse of Machu Picchu where you should first notice the terraces that the city was built on and the giant peak on the other side of the city, Huayna Picchu. If you don’t get your fill of extreme hiking in before reaching the landmark, permits are available in order to make the climb to the top of Huayna Picchu or Machu Picchu Mountain. Huayna Picchu is a more difficult climb. You will need to purchase a permit in advance for either climb.
If you do not wish to scale a mountain or are not able to get a permit, you will still need to walk around quite a bit at Machu Picchu. I encourage everyone to first go to the Sun Gate which is high above the city. If you do the Inca Trail, this is where you will come in. There is a spectacular view from the Gate and also from the trail where you can take in the surrounding mountains, jungle, and the Urubamba River below. It’s called the Sun Gate because the Sun appears to rise out of this building at certain times of the year. It also would have been the entrance to Machu Picchu for the Incas.
Machu Picchu itself can be divided into three different areas: the commercial district, the temple district and the royalty district. The difference between the two can be seen in the architecture. The stone work in the temples is almost perfect. The Incas did not use mortar in their most important buildings. Instead, all the blocks fit together perfectly and have been smoothed down. In this region of the city, you will see the Sun Temple and the Room of the Three Windows, and the Inti Watana, or Sun Rock. At the Winter Solstice, this rock points to the sun, and it probably served as a solar calendar for the Incas.
In the royalty district, we find the house of the Inca (“Inca” actually referred to the ruler and the name was later given to the people). The stonework is not quite as elegant as it is in the temple district but is finer than it is in the commercial district. Archeologists believe there was a house for royal advisers and a place for the princesses as well. There is also a room that was probably used for religious rites or sacrifices.
The commercial district is the largest area of Machu Picchu and full of small stone buildings that could have been houses, stores, or storehouses. The main entrance to the city is here. By coming through this entrance gate and walking among the ruined buildings, one can imagine it as a bustling area for the common Inca people and can imagine what their lives in Machu Picchu might have been like.
Nonetheless, since I have only touched on some of the most important details of this amazing and majestic historical site, if you go to Machu Picchu without a guide, it is worth it to hire one of the many official guides wandering around the site. You will want help making sense of what you are seeing, even if you have a map. Also remember that an immense effort went into recovering and maintaining the site, and the work continues. The people who work at Machu Picchu are very protective of every stone and brick and will not hesitate to remind you to be respectful. Since it is such a protected site, there is no restroom inside Machu Picchu. You will have to go back outside the gate. There is also an overpriced restaurant and bar outside the grounds. If you leave, you can come back in but you will have to wait in line again. However, when you leave for the day, there is a place to get a special Machu Picchu stamp in your passport.
For me, at the end of the day, it was hard to leave because I wanted to see it all again and not lose the experience of overwhelming wonder. The most powerful thing about Machu Picchu is not the impressive work of the Incas but the magnitude of the mountains surrounding the site. While the walls of Machu Picchu are thick and a testament to the power of the Incan stoneworker, they appear miniscule in contrast to the mountains that guarded the hidden city for many years. When taking in this view, it’s easy to understand why people would have considered the mountains gods and why many people in this part of the land continue to venerate the Pacha Mama, or mother earth. Visiting this impressive site is a very worthy bucket list goal which will create cherished memories that words cannot fully express.