Machu Picchu: Some 500 years after the Incas walked this route, we set off from Cusco to the ‘lost city’ of Machu Picchu, a five-day journey that differs from its predecessor in a couple of important respects: we are far less physically fit than our Incan counterparts, and we’ve splashed out on a few luxuries, including tents, sleeping bags, insect repellent and, instead of llamas to carry our burden, pack horses (animals that the Amerindians wouldn’t discover until their European conquerers arrived).
We drive a short distance – the Incas knew about the wheel but only used it for children’s toys, perhaps, archeologists speculate, because the large boulders they needed to move could not be supported on axle constructions and had to be rolled – and then, where the road peters out, we begin the slow march into the Cordillera Vilcanota. The day is warm and bright, hot air rises on the hum of insects from the valley below and, ahead, the sharp white peak of Salkantay cuts the sapphire sky.
We set off in good spirits, sharing our Cuscqueño guide Edwin with a lovely young Canadian couple who are fortunately as unfit as we are. The way climbs only gently at first and it isn’t long before we are stopping for lunch in a stream-crossed valley, congratulating ourselves on our hardy trekking achievement.
After lunch, it’s a different story. The path winds steeply upwards towards the 4700-metre-high Salkantay pass. To one side, the white peak of Salkantay (meaning ‘The Savage Mountain’ in Quechua) soars in a wall of ice and snow, 6271 metres up. To the other, the dusty rock mountain begins to conceal the sinking sun. We’ve rented walking poles for the first time and I stab ahead at the hard rock, gasping in the thinning air, feeling like a cross between my grandmother and a wildly flailing spider – not, as I’d hoped, a super-efficient German alpine trekker.
We start to moan. Everyone has something troubling them, from knees to feet, to legs to stomachs. By the time we reach our camp for the night, at a freezing cold 4400 metres, we’re a sorry bunch of unprepared lowlanders whinging away amid the most stunning scenery. The Incas could make our five-day trek in two – less, for the trained messenger runners, who could run in relays from the empire’s northern city of Quito to the capital Cusco in a couple of weeks.
Night falls and the stars light the cloudless sky, uncluttered by urban lighting. The Incan gods lived in the heavens, but their star signs were made from the shadows – the patterns of dark spaces between the stars – rather than by joining up the stars as we do. In that way, giant celestial llamas, jaguars and pumas can be seen.
Next day, we climb slowly to the pass, standing between glaciers – or what remains of them after global warming has shrunk their whiteness. Edwin tells me that 10 years ago, all the mountains we stand among were white, and that the river ran far stronger and fuller. In 1998, a huge chunk of the Salkantay glacier collapsed causing glacial outwash floods that killed dozens, washed away hundreds of homes and shutdown the hydroelectric station further down. The Salkantay glacier is retreating at a rate of 1.02 km per year, with a third of it gone since 2003.
From the pass, we descend through high alpine desert to the tree-line and then, in spectacular fashion, into one of the world’s last remaining cloud forests, all in a matter of hours. Here, there is little distinction between the ground and air: life hangs off other life, trees trailing orchids and ferns, fungi and mosses living off the moisture in the air. Hummingbirds flit from flower to flower – there are more than 100 different species in Peru alone – and lizards scurry noisily away from their invisible sunbathing spots.
I toss away my poles and immediately regret it as my knee gives way. I retrieve them, hobbling down the vertical slopes in such a shabby state that I have to sit on one of the horses for the final stretch to our camp. Perched on a grassy ledge halfway up a steep canyon, this spot too is incredible. Above us and tessellating far into the distance are the hilltops and mountain peaks of the cordillera, below, the valley coalesces into a far away river, blue in its depth, white with shallow rapids and rusty in patches where hots springs emerge.
Horses roll on their backs in the grass; chicks cheep around us, their wings ornamented with scraps of coloured plastic bags stapled there to identify them by their owners; and dogs chase the shadows of kites flown by small children. We swallow painkillers and rub potions into our aching muscles, outdoing each other with related injuries.
At dawn, we set off for the lower valley, descending into humid rainforest of vines and hardwood. Waterfalls rush down the mountainside and the path becomes wetter and more precarious. Tree trunks are spread across places where the path vanishes due to landslides or erosion and we cross them carefully on wobbly legs. In time, we reach the river, where cows graze and crop plantations regularise the landscape.
This whole area was devastated in up to 40 landslides caused by heavy rains in January. Hundreds of acres of crops were destroyed in the floods, 3,000 people were left homeless when their houses were destroyed, more than 100 people died and thousands of tourists visiting Machu Picchu were stranded for days. Bodies are still being recovered from the rubble of rock and mud around the village of Santa Teresa, where we set up camp and visit the nearby hot springs. These thermal springs at the edge of the Santa Teresa river used to be a major tourist attraction, lined with gardens, cafés and shops. Now, there is a quarry pit filled with delightfully hot water, surrounded by construction machinery digging through the rubble. We soak our weary bones in the bath, grateful that few people are here.
The next day, we sleep in til 8 and lazily take a colectivo bus to the hydroelectric train station a few kilometres away. This remarkable engineering feat, achieved in 1959 but rebuilt several times, takes water in 7-km-long pipes through the Machu Picchu mountain, where it passes through turbines deep within the mountain, and supplies much of south Peru’s electricity. Last year, the country’s president Alan Garcia announced expansion works on the plant to doubling its installed power to 200 MW, which worries conservationists, who fear that the geological works already undermine the landslide-prone mountain, risking the archaeological site. The new works will also destroy a lagoon there – glaciers used to reach this lagoon but have now retreated hundreds of metres higher.
We walk for several kilometres along the railway line that follows the Urubamba River, rounding the Machu Picchu (‘Old Mountain’) mountain, but failing, as the Spanish did, to glimpse the famous ruins high above us.
By afternoon, we reach the bizarre touristic village of Aguas Calientes, dubbed GringoLandia for reasons that are immediately obvious. It is beautifully located in hills at the foot of Machu Picchu, but the entire village is made up of hotels, tourist restaurants and souvenir stalls. It’s about as artificial a construct as befits one of the continent’s premier tourist attractions – depressingly and expensively so. We hide in our hostel room and sleep.
In the morning, we stump up for the bus fare (we no longer do ‘unnecessary’ walking) up the hill to our prize: Machu Picchu. Built on a saddle between two mountains, with a river running almost completely around it, this is the most beautifully situated human habitation I’ve seen. The morning mist rises from the Urumbamba river through the forested mountain sides, cloaking the surrounding peaks and valleys in ethereal mystery. The Incas liked to live close to their gods of sky and mountain – here they achieved their dream.
A site of some 200 painstakingly constructed polished-stone buildings, including residences, workshops, storehouses and religious buildings are separated from agricultural terraces that descend the mountainside to provide food and help shore up the precipitous slopes against erosion.
Water flows through the complex, channelling water to every house through a series of 16 fountains fed from a spring, located many metres above. Llamas browse the grasslands and tourists swarm the ruins like ants.
It’s a complex, meticulously built city in an impossible location by people who essentially lived in the Bronze Age.
But this, the most perfectly preserved Incan site (the Spanish never discovered it), remains a tantalising enigma. We know that it was built sometime in the 1400s and that it was a planned ‘city’, because hydroengineers have examined the careful engineering that still supplies water so competently through the village and allows superbly efficient drainage, and that it was abandoned some 100 years later (although not why). With views across two valleys and access points through the Sun Gate (from the ‘Inca trail’ that leads to Cusco) and the Bridge, which leads to the Amazon, it was easy to defend and strategically located. But there is no reference to this site in the chronicles that describe other pre-Columbian sites, so was it important?
Scholars think so. Some suggest it was a royal residence built by the Inca Pachacuteq, others think it was an important coca growing estate – although coca cannot grow at this altitude, the Incas were agricultural masters and experimented with different techniques and varieties, so it is very possible that a variety existed in the 15th century that was grown here – or that it was an important trade centre between the Cusco-led empire and the Amazon jungle people, particularly in coca.
This is quite an interesting theory, because the Incas greatly feared the wild cannibalistic people of the Amazon, and yet we are discovering more and more examples of complex and advanced civilisations who lived in the Amazon. Indeed, it is thought that South American civilizations began not on the coast, but in the jungle, from where ideas and technologies spread to their more famous counterparts. Incan pottery and designs was most certainly influenced by older jungle civilisations. The Incas were never able to conquer these peoples despite many battles and attempts at diplomacy.
Another theory is that Machu Picchu was a ceremonial site of religious importance. There are several temples on the site and places of astronomical significance, including one built so that the winter solstice lines up perfectly with a central stone. And a religious stone that some think was used in ceremonies for ‘tying’ the sun to the earth. Perhaps the site is a combination of many of these.
We know that fewer than 1000 people lived here, and that the agriculture they could have produced from these fields could not have sustained even this small population, so the site must have been important enough for them to import food. It wasn’t a lack of water that drove the inhabitants away – rainfall was significantly better at the time – but it may, indirectly, have been the Spanish. Epidemics of diseases like smallpox and measles killed half of the Incan population – perhaps the empire was too weak to sustain such an expensive site, or perhaps the Machu Picchans themselves succumbed.
Hundreds of skeletons were recovered from the site by its ‘discoverer’, the US historian Hiram Bingham, who explored the site from 1911 on a Yale research grant, including some with cranial deformation patterns that were common on the coast and elsewhere, suggesting people from throughout the empire moved through the village. Incidentally, cranial deformation is still practiced by some Amazonian tribes). He found two campesino families living at the site and took away artefacts for future study. Controversy reigns over the artefacts, but in 2007, Yale agreed to repatriate most to a special museum in Cusco.
Whatever the reason for its existence, Machu Picchu is one of our species most stunning achievements and we left for our train back to Cusco before I had finished soaking in its unique splendour. We have photos, but perhaps this is one of those places that only truly reveals its romance to the visitor who walks in from the mountains.