When we planned the sabbatical, we had anticipated visiting the rain forest and Amazonia in Bolivia. For reasons not entirely clear to me, those plans washed out and we ended up having the chance to visit the Madre de Dios region of Peru. As you have seen, that was a clear “win” for us.
A secondary benefit from the change in plans meant that we could “add on” to our itinerary a visit to Machu Picchu. I have to tell you, I’ve been writing this name for three months now – in journals, in letters, in blog posts…and I still can’t remember which word gets two “c’s” and whether or not both of the words get an “h”. It’s a mental block, I guess. I hadn’t heard much about this “lost city of the Incas” prior to planning the trip, but we soon discovered that it is Peru’s most popular tourist attraction. We can see why after having been there.
Machu Picchu was inhabited by the Incas in the 15th century. There are no records of the Spaniards ever having discovered the place – which is not surprising, because it is essentially invisible from below. There are two main routes into the town of Agua Caliente at the foot of the monument. One is by foot on The Inca Trail. This is a favorite for adventure enthusiasts and serious hikers – it’s a five day trek across the old highways used by the Incas hundreds of years ago. While we bet that it’s amazing, it was not the route for us. The other way to access the town and the monument is by rail – there is a single line in and out of Agua Caliente that brings tourists, supplies, and commerce to that village each day.
We boarded our train and headed for the city…and when you see these photos, remember that this city is actually LOWER than our starting point of Cusco (about 3,000 feet lower!). We descended from the highlands into the jungle and then, at the base of Machu Picchu, took a shuttle bus up a series of switchbacks that led us to the plateau that the Incas had carved out for themselves. This village was entirely self-sufficient: there were agricultural gardens built into the slopes and a spring was diverted into the heart of the community.
We were impressed at the astronomical knowledge of the Inca people. The Temple of the Sun, for instance, looks out onto a small notch in the mountain across the valley through which the sun rises on June 21 – the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. Other rock monuments inside the village indicate the shape of the “Southern Cross” and point to the four cardinal directions.
Another aspect of the visit that impressed us was the Peruvians’ desire to keep the monument as natural as possible. To that end, there are no bathrooms inside the monument. There are no vending machines or concessions, either – just a lot of ruins, some trails, and a great many questions. Just outside the gates are all the conveniences one needs – but within the structure itself, it is remarkably similar to the way that it was laid out when Yale’s Hiram Bingham re-discovered the site in 1911.
We didn’t know what to expect when we signed on for this part of the adventure, but we are delighted to have had the chance to visit this amazing edifice. We were humbled by the exacting geometry and other scientific knowledge that these people used to develop this city, and left there with an appreciation for the power of human ingenuity and creativity.