Thursday, June 24, 2010

Machu Picchu: Magical Mystery Tour

You may have read my earlier post about the misadventures of our little group trekking to Machu Picchu.  Despite all of those, it was absolutely, completely worth it.  There are few places on earth that can send an eerie tingle down your spine just by being there; Machu Picchu is one of those.

Machu Picchu is a Quechua name; Quechua is the language of the Incas that is still in use today by Peru`s indigenous inhabitants.  Walking the streets of Cusco, you hear Quechua almost as often as Spanish (or English, from all the tourists); it took me a little while to clue in that I wasn`t understanding because I was hearing an entirely different language, not just because my Spanish comprehension needs some work. 

The name means ''old mountain'' in Quechua, which is the name of the peak that looms over the site; the nearby Huaynapicchu (which 400 hardy or foolish souls can opt to climb while at Machu Picchu) is the corresponding ''young mountain''.  No one knows the name of the actual village, as it was abandoned by the Inca about 500 years ago in the face of the invading Spanish.

It was largely unknown to the outside world until an adventurous American, Hiram Bingham, was led to the site by a local child in 1911.  Since then, it`s become a UNESCO World Heritage site and Peru`s most notable tourist attraction, with hundreds of thousands of foreigners visiting each year:  so many, in fact, that UNESCO (among other international organizations) is concerned that the site is being irretrievably damaged and is considering listing it as an ''endangered'' site.  The most blatant injury came from the crane used by the crew filming a beer commercial at the site, which smashed into the Intihuatana sun dial and chipped a piece off the stone; most of the deterioration is more subtle, as the site is trampled by a neverending stream of tourist feet.

But despite the hordes, Machu Picchu can hold you in such thrall that you forget you`re not the only one there.  No one is certain of the city`s original purpose; the quality of the construction is so fine, however, that it was almost certainly an important ceremonial site.  It may have also been used as a fortress in times of invasion as the two routes into the city would have been easy to defend -- one across the Inca drawbridge and one through the Sun Gate.  Its location high up in the mountains (at altitude about 2400m) would also have kept it well-hidden from invaders.

I arrived there right around the Winter Solstice, and we made it up to the observatory with its famous Intihuatana sundial in time to watch the sun rise over the site (we'd started out at 4 a.m., either to wait in line for the first bus or to hike the precipitous path from Aguas Calientes in the dark).  A religious group from Mexico (I was going to call them a cult, but perhaps that's unnecessarily judgmental) had gathered just below the observatory to greet the rising sun and perform a ceremony for the Solstice.

We had a guided tour of the major sights of Machu Picchu, then our group scattered to pursue their own interests for the rest of the day.  Some opted to do the climb up Huaynapicchu, with its 300-metre ascent up a very steep stone path; the rest of us listened to our complaining legs and opted to wander the rest of the site instead.

Even so, walking around Machu Picchu is not for the couch potato at heart; the site is essentially built on the side of a mountain and the stone stairs to carefully crafted by its Inca builders are challenging in their own right.  Worn by countless feet since they were built more than half a millenium ago, they can be slippery and your footing treacherous.  They also lead me to believe that the Inca may have been about 8 feet tall; at 5'6'', I'm not short, but some of those steps appeared designed for people much taller than me.

I hiked up to the Sun Gate in the afternoon, along a path that stretches about a mile uphill from the main part of the site.  This is where you enter Machu Picchu from the ''official'' Inca Trail, and what a sight that would be:  the entire city spread out before you, with the mountains behind it, as the sun rose over the site.  I was almost sorry I hadn't stuck with my original plan to hike the Inca Trail, but I was realistic enough to know that I probably wasn't yet in good enough shape to have enjoyed it very much.  It would have just been a long, hard slog.  (I will return to hike it at some point in the future; any adventurous souls out there who'd like to join me?)

I didn't want to leave, really, but they close the site at 6 pm.  I opted to hike down earlier than that, so I wouldn't be navigating the path in the dark (it seemed unnecessarily lazy and monetarily extravagant to take the $7 bus both ways); it's not an easy hike even downhill and in daylight, so I have enormous respect for my fellow trekkers who did it uphill, in the dark, at 4 a.m.!

There are a dozen ways to get to Machu Picchu, but whichever way you choose -- train, the Inca Trail, the Salkantay trek over ridiculously high mountain passes -- make sure you go.  It's one of those places that you have to see at least once in your lifetime.  Just be respectful of the site while you're there and tread carefully; it's lasted this long, and with luck it will last another 500 years for everyone to appreciate.

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