Most of us have a list of places we dream about visiting one day if luck and chance break our way.
For as far back as I can remember, the famed “Lost City of the Incas” has been near the top of mine, probably because my father has been telling me excitedly about it since before I really understood what he was saying.
Machu Picchu is a stunning testament to what man is capable of achieving. Discovered in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu was believed to have been built by the Incas between 1450-1540 to serve as the private estate and sacred religious complex for Emperor Pachacuti. But the truth is that no one really knows why it was built, or why the mighty Incas abandoned it before its construction was complete.
Historians theorize that one of three things caused the desertion of this magnificent city: devastation of the population by smallpox, introduced by Spanish Conquistadors; evacuation during an Inca civil war; or evacuation to the last Inca stronghold of Vilcabamba as aforementioned Spanish invaders slaughtered pretty much every Inca they found. But these are just theories, about which we can only speculate.
One hundred years ago Hiram Bingham rather extravagantly described the approach to Machu Picchu as inviting “certain death.” Hyperbole aside, the city does rest in such superb isolation that the Spanish, who were desperately hunting the surviving Inca royal family, nobility and military, never learned of its existence. And getting there today is ever so much easier than in the intrepid Mr. Bingham’s days.
(It’s worth nothing here that the people we’re discussing didn’t actually call themselves Incas. They called themselves Quechua, and the Quechua word for “emperor” was “inca.” So somehow the conquistadors, not a notably brainy bunch, managed to confuse the word for the emperor with the name of the people he ruled. But it stuck, and history now refers to them as Incas. The surviving members of this once mighty people, though, still call themselves Quechuas.)
Our trek to Machu Picchu began in Urubamba, where Soo and I are spoiling ourselves at Tambo del Inka, a hotel so stupendous that any praise I could heap upon it would only be insulting. All I can tell you is that if you like yourself at all, even just a little, you’ll bring yourself here one day and luxuriate in this remarkable resort. I don’t care what it takes — take out a second mortgage on your home, rob a bank, sell your children into slavery — just get here, and experience this magnificent eco-friendly resort, in this remarkable corner of the world.
But do it fast. In 2008 the World Monuments Fund placed Machu Picchu on its Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world because of environmental degradation. Like so many of the world’s great treasures, human beings’ fascination with Machu Picchu may ultimately do it in.
Tambo del Inka whisks guests off for the three-hour train ride alongside the rapids of the Urubamba River, through gorgeous mountains split frequently by tumbling waterfalls, to the town of Aguas Calientes (now commonly referred to as the town of Machu Picchu, at the base of the mountain on which its namesake rests.) The train is far from luxurious, moves painfully slowly, and is a perfectly wonderful adventure all in itself.
Once arrived, instead of slogging your way through dense rainforest as Mr. Bingham did on several occasions, the one million giddy tourists who visit Machu Picchu annually buy bottles of water, perhaps a poncho in case it rains, and board a rickety bus to climb the narrow 1950s dirt road to the summit.
Alternatively, of course, you may choose to hike up the 8,000 foot mountain. Those selecting this option are called “adventurous”, or “clinically insane.”
Either way, do your business before making the ascent.
You see, there are no bathrooms in Machu Picchu.
Getting to Machu Picchu is so arduous, being in Machu Picchu so awe-inspiring, that one wants to stay a while once there. When, after a couple of hours, you’re consumed with a desperate need to pee, there’s a problem.
Our delightful guide, Jeffé, helpfully suggested I duck between a couple of rocks and relieve myself, which I did, and was ever so much happier. (I’ve visited many of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. I believe this is the first one on which I’ve urinated. It’s a singularly shameful moment in my life, about which I find myself oddly delighted.)
Spread out before you Machu Picchu is a center of constant awe. One finds oneself in jaw-dropping amazement at nearly every turn, uttering really intelligent things like “that’s not possible!” and “how could they possibly do that?”
And I applaud the Peruvian government for allowing visitors to explore this ancient site at their own risk. You can walk to the very edge of any number of thousand-foot drops and peer over the precipice. If you slip, your family has an interesting story – there’s nothing between you and the valley floor. (In America, where we’re hyper-obsessed about protecting ourselves from every possible danger, there’d be railings and walls keeping everyone “safe” and utterly destroying the natural splendor of the site. )
Perhaps the most startling feature is the swath cut through the center of town, under which lies a massive fault line. The Inca engineers carefully built a section of the city straddling the fault to make it as resistant to quakes as possible.
Let that one sink in for a moment. Incan engineers were aware of and taking precautions against underground faults centuries before Western scientists knew of their existence, much less had any idea how to measure them.
How’d they do that??
And that, friends, is the enduring impression of Machu Picchu. From the precisely aligned windows of the Sun Temple, through which direct beams of sunlight shine exactly once per year, on the summer solstice, to the miles-long aqueduct bringing water over the mountains (so well designed and brilliantly constructed that it’s still, 500 years on, used today by the city below), this city is a marvelous feat of engineering.
How’d they do that? And why, when nearly completed, did the city’s inhabitants abandon it?
We’ll probably never know. And I think that may actually be better. These unanswerable questions only add to the mysticism of Machu Picchu, and isn’t that ever so much more fun? As Mr. Bingham said, the city’s masters “left no descendants willing to reveal the importance or explain the significance of the ruins which crown the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu.”
How’d they do that?