Peru Trip #11 – Machu Picchu

Classic view of Machu Picchu - click to see more on FlickrMachu Picchu. Superlatives fail me. Just the train journey (much better than the famous Inca Trail, which is a four-to-six-day walk) was fairly spectacular, bringing home how deep and winding the gorge is here. It is made by a river that almost completely encloses the mountain upon the top of which the sanctuary of Macchu Picchu was built. The town was constructed from the huge rocks that were already there, some of which are still scattered about the summit in the few areas that have not been built on. Here and there the huge stones have been left in place, and the houses and temples built around them, using them as platforms.

The place was started probably around 1400CE, and was still ongoing and unfinished in parts, when it was mysteriously abandoned around 1500CE, abandoned to such an extent that later Incas – including the one overthrown by the Spanish, did not even know of its existence. Which of course means that neither did the Spanish. Of all the Inca ruins, this one is untouched, untainted by the Spanish. This site was not destroyed by them, there is no church built on top of it. It was lost to the jungle before Pisaro even set foot in South America, in 1533. The Quechua people, and their king, the Inca, the Son of the Sun, had abandoned this place long before.
View of the mountains at Machu Picchu

The mountain territory, and the fact that here, at 2400m above sea
level, and towards the east of Cuzco, we are almost in the Amazonian
jungle – at its gate, in fact – all make this already an incredibly
special place, the awesome beauty of the natural surroundings surely a
big part of why it was chosen as a royal sanctuary. The town is built
on the summit, and surrounded by a wall, and includes, typical of other
Inca settlements, especially of the high empire period, a ritual sector
with temples and astronomical stone artefacts, a royal compound where
the royal family and probably the main priests lived or stayed, a
‘commons’ sector where the people who built and maintained the town
lived, and an agricultural area of terraces.

View of Machu Picchu

Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu
The Temple of the Sun here, as Hiram Bingham called it (most of the
names of the buildings came from him, and his guesswork, as he cut back
the jungle from this place in the years following his discovery of it in
1911), is perhaps the most interesting, to me. There are two main
windows in this semi-circular temple. One faces the point on the
horizon where the Winter Solstice, on June 21st, rises, the other the
point where the Summer Solstice, on December 22nd, rises, over a small
temple on the top of an overlooking mountain called, Intipunku – ‘The
Sun Gate’.

The Sun Gate temple - Intipunku, from Machu Picchu

On these Solstice mornings, the first rays of the sun shine into the
temple through these windows and light up the altar stone in its heart.
The masonry – especially of the royal compound and the temples – is
simply awesome. This place seems in many ways, certainly as it has come
down to us molested not by the Spanish, but only by time, bushes, and
trees, perhaps the finest example of Inca High Empire architecture,
hydraulic mastery and urban planning. Almost in the jungle here,
drainage of the buildings and the terraces is of paramount importance,
and provision of fresh spring water for the populace without the need to
climb down the mountain to the river, absolutely essential. The
drainage remains perfect. To this day, a fresh spring from a mountain
on the other side of the river runs through complex buried channels down
to the bottom of the valley, the pressure making it rise again up to
the summit of Machu Picchu where it flows gently, unceasingly, with
unchanging flow and temperature, all year round, still to this day, five
hundred years after it was built.
The place is simply amazing.

The top fountain at Machu Picchu

The astronomical observatory at Machu Picchu
At the highest point of the main area of the town is the astronomical
observatory, a carved rock with its corners pointing North, South, East,
and West, and to the four mountain peaks around Machu Picchu, crowned
with a sundial obtrusion that casts its shadows with precision around
the year, allowing precise calculations of Solstices and Equinoxes. It
is famed to have power within it, and all the tourists hold their hands
an inch above it, trying to feel the power. I’m sure if that were
possible it would have been sucked dry long ago by now – there are only
1000 tourists here today: it’s a quiet day.

Llactapata, from the Western tower at Machu Picchu

The Western tower at Machu Picchu facing Llactapata
To the west, in the distance, is Llactapata – another Inca temple that
is aligned to the East and where the Sun can be seen rising over Machu
Picchu at one of the Solstices, precisely over where, here at Machu
Picchu, there is a viewing tower overlooking Llactapata.

Me at Machu Picchu

My guide takes several good pics of me here, and I am grateful. He is
knowlegeable, polite, friendly – as they have all been – and my morning
tour is a great introduction to the place. After another big tourist
buffet lunch at the Sanctuary Lodge, I return alone to take a few more
pics of the Temple of the Sun, and make a last climb to the astronomical
observatory, and then head down on the bus to the delightful El Mapi
hotel, for a shower, and a dry Martini, and a light supper. First thing
in the morning, I am on the 5.30am bus to see the dawn rise over Machu
Picchu. And what an experience this is!

I have ‘seen in the dawn’ on a number of occasions, and got up for the
dawn as often, but this has to be one of the finest of them all.
Climbing to the highest point of Machu Picchu where the ‘watchman’s
house,’ as it is known, looks out over the summit town, one gets an
amazing view of the moment of sunrise, as it crests the tops of the
mountains surrounding the site. Some short distance on its journey from
the the Winter Solstice point, in June, towards the Summer Solstice
point, at Intipunku (Sun Gate), in December, the appearance of the sun’s
orb above the mountain peaks is an awesome sight.
Sunrise at Machu Picchu

The top fountain at Machu Picchu
From the watchman’s house I went down to where the first fountain
produces the flow of spring water that runs in its channels and from
other fountains down through the centre of the royal compound and into
the commons sector. Here, where the royals themselves would have got
their water, I washed the silver, serpentine, smokey quartz and obsidian
jewelry I had bought in Pisak, in the hope that I might take some of
the blessing of Pacha Mama and Pacha Tata back to my home land.


Then the walk up to Intipunku. It’s about an hour each way, said the
guide, but I managed it a little quicker on the way down. On the way up
it was a good 50 minutes, and a hot and sweaty journey with frequent
panting stops. Glad of the strap around my hips, I took it easy, but I
am definitely on the mend, it seems, and the walk was worth the risk!
The reward was absolutely fantastic. Gobsmacking is about the best word
I can think of. From Intipunku the view over Machu Picchu is
incredible. I sat there for over an hour, just drinking in the view. I
met an English girl doing a good bit more of South America, there, and
we agreed on many things. I recommended the Lords of Sipan museum and
Huaca de la Luna to her. It was so peaceful, sitting up at Intipunku –
about five of us at one point, three Dutch half asleep on the terraces,
and us two English types. Absolutely peaceful, at the Gate of the Sun,
with the great orb high in the sky behind us, shining down over one of
the most amazing views I have ever seen in my life, bathing perhaps one
of the greatest pre-Christian temple complexes in the world.

Machu Picchu from Intipunku

And then, from the wall of the terrace at Intipunku where I sat, I stood
up to begin my journey home. It will take me three days – journeying
this afternoon to Cusco, overnight there at the Don Carlos again,
collecting my suitcase, then flying Monday to Lima, overnight there
before finally the intercontinental flight on Tuesday back to Amsterdam.
I will bring home with me some incredible memories. And I will be

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