We Came, We Saw, We Conquered

Dear readers, you have now reached the portion of our blog that is purely travelogue.  I hope you continue to enjoy our adventures, although we will not be focusing on ASPAT or the TB situation in Peru.  Today, I will be covering the fantastic time the three of us spent exploring Machu Picchu, Sacred City of the Incas!

Mt. Huaynapicchu

Cindy, Briana, and I woke up before sunrise this morning, excited to finally be seeing one of the world’s greatest architectural and archaeological sites.  We boarded one of the early buses out to the ruins and drove through the dark up to Machu Picchu.  By 6:30, we were in (and almost immediately lost, as always).  We made our way quickly across the main site to the base of Mt. Huaynapicchu, one of four sacred mountains enclosing Machu Picchu.  Huaynapicchu, the second tallest, is the most sacred of the four, as it was the residence for the high priest and the local virgins, who were responsibly for signaling the new day every morning.

Misty mountains in the morning!

The summit of Huaynapicchu stands at 8,920 ft, which means that the three of us had to ascend 1,180 ft up to the peak (I think I´ll call this distance ‘about a vertical half -mile’).  The mountain was incredibly steep – at time, we had to bend over and ascend more or less on all fours.  It made all of us feel thoroughly out of shape.  To give you an idea:

Estimated time to summit and descend, according to the entrance: 1 hour.

Time it took us to summit: 1.5 hours.

Time we rested on the top: 1 hour.

Time it took us to descend: 30 minutes.

Total time: 3 hours, otherwise known as 3 times the estimate.

But even if we were slow, I think all three of us were really proud that we actually made it to the top.  Even though we were exhausted, we all hobbled away thinking it was worth it – the views were fantastic.  I’ll let our pictures do the talking:

We finally made it to the Summit! It was 8:30 in the morning and we were on top of a mountain. 😀

The descent was pretty grueling as well, although it took a lot less time than the ascent.

This staircase was so steep that we hung onto a rope while climbing down.

After Mt. Huaynapicchu, the three of us decided we needed lunch and a drink post haste.  (I should have mentioned earlier – all the signs around the entrance prohibit bringing food or drink into Machu Picchu.  Being law-abiding, we decided not to bring anything forbidden, and hoped that there would be some water for sale at the base of the mountain.  There wasn’t, probably because we were the only people in the place that actually obeyed the restriction.  The looming dehydration was pretty miserable on the hike).  As rested as we were ever going to be, we hired the services of a local guide, Paolo, to take us around the main ruins.

Paolo, our guide, explaining to us why that corner of the ruins is sagging so gracefully.

Dude. Llama. The llama actually photobombed the 3 of us on that rock, it was epic.

A Brief History of Machu Picchu

Pachacutec, the ninth Incan Emperor, is perhaps the most crucial figure in Incan history.  Pachacutec had the soul of a conqueror, and was responsible for the expansion of the Incan Empire from the areas immediately surrounding Cuzco to the greater part of Western South America.  He was also responsible for the construction of the Capac Ñan, the Incan highway system, and may have been the man behind Machu Picchu as well.  Little is actually known about Machu Picchu, as the Spanish never discovered the city, and so no records were kept of its origin or even its Incan name.  After the destruction of the Incas, it passed out of history.

Machu Picchu was formally ‘rediscovered’ on July 24, 1911, by the American explorer / Yale professor Hiram Bingham.   Bingham had originally come to Peru in search of ‘The Lost City of the Incas,’ where Manco Inca and his followers made their last stand against the Spanish conquistadors.  He set out from Ollantaytambo in search of this city, which he called Vilcabamba.  Early on in his voyage, however, he came to a remote Quechuan village, and as was his wont, asked the locals if there were any ruins worth seeing in the area.  These locals helpfully pointed Bingham to a site in the Old Mountain near their village – Machu Picchu, in Quechuan.  The rest, as they say, is history.

*Note: Although Bingham set out to discover the lost city of the Incas, and even claimed that he had found it in Machu Picchu, no one knows for sure why Machu Picchu was built.  It was probably never intended to be a refuge, and in fact, the actual city of Vilcabamba (now known as Espiritu Pampa) was eventually found further down in the jungle.

Stop 1: Recinto del Guardián, Guardhouse

This Inca guardhouse is situated at the top of the Inca Trail, and was used to monitor who entered Machu Picchu.  It is thought that Machu Picchu was a city composed almost entirely of the Inca elite (even when it was being built, crews were changed out every month so that no one would know exactly how to get to the city and what it looked like).

Stop 2: Intipunku, the Sun Gate

Intipunku, the Gate of the Sun, is not actually located in Machu Picchu proper, but rather is at the top of the Inca trail, in an upper pass bordered by Mt. Machu Picchu, the tallest of the four sacred mountains mentioned earlier in this post.  Of course, when the Inca inhabited the city, all visitors would have passed through the Sun Gate on their way down.  It was considered sacred by the Inca because it was deliberately positioned so that on the summer solstice (December 22), it would align perfectly with the sun.  The sun was held to be a god be the Inca, the most powerful god in the cosmos.  In fact, the Inca emperor achieved his power because he was considered to be ‘the son of the sun.’   As a result, such astronomical manipulations were commonplace in Machu Picchu.

Stop 3: Roca Ceremonial, the Ceremonial Rock

Close to the Guardhouse is rock known either as the Ceremonial Rock, or, more imaginatively, as the Funerary Stone.  Some historians believe the stone was used as a sacrificial altar, where the Incas could sacrifice llamas to their gods in return for good harvest and the like.  The rock is carved into three distinct parts, representing the World of the Gods, World of the Humans, and Underworld.

Stop 4: Acceso Principal a la Ciudad Inca, the Main Gate

This one is pretty self-explanatory.  It is also one of the few buildings in Machu Picchu that likely had a door or some form of security system, barring unwanted visitors from entering the sanctuary.

Stop 5: Templo del Sol, Temple of the Sun

The Temple of the Sun is one of the most famous buildings in Machu Picchu.  The Incas probably used it as an astronomical observatory.  Although there are many windows carved into the stone in the temple, there are two that are larger than the others, one directly in front and one off to the left side when looked at from above.  On the winter solstice (June 21), the sun shines directly through the large front window onto a stone slab in the center of the temple.  It shines through the large side window on the summer solstice (December 22).  Because we visited near the winter solstice, we were able to see how accurate the large front window was.  Very impressive!

Stop 6: Templo de las Tres Ventanas, Temple of the Three Windows

The Temple of the Three Windows, along with the Temple of the Sun and the Intiwatana, makes up Machu Picchu’s central plaza.  The three windows represent the three worlds in which the Incas believed.

Stop 7: Templo Central, Main Temple

Called the Main Temple because of its size, the temple was probably used as a place where ritual sacrifices were performed.  At the western end of the temple is a kite-shaped stone embedded in the ground pointing south and said to symbolise the Southern Cross (which the Incas considered sacred). When the sun falls upon the stone, the shadow cast resembles a llama – more specifically, a black llama (as the shadow is black).  Thus, black llamas were frequently sacrificed here.

Stop 8: Intiwatana, the Astronomical Observatory

Although Intiwatana is called an astronomical observatory, it resembles nothing more than a giant sundial at first glance.  In Quechua, the word Intiwatana translates loosely to ‘Hitching Post of the Sun,’ in reference to the sundial-like object in the center of the stone table.  Inca astronomers aligned this ‘sundial’ so as to be able to predict the summer and winter solstices using its angle.  As such, the Inca were always aware of what season it was (harvest, planting, etc.) which was probably particularly important in a country like Peru, which has a reasonably stable climate.

Stop 9: Central Plaza, Main Square

Likely the hub of Inca social life when Machu Picchu was a flourishing city.  Because the plaza has particularly brilliant acoustics, the Inca king could have stood above the Central Plaza, spoken at a fairly normal level, and been heard by all of his subjects without the aid of a microphone.  Our guide, Paolo, demonstrated for us – I was really impressed.

Stop 10: Templo del Cóndor, the Temple of the Condor

Our final stop was the so-called Temple of the Condor, names for a rock which has the outline of a condor with a clearly defined head and neck. The rock faced behind it contributed the condor’s outstretched wings.  Condors were considered sacred by the Incas and seen as a messenger or embodiment of the mountain spirits or apus.  Machu Picchu itself is supposed to have been built in the shape of a condor (representing the World of the Gods), whereas Cuzco was built in the shape of a puma (representing the World of Men).  The Urubamba River, which links the two, is shaped like a serpent (representing the Underworld).

We were all very sad to leave Machu Picchu, but even so, all three of us were excited to return to Ollantaytambo to spend a couple more days exploring the Sacred Valley.  We made our way back via train, and even found our hotel on the first try, despite the fact that the hotel doesn’t publicize its address on its website, and actually has a different name in real life than it does on its website and all its advertisements.  Exhausted from a long day, we went to be early.  Tomorrow, we will set out to explore Ollantaytambo and the surrounding Sacred Valley!  Until then, good night.

The UChicago GROW team has conquered Machu Picchu!


Posted on July 29, 2012, in GROW Trip 2012 Blog. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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