Saturday, May 8

Steve: We awoke early today to see Machu Picchu at sunrise. Although we could see fog and mist outside our window, this did not deter us from getting up and walking through the entrance gate right at its 6:00AM opening time. Since at this altitude we are basically in the clouds (Machu Picchu does indeed sit in a cloud forest), the fog and clouds often move rapidly, creating very mysterious and often beautiful effects. We wanted to see the ruins in the early morning before anyone else arrived, even in foggy conditions.

We started by walking up to the guard house to see the view from above. When we started the 10-minute climb, we could see that the ruins were shrouded in clouds but still visible. However, by the time we had made our way up the rocky steps, the fog was so thick that we couldn't see anything at all. After a few minutes with no change in conditions, we headed back down to the actual ruins. Although we had no idea of what we were seeing, we loved walking through Machu Picchu all alone in a very heavy mist. We could just barely discern the outlines of structures above and all around us, but could not see any of the mountains that we knew were surrounding us. We wandered for as long as we could, returning to the lodge for breakfast in time to meet Hilda who was arriving from Aguas Calientes at 8:00AM to help us begin our exploration of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu was accidentally discovered by an American archaeologist named Hiram Bingham in 1911. Bingham was in Peru to search for the fabled last city of the Incas, the place now called Vilcabamba where the last Inca king, Manco Inca, had fled after being defeated by the Spanish. After discovering Machu Picchu, Bingham spent years clearing, excavating and studying the site, and wrote a book entitled Lost City of the Incas that describes his adventures and findings (we have all been reading this book during our stay here). Machu Picchu is considered one of the most important (and probably the most spectacular) archaeological findings in the Americas, and there is a great deal of mystery that still surrounds this magnificent lost city. This is one of the few sites that was never discovered by the Spanish, and thus did not suffer the same destruction that befell most other Inca structures.

Machu Picchu translates to "Old Mountain", and was named by two families who were living here before Bingham arrived. The name "Machu Picchu" actually refers to the mountain whose peak is visible high up to the south of the ruins, and the ruins themselves have taken on the same name as this mountain.

As we began our exploration this morning with Hilda, we learned that although many theories exist, Machu Picchu is considered by most to have been an important Inca sanctuary, home to over 500 people. It consists of several temples, astronomical structures, tombs and a large area that was used for housing. There is a central area now called the "Sacred Plaza" that houses the two main temples of Macchu Picchu. From here a large staircase leads up to a giant sun dial whose shadows precisely identify the timing for the winter and summer solstices. The only circular building in Machu Picchu is called "The Sun Temple" and appears to have had astronomical purposes.

Because there are no written records from Machu Picchu (the Incas had no written language), there are many mysteries about what we see here today. In each building or room that we explored, it was fascinating to hear alternative explanations for what we were seeing. Archaeologists have done their best to interpret the function and meaning of many puzzling elements of Machu Picchu (unusual carvings, odd windows, etc.), but many secrets still remain. New theories are being developed all the time.

Machu Picchu is well-known for its impressive stonework, employing the same combination of designs that we have seen at Pisac and Ollantaytambo. What is considered amazing is what the Incas accomplished with only the most basic of tools. Several years ago, researchers demonstrated one technique that the Incas may have used to cut the huge blocks of white granite that were used here. Blocks of wood were inserted into small holes were made along the fissures of the rocks. Through repeated cycles where water was poured onto the wood and allowed to freeze, the granite eventually broke apart, often making clean breaks. We observed a large rock that the researchers had used to actually demonstrate this technique.

David and Katie particularly enjoyed considering various ideas for how the Incas did their building, and in particular trying to develop answers for some questions that still remain regarding the construction techniques that were used. For example, for no apparent reason, the Incas sometimes broke their pattern of using closely-fitted large rocks, instead inserting much smaller stones to fill in the gaps.

One thing we learned is that although Bingham is highly regarded for having discovered Machu Picchu, much of the work he did has greatly hindered ongoing research about the ruins. Upon its discovery, the entire site was burned and cleared, and major excavations were done. Several of these diggings required walls to be taken down - these were subsequently rebuilt, but it's not clear how accurately this work was done. Bingham took liberties in doing reconstruction of certain elements at Machu Picchu, and it was interesting to see pictures of specific structures (such as the "serpent window" in the Temple of the Sun) which now look different from when they were first discovered.

As we continued our fascinating walk through the ruins at a deliberately slow pace, the weather suddenly started to clear. Almost immediately, the fog had lifted and we could see not only the scale of the structures that surrounded us, but also the spectacular scenery all around. A major part of Machu Picchu's grandeur is its stunning setting high in this cloud forest nestled on a slope that extends off the bottom of a peak called Huayna Picchu (translates to "young mountain") among dramatic mountains and cliffs. With the clearing skies, we decided to make our way back up to the guard house to take in the view (and take more pictures, of course), saving the rest of our tour for later this afternoon.

The guard house provides a wonderful perspective from which to view the entire setting for Machu Picchu. It is set among many Inca terraces, and it's possible to walk along these grassy areas and see the ruins from a variety of angles. It is also wonderful to sit and relax on the terraces, simply admiring the fantastic views, and we spent the rest of the morning doing just that.














After lunch, we decided to make the climb up Huayna Picchu, which is the impressive mountain that shoots up directly behind Machu Picchu and appears in all of the classic photographs of the ruins (it's the large mountain in the two pictures above). Huayna Picchu appears very intimidating (at least for recreational hikers like ourselves), since it's basically a straight and very steep shot up. In fact, it was amazing to us that there's even a way to get up at all, but apparently the Incas built a trail because they conducted some sort of ceremonies at the summit.

All hikers must register at the start of the trail, and be back down by 4:00PM (to avoid having rescue teams dispatched!). After a brief initial descent (never a good thing when you know how high you must climb…), we quickly found ourselves puffing away on a very steep set of rocky steps. The trail is very exposed, and we were happy to find and use the ropes and wire cables that have been installed in some of the trickier spots. While we took several rest stops along the way, we clearly have all begun adjusting to the higher altitudes and found that we were no longer getting winded so quickly.

Near the top of the trail, we reached a set of very narrow steps that were the steepest we had seen yet. As we climbed carefully, often needing to use both hands above us, Hilda told us that these were very similar to the steps on the Inca Trail that Bingham used when he discovered Machu Picchu.

We reached the summit in exactly 38 minutes (David was proudly up in 32 minutes!), and took some pride in achieving this feat in less than the 45 minutes that the signs said would be required. Our reward made the climb well-worthwhile. Standing on the rocks at the top, we had a spectacular 360-degree view including a fantastic perspective looking down on Machu Picchu and its terraces (pictured on the right). From here we were looking at Machu Picchu from a totally new direction, and Hilda pointed out how the ruins and terraces roughly form the shape of a condor. Most Inca cities were designed in the shape of animals, and many believe that Machu Picchu was indeed constructed to resemble this large Andean bird.

We were the last hikers up Huayna Picchu today, and it was great to enjoy the views in solitude. However it was getting late and we of course needed to be down by 4:00PM, so we reluctantly began to climb back down. Walking downhill on such a steep trail is in some ways harder than going up, so we made sure to take our time to avoid any mishaps and arrived safely at 3:50PM.

With Machu Picchu now almost entirely empty of tourists, it was great to complete our tour in the late afternoon sun. We walked through some of the residential areas, containing some additional tombs and places where it is believed that the dead were mummified. There are additional unsolved mysteries in this area of Machu Picchu, including two circles carved into rocks in the floor of a room. These were originally thought by Bingham to be used for grinding corn, but now researchers don't believe that this is the case and many theories exist. This is just one example of many of Machu Picchu's puzzles.

After a long and wonderful day, we retreated to the comfort of the Sanctuary Lodge, enjoyed a great dinner and rested our tired bodies. Tomorrow we plan to see another sunrise here (this time hopefully without fog) and to take a hike to a nearby Inca bridge. We'll also probably spend more time walking in the ruins before we leave on our mid-afternoon train back to Ollantaytambo.












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