Perú 2015: Machu Picchu

Saturday morning, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to catch the 7:05 train to Aguas Calientes, where I would then take a bus up a winding mountain road to Machu Picchu. At about 2:30 a.m., I woke up with fever and a splitting headache, and I wasn’t feeling much better at 6:00 (more on this later). I felt bad enough that I did consider trying to rebook, but I decided not to take the chance. I had my tickets for that day and didn’t want to miss my chance, so off to the train station I went.

The train ride itself was gorgeous – about an hour and forty-five minutes traveling through the Sacred Valley, following the ancient Urubamba river. I took PeruRail’s Vistadome train, which is more window than anything else, and I was glad I had spent a little extra money for the views. I was seated next to two women who had been friends and travel partners for almost 25 years, and they were fantastic. We shared some travel stories over the brunch that we were served, and that helped me take my mind off my current state, which was definitely not good.

Once we arrived in Aguas Calientes, I got my round-trip bus ticket and joined the impossibly long line to board. As I had been told, they filled up buses one after the other, in very short order, and soon I was on a bus, winding up the mountain. As we snaked our way up, I could catch occasional glimpses of our final destination: la ciudadela de Machu Picchu. Once arrived, I tried to form an impromptu tour group to no avail, and ended up hiring a personal guide named Erika. She was wonderful, and I was so glad to have her lead me through the citadel itself, explaining the different buildings, temples, types of construction, and various terraces.

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She also explained some of the basic belief systems of Inca mythology, including the three Pacha realms: Hanan Pacha (the upper world, inhabited by gods and those lucky enough to be reborn there); Kay Pacha (the middle or earthly world that they inhabited); and Uku Pacha (the under or inner world, which lay beneath the human realm, and was ruled by the god of death). Each realm is associated with a revered animal, as well – the upper world with the condor, the earthly world with the puma, and the under world with the snake, and there is a certain sense of time tied to each these distinct realms (past, present, future). Because Inca mythology held that death was merely rebirth into another world, the bodies of the dead were typically arranged and mummified into a sort of standing fetal position, to better facilitate their rebirth into the next world.

One of the most interesting parts of Machu Picchu, for me, was the Temple of the Condor, in which the bodies of noble Incas were arranged and prepared to be spirited away to Hanan Pacha by the condor, the earthly connection to the upper world. In the picture below, the figure of the condor can be made out like so: in the triangular rock on the ground, the carving in the front is the head. There are two (barely perceptible) eyes on each side where the shape cuts in, and then the lines coming to a downward point represent the beak. The white stone around the head represents the condor’s feathered collar, and the rest of the large stone the body. The wings are two enormous stones angling up behind the condor’s body. I couldn’t get much of them here, but you can see the beginnings of them in the background. Up above and behind the wings lies a tomb reserved for nobles, all of whom are placed on the back of the condor to be lifted up into the upper world to one day be reborn there.

Head and body of the condor.
Head and body of the condor.
One of the two wings (large, triangular rock). The bodies were preserved in the space above.
One of the two wings (large, triangular rock). The bodies were preserved in the space above.

Erika also explained the difference between the construction of the temples and the spaces in which nobles resided, and those of the common Quechua citizens. The perfectly rectangular, smooth stones created to fit without mortar were reserved for noble spaces and individuals, and the rougher stones fused together with mortar were for average residents. The difference is quite clear:

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She also showed me the Temple of the Sun, which was built with two windows that served to indicated with the summer and winter solstices fell, so that those who resided in Machu Picchu knew when it was time to seed the crop terraces, and when it was time to harvest and store the fruits of their labors. Cool, huh?

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I was shown the difference between crop terraces and retaining terraces, and shown some of the sites where building had started but had not been finished. I also saw the rock quarry, some of the tools they used to move large, incredibly heavy rocks, and some of the sixteen water canals running through the citadel, bringing fresh mountain water down from the mountain, into Machu Picchu, and finally flowing into the Urubamba river below. Incredibly, many of these water canals are still functioning, over 500 years later.

Crop terraces.
Crop terraces.
Retaining teraces.
Retaining teraces
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Original stone water canal.
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Functionality, 500 years later.

It is a truly amazing place, and it felt a little surreal to be there, walking around, snapping photos on my iPhone. I was overwhelmed by the throngs of tourists, and a more than a little sickened by their behavior, frankly. At almost every pass from one spot to another, I waited uncomfortably as people took selfie after selfie, posing against the background of the Temple of the Sun, perhaps, or getting the full panorama behind them with the aid of a selfie stick. The jumping shot, usually taken by a friend, was also a popular one, and required at least 5 or 6 takes to get the right shot. Once one person did one of these, at least every other person after them felt compelled to follow suit. At one point while we waited an awkwardly long time for a jump shot, Erika said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t offer to take your picture. Do you want me to take some pictures of you while we go through?” I told her I might have her take a few at the end, but that I felt a little weird about taking a bunch of pictures of myself at a place like this. “I feel the same way,” she said, “It’s a strange thing.”

And you know what? It is. As much as I was completely blown away by Machu Picchu itself, I was almost equally grossed out by the way people acted while they were there. The über-narcissistic selfies, the sitting on of roped-off rock slabs (most of which were ceremonial sacrifice altars) to eat sandwiches, the complete disregard for others in jockeying to get a good shot, etc. – it was too much for me. I had been warned of the “Disney-fication” of Machu Picchu before I went, and I understand now what was mean by that. It felt at times like just another tourist trap, full of sweaty Americans, Germans, Australians, etc., who were checking off a box rather than living an experience. How sad. Because it really is an experience, if you can push all that to the side.

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After my two-hour tour, I went out to the area outside of MP to have some lunch and make a plan. I was still feeling pretty terrible, but I hated to leave without doing some of the extra site visits. The Sun Gate, in particular, was exerting a pretty strong pull. The original (and then only) entrance to Machu Picchu, the Sun Gate lies at the end of what is known as the Incan trail, a path so ancient and so long that it connects countries in the Andean region. Ambitions trekkers today can do various forms of the Inca trail hike, ranging from a four-day (which Lindsay and her dad Ken had just finished doing when I met them in Ollantaytambo) to a one-day hike. Instead of being bused in the to modern entrance of Machu Picchu, like I was, those who do one of these hikes arrive at la ciudadela the way its original inhabitants did: by foot, via the Inca trail, thorough the Sun Gate. Note: If this is something any of you readers might be interested in doing, plan ahead. The number of passes allowed per day are extremely low, and pretty much every pass for every day of the entire year is now sold during the first few days of January, when they become available.

I couldn’t do the Inca trail, but from inside Machu Picchu, one can hike to the Sun Gate, as if they were leaving the citadel, and take in some truly lovely views. It’s a ways, though, and mostly uphill to get there (think lots and lots and LOTS of huge stone steps. Now, image about a gazillion more. There you go, now you’re getting it). In hindsight, I know that I was suffering from altitude sickness, so while it took me almost an hour longer to hike there and back than it probably should have (I was told it would take two hours and it took me three), I’m pretty proud of myself for doing it. There were many times I almost gave up, but every time I ran into someone who motivated me to keep going. My favorite was Marie Christine, a fifty-something Parisian woman who was huffing and puffing and literally moaning as she walked, but who said, “I’m so tired, and I want to quit, but I am doing this out of spite now. I cannot give up!” She made me laugh, so I walked with her for a while. I like to think we helped motivate each other.

Tough times on the way to the Sun Gate.
Tough times on the way to the Sun Gate.

At various points along the way, people would offer encouragement. Sometimes, though, it just wasn’t what you wanted to hear. An especially athletic young German came bounding down the mountain with a big smile on his face and said, “You’re almost there! Only thirty more minutes, forty tops!” I almost cried. He looked confused. Then a few minutes later, someone said “Keep it up, fifteen more minutes and you’re there!” I eventually stopped listening, simply to preserve my own sanity. In the end, I did make it. I was so glad to see it I almost cried, honestly. It was starting to rain, I was freezing, and I was pretty sure I was going to have a stroke at any minute, but at least I got to see Machu Picchu from the Sun Gate, dammit, and Machu Picchu would be a pretty special place to die, right? Here’s what all that struggle was for. Beautiful, right?

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And then I took my ass back down the mountain. That was easier (and much faster!) going. About halfway down, I ran into a pack of alpaca cruising up the path eating foliage. They were adorable – those eyelashes! Those funny round bodies and long skinny legs! I REALLY wanted to pet one but I wasn’t sure how that would end, so I sidled by them and soon I was back in Machu Picchu itself. Considering the throngs of people now inside (the afternoons get super packed) and the state of my head, which was now total code red, I decided to head back to the train station and home.

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In spite of the altitude sickness and the icky tourists and the selfies (oh, the selfies, the goddamn selfies), I’m glad I got to experience Machu Picchu, and to stand inside of it on my own two feet, taking in its beauty and observing its wonders. I hope to be back sometime, but if nothing else, I feel privileged to have been able to walk its paths at least this one time.

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