Machu Picchu. Such a well-known name, such a well-known image; just saying it to myself as I booked my tickets was like a mantra or an incantation, conjuring up one specific picture, and a vague idea of a lost civilization. It’s a spell any of us can cast, so firmly is the Inca ruin established in the popular mind. And I can say, without irony or embarrassment, that Machu Picchu is a magical place to be.
Forget the hassle of deciding which convoluted route to take from Cusco to the ruins (bus-train-bus, bus-walk-bus, bus-walk-walk, train-bus, etc.), forget the 5am alarm, forget the massive line and hordes of fellow tourists. Standing on the ledge overlooking the ruins, surrounded by craggy mountains floating in the gray morning mist, I was transported.
This was otherworldly, in the simple sense that it was unlike the world I know. It was grander, and despite the crowds, quieter, as if the mountains absorbed any unnecessary sounds and left only my rasping as I breathed heavily after my climb in the high altitude. Even the rasping reminded me that I was breathing, that I was alive in a place long ago left to ghosts and sacred spirits.
Because at least part of this place was sacred to the Incas who built here. Archaeologists have several theories about what, exactly, the buildings on Machu Picchu were for. Machu Picchu itself simply means “old mountain” and was not the Quechua name for the small town–that has been lost to history along with the function of the town. The most widely accepted theory is that it was a royal retreat for Emperor Pachacuti, and that the many religious structures and the orientation of the town itself can be explained by the fact that royalty resided here. The town is built on a precise axis in relation to several sacred mountains, and on solstices, the sun slices right through the center of the Sun Temple. Perhaps one section of town housed virgins dedicated to the gods. Perhaps one strategically placed rock was used as a solar calendar.
Much of the mountaintop is covered in the narrow terraces that make up the farmland of the Incas. One theory suggests that in addition to growing the usual crops, the Incas experimented with different types of plants here, as the steep terraces caused micro-climates that could imitate different climates throughout the empire. On the large, flat area in the middle of the buildings, llamas graze, keeping the lawn neat as they did 500 years ago.
My guided tour of the complex was uninspired, and most of what I heard I had already read in guidebooks: The Spanish never found Machu Picchu, which is one of the main reasons it is so celebrated, because they didn’t have a chance to strip it of all its valuables and rip apart the ingeniously constructed buildings, as they did everywhere else in the former Inca Empire.
Locals always knew of it, but it wasn’t until 1911 that the rest of the world learned about it. Hiram Bingham, in his search for the lost capital city of the Incas, was led to this spot by a local Quechua boy. He hired a team to clear away the vegetation that had overgrown the ruins, and in the meantime, he managed to clear away several important artifacts, which he took to his employer, Yale University. (Peru finally got all the artifacts back in 2012.)
At least 30% of what we see today is a reconstruction based on archaeological evidence. Unfinished stairs and roughly hewn rocks indicate that the complex was likely abandoned in the face of the Spanish and/or a smallpox epidemic before it was finished.
After my tour, I found a quiet spot on the eastern side of the complex, and I watched the rainclouds drift away and the noonday sun take over. I lay back on a large, uncarved rock and took a nap. I awoke to a guard sitting nearby, overlooking tourists on the terrace below and singing a traditional tune in a reedy voice. He smiled at me and apparently didn’t mind that I’d just lightly snored on one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. After all, as magical as these ruins in the mountains are, they were once inhabited by humans.
That, for me, is what appeals to me the most about places like Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu: they are perfectly in tune with the magnificent nature surrounding them, but they were put there by the hard work and imagination of humans. They’re proof that we can have monuments to human ingenuity that celebrate, rather than diminish, the natural world. We can have both. That’s the magic.
Many, many thanks to Meredith Mann, Ted and Dana Calhoon, and Rog and Anne Findley, who generously donated to the Stowaway Fund and made my trip to Machu Picchu possible. I am extremely grateful.