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.
Short-term tours are a risky prospect. They’re usually organized to see one particular attraction, so that’s the focus, but all tours add stops along the way to make you feel you’ve got good value for your money. The main risk lies in the guide—will she hurry everyone along to keep to a strict schedule, then linger far too long at overpriced souvenir stands; or will he appreciate that everyone wants to take photos and admire the scenery, and not pressure everyone to get going? There are other risks, too—will the food be decent, will the transportation be comfortable, will the other people on the tour be fun?
I’m not a long-term tour kind of traveler; I like my independence too much to follow a guide around for 8 days in a row and stick to their schedule. But there are some attractions that are extremely difficult or expensive to see on my own, and that’s when I turn to short-term tours, like visiting the Cu Chi Tunnels outside Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam or driving out to the Škocjan Caves in Slovenia. For the weekend of my birthday this year, I decided to risk a short-term tour to the Colca Canyon in southern Peru. I lucked out—it was a good tour.
The best part of the tour (other than the stunning, jaw-dropping, give-up-on-adjectives-because-this-country-is-too-beautiful scenery) was the guide, Elizabeth. She does this tour multiple times a week, gripping a microphone in one hand and the rail of the careening bus in the other, but she’s a pro, never giving any indication that this was tiring work or that she was bored repeating the same information over and over.
She also asked the driver to stop multiple times along the road in the national park, and let us have more time to take photos than most other bus groups I saw on the same road. Granted, this meant we arrived in the valley town of Chivay an hour later than scheduled, but that didn’t affect anything, because we had a cushion of time in town anyway. Elizabeth also gave the entire tour in two languages—she’d give a little speech in Spanish for the 23 Spanish speakers on the bus, and then she’d repeat the whole thing in English for the 3 of us who couldn’t get past “gracias.” Impressive!
Back to that stunning scenery: The land around the canyon is a vast, brown desert, and it was surprising to see the landscape change drastically into lush, terraced farmland after an hour or two of driving. “Colca” roughly translates to “granary” in Quechua, and that’s exactly how the Incas used this region when they conquered it—as the bread basket of the empire. Before the Incas got there, two ethnic groups populated the valley, building their terraces first at the top of canyon, the better to look down and see any advancing enemies, and then moving farther down into the canyon as their population grew (and later, as the Incas demanded more taxes in the form of crops).
By the time the Spanish arrived, about 60,000 people lived in the canyon. After only four years of their “mine all the gold, import all the diseases, take food from the locals” approach, the local population dwindled to 45,000. Today, 10,000 people live in the area, 7,000 of them concentrated in the town of Chivay. Agriculture and tourism tie for the main industries in the area.
Agriculture, as Elizabeth described it to us, includes not just the terraces of grains and vegetables, but the plains populated with llamas and alpacas. Both llamas and alpacas have been domesticated for hundreds of years. They’re herded across the vast desert terrain and along the craggy tops of the canyon walls, and every so often they’re sheared, and the hair is used for super warm clothing and rugs.
There’s also an animal called a vicuña, which is wild and protected by the Peruvian government. They’re the same type of animal as the llama and the alpaca, a camelid, but they’re much rarer. Their hair is even softer and the clothes made from it even more expensive. (Apparently, there’s a hefty fine for anyone without a license who tries to shear one, and even a jail sentence.) The road leading to the canyon is dotted with signs warning drivers to decrease their speed, because vicuñas graze here.
One of the ways to cope with the incredibly high altitude of the Andes is to chew on coca leaves. Coca leaves, of course, are the stimulant used in Coca-Cola (they say they don’t use the leaves anymore, but Elizabeth said Peru sells thousands of tons of coca to the company every year, so…), and also one of the ingredients used in producing cocaine. Locals drink coca tea and chew on the leaves, to aid in digestion, alertness, and access to oxygen. Elizabeth showed us how to do it—roll up at least 9 leaves around some ash, which acts as a catalyst, stick it in your back teeth, and chew for at least 20 minutes. It made the left side of my face numb. I suppose I did feel a little more alert, but it’s probably not a habit I’ll pick up.
Oh and in answer to the other questions about short-term tours: the food was pretty good but a little overpriced, the bus seats were a little small but otherwise it was comfortable, and the people were nice.
Next week, in Part 2: an elegant central plaza, traditional dances at a peña, and condors soaring through the mountains