8 February 2013
Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas
The early morning mist was covering the whole site. But I had no choice, this was the day my entrance ticket gave me access to. Rain would later further dampen my mood, before the sun would suddenly wash all the clouds away. I did not know all this as I woke up before dawn to catch the bus from Aguas Calientes, the little town at the bottom of the Machu Picchu mountain, in Peru’s Sacred Valley. I was apparently not the only one to wake up so early, excited and eager to visit this famous site, 2,430 metres above sea level (so no too high up for people of all ages to enjoy it, although there are some steep cobblestone steps): I even had to queue up for fifteen minutes. It wasn’t even 6 o’clock in the morning.
Of course was the early wake-up worth it. Even the mist was somewhat magical, although I was a little afraid I wouldn’t be able to capture the site in its entirety – there are after all 140 structures, whether they be temples, sanctuaries, parks, and houses. It was built around 1450, as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacutec (see what he looked like in a slightly processed photo). A century later, it was completely abandoned as the Spaniards conquered Latin America. Indigenous people, and a few explorers, came to encounter the site afterwards – what is mostly remembered today is Hiram Bigham’s, an American historian, “discovery” of the site on July 24th, 1911.
The fascinating aspects of Machu Picchu range from the beautiful mountainous setting surrounding the site to the well restored buildings made of polished dry-stone walls. One distinctive trait of the Inca architectural style is their technique of cutting blocks of stone that fit together tightly and so perfectly without mortar that, supposedly, not even a blade fits between the stones. With the trapezoidal and inward-tilted doors and windows, this technique protected buildings from collapsing in an earthquake (Peru is where I “felt” my first earthquakes, an awkward moment when it takes a few seconds to realise what is going on).
To protect the site, entrance is now limited to 2,500 visitors per day – an experience in itself as I did not go through an agency to book my ticket (but instead reserved it online several weeks earlier, which gave me 6 hours, not a minute more, to then run to the nearest Banco de la Nacion branch and pay in cash). There’s an additional ticket – and additional restrictions (400 people per day) – to climb Huayna Picchu, one of the mountains dominating the site. I had not realised Huayna Picchu was not the smaller of the two sugarloaf mountains! And that was quite a strenuous hike... which ended right into the clouds and with an hour of heavy rain. Armed with my umbrella and wearing my Chinese (as in bought directly in Suzhou, China) plastic motorcycle rain cover on top of my jacket, I patiently waited, internally laughing as all the other visitors hurried back down the mountain, drenched and disappointed not to see anything.
I waited – and the wait was again worth it. Clouds disappeared and I could admire the site: its buildings and numerous stone steps, the mountains around, the Inca trail leading to the site, the winding road from Aguas Calientes... which I would later walk back on, ineptly trusting the guide book mentioning not more than an hour would be required (in reality ninety minutes, some of it in the dark of the night – and I’m not a slow hiker). When I’m visiting such must-see sites, I can’t help but stay as long as possible, walk around the same paths I already went on before, just to be sure I saw everything, that I didn’t miss the obvious shot – and then I would walk back to that almost same spot another time, later in the day, to capture a different light or to try taking a more original photo. Do you do that as well? And then I feel stupid, so I stop to enjoy the view, not doing anything, as I did at the end of the day, exhausted anyway – and that’s when I realised I was not the only one g(r)azing at the view, as you can see in the pictures of llamas.