We couldn’t think of a better way to wind down our trip, our 5th Wonder of the World and 36th UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is, the Historic Sanctuary of Machu Picchu.
The Incas started building Machu Picchu around AD 1430 but was abandoned as an official site for the Inca rulers a hundred years later at the time of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. Although known locally, it was largely unknown to the outside world before being brought to international attention in 1911 by Hiram Bingham, an American historian.
Machu Picchu was declared a Peruvian Historical Sanctuary in 1981, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and a New Seven Wonder of the World in 2007. Since it was not plundered by the Spanish when they conquered the Incas, it is especially important as a cultural site and is considered a sacred place.
Machu Picchu was built in the classical Inca style, with polished dry-stone walls. Its primary buildings are the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun, and the Room of the Three Windows.
Our disappointment of not being able to trek the Inca Trail, due to illness, was short lived once we entered the gates of this architectural wonder. We will never forget our first glimpse, gradually dark shapes became visible out of the swirling mist, and all of a sudden we realised that we were looking at stone walls and terraces. I headed straight for the ‘Watchman’s House’, to take the classic photo (with no tourists) while Sam’s joined the queue for Huayna Picchu, the large mountain in the background. Only 400 are allowed to climb the mountain each day, 200 at 7am and 200 at 10am – after missing out on the trail, we didn’t want to miss out on this opportunity.
The trail was quite steep but only took us around 45mins. From the top, you get a birds eye view of the whole of Machu Picchu (and unfortunately also the modern monstrosity, the Sanctuary hotel) spread out more than a thousand feet below. It was hellishly scary at times and so damn steep – not good for those suffering with vertigo. For us, it was certainly worth the climb.
Once we got down we had a quick bite to eat and then it was time to meet our guide, Tacco. A good guide definitely adds to the experience and ours has written five books on the subject. According to Tacco, Hiram Bingham who ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu would never have found it if he hadn’t been helped by villagers living nearby. Apparently he had surveyed the area right where we were standing without realising that there was actually a ‘lost city’ right under his feet! All the clues were there, it’s just that our friend Hiram was not expecting Machu Picchu to be where it is. Until today, there remains speculation that there is a much grander ‘lost city of the Incas’ as yet undiscovered. One can certainly believe this looking out at the terrain.
Our guide also didn’t have very good things to say about Mr. Bingham after he had been helped to locate Machu Picchu. According to him, lots of artifacts were carted off to America and have never been returned. Actually, this is not true, in September 2007, Peru and Yale University reached an agreement regarding the return of many artifacts. The majority are still unaccounted for and are most probably lying in museums or attics somewhere.
Our guide explained what each building was used for (some are clearly known, some are just speculation) and why the Inca went to all the trouble of building their cities so far away from the resources needed for such an endeavour. The precision with which they laid the stone blocks to create each structure is unmatched by modern day craftsmen. When you look at the shoddy way in which many buildings are put up nowadays, you’d wonder whether we have really progressed over the last thousand years! The construction was so precise that the stone blocks fit together without any form of binding whatsoever, and yet you would not be able to find a gap big enough to fit a razor blade through.
Interestingly, the authorities are currently in the process of approving planning permission to re-thatch all of the buildings, restoring them back to their former glory and to protect the stonework from further rain damage. We seen a drawing and were really impressed with the new look.
The second walk that we did in the afternoon was to the Inca Drawbridge. This was along part of another Inca Trail leading to Machu Picchu from the southwest. This path was described to us as being very narrow, clinging to the sheer mountain side in places and needing a good head for heights as there were often sheer drops on the other side of the path. They weren't wrong, it is by far the scariest walk I have ever done, ten times scarier than Huayna Picchu and never again. While we were there, National Geographic were filming a documentary called Machu Picchu Uncovered. They were filming the clearing of the old path around the side of the mountain. Supposedly, this path (or trail) and the drawbridge was at one time the only connection to the outside world. The Incas deliberately left a strategic gap in this buttress bridged by some logs. These could be taken up to prevent intruders getting across.
And so after 11 hours we left Machu Picchu, happy to have fulfilled a lifelong dream and still in awe of the place. We hope to be back someday to hike the Inca trail.