Sunday, January 1, 2012

Good Morning, New Year! Good Morning, Machu Picchu!

The very first view of Machu Picchu takes your breath away.

So does the second, the third, and several after them.

It does not matter that you saw a photo of Machu Picchu thousands of times before, and you precisely knew what to expect. You still can’t quite believe how magnificent Machu Picchu and its location are. For Anil and I this experience was intensified by the fact that, due to the thick fog, we didn’t get to see the ruins till the very last moment, when they were directly in front of us.

The timing of our arrival in Machu Picchu was perfect: it was almost like we were spectators in the magical theater eagerly awaiting the beginning of a one-of-a-kind performance, and the fog was a curtain separating us from that experience. As soon as we were ready to take in the view, the fog lifted and unwrapped the gift we were waiting for: the Machu Picchu. We couldn’t have hoped for a better beginning to the New Year. It also felt special to arrive in Machu Picchu in the year marking the one-hundredth anniversary of its rediscovery.

After several hundred skipped heart beats, and thousands of “wows,” we decided it was time to explore the ruins. Only then did we start to notice all the details that collectively make Machu Picchu so unique and impressive.

First, you cannot not-notice the spectacular location of the site. Machu Picchu is located on a steep mountain ridge above a loop of the Urubamba River, which surrounds it on three sides. The city is located at an impressive 2,430 meters (7,970 feet) above sea level, on a 450-meter (1,480-feet) vertical drop. You cannot help but wonder how the Incas managed to build such an impressive site in such a seemingly inaccessible location? How did they move and place the enormous blocks of stones into their position? And why didn’t they use the wheel to move the blocks, even though they were familiar with the principle of how the wheel works?

Second, as you walk around the ruins, you can see for yourself how perfectly shaped and precisely fitted together all the building blocks are. As I mentioned in one of the previous posts, the Inca didn’t use any mortar, and the stones stay together because of that tight fit. And despite the lack of mortar, many buildings survived in good shape till our times. How many contemporary buildings will survive five hundred years? And how many of them will be considered “timeless classics?”

All in all, Machu Picchu is composed of about 140 structures, including many temples, sanctuaries, parks, and residences that include houses with thatched roofs. Those buildings are divided into three main sectors: the Temple, Urban, and Agricultural Sectors, which can be quite easily distinguished from each other from the top of Huayna Picchu.

The most important, and at the same time the most interesting, structures are located in the Temple Sector (also known as the Sacred District). They include: the Intihuatana, the Temple of the Sun and the Room of the Three Windows, all of which were dedicated to Inti, the Inca god of sun.

The Intihuatana is a ritual stone, which might have also served as an astronomic clock or calendar. Like other Inca ritual stones, also Intihuatana is arranged to point directly at the sun during the winter solstice. In addition, its four sides face four nearby mountain peaks that hold high religious importance in the Inca culture. To be honest, the stone doesn’t look too impressive, and I bet nobody would pay any attention to it if it weren’t for the archeologists telling us how important it was.

The Room of the Three Windows has, as the name suggests, three windows. Interestingly, those windows are trapezoid-shaped, as the Incas figured out that this would allow them to withstand earthquakes better.

Another masterpiece of Inca engineering is the Temple of the Sun. Its most amazing feature is its perfect curvature: quite an impressive architectural achievement, taking into account that it was built from the same big stones as other buildings.

Another thing that I found interesting about Machu Picchu was the presence of many continuously-flowing water fountains and rock-carved pipes.

The Inca utilized the nearby springs to supply water both to inhabitants of Machu Picchu for drinking and to the agricultural terraces for irrigation. Interestingly, the terraces on the hillsides surrounding Machu Picchu served a triple function: not only did they provide more farmland to grow crops, but also they protected the site from potential invaders, and from soil erosion.

The terraces are also one of the two key factors that allowed Machu Picchu to survive, in a relatively good state, till our times. The other factor—and perhaps the most significant--is that the site was never found by the Spanish during their conquest.

Machu Picchu was built around 1450, at the height of the Inca Empire, likely as an estate for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. The city was abandoned by the Incas just one hundred years later, and forgotten by the outside world for another four hundred years. It was brought back to international attention in 1911 by the American historian Hiram Bingham, and since then its popularity has been continuously growing. Every year the site is visited by several million people, and in 2007, in a worldwide Internet poll, it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.

When Machu Picchu was rediscovered in 1911, Bingham proclaimed it to be Vilcabamba¬--the last Inca refuge during the Spanish conquest. He also theorized that the complex was the traditional birthplace of the Incan "Virgins of the Sun." However, more recent archeological studies suggest that Machu Picchu was an estate of the Inca emperor Pachacuti, not Vilcabamba. Today the site is often referred to as the "Lost City of the Incas." If you would like to learn more about its history, I recommend a one-hour-long documentary “Ghosts of Machu Picchu.” It won’t answer all of your questions, but it will give you some food for thought.

All in all Anil and I spent about eight hours in Machu Picchu (of which 2 hours and 20 minutes was the hike up and down Huayna Picchu) and we still didn’t see all of it! Furthermore, we were not bored with it, and would definitely not mind spending a couple more days there. It is one of those places that the more you see of it, the more intrigued you become, and the more time you want to spend there.

There is also a very special, somewhat spiritual feel to Machu Picchu, which provides an excellent environment to reconnect with the inner self, to meditate, or to think. Amazingly, even though the site is visited by about 3,000 visitors a day, it’s large enough for everybody to find a peaceful corner just for themselves. Despite all the hype, it is a very unique place, definitely worth visiting, at least once in your life.