Machu Picchu and other Incan sites

I was lucky enough to see Machu Picchu just a week before the terrible floods of late January resulted in the closing of the site for several months. Ironically, the site itself is absolutely fine – those Incans certainly knew how to build for the ages – but the routes to get there are all washed out.

There are two main ways of getting to Machu Picchu and one lesser-used route. Most people take the train to Aguas Calientes, the tourist town that serves as the base for the site. No roads exist to Aguas Calientes, which makes it a somewhat unique town. The only vehicles in town are the buses that shuttle tourists between the town and the site itself, up a series of switchback roads. People say Aguas Calientes is a terribly ugly town of unplanned construction, but I actually found it pleasant – with no cars, two rivers running through it, and nestled in a valley between misty mountains, it’s quite romantic.

The other main way of getting to Machu Picchu is by hiking the famous Inca Trail. It takes between two to five days, depending on where you start the trek. Although the scenery sounds spectacular, I was put off from doing the trek for other reasons. One, I’m a wimp – and all reports say that it’s freezing cold and frequently pouring rain this time of year. No fun. Secondly, it’s absurdly expensive and crowded. Because it’s one of the most popular treks in the world, authorities have restricted it to 500 people per day (including guides and porters). In the high tourist season (June – Aug), you have to book six months in advance! Although I love hiking, this is not my idea of communing with nature.

The third and hardly known method of getting to Machu Picchu is by taking a series of local buses until one finally ends up in Santa Teresa, a tiny town downriver from Aguas Calientes. It sounds arduous and trying, and there are hardly any tourist services in Santa Teresa. But that’s all about to change – with the flooding wiping out the train line to Aguas Calientes and a prediction of three months to repair it (which really means at least four months), Santa Teresa is about to get a boom in tourism.. just as soon as those roads are repaired and the tourist companies readjust to offer direct service from Cusco to Santa Teresa instead of the crazy series of connections one currently has to make.

I chose to take the cheap but convenient route: going by bus as far as I could into the Sacred Valley to the town of Ollantaytambo, where the road ends, then take the train the remaining distance to Aguas Calientes. The rail company is owned and run by the same folks who run the Orient Express; so the service is excellent, safe, and reliable, but unfortunately the prices are equivalently high. It’s cheapest to take the train the least distance necessary, rather than all the way from Cusco.

Many people breeze right through Ollantaytambo, but I elected to spend the night and explore the ruins there. I was really glad I did, and highly recommend a night or even two. I tried alpaca meat for the first time. Unfortunately it’s just as tough as the beef in Peru. The Incan ruins at Ollantaytambo are not set in as dramatic a location as those in Machu Picchu, but they’re otherwise every bit as impressive. The admissions office kindly let me pay the local’s price instead of the expensive 4-sites-in-1-ticket that foreigners usually have to buy. Go in the morning before the tour groups arrive when the morning sun lights up the stones at a low angle. Gorgeous. In the late afternoon while all the tourists are at the official ruins, you can hike the mountain directly opposite for free where there are a series of storehouse ruins offering commanding views of the town below and terraces opposite. A lovely hike for sunset.

The town itself was laid out and built by the Incas, and today’s residents still live in the same solidly constructed stone houses – some of the oldest continuously occupied dwellings in all of South America. A series of lovely pedestrian lanes (the Incans didn’t have horses nor carts) bisected by intricately carved water channels. Land inside the terraces is protected from the wind by lateral walls which also absorb solar radiation during the day and release it at night; this creates a microclimate zone 2 to 3°C warmer than the ground above it. These conditions allowed the Incas to grow species of plants native to lower altitudes that otherwise could not have flourished at this site.

It’s commonly thought that the Incans accomplished so much through the use of slave labor, but this isn’t true. While they certainly conquered other cultures and “strongly encouraged” assimilation into their way of life, they never practised slavery. Slaves can be forced to work, but not to do good work. The intricate architecture we see today was the result of people who took pride in their work.  As one historian put it, “the  ‘secret’ to the production of fine Inca masonry… was the social organization necessary to maintain the great numbers of people creating such energy-consuming monuments.”

Before moving on to our main attraction of Machu Picchu, a brief mention of Moray – a site I didn’t visit, but is worth a few sentences nonetheless. As a further example of Incan ingenuity, the site was designed to take advantage of natural depressions below the level plain and to model Andean, jungle and semi-tropical environments for the growth of different plant varieties. An agricultural laboratory / test-bed for experimenting with different strains grown in differing environments. Pollen studies indicate that soils from each of the regions were imported by the Incas to each of the large circular basins. In the largest of the depressions (150m deep) a serious of water channels can be seen finding their way to the bottom. Studies have found temperature variations up to 15 degrees Celsius.

The train (reserve ahead online) from Ollantaytambo to Aguas Calientes takes just a couple of hours to meander alongside the mighty Urubamba river. Arriving in the afternoon, I recommend stretching your legs and lungs by hiking up Putucusi. It’s a steep (and free) trail that begins just outside of town along the train tracks. The trail is so steep in places that dozens of wooden ladders, some so high that they disappear into the fog, are utilized. The views are breathtaking. Looking thousands of feet down at Aguas Calientes below, and, when you finally reach the top, you are awarded a commanding view across the valley to Machu Picchu itself. It’s a good introduction to the site – seeing it from afar makes you appreciate the length the builders went to in constructing this city perched on a mountain ridge in the middle of nowhere.

You need to buy your entrance ticket ($45!) to Machu Picchu in town (typically the day before) before heading up to the site. Now – every travel guide, website, and fellow tourist will tell you that the best way to see Machu Picchu is to beat the crowds by getting up in the middle of the night, leaving your hotel no later than 4:30am for the hour and a half trek up to the site in order to be one of the first through the gate which opens at 6:00am. The shuttle buses don’t start running until 7am, which is how most people arrive.

My advice if visiting this time of year (rainy season)? Sleep in! Don’t listen to those crazy early-birders! I woke up at 4:30, saw that it was dark, cold, and absolutely pouring down rain, and went back to sleep. Got up at 7:00am when the rain had let up a bit, and elected to take a shuttle bus up ($7 – more outrageous price gouging) rather than begin the day with a slog up mountains of mud in the rain. I spent the next four hours exploring the entire site in the cold, dark rain.. until finally when I was exhausted and ready to leave, it started clearing up! By late afternoon it had turned into a beautiful day and I was kicking myself for not starting much later in the day. This weather pattern seems to be typical this time of year.

When Yale historian Hiram Bingham rediscovered Machu Picchu in 1911 (after the site being abandoned for 400 years) while searching for the legendary and elusive lost city of Vilacabamba, he remarked:

“I know of no place in the world which can compare with it. Not only had it great snow peaks looming above the clouds more than two miles overhead; gigantic precipices of many-coloured granite rising sheer for thousands of feet above the foaming, glistening, roaring rapids, it has also, in striking contrast, orchids and tree ferns, the delectable beauty of luxurious vegetation and the mysterious witchery of the jungle. One is drawn irresistibly onwards by ever-recurring surprises through a deep, winding gorge, turning and twisting past overhanging cliffs of incredible height.”

We’ve all been slightly jaded by seeing famous images from the site; which, when combined with crowds of tourists slightly dampens one’s initial awe. It’s still impressive, but as I said before, other Incan ruins such as Ollataytambo should not be dismissed.

After an initial stroll through the lower part of the site, I headed over to Huayna Picchu – the mountain overlooking Machu Picchu. It’s a popular hike, which is why it’s limited to 400 persons per day. The first 200 tickets are handed out beginning at 7am, and the other 200 starting at 10am. Again, standard advice is to get there by 6:30am in order to beat the crowds; but this time of year, that’s actually bad advice due to the crappy weather the first half of the day.. and the fact that far less people are competing for those tickets than in the high season. I was around number 70 when I entered at 8am, and by the time I exited at 10ish, they were only up to 160 or so.

Huayna Picchu (also spelled Waynupicchu) is a recommended hike due to the superlative views over Machu Picchu. After slogging through the rain and mud and climbing slippery steps and treacherous ladders, I finally made it to the top and was greeted by the magnificent view of.. white clouds. Nothing but fog. Couldn’t see further than 30′. Oh well, on to the Temple of the Moon – a cave that frankly isn’t that impressive. Returning to the main site, I explored other highlights. I found the Inca Bridge to be most impressive – the trail is a narrow ledge cut into the rock in the midst of a sheer cliff that falls thousands of feet down. How the hell they cut this is beyond me, and don’t attempt to see it if you’re afraid of heights – it’s terrifying. The bridge itself is a gap in the ledge where trees are laid across but can be quickly withdrawn should invaders approach.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating – the Incans were an amazing culture. “Brilliantly Crazy”, they’ve been called. Incredibly clever and efficient – nothing was wasted, everything had a purpose. The Incan moral code is an example of their work ethic — ama suwa, ama llulla, ama quella (do not steal, do not lie, do not be lazy) — offenders were punishable by death. Harsh punishment, but there are innumerable benefits to such a strict society. Theirs was also a collective society – nobody owned property, all was done for the common good. In less than 100 years the Incas managed to establish and extend their empire 4,000 km – from present-day southern Chile all the way up to southern Colombia. They built a remarkable system of roads which enabled fast communication and transport. They were accomplished astronomers, as evidenced by their monuments which “capture” the sun perfectly on the solstice. But perhaps their greatest accomplishment was their architecture. In Machu Picchu alone they built hundreds of buildings, dozens of canals, and 16 fountains. With no beasts of burden, iron tools, nor even using the wheel, how did they accomplish so much? (It’s often misstated that the Incans never invented the wheel. In fact, they did – their children’s toys used wheels – but perhaps they didn’t prove useful in such mountainous terrain, for the same reason Himalayan cultures never used the wheel.)

Archaeologists surmise the Incans were able to move 20-ton stones by the same method the Egyptians used – with horizontal ladders laid upon wooden beam sleds, moved using fulcrums and rope. They used harder stones to slowly chisel the larger ones into shape until they fitted perfectly together. And they’ve held for 500 years with no cement or mortar – just endless sanding for a perfect fit. It’s interesting to note that their construction technique paid as much attention to the inherent shape of the materials as much to the design itself – allowing the contours of the rock to dictate it’s final shape. It’s for this reason that as orderly as the stones look, there are no right angles nor duplicating shapes. This holistic design motif extends to the macro scale as well, in the design and placement of their sites as a whole. The Incans worked with nature instead of against it, as was the European tradition.

Incan architecture was also extremely resilient to earthquakes, which this region is quite prone to. From Wikipedia:

The walls of Incan buildings were slightly inclined towards the inside and the corners were rounded. This, in combination with masonry thoroughness, led Incan buildings to have a peerless seismic resistance thanks to high static and dynamic steadiness, absence of resonant frequencies and stress concentration points. During an earthquake with a small or moderate magnitude, masonry was stable, and during a strong earthquake stone blocks were “ dancing ” near their normal positions and lay down exactly in right order afterwards.

At a site that receives 200cm of rain per year, water management is an important consideration – particularly when building on the side of a steep mountain. Terracing was the solution the Incans came up with. Fully 60% of Machu Picchu is underground – big stones on the bottom, graduating to small stones and finally gravel on top. This served to filter the rain water, forcing it to slowly percolate to the river below and preventing soil erosion.

So ironically, while the recent rains have washed out modern houses, roads, and train lines, the site of Machu Picchu itself is absolutely fine. The flooding this month has caused an estimated $1 billion in damage, not to mention the devastation of the local economy. Machu Picchu is the most-visited site in South America, with 900,000 visiting in 2008. Compare that figure to only 10,000 tourists just 10 years ago. Some studies suggest that Machu Picchu is slowly sinking due to the accumulated weight of all the people!

I’m thankful I didn’t end up being one of the 2,000 tourists stranded in Aguas Calientes when the rail line washed out. It took many days and many helicopters to rescue everyone. In the meantime, chaos ensued. Prices shot up at hotels and restaurants, food and water ran scarce, and people behaved the way they do in natural emergencies – some banded together by nationality, some pitched in to help the community, while others behaved selfishly, hoarding supplies. Evacuation was meant to be in order of need, but naturally, officials took bribes from the rich to be rescued first. A number of countries sent help including the U.S. embassy which sent several helicopters – and restricted their use to only rescuing U.S. citizens. Shameful! The embassy later apologized, admitting this was not appropriate behavior.

Awful stories surfaced of those who died along the Inca Trail while trying to safely make it to Aguas Calientes. I met a colleague of the guide who died in a mudslide after he had just made sure all his guests had gotten to safety. Unfortunately, this is not as uncommon as one might think – in 2004, four tourists died in a mudslide. Lots of videos and tons of details about the current crises here.

In better news, I just learned that my mother is coming down to visit me next month! We haven’t seen each other since I left the States nearly a year and a half ago, so it will be a great reunion.

A short video standing atop Putucusi, looking across the valley at Machu Picchu:

Photos: The first half are from Ollantaytambo, the second half from Aguas Calientes / Machu Picchu.


  • Marissa says:

    It’s sooooo good to read you, to imagine taking these hikes with you. Worth noting that seeing you, Captain Understatement, describe the Inca Bridge as “terrifying” really sets the scene…

  • Sandra says:

    Great pictures!!! I wish I could have gone with you.

  • christine says:

    Wow…these pictures are beautiful. I wish I could have been there with you!

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