After finishing our hike to the Inca Bridge, we made our way back to the park and straight to a viewing platform. Here visitors are able to capture that perfect picture, my husband and I, along with our friends, spiraled into “tourist mode”. We scrambled to take as many photos as we could, moving into countless poses. Jimmy stood patiently off to the side and even offered to be the cameraman. As we were taking pictures, our phones began to chime. Text messages, voice messages, weather alerts were lighting up. We discovered that the elevated location of the platform was conducive to exceptional cell phone service! We pulled out our phones and FaceTimed our kids, our parents, and our siblings. We panned the area, circling 360 degrees while exclaiming to our loved ones, “Can you believe it? We can see each other and show you this amazing place?” They were surprised and delighted. It was a crazy, joyous moment that I will never forget.
Jimmy captured our attention with the wealth of information that poured from him. Using a set of pictorial flashcards, he shuffled through them, showing us a visual of each topic he discussed. He began by clarifying that the ruins were not named Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu is the name of the mountain. The official name of the ruins is “the Town of Machu Picchu”. A formal name was never given to the ruins. City planning was a serious endeavor for the Incas. It is believed that the buildings along the perimeter were placed intentionally to create the shape of a condor, one of three animals that the Inca revered.
The farming terraces on the outskirts of town had a two-fold purpose for the Incas. The first to supply food and the second to create a barrier against invaders. The terraces are backfilled with a clever layering system of rock and soil that allow for remarkably effective drainage in the rainy climate. Aqueducts carried water throughout the town, and large spaces found in plazas, fields, and fountain areas encouraged a sense of community.
While listening to Jimmy’s narrative, bugs began to feast on our ankles. We slapped them off until finally we were forced to pull out a can of bug spray. We came prepared. Fellow bloggers had warned us about the bugs. These gnat-like bugs are close to the ground and can be an annoyance to uncovered legs. This was even more evident when I saw a woman wearing shorts whose legs were riddled with red bumps.
Before moving on, I stood silently on the dirt platform, wanting to remember this moment forever. A calm washed over me. Enthralled by the colors, the geography, the structures built by a “by-gone” people, I was overwhelmed with emotion. In the meantime, another tour group moved in behind me while my group walked away. I was alone. A local tour guide stepped slightly in front of me. I couldn’t suppress the feelings that moved me as I gazed at the setting and spoke in a reverential voice to no one in particular, “BEAUTIFUL!” The gentlemen, with his identification lanyard hanging from his neck, smoothed his hair down and smiled at me, responding “well, thank you”. He couldn’t help seize the moment. I quickly came out of my reverie. So he was a comedian! I joined in the burst of laughter that erupted from his group.
I made my way along gradual descending steps to the Royal Entrance of the city, catching up with the rest of my party. In front of us stood a bleached granite wall and stairs that tumbled down the length of the town. The wall towered some 15 to 20 feet above our heads. A large doorway marked the only opening in the wall. All that is left of the door is a frame of megalithic stone blocks stacked on top of each other; a thick stone lentil spans the doorway. According to Jimmy, this was the main gate leading into the city. A wooden door once closed from the inside to keep out unwanted guests, whether they were bears, pumas or humans. Now standing at the door, we officially walked through, entering the Citadel.
There was a hush among the ruins. I noticed that the sounds of motorized civilization didn’t penetrate this place. Visitors spoke in low voices. Everyone seemed to portray a kind of reverence and respect for this city in the clouds. Was it an indication of our understanding of the monumental task of building this lasting legacy?
The terrain rose and fell. The steps were uneven and sometimes steep. If we weren’t descending on stairs, then we were climbing on more. I noticed that the perimeter wall didn’t encircle the town. Why? Jimmy told us that the deep terraces and 1000-foot drop-offs in these areas served as a deterrent to invasion. We passed long rectangular houses, their thatched roofs long gone. Narrow streets led to temples built on hilltops or chiseled out of slopes. We came out onto wide grassy areas that looked like football fields. I was thankful that I was physically fit!
Our first stop took us to a wall, waist high, that overlooked the Temple of the Sun. Strategically placed, it’s rounded wall and rectangular windows align with the Sun Gate which sits about half a mile away on the mountain. During the winter and summer solstices, the rising sun’s rays flow from the Sun Gate and pierce through the temple’s window lighting up the interior. It’s a marvel that has found its way in many treasure-seeking adventure movies! The Inca leaders excelled in using the sun’s light. Their armor of silver and gold would catch rays and create a glow or brilliance on their person, making them appear larger than life.
A plexiglass shield lays flat over excavation beside the temple. Jimmy informed us that a mummy was recently discovered under the temple. He went on to say that the mummy is in a state of limbo, unable to be moved since both the authorities of Cusco and Lima have stated a claim on it. Until the matter is settled, the mummy will remain at Machu Picchu.
As we advanced further into the citadel, we walked to a garden patch. The park planted some of the indigenous plants that grow on the mountain, labeling them for tourists. We were informed that we were looking at highly hallucinogenic flowers that the Inca Priests used to reach altered states of mind to connect with the spirit world. Alongside the flowers, was the infamous Coca plant. Hiram Bingham, the American that put Machu Picchu on the map, talked about the Huilca Tree in his book, Lost City of the Incas. These trees helped Bingham locate the ruins of Machu Picchu since they were widely used by priests for inducing visions and instigating prophecies.
We turned to our left and walked up a flight of narrow steps wedged between two buildings, making our way to the Sacred Plaza and Temple of the Three Windows. Jimmy explained that the Inca believed that there were three levels of existence, the higher world or heavens, the middle world, and the underworld. The Three Windows represent the three states. Exulted leaders who died were mummified here. Manipulated into the fetal position, they were believed to be reborn into either the higher or lower worlds. The structure faces East and has a breathtaking view of the mountain range around Machu Picchu. Some of the largest stones in Machu Picchu weighing several tons make up this structure.
From the Sacred Plaza, we climbed to one of the most notable platforms, the Intihuatana. Intihuatana means hitching post of the sun in Quechuan. A rock pillar carved out of a single stone sits vertically against the remaining stone fashioned into an altar. There are many theories about its function. However, most agree that it serves as a celestial marker predicting major astronomical events.
Intihuatana seemed to be the highest point in the city. We carefully made our way down along the edge of the mountainside, following steps that ran along a stone wall on our right and a severe drop-off on our left.
The view is spectacular as you gaze down into the valley below. We finally reached a grassy terraced area where llamas grazed and strolled through the ruins. The llamas seemed content, unconcerned with the pockets of tourists that gathered throughout the complex. Our walking tour eventually brought us to the far end of the citadel and the gated entrance to hike Huayna Picchu. We watched as hikers holding an additional ticket to access Huayna Picchu walked through to scale this death-defying trail riddled with narrow paths and severe drop-offs. It is the prominent peak used in many photos as the town’s backdrop.
Continuing, we skirted the lowest section of the city where wide platforms protruded over scenic drop-offs, and unobstructed views of the mountain ranges could be seen. We walked through a network of narrow alleyways where the backside of stone houses encroached upon us, passing by the elaborate Condor Temple.
Near were examples of aqueduct systems and water still flowed in fountains. We were coming to the end of our morning tour as we looped back. Jimmy asked if we had any other questions before he left us on our own to explore more of the grounds. There was one thing that I had to see during my visit to Machu Picchu. The Sun Gate is the last milestone for hikers completing their 4- or 5-day hike on the Inca Trail and where they get their first glimpse of Machu Picchu. It is a principle entrance that marks the final journey to the citadel. I wanted to understand that experience albeit in a small way by walking through it. I asked him to point me in the right direction. It was going to be a 30-minute hike up the mountain. “There is a towering, monolithic stone along the way. Make sure to stop and check it out”, he added. “It is a Huaca, sacred boulders used to honor an Inca. They are markers used at Inca sites throughout Peru.”
Leaving Jimmy, we strode along the farming terraces and exited the park. Our feet were throbbing. Maintaining a steady pace during the three and a half hours for our morning tour had our hearts pumping and brows covered with sweat. We returned to the bus loading and unloading zone and explored our lunch options. A buffet is offered at the Machu Picchu Lodge. We opt for lighter fare at the open-air Deli beside the lodge. Sitting, facing Huayna Picchu while we ate was a view like no other. Like clouds suspended between the mountains, I had a sense of floating as I gazed at the magnificent sight of soaring ranges and plunging valleys.
From my perched seating in the Deli, I noticed that the crowds were growing. More people were disembarking from buses that left Aguas Calientes every 30 minutes. A long line had formed at the only public restroom outside of the park. The dreaded job of standing in line was exasperated by the fact that you had to pay to use the bathrooms! Jimmy’s claim earlier in the morning that we were fortunate to enjoy the park with relatively low tourist traffic drifted back in my thoughts. The afternoon was going to be different. This second wave of tourists was coming from Cusco’s long train ride, a ride that we avoided by driving to Ollantaytambo. My plan to hike up to the Sun Gate after lunch would avert us from the crowds.
As I contemplated my friend’s question on “unexpected surprises”, the ability to connect with loved ones thousands of miles away in the heart of the Andes, was a pleasant surprise. Family members, who were unable to join us, marveled at our real-time streaming and thanked us for the call.